Ap English Literature Old Essay Questions

Part of effectively preparing for the free response section of the AP English Literature exam is accepting at least this one old truism: practice makes perfect. However, you can up the ante by adding just one more word to that statement. In truth, perfect practice makes perfect.

You should ensure that you practice responding to sample prompts in as precise a manner as possible. How do we measure our precision here? Good question. By examining the AP English Literature rubric for the free response section, the pertinent skills on which your success depends become evident.

Read on for a brief analysis of English Literature rubric, an outline of a sample response with an examination of the pertinent skills at work in the sample, and a discussion of possible strategies that you can use to score your own practice essays.

The AP English Literature Rubric

First of all, I believe the best way for us to analyze the AP English Literature rubric itself is by unpacking the important information found in the 9-8 scoring range. We should aim high here. The very fact that this range defines the highest percentile grades means that essays receiving 8 or 9 marks have everything needed—and a little more than that—to ace this portion of the exam.

So, I’ll unpack the information and compartmentalize it. The top-tier section of the AP English Literature rubric states that the best essays “demonstrate the writer’s ability to discuss a literary work with insight and understanding and to control a wide range of the elements of effective composition.” That’s a little abstract for our analysis, but luckily there’s more concrete information that we can focus on.

A top-tier essay covers an appropriate work and the appropriate elements within that work. Appropriate is subjective though. Carefully consider how the literary work you’ve chosen helps you respond to the prompt. The piece you’ve selected should allow you to make many specific, apt references. These references and their purpose in proving your thesis should be clearly explained in a logical manner. The rubric warns against including “plot summary that is not relevant to the topic,” so make sure, again, that the material is appropriate.

The bottom line is that there are some concrete requirements we can plainly see in the rubric that will not only allow you to analyze your own writing, but that will also inform the way you practice writing for the AP English Literature exam. Let’s get down to some perfect practice.

Sample Free Response Outline

The following example prompt comes from the 2013 AP English Literature free response section.

“…Select a single pivotal moment in the psychological or moral development of the protagonist of a bildungsroman. Then write a well-organized essay that analyzes how that single moment shapes the meaning of the work as a whole.” For clarification, bildungsroman is German for “novel of formation,” or a coming-of-age story.

Let’s use A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, which is a title included in the prompt. We’re sure it’s appropriate because it’s a story of a nineteenth-century Irish Catholic boy growing up to become a writer, a coming-of-age story in which a boy grapples with heady questions of morality and self and eventually finds peace as an adult. The protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, spurns his religion briefly, but he eventually rededicates himself to piety. He later realizes, in the pivotal moment we’ll discuss, that his love and desire of beauty should not be shameful to him. He is forever changed by freeing himself from his religion.

Here’s a brief outline for a sample response to this prompt:

I. Introduction

1. Stephen Dedalus’ psychological and moral development throughout James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man directly correlates to the protagonist’s struggle with his faith and his sense of self.

2. The pivotal moment in Stephen’s development and in the story itself takes place when Stephen succeeds in his struggle to no longer be constrained by religion.

II. Body

1. The truly pivotal moment in Stephen’s development takes place when Stephen decides that his love of and desire for beauty should not be shameful to him.

a. Late in chapter 4, Stephen considers the myth of Daedalus and sees a beautiful girl whom he regards as an angel.

b. Stephen is changed by this experience in that he can grow and become the artist he wishes to be.

2. This moment shapes the meaning of the story itself by illustrating the author’s own struggle to become an artist and possible his own pivotal moment.

a. It is at this point in the story that Joyce’s diction and style become more elevated, reflecting Stephen’s development sans religion.

b. By Chapter 5, Stephen seems well adjusted and as if he is able to embrace adulthood.


1. The moment when Stephen observes the angelic girl in the water and contemplates the myth of Daedalus represents a pivotal moment not only in the story but in Stephen’s psychological and moral development throughout Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

2. This moment shapes the story by, in effect, being one of the main reasons that Joyce wrote it.

3. Joyce himself struggled with his religion, and, once free of it, developed into the artist he was meant to be, much like Stephen.

