Cracking the System: The Multiple-Choice Section - AP English Language & composition exam

AP English Language & composition exam


Cracking the System: The Multiple-Choice


Cracking the Multiple-Choice Questions


The multiple-choice section of the AP English Language Exam will test your ability to take multiple-choice tests more than it will test your knowledge of English. If you’re already an accomplished test taker, then wonderful! Our techniques can still help you, even if you don’t need much help. Just focus on your weak subject areas. If you get high grades in class but consistently underachieve on standardized tests, you can relax—using our techniques on these multiple-choice questions will make a huge difference on test day. Finally, if you fall somewhere in between (most students do), using our techniques for the multiple-choice section will probably earn you half a dozen more points than you would have gotten if you hadn’t used them.


Probably not. The multiple-choice section is made up of 5 to 7 passages, which are followed by 5 to 12 multiple-choice questions about each passage. Although most of the passages will come from works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you should count on seeing at least one that was written before 1800. Typically, students have the greatest difficulty with the older passages since the style is so different from what they’re used to seeing in their everyday lives. Again, don’t worry. Our practice tests include passages from earlier works just like the real exam does, so that type will be familiar by the time you get to the test.

Think about it—almost any prose written in English or translated into English is a candidate for inclusion on this test. Variety is the byword! Imagine all the different types of writing that could be included: works of fiction, essays, biography (or autobiography or diary entries), speeches, letters, pieces of journalism, literary (or any aspect of cultural) criticism, science and nature writing, and writings about politics or history. Contemporary and classic, controversial and commonplace, and male and female perspectives are just some of the contrasts you should anticipate among the passages.

The passages will also run the gamut as far as types of diction, syntax, imagery, tone, style, and points of view. The teachers and professors who write the exam want to include as many rarely seen passages as they can. The idea is to get you to focus on rhetorical devices, figures of speech, and intended purposes of writings that you have not already articulated. Drawing inferences about a passage you’ve studied in class is less of a challenge than seeing how you deal with new material; this is a much more valid test of your ability to see how writers’ language works.


In addition to being totally new to you, the actual passages you’ll see on the AP exam may be missing some context clues that you’re probably used to having—for example, introductory material such as historical context, a title, explanatory notes, and even the names of the authors. Some passages will have titles, but most of them will be identified only by their date of publication.

These omissions may be some of the most obvious differences between the reading you’ve done before the exam and the reading you will do during the exam. And you probably won’t realize how helpful these little contextual clues are in understanding the passage until you encounter one of these anonymous passages—it would mean something very different to you if you saw that a piece was written by Abraham Lincoln, rather than by Homer.

Okay, let’s start talking in more detail about how to approach the questions.


Some people may advise you to read the questions that pertain to the passage before you read the passage. Do NOT take that advice! If you do this, you run the risk of automatically filtering your reading through the lens of a particular question or questions. You might ignore certain important aspects of the paragraph in your search for the answer to the questions you read. Get a real sense of the passage before you dive into specific questions. Imagine that the first question will be, “What’s the gist of the passage?” In other words, the forest will have a quality of its own, and you need to be comfortable within that forest before you can analyze its trees; read for the big picture. Some of the multiple-choice questions will ask you to summarize the author’s tone, style, and point of view. To do this, you’ll need to have a sense of the big picture. In fact, several of the questions will probably try to trick you into identifying the wrong answer because you’re focusing too narrowly on the sentence (or section) to which the question refers.

In a minute, we’ll introduce you to a typical passage on the AP English Language Exam. First we’ll talk more about two other important techniques you should use when tackling these questions—the Two-Pass system and POE.


There are 50–55 questions on the multiple-choice section of this exam, and you have a total of 60 minutes to complete it. This means that you have about one minute to answer each question. To most efficiently use your time, you should employ what we call the Two-Pass system. Basically, this means that you make a first pass at the multiple-choice section, answering the questions you easily can and circling the harder ones so that you can go back later. This system works well since, in this section, all the questions are worth the same number of points—regardless of whether you think they’re easy or hard! Be careful when bubbling your answer sheet, especially when you skip questions using this technique.

