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AP Lit & AP Lang: What’s the Difference?


Out of the College Board’s many offerings, there are only two English classes: AP Literature and Composition and AP Language and Composition (you may be more familiar with their abbreviations, AP Lit and AP Lang). Because the two course titles are very similar and neither is particularly descriptive, many students and parents have a tough time distinguishing the difference between them. However, just like you wouldn’t want to accidentally sign up for AP Biology when you wanted to take AP Physics, it’s important to know exactly what each class is all about before making your choice. Let’s go over the differences between AP Lit and AP Lang.


Timing


Though this may depend on your school and instructor, generally, high school students take AP Lang in their junior year and AP Lit in their senior. However, there is the possibility that you’re only able to take one of these classes during your senior year and you must choose between them. If you’re not quite sure what your school offers or recommends, ask a teacher or counselor for clarification.


Reading Material


As you may be able to guess, AP Lit requires students to read and analyze a lot of literature - specifically, novels, plays, short stories, and poetry. The majority of the reading materials for this course is fiction. On the other hand, AP Lang is concerned with nonfiction texts like historical documents, speeches, essays, and editorials.


Previous English classes have probably had you read more fiction than nonfiction, so the material for AP Lang might seem more unfamiliar and challenging at first. However, because you’ll need to be able to successfully understand and analyze lots of nonfiction texts in college, building those skills early on can make your transition into college coursework easier.


Content


The differences in content for these two classes connect directly to their reading material. Because AP Lit focuses more on poetry and narratives, its curriculum is also structured around the study of literary devices and other features of literature like plot, characterization, and theme. Again, these are the sorts of things previous English classes might have made you more familiar with. This is not to say that AP Lit is “easy” or just a repeat of lower-level English classes; it’s just that you’ve probably analyzed fiction in these kinds of ways before.


AP Lang, however, is primarily concerned with rhetoric - that is, the study of written, oral, and visual language and the strategies an author uses to persuade and inform their audience. In other words, the nonfiction-forward AP Lang is less focused on studying writing as art and more focused on studying writing as a tool employed for specific social and political ends. Studying writing from a rhetorical perspective may be new to most students, but it’s a skill that will help them in college and beyond.


Level of Difficulty


I, personally, would not say there’s a big difference in difficulty level between the two classes. Because of the ways their reading material and content differ, both will push you in different ways.


However, if you’re a numbers person, these statistics from the 2019 AP tests provided by the College Board may be of interest to you. (They’re not from 2020 because AP testing was a little different last year.)


AP Lang

573,171 students took the exam

54.3% of students received a passing score (3 or higher)

9.9% of students received a 5 (highest score)

AP Lit

380,136 students took the exam

49.7% of students received a passing score (3 or higher)

6.2% of students received a 5 (highest score)

As you can see, the proportion of students who earned a passing score and the proportion who earned a 5 was a bit lower for the AP Lit exam than it was for the AP Lang one. This may be at least partially attributed to the particularly difficult open response prompt on the test that year. Check it out:

That’s right - one of the AP Lit exam’s questions will always ask students to draw from their own knowledge of a list of titles to answer an essay question. The list provided is bound to include at least a couple of titles from the class’ required reading, but reading a couple of extra classic novels and plays on your own before the test can only be to your advantage.


(This is all to say that if you really hate reading literature and you don’t think you can learn to love it in a year’s time, you might want to pass on AP Lit.)


The Bottom Line


AP Lit requires you to read longer literary works, while AP Lang focuses on shorter works of various genres. AP Lit will have you working on modes of literary analysis you’ll probably find more familiar, while AP Lang will introduce you to the study of rhetoric. Both AP Lit and AP Lang are both challenging, rigorous courses that are guaranteed to make you a stronger reader and writer if you let them.


If you’re interested in understanding the world around you a little better and learning to express yourself in English in more effective ways, you’ll want to give at least one of these classes a shot. Passing their AP exams will probably also give you the coveted opportunity to skip one or two freshman-level English classes in college, saving you time, tuition money, and textbook costs. Win-win-win!


Not sure which high school classes are best for you? Find out which classes best fit your preferences and what colleges are looking for by taking advantage of ThinquePrep’s college counseling services.


Having trouble meeting your fullest potential in your current classes? Let us help with academic coaching, too!

Nina Calabretta is a college English instructor, tutor, and writer native to Orange County, CA. When she’s not writing or helping students improve their skills as readers, writers, and critical thinkers, she can be found hiking the local trails with friends and family or curled up with a good book and her cat, Betsy. She has been part of the ThinquePrep team since 2018.


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