First, it was established that the literary work chosen was appropriate. The elements chosen, the pivotal moment was also established as appropriate, according to the prompt. Next, an understanding of the concept and of the references made in Paragraph I was demonstrated. Then, I responded to the other portion of the prompt regarding how the pivotal moment shapes the story and demonstrated an understanding of the references made in support of that. Finally, an insight was made regarding Joyce’s reason for writing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

This is an O.K. response. It’s nothing special but it gives us an example text to guide our discussion of the strategies you can use to score your own practice essays.

Scoring Practice Essays

The easiest way to score your practice essays is to consider the concrete information that’s known about how the readers will score your essays. The following five questions are useful in scoring your practice essays but also in guiding your preparation for the actual test.

First, pretty obviously, have you actually made an attempt to respond to the prompt precisely and with only relevant material? If so, you’ve at least gotten off to a good start.

Second, analyze your structure and organization. Can you follow the logic in your essay without having to mentally fill in any blanks? If you notice that some part of the logic is unclear and requires you to make some cognitive jump, rest assured your reader will notice this. Good organization and structure of your thoughts is plainly pivotal to upping your essay scores. If you can read through your response comfortably, you’re in good shape.

Third, analyze your diction and rhetorical strategies. Do you use a varied vocabulary? Have you employed any college-level composition strategies such as parallelism or antithesis? If no to either of these, you’re running par for the course. If yes to both, you’re doing pretty well.

Fourth, examine how your references demonstrate your understanding of the prompt, the text, and the elements of the text which you’ve discussed in your essay. Do you make any clever insights? Have you made a unique connection to or inference about the piece? If you’re confident that your response demonstrates your understanding of these key artifacts, then you’re probably looking at a 6 or 7 mark.

Fifth, scrutinize the style of your essay. This is the final part of your self-scoring. If you read over your essay and remark on your own style, even if you’re critical at times, in a positive way, there’s a chance your response may be an 8 or better.

Asking these questions is a quick, easy barometer for gauging the effectiveness of your AP English Literature free response responses.


Effective preparation for the AP English Literature free response section depends on accepting that practice makes perfect. Strive throughout the time you spend studying to practice as perfectly as possible.

With this analysis of the rubric itself and the discussion of the five graduated questions you should ask about your practice essays, you’ve got a few more tools to use in ensuring that your practice is as perfect and precise as possible.

Ensure that your essays cover appropriate material. Analyze your organization. Examine your diction and usage of rhetorical strategies. Criticize your understanding of the prompt, the text, and the elements you’ve called out in the essay. Scrutinize your style.

By performing these five actions, you’re increasing your odds of putting forth a solid performance on test day.

Photo by The Egoist Ltd., London (Immediate image source: [1], linked at [2].) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By the way, you should check out Albert.io for your AP English Literature review. We have hundreds of AP English Literature practice questions written just for you!

Jane Austen’s Emma is a good choice for studying for the AP English Lit essay in the free response questions, as it deals with themes and issues that can easily be adapted for answering questions in the exam.

In this article we will look at the free response questions from previous years and explore how to answer them based on the knowledge you have of the novel. Questions that deal with social status or behavior are particularly strong for writing about Emma, as there are a lot of characters in whom we can see these issues reflected.

Studying the main themes of the novel will provide you with an ideal base to be able to answer any question.

Emma AP English Lit essay Themes

Marriage, social status, and misunderstanding are three of the main themes in Emma. Marriage and social status run parallel with each other, with each one reinforcing the importance of the other. Wealth is an important factor throughout the novel and is the backbone to social status.

Emma is a woman of fortune and status and does not need to marry to remain so. Miss Bates is an unmarried woman who lives with her ailing mother, but she has not inherited the wealth to enable her to live in the social class that she was born into. Emma, being of a higher social class, pays regular visits to the poorer households in the village of Highbury, as it is considered charitable.

Marriage features strongly in Emma, as the novel revolves around Emma trying to matchmake. Marrying well will allow the women in the novel to maintain or improve their status.

Misunderstanding is also a running theme in the novel, with characters often misunderstanding each other’s intentions. Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s advances for romantic interest in Harriet, just as she mistakes Harriet’s feelings for Mr. Knightley for feelings for Frank Churchill. Frank Churchill’s flirtatious behavior towards Emma is misunderstood by everyone when he is trying to conceal his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax.

