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How to Approach the Multiple-Choice Questions on the AP English Literature Exam

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Mar 22, 2011

Introduction to the Multiple-Choice Section of the Exam

Multiple choice? Multiple guess? Multiple anxiety? The day after the exam students often bemoan the difficulties and uncertainties of Section I of the AP Literature exam.

“It’s unfair.”

“It’s crazy.”

“Was that in English?”

“Did you get four Ds in a row for the second poem?”

“I just closed my eyes and pointed.”

Is it really possible to avoid these and other exam woes? We hope that by following along with us in this chapter you will begin to feel a bit more familiar with the world of multiple-choice questions and, thus, become a little more comfortable with the multiplechoice section of the exam.

What is it about the multiple-choice questions that causes such anxiety?

Basically, a multiple-choice literature question is a flawed method of gauging understanding because, by its very nature, it forces you to play a cat-and-mouse game with the test maker who demands that you concentrate on items that are incorrect before you can choose what is correct. We know, however, that complex literature has a richness that allows for ambiguity. When you are taking the exam, you are expected to match someone else’s take on a work with the answers you choose. This is what often causes the student to feel that the multiple-choice section is unfair. And maybe, to a degree, it is. However, the test is designed to allow you to shine, not to be humiliated. To that end, you will not find “cutesy” questions, and the test writers will not play games with you. What they will do is to present several valid options as a response to a challenging and appropriate question. These questions are designed to separate the perceptive and thoughtful reader from the superficial and impulsive one.

This said, it’s wise to develop a strategy for success. Practice is the key to this success. You’ve been confronted with all types of multiple-choice questions during your career as a student. The test-taking skills you have learned in your social studies, math, and science classes may also apply to the AP Literature exam.

What should I expect in Section I?

For this first section of the AP Literature exam, you are allotted 1 hour to answer between 45 and 60 objective questions on four or five prose and poetry selections. The prose passages may come from works of fiction, or nonfiction, or drama. You can expect the poems to be complete and from different time periods and of different styles and forms. In other words, you will not find two Shakespearean sonnets on the same exam.

These are not easy readings. They are representative of the college-level work you have been doing throughout the year. You will be expected to

• Follow sophisticated syntax

• Respond to diction

• Be comfortable with upper-level vocabulary

• Be familiar with literary terminology

• Make inferences

• Be sensitive to irony and tone

• Recognize components of style

The good news is that the selection is self-contained. This means that if it is about the Irish Potato Famine, you will not be at a disadvantage if you know nothing about it prior to the exam. Frequently there will be biblical references in a selection. This is especially true of works from an earlier time period. You are expected to be aware of basic allusions to biblical and mythological works often found in literature, but the passage will never require you to have any specifi c religious background.

Do not let the subject matter of a passage throw you. Strong analytical skills will work on any passage.

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