AP Lit: Prose Analysis
There are three types of free-response questions on the AP Literature exam. You will be given 120 minutes to read two pieces of text and write all three essays, so you should take approximately 40 minutes to write each one. The entire free-response section is worth 55% of your total exam score.
Question 2 of the FRQ section will be a prose analysis prompt. You will need to read a given prose passage of 500 to 700 words and a prompt to guide your analytical essay about the passage. The prompt will help you figure out what to look for as you read the passage.
So we’re all on the same page, here is the most important definition you need to know that is commonly found in the essay prompts.
According to the AP English Literature and Composition Course and Exam Description, all prose analysis prompts will follow the same structure shown here:
The following excerpt is from [text and author, date of publication]. In this passage, [comment on what is being addressed in the passage]. Read the passage carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how [author] uses literary elements and techniques to [convey/portray/develop a thematic, topical, or structural aspect of the passage that is complex and specific to the passage provided].
Note: If you look for past FRQs, you will find specific literary devices that are given in older prompts that you might use to practice and guide your essay. These will not be given in 2020 and beyond.
Example: Reading the Passage
From the AP English Literature and Composition Course and Exam Description
The following excerpt is from an 1852 novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this passage, two characters who have been living on the Blithedale farm—a community designed to promote an ideal of equality achieved through communal rural living—are about to part ways. Read the passage carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze how Hawthorne uses literary elements and techniques to portray the narrator’s complex attitude towards Zenobia.
See how the prompt asks about the “complex attitude towards Zenobia”? This helps you to know how to approach the passage and how to annotate it as you read it.
It is helpful to underline or circle literary elements to prepare you to read the excerpt. The prompt will always tell you to look for the literary devices or elements that the author uses to create the thematic/topical/structural aspect of the story.
Now that you know what you’re looking for, read the passage. As you read, annotate for elements of the abstract topic that the author has created. Make sure that you are also making connections between the topic and the literary devices.
In this prompt, you are directed toward Hawthorne’s use of characterization and can determine that he is delivering a message about it through his complex attitude, so as you read, you would annotate for not only the characterization of Zenobia but words showing how Hawthorne feels about Zenobia as well.
shifts in tone, meaning or language
structure and form
diction and syntax that connect to the topic
dialogue revealing something about the characters
When you have read through the passage (twice if possible!), you will have an idea of what you want to write about. Then it is time to write your thesis.
Not to alarm you, but your thesis is the most important part of your essay. It establishes what you’re going to say, and whether or not you’re going to be able to back it up with textual evidence. It should be about a sentence long (it could be a couple, but no more), and clearly state:
In the previous prompt, your thesis would clearly state your interpretation of the characterization and the complexity of the author’s attitude (or, why is it confusing/complex?), and probably the literary elements that created this complexity and understanding.
As you may know, the rubric for AP Lit essays has changed from a 9-point holistic rubric to a 6-point analytical rubric. A perfect score is broken down as follows:
The rubric that College Board AP exam readers will use is one whole page per category, so that will be posted further down. For now, let’s dive into what each category means.
Thesis (1 Point)
You cannot earn a partial point for your thesis -- you either earn a point or you do not. If you write a thesis statement that interprets the passage according to the prompt in a way that is defensible according to the passage: 1 point. In other words, you write a claim that can be defended by the passage.
If your thesis is too general, summarizes or describes the passage, or restates the prompt only, that will not earn a point.
Evidence and Commentary (4 Points)
You can earn up to 4 points for evidence and commentary. All of your evidence needs to be integrated and relevant, and all of your commentaries should connect your evidence to your prompt-based thesis.
If you write paragraphs that are unrelated to the prompt and/or the passage, you will earn a 0 in this category.
If you summarize the passage or describe its content, you will earn 1 point. You will also earn one point if you refer to the literary techniques (that you found in your annotation) but do not explain them or connect them to the passage and your claim/thesis.
If you have some relevant evidence, connected weakly to some explanation and argument, you will earn 2 points. This includes inaccurate commentary or misinterpreted evidence. 😕
You will earn 3 points for a solid job of selecting evidence and connecting it to your claim. This means your line of reasoning is supported, and your evidence contains literary elements that you connect succinctly to the abstract topic you were given.
For consistent, persuasive support of your claim that uses significant and specific evidence, you will earn the full 4 points! You would have examined more than one literary device/technique’s use throughout the passage, and organized your essay in order to best defend your claim. (Pro tip: Try NOT to organize your essays with a paragraph per device, but instead write from the beginning of the passage to the end or some other way that emphasizes the structure of the passage. Each passage will have a different approach of attack!)
Sophistication (1 Point)
This point is new and very hard to pin down. It is only one point, which means you earn it or you don’t. But your sophistication in your essay can be found in your writing style, your claim and/or your support of your claim. Earning this point means that your argument was complex and nuanced as well as responded appropriately to the complexity of the passage. For example, you could show alternate interpretations or connect the prompt to a wider theme.