Friday, June 24, 2011

Tips on Taking the AP English Language Exam

After scoring 1,190 AP English Language essays this month, I thought I’d share a few tips for students.

To start, familiarize yourself with the types of questions the exam asks and the scoring guide, just like you would for a class assignment (that is, when you would re-read the question and look at the teacher’s rubric to see what she expects.) Here you can read some past sample essays and the scoring guides.

The main lesson I learned after scoring over 1,000 essays? Good writing is good writing, for an AP exam, college course or professional assignment. If you have strong reading and analytical skills and then share them in a strong essay, you’ll do fine.

I imagine this approach sounds simplistic. You really can do well: If you practice throughout the year – in every class, not just your AP Language class – and keep a few hints in mind. It will serve you well, academically, professionally and personally, to be a strong, analytical reader. Who doesn’t want to communicate well?

Hints for taking the AP English Language Exam:

It sounds obvious, but write neatly. As a college writing professor who primarily grades online, I was not used to reading student handwriting. I should be focusing on your ideas, not trying to discern the words you wrote. You don’t want the reader to have to guess… and guess wrong.

Read the passage carefully. The students who did the best responded intelligently to the prompt and understood the overall meaning, as well as how it was constructed. We read it carefully and you can’t fool us by writing about something else.

Even though these are timed exams, follow the suggestion and take some time to plan out your response. Yes, we are reading the exams with the knowledge that you didn’t have time to revise (or a word processing program to help you to re-order your ideas or return to them), but a few minutes planning will help to ensure that you jump right into your answer.

Since it is a timed response, don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on an extended introduction or background. Jump directly into your thesis and your analysis of the passage.

Organize your work. It is a sign of a strong writer to include a thesis and clear topic sentences. This makes it easier for us to read and shows that you know what you’re doing. Don’t forget: A topic sentence supports the thesis while stating that paragraph’s main argument. Therefore, it makes sense that a quote will probably have a hard time working as a topic sentence.

Speaking of quotes, don’t over quote in your paper. Yes, do ground your arguments in the text, but if you spend your entire time re-writing the prompt that you have in front of you, there’s no evidence of how smart you really are.

Don’t make things up.

You can write us notes (or draw us pictures), but, we won’t consider them in the grade. We are scoring your essay, not your ability to write a note.

Of course, including cash in your exam booklet doesn’t work. Neither does a threat. 

You are welcome to cross things out (a simple line will do – no need to spend a lot of time making sure we can’t read your errors. We skip right over the crossed out sections.) You are also welcome to use arrows and re-direct us to other places in the booklet. It is a timed test with a surprise question; we understand.

We know what the rhetorical tools are and we want to know that you do, too. If you simply list them, we won’t know that you understand the meaning. Show what you see in the essay and then analyze it. Explain how the tool works, where and why. Here’s a great list of rhetorical devices and their definitions.

To push your writing to the next level, work to avoid clichés. If you do use a cliché, like “pulling on the heartstrings,” do more than just changing the verb (like “tugging” or “plucking.”) What could you do to come up with something more original?

Are you looking for extra help? As a private writing coach, I would be happy to help you to start preparing early over the summer or over the year. 


Rene Ohana said...

Were you a reader for the AP test? If so, I have questions...

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

I sure was, Rene! ( Ask away!

Anonymous said...

Hello. I will be taking my AP English Language and Composition exam tomorrow. I was a bit surprised by part of your advice, which reads, "Don't make things up." What if I invent a supporting detail (an event or historical figure that is entirely fictional) that is nonetheless plausible? Do the AP readers spend much time verifying what the students wrote?

Anyway, thanks for maintaining such a helpful blog. I will have my eye on this page. =)

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

Always best to stick to the truth (and avoid making things up.)

Dan Smith said...

I shall also be taking the AP test tomorrow. Concerning the multiple choice, is it best to do the ones I find the easiest first and then make my way through the ones I find most difficult? I often find myself staring at the words of the passages from the 17th and 17th centuries, and become lost....Additionally, is there a specific order in which to tackle the essays?

Thank you for your help Ms. Miller!

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

Yes, a good test taking technique is to answer the questions you can answer easily and quickly first. That goes for the multiple choice questions and the essays. Be sure to organize your time so you are able to return to the harder questions.

Good luck tomorrow!

Ricardo S. said...

Is it essential that we read the entire passage in the multiple choice section at first, or just the topic sentences and thesis and then when answering questions, read other necessary parts?

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

Good question. I would recommend reading through the passage quickly (skimming) and underlining the main ideas. Do spend extra time on the thesis and topic sentences.

Christopher H. said...

I teach AP language and I found your list of hints very helpful. It's a manageable list of things students can do to make huge leaps but realistic leaps in their writing scores.

I also really like the list of rhetorical strategies you posted. It's comprehensive yet not intimidating. Is it ok if I print copies of that list and distribute it to my students?

Chloe Yelena Miller said...

For sure! Thanks, Christopher.

Anonymous said...

Thanks helpful!

Anonymous said...

I have learned more from this blurb than from my english classes for the last two years. Amazing.