How to succeed in AP English Literature?
August 27, 2008 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Help a high school senior make the most out of AP English Literature.

Pretty basic: I'm a high school senior about to take an AP English Literature course... Tell me about your AP English Lit experience, where you failed, how you succeeded... What the classes were like, what books you read, how you took notes and read books... Relevant links, thoughts, etc.

Also: while test taking information is fine, I'm in this class to get the most out of it, not to get the best score on the test... although that would be fine too. Thanks!
posted by zenja72 to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
AP English Literature, the class, is all about taking AP English Literature, the test. The best way to get something out of it is to just enjoy what you read and realize that real academic papers aren't going to be anything like the crap they make you churn out to get the high scores on the essay section.

Honestly, five years out, the only thing I remember reading in that class was Slaughterhouse V, and I only read that because once the AP test was over, we each got to read a book of our choosing and do a report on it.
posted by phunniemee at 5:01 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't be intimidated by the canon. You might like some of the books and not like some of the books, and that's OK. Some, maybe most, of the books are boring, however important they might be in the development of English literature.

Also, Iago hates Othello because Iago's wife slept with Othello and liked it.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:06 PM on August 27, 2008

I remember learning about all kinds of literary tropes and stylistic touches, so keeping up with those and how they're used by authors could be helpful.

I loved any Shakespeare we read, too, because there's just so much interpretive info out there on pretty much every line he's ever written, and since the works are (way) out of copyright, it's easy to find digital copies to play around with and dig into.

Reading aloud in class in character is cool for things that were meant to be read aloud like plays and other drama.

Don't forget to leave time to read on your own!
posted by mdonley at 5:06 PM on August 27, 2008

Oh, and a few extra English-language related ideas:

Knowledge about how the English language evolved from all of its component parts is useful when working with older texts (say, pre-1700): it explains why to our ears, lots and lots of early modern English (say 100 years on either side of Shakespeare's time) doesn't rhyme or sound right, and why we have seemingly synonymous pairs of words for some things: mutton/sheep, kingly/royal, bold/courageous. Not totally necessary, but fun and perhaps a bit of lily-gilding to give your work a bit of oomph your peers might lack. You don't need to go out and get another book, though many - both "pop" and more credible - are out there; the Wikipedia pages on the history of English are enough to get a rough idea of what happened back then to give us the language we have now.

Your local big-city library may also have access to the Oxford English Dictionary online (I get it from the Los Angeles Public Library's website from home or anywhere in the world!) if you join up, which is an awesome resource for working with anything a "normal" dictionary can't handle, and they've got awesome etymological info too.

The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is (imho: I'm an English teacher overseas) the best all-around dictionary for native speakers you can find for free online, with well-attested etymologies and a lot of info on the roots of the words.
posted by mdonley at 5:26 PM on August 27, 2008

I loved AP English -- I had an amazing teacher, and pretty much everyone in the class really wanted to be there. We read rigorously and had very lively discussions (there was a rather heated debate that broke out over Othello); every single week, we also did a mock AP test essay question in class, which were graded by our teacher to approximate the grading for the exam. This was great practice for the test itself, but even more importantly, it was incredibly useful practice for doing written tests in college.

We also had independent study projects, for which we read several works of an author or genre of our choosing (I picked the topic of Irish nationalism in literature), then write a long-ish essay (10 or 15 pages... I can't quite recall) and give an in-class presentation.
posted by scody at 5:29 PM on August 27, 2008

I second Scody. My AP English class was the single best thing about high school. So, my advice is just enjoy it, in addition to all the advice above. In my class, the test was barely mentioned until the end of the year, so ymmv.
posted by chrchr at 6:06 PM on August 27, 2008

1. Train yourself to read a lot, quickly (not necessarily "speed-reading"). The biggest problem I ever had in college was having to read hundreds of pages in a week -- if you start thinking about that now, you'll be a big step ahead next year.

2. This epiphany actually came to me in 10th grade (and I didn't really heed it in the years following), but: read for school like you'd read for fun. If you just read chapters 3 and 4 that are assigned, it'll feel like an assignment. If you read the book for itself, you'll get through it faster, you'll enjoy it more, and you'll probably remember it better. Even if it sucks, pretend to like it and you just may fool yourself into actually liking it.

3. My AP English teacher had us build a note card file of the works we read. I don't remember perfectly, but you could adjust to your needs anyway: Make a note card for each book that includes Title, Author, Year Published, Main Characters, Theme(?), and whatever else...maybe setting? genre? The idea was to be ready for the essays on the AP Test, which generally tell you to write about some topic using a book of your choosing (or 2, comparing them; or more, using examples from each). Throughout the year, and especially when reviewing in April/May, you can flip through your stack of cards to re-familiarize yourself with each book. You sure don't want to show up for the test and forgot the names of the characters in that book you read back in October!