As you know, on the AP English Language Exam, the multiple-choice questions are based on passages. We’ve also told you that there will be a total of 5 to 7 passages on your test (although some passages are repeated). Since you have 60 minutes total, this means you should be spending about 8 to 12 minutes on each passage and its questions. Glance through your test when you get it to see how many passages there are. If you spend 15 minutes on each of the first 3 passages, you won’t have time to even read the last passage!

Here are the steps to take when using the Two-Pass system.

1.    Answer all the easy questions first.

2.    Circle the hard questions.

3.    Look at your watch to see how much time you have left out of whatever number of minutes you allotted for this passage (between 8 to 12). If you have 5 minutes left, tackle questions you circled. If you have no time left, then come back to the circled questions after you’ve safely finished the rest of the passages in the section (if there’s time).


You’ve probably heard about the techniques called “process of elimination” and “educated guessing.” Whatever you know about these techniques, you should know that on this exam, your chances of gaining points on a question will go up if you can eliminate one or more answer choices before you guess. This means that if there are questions on this exam that you don’t know the answer to—and there will be—apply POE and guess.

But, does guessing really help? Sure! Let’s say you end up blindly guessing on 15 questions. Random selection suggests that you will get 3 of these 15 right, which means you just earned a point. Because no points are deducted for wrong answers, the 4 wrong answers simply receive zero points. If you are going to guess without any POE, don’t waste time wondering what the best letter is. Just pick your Letter of the Day and move on.

While blindly guessing should gain you a point here and there, using POE in conjunction with guessing increases your odds of getting questions right. Let’s say on the 15 questions above, you are able to narrow them all down to three choices through POE. Well, now random selection suggests that you will get 5 questions right. So, you picked up 2 more points on hard questions through POE rather than random guessing.

While five points won’t get you to your goal score, you won’t be guessing (whether blindly or with POE) on the entire test. The point is that even blindly guessing should get you a point here and there, and thoughtful guessing based on POE is an important strategy when you are faced with a hard question.

Let’s recap:

·        Read the passage for the big picture.

·        Pace yourself (use the Two-Pass system).

·        Use POE on every question!

Now you’re ready to try your first sample passage.


This paragraph was taken from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.


Having read the passage, what would you say the big picture is? The dominant rhetorical strategy Thoreau employs in this passage is the analogy that compares the behavior of the ants with that of human beings. Is he writing to shed some scientific light on the behavior of ants? No. He’s dwelling on details about the insects to lead us to a revelation about human beings. He’s asking us to see that people are like ants and is commenting on the inappropriateness of associating warfare with grandiloquence and romance. Thoreau is basically asking, What difference do the struggles of the ants make, when we examine them from far above? Likewise, what difference does human warfare make, when seen from far above or even from a divine perspective?

This is the big picture. As you read the passage, you need to keep in mind his reason for taking this strong interest in ants and not get waylaid by the particular events taking place in the narrative. The last line of the passage should help you make the important conceptual leap. Thoreau outright says, “I was myself excited somewhat even as if they had been men. The more you think of it, the less the difference.”

As we mentioned earlier, some types of big-picture questions you’ll see on this exam will ask you to characterize the speaker’s tone, style, or attitude in the passage. Another type of big-picture question that you’ll see will ask you to describe how a particular detail fits into the big picture—what a particular word means in context or how the reader is meant to interpret a word based on the tone, style, or attitude of the passage as a whole. Let’s look at a typical big-picture question.

  1. The author’s tone in this passage can best be described as one of

(A)   suspicion and confusion

(B)   horror and shock

(C)   detachment and criticism

(D)   condescension and bemusement

(E)   admiration and empathy

The correct answer is (D). While it may be tempting to take the words at face value and interpret the ants as heroic, remember that this is a big-picture question, so you need to consider the overall meaning or intent of the passage. Remember that Thoreau’s intention is to make the point that the observer is to the ants as some higher being would be to humans. This is why condescension is a valid answer. In order to determine tone, you will need to frequently consider many different connotations of the answers.

