AP: Answer the Prompt

I would like to begin by pointing out that my AP teacher decided that AP actually stood for, you guessed it, Answer the Prompt (My class, however, decided AP meant Advanced Procrastination.) So, it only seems natural that I should provide you with a guide as to how to actually Answer (and Understand) the Prompt.

Let’s face it. You’re in AP English Lit. Like it or not, the professors and other people at the College Board think that you have the most amazing vocabulary ever created, like ever. For most of us, that is not the case at all (for those of you lucky people who do, congratulations). Anyways, the College Board loves to see that fantastical vocabulary in use, and what better way to test that you have all the necessary skills than by making the prompts difficult to understand. Well, not anymore! Let the guide begin!


Key Terms

The biggest thing you need to do to figure out how to answer the prompt is to figure out the most basic command you will be following. In the actual prompt part of the prompt (aka: after the whole “critic so and so said” or “certain books do blah, choose a book that blahs” part) a command word will appear to help you begin to understand how to answer the prompt. In reality, whatever your prompt states, it can be broken up into two categories:

Analyze – Analyze prompts are by far the most common. They can come in any form (Discuss, Show, Prove, Explain, etc.) but boil down to the same thing. Use The Act, The Fact, The Abstract, and Tying it Back to link your book and the prompt together. This typically includes the use of literary devices, but it could be just about anything.

For an Analyze prompt, you basically have to talk about a certain aspect of the book that was outlined in the prompt and how that relates to some greater purpose.


Compare and Contrast – A Compare and Contrast prompt requires you to show the similarities AND differences between the things – be it the novels themselves, use of literary devices, themes, what-have-you. You cannot just show the similarities OR the differences, you have to do BOTH. This provides a nice little lead-in to the next section…


The Power of Conjunctions

Conjunctions. They hook up words and phrases and clauses. They also appear at a junction. A Conjunction Junction, to be precise. (My apologies, couldn’t resist.) They are incredibly important in any prompt. A simple “and” or “or” could drastically alter your paper and/or your grade. They really matter! When you come across a conjunction in your prompt, you should mark it. Underline, circle, box, anything so that you remember what it is you have to do. (I know I have stated in the past that I hate annotation, but this is the exception.) That teeny little word is the key to unlocking your prompt. You either have to choose one thing, or explain both. If you don’t get this right, the graders are going to mark you down. Drastically. Pay attention to conjunctions!



There is this new trend going around the College Board – using quotes from novels, critics, etc. in the prompts and having you respond with an example of this quote. Of course, this means the biggest job you should have when you get a prompt with a quote is to figure out what the quote actually means. Luckily, there is also a trend where the prompt gives you a little hint right after the quote by giving you directions of how to write your essay.


According to critic Northrop Frye, “Tragic heroes are so much the highest points in their human landscape that they seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them, great trees more likely to be struck by lightning than a clump of grass. Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning.” Select a novel or play in which a tragic figure functions as an instrument of the suffering of others. Then write an essay in which you explain how the suffering brought upon others by that figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole. (AP English 2003).

In this case, while you might fixate on the whole tree metaphor (“wow that’s weird, why not say skyscrapers versus cell phones or something? Metal’s more likely to be struck by lightning. Lightning…Harry Potter!”) or get lost in the length of the quote, the next sentence gives you all the direction you need. “Select a novel” with a “tragic figure” who “functions as an instrument of the suffering of others”. Pick a book where a character makes others suffer (but not because they’re sadistic, more like because of bad circumstances, for more see Oedipus Rex).But wait there’s more! Make sure to read the whole prompt! The next part says “explain how the suffering brought upon others by the figure contributes to the tragic vision of the work as a whole”. In short, your essay needs to identify a character who tragically brings tragedy, explain why the tragedy is tragic, AND explain why the tragedy makes the work as a whole tragic. Wow that’s a lot of tragic’s. Let me try again. Identify a character who creates a tragedy. Identify the tragedy. Use The Abstract to show how the tragedy sets the mood of the story. Finish it up by Tying it Back to explain why the author made the novel a tragedy.

“But wait!” you say, “The prompt doesn’t say to explain the author’s anything! Why should I do more work?” A good point, but unfortunately, any time you see the words “work as a whole” that is code for “the author” which is code for “Tying it Back”.

“Okay, I will listen to that, but this section is supposed to be about quotes!” You’re right. The point is, the quote isn’t really necessary to understand what you have to do. However, if you are given a quote, use the name of the quote-r and quote the important part of the quote in your introduction. But, NEVER quote the quote verbatim. The graders will have your prompt right in front of them. They don’t need you to repeat the quote and it takes up your valuable time to copy it. Don’t do it! Instead, take the key part of the quote you are going to be working with and explain them.


Critic Northrop Frye states that tragic heroes “seem the inevitable conductors of the power about them…Conductors may of course be instruments as well as victims of the divine lightning.” In Sophocles’ tragic play “Oedipus Rex”, King Oedipus becomes the victim of his disastrous fate. Due to Oedipus’ hubris where he believes he is ‘too high to fall’, he becomes the “conductor” of tragedy, causing catastrophe to befall not only his kingdom, but himself as well.

Side note: Always include any title given to you in your essay (ie: critic Northrop Frye).

One more thing about quotes: if you are given a “key term” central to your essay in the quote (like “conductor” in the example) use that word!  Repeatedly! With quotation marks around it!

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Summer reading, while annoying and generally the bane of all students-enjoying-their-well-deserved-vacation’s existence, is still important. Not because the book will change your life, but because the first couple weeks of school (not counting the arbitrary getting-to-know-you first day) center around it. Make sure you know what your summer reading is, read it, and remember enough of it to get by.