3b. Have a couple of those works, hopefully ones that you really enjoyed, that you can rely on for the AP test (and as a comparative for use on in-class tests). Really know them -- hopefully read one or two of them twice (because HS seniors have so much free time, right?).

4. Vocabulary. Not words in general (never a bad thing, though), but the vocabulary of analyzing poetry and prose -- it's hard to answer a question about synecdoche if you don't remember what it means.

Best of luck!
posted by bah213 at 6:26 PM on August 27, 2008

Congratulations! One of the few high school classes that really stuck with me was my AP English class.

Granted, I took the test about 25 years ago, but I do remember that I got a 5 on the test (granted, no one expected it, except for my mom, so maybe I'm not the best person to give advice).

What I learned in class, and what I applied to my test, was to not just to regurgitate what I had read, but to expound on it, on every single aspect of the reading material. Knowing the context of the writing was helpful - being able to apply the words and images used in the prose in the test allowed me to apply it sociologically. Understanding the language, the visuals, the subtext, and being able to explain it, helped to further my description of the meaning of the piece.

Finally, I read, watched, listened, all the time. Everything. And I was not just absorbing, but judging and evaluation - learning to look for the meaning behind all that I was taking in. At your age, I think that's a really cool development, as often teenagers are expected to just accept, and not dissect.

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by suki at 6:42 PM on August 27, 2008

I went to a crummy high school, so when I got to college and took "Great Books", I was paralyzed. I was supposed to write an essay a week on what we were reading, but I didn't have anything to say. I felt really dumb.

Luckily, I liked reading and continued to read all sorts of things. The other day I realized that if I had to write essays now on "Song of Roland" or Plato's "Republic", I'd be able to do it. So my advice is simple: read a lot. Each book helps you understand every other book.
posted by acrasis at 6:48 PM on August 27, 2008

Well, I wouldn't it take it that seriously. I mean, it's just high school. My AP English was pretty much the same as the other honors English classes I'd been taking all my life. The class is only as good as the teacher teaching it.

I also wouldn't worry too much about the books. My personal experience is that even though I was a pretty smart kid, I wasn't really ready for some of the so-called classics. I read Wuthering Heights and A Farewell to Arms in high school and hated them. I read them 5 years later and actually was able to understand and relate to them.

I ended up coasting through the class and somehow passing the AP test, but all I got out of it was some credits. I still had to take basic English in college.

Let's all take a cue from Kirkaracha and say something we remember from the class:

The tall guy from The Red Badge of Courage, you know, the one who died, he's Jesus.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 7:27 PM on August 27, 2008

I would recommend reading a book about basic literary theory targeted towards the general reader. I liked How to Read Literature like a Professor and most of the reviews of How Fiction Works have been positive. Why Read? and How to Read and Why are also good, thought-provoking reads, but they are perhaps too idiosyncratic to be used as introductions to critically reading literature. Reading this kind of book early in the school year can serve as a kind of prophylactic measure against a mediocre teacher.

(Not that your teacher will necessarily suck, but my experience as an English major at a pretty decent school has confirmed the suspicions I held in high school that most of my English teachers didn't really know what they were talking about. I doubt this feeling is particularly unique.)

All the books I mentioned — and there are many more like them — are written by literature professors and literary critics. They'll teach you what "professional readers" notice and appreciate in a text and help you develop a sense of what the salient aspects of a work of literature are.

I took IB Literature in high school so I don't have much advice about how to prepare for the AP exam, but I think (hope!) my suggestions should help you appreciate your readings and coursework.
posted by Bizurke at 7:35 PM on August 27, 2008

My experience with Lit was after the AP Lang class and test. My Lang teacher had done an excellent job preparing me with the HOW to dissect and analyze a book, but due to my youth and inexperience, the emphasis on themes in Lit caught me offguard, and in my opinion, was partially why I did better on the Lang test than the Lit. Thus, I would advise you to always be internalizing these books, some of which will have rather foreign ideas to a teenager, and comparing them to other books, because the thoughts you develop as you read them (and I recommend the card file as listed above to help you remember your ideas) will greatly aid you on the test, and even later for recall in other contexts.

I relied on my teacher a lot for explication, as my class didn't seem to be very serious and most hadn't taken many AP classes, but lucky you, you have access to the internet! :) I wouldn't be ashamed to use it as a resource to connect with other people. The books you're reading weren't developed in a vacuum, so don't expect to internalize them with only your own experience to guide you.

And lastly, your teacher will have you read books he or she considers to be useful for the test, but any good book you've read in the past or read on your own is fair game as well. So continue to read what you enjoy. You'll have more fun overall.
posted by artifarce at 7:38 PM on August 27, 2008

IMO: It's a lot easier than AP English Language, if you took that. Very few terms to memorize, it's really all about practice and understanding. I very much enjoyed the class. Practice the essays, practice the poetry essays in particular.