By the way, you’ll see this type of question—with answer choices that contain two elements joined by the conjunction and—quite a lot on the exam. It’s one of the College Board’s favorite types of questions. When you’re looking for the correct answer, remember that both elements of the answer choice must be correct, so the easiest way to approach this type of question is to try to eliminate just one of the elements; if one of them is wrong, then the whole answer choice can be eliminated. For example, detachment (C) is a plausible answer, but criticism is not; so (C) can be eliminated. Half wrong is all wrong.

In case you didn’t notice, Thoreau makes three references to Greek history, literature, and art in this one paragraph. Do you know who the Myrmidons were? Do you know the story about the Spartan mother who says to her son, “With it or on it”? Do you understand the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles? Don’t worry. This kind of specialized knowledge will never be tested explicitly. If you miss certain pieces of the big picture, don’t be disheartened! Just like when you put together a jigsaw puzzle, if you have the general outline and can fill in major portions of the content, then you can imagine the entire picture even if a few pieces are missing.

Here is another typical big-picture question that gets at pretty much the same issues as the previous one.

  2. In this passage, the author exaggerates the greatness of the ants’ struggle to

(A)   exaggerate the greatness of nature

(B)   show the true greatness of nature

(C)   demonstrate the importance of war

(D)   illustrate the fierceness of ants

(E)   suggest the exaggerated greatness of humans

The answer is (E). The other answers—(C) and (D) in particular, may have also looked good to you—were deliberately put in there to trap readers who didn’t pay attention to the big picture.

Now, let’s take a look at what types of details will be tested—and how.


You now know that for each passage you come to in this section, you’ll read the passage to get the big picture. Big-picture questions often come either at the beginning of the question set or at the end, and the detail questions are sandwiched in between.

Let’s assume that the passage by Thoreau was the first one on the test and that the two questions that we already looked at were the first two questions about the passage. The next two are as follows.

  3. In lines 1–2, Thoreau changes “wood-pile” to “pile of stumps” because he wants to

(A)   enhance the sense of realism in the passage

(B)   trivialize the setting of the action

(C)   be thoroughly truthful in his depiction

(D)   create a sense of drama

(E)   make the setting more natural

You can immediately eliminate choices (A), (C), and (E); you know from getting the big picture that Thoreau probably wouldn’t be trying to “enhance the sense of realism,” or “be thoroughly truthful.” Nor is he trying to “make the setting more natural.” The setting is just about as natural as it can get. Even if you thought that (D) reinforced your view that the battle of the ants was a serious epic drama and chose that answer, you may have been saved at the last minute if you noticed that (B) lined up nicely with the answer choices from the first two questions. If you got those two questions right, then (B) would have been a choice that reinforced your confidence. Your answers should match each other.

Take a look at the next question on this passage.

4. All of the following humorously aggrandize the battle EXCEPT

(A)   it was not a duellum, but a bellum (line 8)

(B)   the hills and vales of my wood-yard (lines 11–12)

(C)   human soldiers never fought so resolutely (line 20)

(D)   whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it (lines 37–39)

(E)   Or perchance he was some Achilles (line 40)

Again, in case you missed the big picture, the exam writer goes so far as to say that the battle is humorously aggrandized. If there was ever any doubt about the seriousness of the author’s point of view toward the ant war, that doubt should immediately disappear.

Let’s look through the answer choices, starting with (A). Even if your Latin is weak or nonexistent, you can probably see the word “duel” in duellum, and bellum (war) is defined in the context; if you catch the pun (knowing that duellum is the ancient Latin word for war and the etymological root of bellum), then the humor is even more obvious. The “hills and vales” (B) are, of course, only minuscule piles of wood chips or sawdust. Hopefully the humor in the personifications in (D) and (E) was also apparent. The correct answer is (C); in fact, it is almost the only line in the passage that could be considered not tinged with humor.


