The AP Literature Exam is Coming! A Plethora (not really) of Tips

“Through her manipulations , Mrs. Danvers exploits the weariness of the protagonist, showing the reader that Mrs. Danvers’s subtle yet persistent cruelty reveals to the reader how lowly the main character thinks of herself and the cruelty which she inflicts upon herself, resulting in behaviors and actions  which otherwise would not have been possible.” Student essay

Photo by Victor Garcia on Unsplash

Speaking as “the reader,” I am not sure this thesis is clear. I do see an AP literature student struggling to make meaning. I do see a student who clearly has thought about the novel Rebecca, and is now trying to address the Question 3 prompt from the 2015 AP Literature and Composition Exam.

“In literary works, cruelty often functions as a crucial motivation or a major social or political factor. Select a novel,
play, or epic poem in which acts of cruelty are important to the theme. Then write a well-developed essay analyzing
how cruelty functions in the work as a whole and what the cruelty reveals about the perpetrator and/or victim.”

This student’s writing represents a reality in my AP Literature classes.  I have many kids who are highly successful academic students, but when it comes to tackling a timed-writing, they resort to “overwriting” and abandon their authentic voices in search of an academic voice that is foreign to them (and the reader!). I  encourage my kids to trust their ideas and their voices, but this, of course, is much easier to communicate than to execute.

“It is clear to the reader that the protagonist is plagued with anxiety and a lack of self-confidence and self-identity, which is emphasized by her unconditional obsession with her new husband, Maxim de Winter.” Student essay

It’s not always clear . . .

Our mission is to help students move beyond strained, confusing sentences to sentences that convey meaning in language that reflects a student’s authentic voice. I have not uncovered a secret formula, but I do offer my students five strategies to consider.

  1. Never, under any circumstances, use the word Plethora. If using the word Plethora was a drinking game at the AP Reading, I would be stumbling by noon.
  2. Do not assume what “the reader” does or does not know.  Unless they are a mind readers a la Carnac the Magnificence, write about insights. Better yet, don’t mention readers at all in the essay.  Focus on making claims and supporting those claims with evidence from the text.
  3. There are no bonus points for word count on the AP Literature Exam. Adjectives and adverbs are wonderful weapons in a writer’s arsenal, but when adjectives and adverbs dominate the essay, the critical nouns are often the first casualty in the war on meaning.
  4. Every word has to work hard to stay on the team.  Over-writers have plenty of freeloaders weighing down their ideas. I ask over-writers to edit their essays for sloppy words, that if eliminated, do not affect meaning.  I also ask them to edit for abusive adjectives and adverbs who are simply showing off. Students don’t need show-boaters on their essay team.  If a word isn’t carrying its weight, cut it. Period.
  5. Speaking as an august AP Reader, I am impressed with students’ insights and clarity.  I am impressed when students answer the prompt and support their claims with their insights. I am impressed when students’ diction choices are consistent and appropriate.  I am not impressed by the following sentence: “The poet uses plethora upon plethora of intelligent metaphorical tropes in an effort to clarify the depth of poetic twists in order to  cleverly paint in the reader’s internal mind’s eye.”

Our kids work hard.  Typically AP English students are our strongest students, but some students over-write because they want to express their ideas in a stylistically mature fashion. Increasing stylistic maturity is a worthwhile goal, but maturity in writing develops, like boxed wine, over time.  Writing insightful essays about a poem or a prose passage they have never seen (in 40 minutes) is a real challenge.  My guess is that few AP English Literature teachers would enjoy sharing their writing under these limits.  We might even bring out some fancy, academic lingo to dazzle our audience.  Our fancy, academic lingo, however, would be nothing more than a smoke bomb intended to obscure our first draft thinking.  Let’s help our kids discover and embrace their insights and share those insights in their true and wonderful voices.

Roy F. Smith is the English Department Chair at Round Rock High School and teaches AP English Literature and Dual-Credit English. Roy is also an adjunct professor at Austin Community College.  He is an AP English Reader for College Board, an AP Advocate, and a College Board Consultant.  Roy presents AP Literature and Language sessions  for the National Math and Science Institute (NMSI). In 2015, he was named Round Rock High School and the Round Rock ISD Secondary Teacher of the Year.

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