Acing the AP English Lit Essay: It’s All About the Outline

Last night I conducted my first InstaEDU tutoring session in the subject of AP English Literature. It provided me with some helpful insight into the essays many of you are currently writing, and inspired the following tips on how to prepare for the AP English Lit exam in May.

Tip #1: Practice writing outlines

Most of the resources available on AP test prep argue that the best way to prepare for timed essays is — surprise — to write lots of essays. For the ideal student in an ideal world, this is great advice. For the rest of us, however, there’s a more practical approach: Rather than writing whole essays — which you already do in class — find sample prompts from the College Board website and practice writing outlines instead. Set a timer to three minutes, read your prompt, then solve for x, y, and z, where x = introduction, y = body paragraphs, and z = conclusion. (Refer to my recent post for more detail on the essay formula.)

By practicing with outlines, you can streamline the study process and expose yourself to a wider variety of prompts. Simply familiarizing yourself with exam-speak will help you to feel more comfortable and confident on test day.

Tip #2: Practice getting started

It’s one thing to learn a formula. Actually starting an essay — or even an outline, for that matter — can prove far more daunting. Fortunately, a little practice can go a long way toward avoiding an impasse during the exam. Once again, practice prompts provide an excellent starting point. Let’s look at the prompt my student brought to last night’s session:

In questioning the value of literary realism, Flannery O’Connor has written, “I am interested in making a good case for distortion because I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see.” Write an essay in which you “make a good case for distortion” as distinct from literary realism. Analyze how important elements of the work you choose are “distorted” and explain how these distortions contribute to the effectiveness of the work. Avoid plot summary.

Step One: Read the prompt twice

You’ve probably heard this advice from your AP English teacher: Read the prompt carefully before answering the question! In practice, however, taking the time to read the prompt slowly can seem like a waste of valuable energy — with fluorescents blaring and only 25 minutes to write a compelling essay, who has time to read anything more than once? Nevertheless, simply reading the prompt and understanding it well is one of the best things you can do to ensure that your essay presents a concise, well-organized argument.

Step Two: Underline or circle key words and phrases

Remember all those close-reading assignments you’ve been pounding away at over the past semester? Your approach to the prompt should be very similar. Let’s take another look at the question, which may now resemble your paperback copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets:

AP English Help

In questioning the value of literary realism, Flannery O’Connor has written, “I am interested in making a good case for distortion because I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see.” Write an essay in which you “make a good case for distortion” as distinct from literary realism. Analyze how important elements of the work you choose are “distorted” and explain how these distortions contribute to the effectiveness of the work. Avoid plot summary.

As the above annotations illustrate, the most important phrases are often repeated or restated:

Distortion, or some variation of the word, is used four times in the prompt.

Realism appears twice — once in the introduction, then again in the sentence, “Write an essay in which you ‘make a good case for distortion’ as distinct from literary realism.”

Based on the frequency with which they appear, we know that the terms ‘distortion’ and ‘realism’ should figure prominently in our response. These key words will act as signposts throughout the essay, indicating to the reader that we have both understood the question and that we know how to answer it with clear, precise language.

So what’s next? We can’t write an entire essay about something as vague as distortion  or realism — these are, after all, only broad, literary terms. We need a call to action — something to argue for or against:

Make a good case for distortion, or its equivalent, makes two appearances: once in the Flannery O’Connor quote, then again in the aforementioned sentence.

Aha! We’ve found our call to action: make a good case for distortion. Our response to this directive will form the core of our thesis statement. Now it’s time to start the outline, right? Not just yet. We still have two more directives to consider:

Analyze how important elements of the work you choose are “distorted” and explain how these distortions contribute to the effectiveness of the work. Notice how the sentence begins with a command — analyze! Thesis-related directives almost always do.

Avoid plot summary. This final warning is common in AP English Lit prompts, and can be largely avoided by paying close attention to numbers 1 – 4. Plot summary is the refuge of frantic students who did not fully understand the prompt — probably because they did not take the time to do a quick close reading. Lucky for us, we did.

Once you’ve mastered the process of getting started and writing an outline, the rest of your essay will flow and you’ll be finished writing with minutes to spare. Who knows? You may even have time for a nap.

Looking for more AP English Lit help? Set up a session with me and I’m happy to help you walk through your own strategy for acing the essay.

Online English Tutor

Madison Andrews is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studies English, History, and Spanish. In her free time, she enjoys writing, illustrating, and tickling her daughter Penelope. She plans to pursue a career in journalism.

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