We read Mrs. Dalloway, Pride and Prejudice, The Hours, The Kite Runner, Hamlet, Catch-22, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Song of Solomon, and a good deal of poetry.

**One thing we were required to do for each book was to write a "reduction." It's where you fit every conceivable fact about a book on one side of one piece of computer paper. Theme, author, POV, meaning of title, characters, important allusions, recurring symbolism, themes, turning points, important quotes if there's room. It was actually very helpful for two reasons: the first time around you have to know the book cold and be able to boil it down, and more importantly when AP test time comes you have a handy little guide of all the important parts of a book. I'd encourage you to do something like this for the last point in particular, so you don't scramble to remember that one character's name at the last second. (I assume you still have to write about a previously read book?)

Oh! Another tip. If you can, know Hamlet cold. You can use Hamlet to write about anything. Fathers, sons, duty, death, sex, young people, old people, guilt, politics, humor, drama, women, mothers, symbolism, insanity, sanity, anything. Otherwise, know a lot of facts about a few books rather than a few facts about a lot of books.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:53 PM on August 27, 2008

(Ah! One more tip. It's a pain to scramble to find one particular part of a book for an essay. I used symbols in the margins for important and recurring themes. For instance, for Mrs. Dalloway I'd draw a little skull for "death" and a little clock for "big ben rings." If I had to write an essay about "passing of time" it'd be much easier to find those pictures when in search of particular passages than the words.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:56 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, it sounds like AP English has changed a lot in the last 30 years. We didn't talk about the test or focus on it at all. We wrote a heck of a lot of essays, but we also (my favorite part) wrote spoofs of genre fiction. You picked a genre (western, romance, sci-fi, etc.), read 3 books in the genre, wrote an essay analyzing the formula, and wrote a spoof chapter for your own book in the genre applying the elements of the formula. We also each wrote our own section of Dante's Inferno in verse. There was also something involving the Brothers Karamazov, but my memory is hazy.

We didn't memorize facts about books and their themes or keep lists of characters or any of that. Maybe the test was different then.

My main suggestion would be to not over-focus on the test. Your goal is to be able to think on your feet and write quickly and persuasively about anything. Lots of writing will help that. Writing will also make you think carefully about the new concepts and perspectives you'll be meeting in the books you read.

If your AP teacher rocks like mine did, college English could be a severe let-down. I placed out of freshman English, so my first college English course was a sophomore lit class. I was stunned by the professor's low standards and the students' dull passivity. It was like a HS sophomore class.
posted by PatoPata at 8:26 PM on August 27, 2008

I loved AP English. It was great. People have already given you some great advice. Here's the best advice I got, which I followed:

Take AP English. Do your best. Become familiar with tools for analysis. Learn to write a solid essay. Do well on the AP English test -- well enough to get credit and college.

And then take first year English anyway. You'll have one course where you know you'll do well and where you can spend your time on mastering the advanced skills, instead of merely getting through the course. It may be mindlessly easy. You may be bored. No matter. Just consider it a place where you can relax, so that you can get great marks in your other classes. It's a gift.
posted by acoutu at 8:30 PM on August 27, 2008

Reading the books isn't the most important thing. Excelling at timed writings is. Hopefully your teacher is making you practice those.
posted by limeonaire at 8:46 PM on August 27, 2008

AP English was the first advanced class I ever took, I wasn't really on a college bound track prior to my senior year of high school so really more than anything it was a cool experience to be around other kids that liked to read, I didn't really know anyone like that growing up. We had this teacher who let us push all the desks out of the way and sit in a circle on the floor; he lead the discussion and sort of gently steered its direction over the course of the class but beyond that it was up to us to bring stuff to the table. It was such a radical change from any other class I had ever taken it, that freer environment and encouragement to think and say whatever you wanted. It made me wonder why high school had to suck as badly as it did up to that point.

I guess there was a test afterwards? I think I did okay, I can't remember practicing for it or stressing about it or even what was on it. But then again, in 16 years you probably won't, either.
posted by The Straightener at 9:11 PM on August 27, 2008

Many people are under the misapprehension that the AP Literature 'recommended' reading list is, in fact, required - which is to say that they can only write their AP exam essays on works contained in that list. This is not the case. You're free to write about any work of recognized literary merit.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:41 PM on August 27, 2008

My best friend in high school wrote his big essay on the AP test about how Magneto was a perfect example of a tragic villain and scored a 5.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2008

Limeonaire reminded me about the timed writing -- at my school, they specifically trained us to quickly outline an essay whose scope could be covered in the allotted time. It helped me on every college essay exam I took.

You don't want to be reading for plot -- if you know the plot ahead of time, you can absorb a lot more about characterization, themes, and whatnot. So read a summary before you dig in. It's not cheating! If you were reading non-fiction, you'd look at the table of contents to get the lay of the land. For fiction, reading a plot summary gets your mind ready to go deeper on your first reading.
posted by wryly at 11:14 AM on August 28, 2008

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