AP® English Literature Course And Exam Description

The AP® English Literature and Composition course is a year-long college-level class. It prepares students for introductory college-level literature and writing courses. Each student needs to know what to expect from the course to get a good grade on the AP Lit exam.

In the AP Lit course, you will read and analyze imaginative literature from various periods to understand how writers use language to convey meaning and pleasure. As you read, you will learn to evaluate the structure, style, and topics of a work, as well as the figurative language, imagery, and symbolism used in it.

AP English Literature Units, Topics, and Key Concepts

The AP English Literature course comprises two primary components as prescribed by the College Board®.

These are:

  1. Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings
  2. Course Skills

These components help students gain the skills and knowledge essential to succeed in the course and the exam. Let’s understand each component one by one. The big ideas are themes that weave across the course module to create conceptual knowledge, and the long-term takeaways you get from these big ideas are called enduring understandings. Course skills are the things you learn to do as you progress through the course. These skills include understanding, analyzing, interpreting texts, and explaining your claim in the argumentative essay. Together, these components form the foundational elements of the course, and we recommend that you review and apply these elements in a variety of contexts throughout your test prep. Doing so will help you master the course and ace the AP Lit exam.

Now, let's learn more about these components, starting with the big ideas and enduring understandings first.

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AP English Literature’s Six Big Ideas and Enduring Understandings

The big ideas form the backbone of the AP English Lit course, allowing students to make meaningful connections between AP Lit course units. While the first five big ideas are elements of literature, the 6th one is the method by which you use the first five big ideas and use them to make and defend a claim or thesis. The following are AP English Lit’s six big ideas, along with the enduring understanding connected to each of them:

  • Big Idea 1: CHARACTER (CHR)

    Enduring Understanding CHR-1

    In narrative literature and poetry, characters reflect a wide range of traits, motives, actions, dialogues, values, and cultural conventions. These elements provide an opportunity to examine and understand the role of the characters in the narrative and what they represent.

  • Big Idea 2: SETTING (SET)

    Enduring Understanding SET-1

    A setting and its associated features define not only the time and place of the narrative but also play a role in plot development and help define the meaning and values associated with it.

  • Big Idea 3: STRUCTURE (STR)

    Enduring Understanding STR-1

    The narrative structure describes the manner in which the author has pieced the literary work together. This work can be prose or a poem. The arrangement of sections and parts of the text, their relationship to one another, and the order in which the text discloses information are all choices that impact the reader’s understanding of the text.

  • Big Idea 4: NARRATION (NAR)

    Enduring Understanding NAR-1

    The fourth big idea helps you understand and analyze the position of the narrator and how he narrates the story. In short, the element of narration influences how readers experience and interpret a text. To interpret the narrative, you need to understand the author/narrator’s points of view, values and biases.


    Enduring Understanding FIG-1

    The fifth big idea will help you learn about rhetorical devices and word choices and how their usage affects the text. Literary devices like comparisons, representations, and analogies transform the meaning of a text from literal to metaphorical. As a student of the AP Eng Lit course, your task would be to detect the usage of figurative language in a text, interpret its meaning, and analyze its importance in the narrative.


    Enduring Understanding LAN-1

    The sixth big idea will teach you how to combine the first five big ideas and use them to analyze a piece of literature. It will also develop your ability to make and defend a claim in response to the given prompt.

Keep in mind that the AP English Lit free-response questions (FRQ) will focus on your ability to understand these big ideas and how you apply them while responding to a prompt.

What Are the AP English Literature Course Skills?

In addition to the big ideas and enduring understandings, the AP English Literature and Composition course helps you develop specific skills and abilities. These abilities, called "course skills,” are the basis of the tasks on the AP English Literature exam.

Every prompt on the exam will require you to use one or more of these course skills to answer them successfully. The College Board has listed seven course skills for the AP Lit exam. These are:

  1. Skill Category 1

    As you may already know, characters in a narrative play an important role in shaping the text. Their beliefs, values, biases, ideologies, and functions in a narrative are crucial in order to understand and interpret a literary work. Skill category 1 helps you understand and analyze the characters and their perspective, intentions, and function in a text.