Studying the role of women in the novel is a good idea, as the theme of social class has an impact on the lives of the women in the text, even though it may not be directly evident. Once you’ve gone over the free response questions you should have a better idea of what to expect when you write your AP English Lit essay.

How to use Emma for the 2016 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

Here’s a sample AP English literature free response question:

“Choose a novel or play in which a character deceives others. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the motives for that character’s deception and discuss how the deception contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.”

To answer free response questions that deal with deception, Emma can be a good choice. Plenty of deception occurs within the novel.

The most obvious example of a character deceiving others is Frank Churchill. Frank Churchill purposely deceives the other characters in the novel so that he can keep his engagement to Jane Fairfax a secret. As Frank is due to inherit his aunt’s fortune, he is unable to announce his engagement to Jane Fairfax. She would have been considered an unsuitable match by Frank’s aunt, due to her lower social status, and the engagement between them would have been forbidden.

The reader is aware that it is assumed that Frank Churchill and Emma will eventually become engaged to each other. The match has been implied since they were children, despite the two characters never having met.

Jane Fairfax is set to become a governess, as she hasn’t received a marriage proposal. However, the reader knows this is not the case and that she is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill.

In his deception, Frank makes Emma believe that she could be the one who he proposes to. Frank frequently visits her at her home, Hartfield, and pays her significant attention to her at parties.

After the death of Frank’s aunt, the residents of Highbury learn of Frank’s engagement to Jane Fairfax. The news comes as a shock, particularly to Emma, who believes she has been deceived. Although Emma does not have feelings for Frank, she believes his actions were unacceptable, and if she’d had an interest in him, she would have felt even more deceived.

When Emma discusses the engagement and deception with Mrs. Weston, her former governess, she explains that she could well have had feelings for Frank without him knowing, making the deception even worse. However, Emma is more worried about Harriet’s feelings on learning the news of Frank’s engagement.

Frank is motivated to deceive others in his society because his love for Jane would be considered socially unacceptable, particularly by his aunt. Frank’s aunt controls his fortune and is the source of his wealth. If Frank had chosen to marry Jane Fairfax without his aunt’s consent he would have been giving up his money, lifestyle and social status.

Frank’s deception highlights the theme of social status within the text and reflects the importance of wealth and social class among the characters in the novel and in early 19th century British society as a whole.

Marriage is also an important theme in Emma and the deception by Frank Churchill highlights this. Marriage in Emma is a way to maintain social status or gain improvement in social status. With Frank Churchill deceiving others until the death of his aunt, he manages to get both fortune and the woman of his choice.

You could mention that the deception was a way of gaining control for Frank Churchill. His wealth was controlled by his aunt, which meant his life also being controlled, but he was able to use deception to take back that control for himself.

How to use Emma for the 2015 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

Here’s another sample from 2015:

“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.”

For free response questions that deal with cruelty, Emma is not an obvious choice but can still be used, as the events that unfold at Box Hill are cruel.

Emma exhibits cruel behavior in front of the others in the party at the Box Hill outing. In response to Frank Churchill’s idea of a game where everyone would say either one clever thing, two somewhat-clever things, or three dull things, Emma aims her cruelty at Miss Bates, announcing that Miss Bates will struggle to say no more than three dull things.

At the end of the picnic, Mr. Knightley scolds Emma for her cruel words towards Miss Bates. He reminds her that Miss Bates is of a lower class than Emma and should be treated with respect and not scorn.

Emma’s treatment of Miss Bates is important to the meaning of the novel as a whole, as it highlights the theme of social status. Mr. Knightley’s admonishment of Emma reinforces how important social status is in the society of the novel.

Mr. Knightley explains to Emma that her words would not have been as offensive if the subject of her joke had been of the same social class and status. However, Miss Bates was a poor, unmarried woman who lived with her mother. Emma’s behavior is cruel because it is an attack against a person who is in a more vulnerable position than Emma, and to whom Emma gives charity.