After you have read the passage to get the big picture, don’t read it again to try to get all the details. Instead, as you come to detail questions that refer you back to specific lines in the passage, go back to those places and read more closely. You should always reread those lines; do not rely on your memory, and do not reread the entire text. When a question refers you to words or lines in the same part of the passage, make sure you “read around the lines.” That is, you should read the sentence before the sentence in question, read the sentence itself, and finally read the sentence that follows the one in question. You want to read as little as possible, but as much as is necessary, and this is an art that you must develop over time. Our practice tests at the end of the book will afford you ample practice for honing your skills.

Let’s move on. Most of the non-big picture questions on the passage will focus on detailed information from very specific parts of the passage. Remember, do NOT go back and read large portions of the text; if you cannot answer a question without extensive reading, then you should leave the answer blank and return to it, in your second pass through the questions in the section. Here are a couple of examples of this type of question.

  5. In context, “pertinacity” (line 31) most nearly means

(A)   pertinence

(B)   loyalty

(C)   perspicacity

(D)   obstinacy

(E)   attentiveness

On this type of question, oftentimes just knowing the definition of the word will not be enough to enable you to answer the question correctly, and the indication that you are to find the meaning “in context” almost guarantees that the answer won’t be the first meaning that pops into your head. “Pertinent” wouldn’t be right, and “pertinence” (being pertinent) is also incorrect. If you go back and look at the context—especially the word “bulldogs”—you should be able to eliminate all the answers except (D). Another clue is the adverb “resolutely” that appears slightly earlier in the passage. The ants are fighting resolutely and obstinately—like bulldogs.

Let’s go through a couple more.

  6. The phrase “who had nourished his wrath apart” (lines 39–40) most nearly means

(A)   who was hungry for battle

(B)   who worked up great anger in private

(C)   who was only partly angry

(D)   who fought alone

(E)   who feasted alone

  7. The phrase “who had nourished his wrath apart” (lines 39–40) serves mainly to

(A)   create the impression of an epic tone

(B)   sustain the seriousness of the author’s point of view

(C)   highlight the extent of the hatred between the enemies

(D)   underscore the loneliness of the combatants

(E)   emphasize the cannibalistic nature of the combatants

Question 6 is a translation question. What does “who nourished his wrath apart” mean in simple English? The answer is (B).

Question 7 is more of a big-picture question—remember that these generally occur at the beginning and ending of the group of questions that pertain to one passage. On a real test, you would not see two questions on the same quotation, but we want you to see how the exam writers can approach material from different perspectives. We have already determined that there is a playful humor in the humanization (anthropomorphism) of the combat of the insects, and this allows us to eliminate answer (B), which is there just to trick students who missed the big picture. The correct answer is (A). There is “the impression” of an epic tone (rather than a true epic tone) because, once again, Thoreau’s aim is to have us understand the futility and insignificance of events in the grand scheme of things.

One final note about detail questions: Do not forget the big picture when answering the detail questions. Often, the test writer will inadvertently give away important information about the big picture in the phrasing of the detail questions and answers, as they did in the sample questions on this page and on this page. Sometimes the detail questions will cause you to reevaluate your big-picture view of a passage; if your view is correct, the detail questions will probably confirm that view.


Try out the next passage and questions on your own, then check the answers and explanations that follow. Time yourself to see how long you take. Remember, you should be shooting for about 10 minutes.

Questions 1–4. Read the following passage carefully before you choose your answers.

From THE WORD MUSEUM by Jeffrey Kacirk

1. The author of the passage is most likely

(A)   a scientific researcher

(B)   a lexicographer

(C)   a historian

(D)   a sociologist

(E)   a teacher

2. The author has a particular interest in

(A)   old words and alarm clocks

(B)   social and political history

(C)   unusual activities and personal conduct

(D)   historical detail and social conduct

(E)   literature and the nineteenth century

3. In this passage, “upknocking” is viewed as

(A)   an interesting anachronism

(B)   a superannuated and silly word

(C)   a working-class word

(D)   a word devoid of historical interest

(E)   the key to understanding the nineteenth century

4. Which word from the passage gives the clearest indication as to where the author encountered the process of upknocking?