  2. Skill Category 2

    This skill category works together with the big idea two in order to help you determine specific textual details that reveal or convey a setting. You will learn to describe the setting in a text and learn its importance in the text. In addition to these, skill category two will help you understand the connection between the character and the setting and how these two elements influence each other throughout the narrative.

  3. Skill Category 3

    Under this skill category, you will learn to analyze the function of the plot and structure of a text. A narrative’s plot organizes events in a specific manner; it could be a linear or a to-and-fro structure organized in the form of flashbacks. You will have to determine the structure, analyze its role in the narrative, and explain the purpose of the specific plot sequence used in the narrative.

  4. Skill Category 4

    The main focus of this course skill is to explain the function of the narrator or speaker. As you may already know, the narrator controls the flow of information in a text, and it is through the voice of the narrator that you get to know how the narrative unfolds. Skill category three will help you understand the narrator’s position, perspective, belief system, and biases through the details of the given text.

  5. Skill Category 5

    Skill category five focuses on the function of word choice, imagery, and symbols used in the text. You have to understand the difference between literary and figurative meaning in a text and determine and explain the function of figurative speech. Figurative speeches can range from specific words or phrases to symbols and imagery.

  6. Skill Category 6

    The main focus of skill category 6 is to identify and explain the function of comparison. In literature, authors and poets use various types of figures of speech to denote comparisons between character and setting or other elements. This comparison can be done through personification, metaphor, simile, and allusion. Your task would be to determine the figures of speech, understand their significance in the text, and explain their role in defining the character, setting, or narrative.

  7. Skill Category 7

    The final skill will focus on how to develop textually substantiated arguments in response to a prompt. You will learn how to develop a claim, defend it with textual evidence, and create a thesis statement that communicates the claim while maintaining a sound line of reasoning.

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The Nine Units of AP English Literature and Their Topics

The AP English Lit course content consists of nine units that will help you build skills and knowledge through three genre-based, recurring units, namely, Short Fiction, Poetry, and Longer Fiction or Drama. Let's look at the list of AP Lit units, their approximate weights on the exam, and the number of class periods required for each unit below.

Units Exam Weight Class Periods
Unit 1: Short Fiction I 42%–49% 10
Unit 4: Short Fiction II 17
Unit 7: Short Fiction III 17
Unit 2: Poetry I 36%–45% 10
Unit 5: Poetry II 17
Unit 8: Poetry III 17
Unit 3: Longer Fiction or Drama I 15%–18% 17
Unit 6: Longer Fiction or Drama II 17
Unit 9: Longer Fiction or Drama III 17

Each unit comes with specific big ideas and skills you’ll learn during your course. It is also important to understand how these topics are categorized so that you can focus on individual concepts and skills in detail. If you’re curious to learn about any particular AP English Literature and Composition unit, click on the unit tabs below to take you there!

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Frequently Asked Questions

The pass percentage for the AP English Literature and Composition Exam in 2023 was 77.2%, with a mean score of 3.26. These figures indicate that most students who grasp the reading, critical thinking, and writing skills covered in the course are likely to score a 3 or higher on the AP English Literature exam.

Here are the most important AP English Lit topics, which cover around 60% of all the concepts covered in the course:

  1. Narration (21 – 26%)
  2. Character (16 – 20%)
  3. Structure (16 – 20%)

Yes, you can take AP English Literature without having taken regular English Literature in high school.


  1. (2023). AP English Literature and Composition. College Board.
  2. (2020, Fall). AP English Literature and Composition Course and Exam Description. College Board.
  3. (2023, October). STUDENT SCORE DISTRIBUTIONS - AP Exams May 2023. College Board.

Read More About AP English Literature

Are you looking for the most up-to-date information on the AP English Literature study guide, strategies, and tips? Click on this article for the most useful tips to ace your exam.
Looking for a brief overview of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam? This is a comprehensive guide that includes detailed exam information, prerequisites, syllabus, and more!
Want to know what the AP English Literature exam format looks like? This guide provides a detailed breakdown of the exam structure, question types, weights for each unit, and more!
Interested in learning the AP English Lit grading system? Visit our article on AP English Literature scoring and score distribution—including a score calculator to see where you stand.
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