The theme of marriage is also highlighted through Emma’s cruel behavior. Mr. Knightley emphasizes that Miss Bates has become poor through not having married. Although Miss Bates may have been born into a higher class than she was currently living in, her lack of spouse has resulted in a lack of wealth and status. The lower class of Miss Bates makes Emma’s attack on her even more cruel, as Miss Bates’s situation has worsened throughout her life and will continue to do so as she gets older.

Emma is considered to be a woman of fortune and is very highly regarded in Highbury society, so when she hurts Miss Bates she is also setting a bad example to the others in the group. Mr. Knightley believes Emma’s behavior has been influenced by Frank Churchill and doesn’t think Emma would have behaved in such a way if Frank hadn’t been present.

Emma is brought to tears after Mr. Knightley reprimands her because she is made aware of how her behavior has hurt others. This admonishment highlights a turning point for Emma, as she finally realizes the mistakes she’s made throughout the novel.

Emma’s reflection on her past behavior leads her to discover that she is in love with Mr. Knightley. Without her cruel behavior and Mr. Knightley’s subsequent reprimand, Emma would not have been made aware of her mistakes or her feelings.

How to use Emma for the 2014 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

The 2014 question went:

“Select a character that has deliberately sacrificed, surrendered, or forfeited something in a way that highlights that character’s values. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how the particular sacrifice illuminates the character’s values and provides a deeper understanding of the meaning of the work as a whole.”

Emma is not a good choice to use for answering free response questions that deal with sacrifice. For this type of question, Wuthering Heights or King Lear would be better texts to use.

How to use Emma for the 2013 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

Finally, the 2013 question for the FRQ was:

“Select a single pivotal moment in the psychological or moral development of the protagonist of a bildungsroman. Then write a well-organized essay that analyzes how that single moment shapes the meaning of the work as a whole.”

For free response questions that deal with bildungsromans, Emma is a good choice. Emma is the protagonist of the novel and we see her develop as a character throughout the text. In the course of the story, she makes various mistakes and misunderstandings because of her immaturity and lack of awareness.

Towards the end of the novel, the reader witnesses the moment that Emma realizes her mistakes. After her cruel behavior towards Miss Bates during the Box Hill outing, Mr. Knightly scolds her. This admonishment has a profound impact on her because it is coming from a man she trusts and respects, bringing her to tears.

Mr. Knightley believes Frank Churchill is the reason for Emma’s bad behavior and her humiliation of Miss Bates in front of everyone in the Box Hill party. When he reprimands her, she is faced with the disgust of not only her own behavior but with the fact that she has disappointed Mr. Knightley.

In an attempt to right her wrongs and gain forgiveness, Emma visits Miss and Mrs. Bates at their home.

After hearing the news of the engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Emma worries about informing Harriet of the news, since Emma believed she had been encouraging Harriet to have a romantic interest in Frank. However, Harriet already knows of the engagement before Emma has a chance to tell her. It is during this conversation that Harriet reveals to Emma that her interest was not in Frank but was instead in Mr. Knightley.

The moment that Harriet reveals her feelings for Mr. Knightley is the moment when Emma realizes that she, herself, is in love with Mr. Knightley. Emma also realizes that she has always enjoyed having his approval and being the center of his attention.

Emma thinks of all the horrible things that she did that were met with Mr. Knightley’s disapproval, including her treatment of Jane Fairfax behind her back and her humiliation of Miss Bates. She also thinks that if Mr. Knightley does go on to choose Harriet for a wife, it will have been her own fault.

It is only after Emma receives the scolding from Mr. Knightley that she can reflect on her past behavior. This scolding is the single moment that causes her behavior to change. Mr. Knightley explains to Emma that Miss Bates should be shown respect because she is poor and has less than Emma. Emma realizes that she is in a position of wealth, unlike Miss Bates. This moment shows her the responsibility that comes with having wealth and status.


Now that you’ve had a look at some of the prior free response questions, you should feel better prepared to tackle your AP English Lit essay. It’s a good idea to master the themes in Emma and read through the novel again with the issues in your mind. This will give you a deeper understanding of the text and will allow you to answer any question.

You can find extra study resources on Albert.io and it’s a good idea to read The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs and The Ultimate Guide to 2015 AP English Literature FRQs to give you further advice.

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