(A)   entry (line 13)

(B)   novel (line 7)

(C)   schooling (line 3)

(D)   employment (line 10)

(E)   clients (line 12)


1. B If you know that lexicon is roughly synonymous with dictionary (and you do if you’ve studied the Hit Parade), the question is an easy one. If you don’t, then it’s still a simple matter of POE. Given that the author refers to teachers and historians in a way that appears to set them apart, it is reasonable to assume that the author is not a member of either group. At this point, you could guess and go, or you could note the phrase “until encountering this entry,” which is the clue that points to the correct answer—the entry is a dictionary entry.

2. D It is wise to use POE again and attempt to eliminate all but one of the answers. Remember that if one of the elements isn’t relevant, then the entire answer is invalid. The first answer begins in a promising fashion; the author is interested in old words; however, that interest is only tangentially related to alarm clocks—and the entire topic (upknocking) is only an example used to illustrate a more sweeping interest. Eliminate (A). Answer (B) begins with similar promise, but there is nothing in the passage that addresses political history. All of the remaining answers are at least somewhat plausible, but remember that the example of upknocking is used to illustrate “the smaller and more personal expressions of social custom and conduct” rather than “larger social concepts.” That is, the author is interested in the revelatory details of social conduct (or concepts), rather than in the sweeping generalities. The author is, indeed, interested in nineteenth-century literature and unusual activities of that century, but only as they reveal how discrete social groups (in this case, the working class) lived and functioned.

3. A If you are not familiar with the word anachronism, go back and review the Hit Parade. There are two important meanings of this word. If you were to write a story about one of Ulysses’s forgotten adventures, in which the hero uses a machine gun to defeat Schwartzathon, the King of Califia, then you would have employed an anachronism (the gun); that is, you would have placed a thing (or a person) out of its proper time. But an anachronism can also be something that was once relevant, but no longer is—a definition almost synonymous with “superannuated.”
Once again, POE can help you eliminate the incorrect answers. Upknocking may sound like a silly word to you, but you should be able to understand the author’s sincere, serious interest in such a word. Besides, the test writers would never expect you to choose an answer that referred to any aspect of the English language as “silly,” so you can always eliminate this type of answer choice when you see it. Answer (C) is off base because, although the word applied to working-class life, there is no reason to suspect that only that class knew of or used the word. If you chose (D), then you need to go back and read the passage very carefully. Choice (E), the final answer, is simply hyperbolic; upknocking is a word that gives us a better glimpse into what the nineteenth century was like, but it is not the key to understanding the entire century.

4. A We addressed this in the explanation to question 1; at the very least, you should be able to eliminate answers (C), (D), and (E).


·        Begin each passage by reading for the big picture.

·        Concentrate on the author’s goal, tone, and point of view.

·        Do not read stubbornly; you do not need to understand or follow everything; some (even many) details may escape you—focus on the big picture!

·        Always return to the passage when multiple-choice questions refer you to specific lines.

·        Always read around the lines; the context of the lines is almost always critical in determining the correct answer.

·        Pace yourself! Remember our Two-Pass system. Dividing the section into chunks for each passage should help you out.

·        Don’t forget about POE and educated guessing! If you can eliminate two answer choices, your chances of guessing correctly increase a lot.


Do NOT expect to be entertained by the passages! Every now and again, you will encounter a passage as clever and entertaining as Thoreau’s, but that will be the exception. The test writers often (purposely?) choose passages that are dry, humorless, and downright boring. This exam is about toughness—mental toughness. Your ability to concentrate and think methodically and critically even when you’re not interested is as important as anything when it comes to scoring high. You are in luck because the vast majority of the passages in the sample tests in this book are every bit as dry, humorless, and boring as the ones that you’ll encounter on the real exam! If you read the passages and answer the questions under actual testing conditions, you will be ready for the rigors that await.