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For more information, please see full course syllabus of AP English Literature & Composition
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The Open Essay

  • What is the Open Essay?
    • The open essay is usually the third essay question on the AP English Literature and Composition exam.
    • The open essay prompt gives you a theme (for example, motherhood or the importance of minor characters or internal conflict) and asks you to write about it, using a work you have already read and studied closely.
    • This sounds like the hardest essay of the three, but it’s actually the easiest because you can study for it!
  • What ETS Wants
    • So far, the exam has tested your ability to think on your feet—to improvise, basically, analyzing texts that you’ve probably never seen before.
    • The open essay, however, is all about your ability to think deeply. It allows you to use a work you’ve already studied in order to gauge how well you express yourself after prolonged thought. That’s why this essay gives you your entire reading life to prepare for it!
    • ETS makes sure the prompts are truly open and applicable to a wide range of literary works so that everyone who has read broadly and deeply has a roughly equal chance to get a high score.
    • In short, ETS wants :
      • A well-written essay (just like the other two)
      • An essay that shows complex thought and deep understanding of the work
      • An essay that applies the given theme to the work of your choice
  • An Essay About Anything
    • Because you don’t know the theme you’ll be asked about, the best way to prepare for the open essay is to study a couple of different works of literature and work out in advance how their different themes play out.
    • Use the sample prompts available on the College Board’s website and apply them to whatever works you’ve chosen. How would you write about those works in response to those prompts?
    • But if you don’t know the theme in advance, how will you know which books to prepare?
  • Your First Book
    • You need to prepare at least one major work of literature (play or novel) so you have something to write about.
    • Choose something you’ve read in class—your teacher has probably chosen a good slate of books for you.
    • Choose something versatile and complex with a lot of different themes, to cover more bases.
    • Choose something you like and/or find interesting. It will make all this studying easier.
    • SHAKESPEARE! He’s always a good choice, because he’s well-known, his works are rich and complex, and you’ll never have trouble convincing anyone that he’s literary enough for the AP Exam.
  • Some Good Choices
    • Shakespeare plays—Hamlet, Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, King Lear
    • Emma—Jane Austen
    • Jane Eyre—Charlotte Bronte
    • Wuthering Heights—Emily Bronte
    • David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities—Charles Dickens
    • Crime and Punishment—Fyodor Dostoevsky
    • The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger
    • Moby Dick—Herman Melville
    • The Scarlet Letter—Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Your Second and Third Books
    • It’s a good idea to prepare another book or two as a backup, just in case your primary work is completely inappropriate to the prompt.
      • For example, if you prepare Macbeth and the prompt asks you to discuss a story where much of the conflict occurs internally …
    • For your second and third works, choose something as different as possible from your primary work—different gender, different time period, different subject matter. If your primary work is a tragedy, choose a comedy for your secondary or tertiary.
    • You’ll probably want to choose something shorter, but still long enough to write about—a novella, short novel, or shorter play.
  • Some Good Choices
    • The Awakening—Kate Chopin
    • The Great Gatsby—F. Scott Fitzgerald
    • Heart of Darkness—Joseph Conrad
    • The Turn of the Screw—Henry James
    • Death of a Salesman or The Crucible—Arthur Miller
    • Antigone or Oedipus Rex—Sophocles
    • Medea—Euripides
    • The Glass Menagerie or A Streetcar Named Desire—Tennessee Williams
    • The Old Man and the Sea—Ernest Hemingway
  • How to Prepare a Book
    • Reread your work(s) within four weeks of the test.
    • Work from critical editions. Read the extra materials—introductions, text notes, appendices, as much as you can handle. Learn about the historical and social context of the work.
    • Write your own study guide for each work, including:
      • A plot outline—what happens in each part and why it matters
      • A character list—who’s who and why they matter
      • A list of themes, explored briefly
      • A list of symbols and what they mean
      • A collection of notable quotations and what they mean
  • A Dirty Trick You’ll Want to Use
    • Download several sample prompts from the College Board website, or copy them out of reputable prep books.
    • Write the beginning of an essay for each, using your primary work if possible and your secondary/tertiary work if necessary. Make sure you’ve got:
      • A bang-up opening with a good hook
      • A strong thesis
      • A firm idea of how the rest of your essay would go.
    • You can’t prepare for everything, but you’d be amazed how often this helps.
  • Your Job is to Score Above a 5
    • ETS essay readers mentally divide essays (in the first few sentences, usually) into “above 5”, “5” and “below 5”.
    • Your first task is to get into that first category. Once you’re above 5, it’s all a matter of degree.
  • Tips and Tricks
    • Get your mechanics right—neat handwriting, correct grammar/spelling/punctuation, etc.
    • Make your first paragraph perfect.
    • Don’t wed yourself to your structure. If your ideas change as you’re writing, work it in. Perfectly structured essays are boring (and anything good written in just 40 minutes will not be perfectly structured).
    • Don’t restate the prompt. Paraphrase.
    • Don’t summarize. Use quotations to support your points, but analyze more than you quote.
    • Use clear transitions and topic sentences.
    • Don’t pad, and don’t ramble.
    • Have a hook and a conclusion.
  • The Ultimate Essay Secret
    • Be confident in your writing—no matter what you’re writing about!

The Open Essay

Lecture Slides are screen-captured images of important points in the lecture. Students can download and print out these lecture slide images to do practice problems as well as take notes while watching the lecture.

  • Intro 0:00
  • Lesson Overview 0:10
  • What is the Open Essay? 0:54
    • Usually the third essay on the exam
    • Prompt gives you a theme
    • You can study for it
  • What ETS Wants 1:36
    • All about your ability to think deeply
    • A well-written essay
    • An essay showing complex thought
    • An essay that applies the given theme to the work
  • An Essay About Anything 3:42
    • Work it out in advance
    • Use sample prompts
    • How will you know which books to prepare?
  • Your First Book 4:18
    • Prepare at least one major work of literature
    • Choose something you've read in class
    • Choose something with a lot of themes
    • Choose something you like
    • Shakespeare!
  • Some Good Choices 5:20
  • Your Second and Third Books 6:38
    • Have backups
    • Choose something different
    • Choose something shorter
  • Some Good Choices 7:52
  • How to Prepare a Book 8:34
    • Reread within four weeks of test
    • Work from critical editions
    • Write your own study guide
  • A Dirty Trick You'll Want to Use 10:20
    • Download samples
    • Writing beginning of each essay for each
    • Make sure you've got…
  • Your Job is to Score Above a 5 11:18
  • Tips and Tricks 11:54
    • Get mechanics right
    • Make first paragraph perfect
    • Perfectly structured essays are boring
    • Don't restate the prompt
    • Don't summarize
    • Use clear transitions and topic sentences
    • Don't pad, don't ramble
    • Have a hook and conclusion
  • The Ultimate Essay Secret 14:06