Best AP English Language and Composition Books- May 2020 Exam

Despite being the native language of most people who take the exam, AP English language and composition often poses a surprising hurdle for most, with only less than 50% of the examinees passing the exam most years.

That's right; more than half the students who take this exam, fail it.

Herein lies the problem: most students operate under the general assumption that mastery of spoken English is a sufficient means of evaluating their abilities.

On the contrary, not only does written English have a specialized set of rules that require proper understanding, the AP English language and composition exam is not simply a generalized evaluation of your writing and speaking abilities, it is a test of students' understanding of the course overview -- so, anybody with a 5 probably put in the leg work, and then some.

The Ultimate AP English Language Prep List

A great English language textbook is a lot more than just an impressive layout and properly illustrated cover.

In order to prepare for the AP test adequately, the book must accurately represent and cover the course framework set by the College Board. 

And seeing as the AP English language framework was strategically developed to help students think and act like writers, a great AP textbook must:

  • Be able to cultivate college-level writing and reading skills
  • Illuminate, analyze and describe claims and arguments
  • Be demonstrative of how written English functions
  • Help students communicate with audiences and elicit the right responses
  • Be error-free and written in a non-ambiguous tone
  • Contain post-chapter quizzes and full-scale mock exams (bonus)

All the books we recommend below have most of the above-mentioned requirements.

This book from the Test Prep Book series lives up to the sterling reputation of its publishers.

It exhaustively covers the entire AP English curriculum featuring chapters and modules in rhetorical strategies and analysis, English conventions, argumentation and synthesis, text components and response writing and others. As an added bonus, it features a test-taking strategies section which offers insightful tips for achieving a great score.

We especially love the quality and simplicity of this text. There is nothing quite like an error-free resource material that doesn't lose students in a maze of complex concepts.

Even more impressive, is the fact that it features up-to-date practice questions and detailed answers including explanations so that you can see straight away where you went wrong and how to make improvements. And to top things off, it comes at a pocket friendly price -- a definite plus for broke students everywhere. 


  • Comprehensive modules of the course topics
  • Bonus test-taking strategies
  • Pocket friendly price and practice questions


  • Could use post-chapter summaries for easy review

The Language of Composition was developed by a unique team of AP English specialists and authors with long term hands-on teaching experience. 

The combination of their expertise and unique perspectives is astounding. The text is an appropriately succinct and well organized layout of content.

Not to mention, it is engaging and is especially appealing for the diversity in the tone of featured contemporary and classic essays.

With an extensive reading selection and a great portion of the book dedicated to rhetorical strategies, students are offered a lot more than the guarantee of a pass mark -- they are offered a lifetime opportunity to become analytical thinkers and readers.

Even more, the text features data in representative forms like charts and visuals which is useful for developing equally analytical writers. And while it is rather pricey for the average student, buyers can be rest assured that they will get their moneys worth -- and then some. 


  • Authored by teaching experts
  • Engaging, well organized layout of content
  • Timelessly relevant content


  • Quite pricey

The Princeton Review is no new-comer to the world of test prep materials, and this book simply solidifies their place among the top tier review publishers.

This is an especially great option for its concise presentation which makes it an excellent end-of-year review resource. It works perfectly for students on a time crunch or those looking to get extensive summaries of the course overview before heading in for the test.

Even more, it allows users to customize their study sessions, putting priority on problem areas or specific topics. It also features handy tips for improving writing composition as well as post-chapter multiple choice questions and two full-length mock exams for practice and all at such a pocket-friendly price.

On the other hand, some do not find this to be sufficient for self-studying. However, this is hardly a deal breaker since it is not exorbitantly priced and can be easily paired with another material (preferably one from this list). Its limitations notwithstanding, this is a reliable option especially for its price.


  • Properly rounded with engaging content
  • Great price
  • Challenging test exams


  • Needs to be paired with another material
  • Has only two practice exams

CliffsNotes are popular for having a particularly focused approach to tackling course syllabuses.

Like other editions, this book presents the concepts in concise, bite-sized summaries that aid easy assimilation and allow students to not get bogged down by a plethora of unnecessary information.

The biggest strength of this text is its featured practice exams which mimic the actual test and also include a diagnostic mini-test to evaluate the students abilities. It also demystifies the AP exam format, offers test-taking strategies that work for multiple-choice and essay questions and includes an FAQ section that answers questions relating to both the course overview and test. 

Given the shrunk-down nature of the guide, it is recommended that it should be used along with a textbook with more in depth explanations. Notwithstanding, it is an extremely solid option specifically for students who prefer their study materials to arrive in a pre-digested format.


  • Features essay prompts from past exams
  • Concise, digestible format
  • Features all exam topics


  • Does not offer online access or content

There is a reason why Barron's titles have gained popularity among top-scoring students - the secret is in the expertise of the people behind each publication. 

Take this book for example; it is authored by a well-versed English teacher with more than three decades of experience under his belt -- and this title is representative of this fact.

Barron’s AP English Language and Composition provides comprehensive coverage of the course curriculum with a special focus on making writing improvements and improving reading comprehension. It samples a variety of student-authored essays and offers critiques helpful for self-evaluation.

The book also features instructions for tackling questions during the test as well as eight total full-length practice tests (five in the book and three online). All mock test questions are accompanied by answers and answer explanations to aid overall understanding.


  • More practice questions than most resources
  • Expert critiques of sample essays
  • Affordable


  • Multiple choice answer explanations are rather sparse.

AP English Language Books To Avoid

5 Steps to a 5: 500 AP English Language Questions, 2nd Edition

Not to be confused with the Elite Student Edition (which is a rather okay pick), this book is a test-based resource that is quite disappointing given the impressive repertoire of its publisher. 

The answers provided for some questions do not correlate with the given questions which can be misleading and potentially hazardous for unknowing users. While it is unclear whether the cause of this error is technical or typographical, it is safest to steer clear of the resource for obvious reasons.

Test Structure

The AP English Language and Composition exam is scheduled to last for no longer than 3½ hours and will require examinees to answer a total of 58 questions in two separate sections.

Section I of the exam accounts for 45% of the exam score and features 45 multiple choice questions which mostly focus on rhetorical analysis split into reading and writing themed questions. Students will be required to answer all questions in 1 hour or less.

On the other hand, section II of the exam features 3 free-response questions which includes 1 synthesis, 1 rhetorical analysis and 1 argument question which should be answered in 2 hours and 15 minutes. This section accounts for 55% of the total exam score.

Last Time The AP English Language Exam Was Changed

The most recent changes made to the AP English Language exam take effect at the beginning of the 2019-2020 academic year. These changes were made against the backdrop of the curriculum modifications which the college board made to the course description. 

In 2020 examinees can expect shorter multiple-choice passages, but the exam now has five passages rather than four which has been the norm for a while.There are also fewer multiple-choice questions and a new mechanics to scoring the free-response section. The essays will be graded using a method similar to that of the AP History exam. 

Additional Tips & Resources For Studying

Kaplans AP English Language & Composition

While this is a publication is older than most, it is still a solid resource for practicing with mock tests and getting acquainted with the exam format. It is published by the makers of the renowned test prep tool -- Kaplan, and it offers diagnostic tests, tips and strategies for tackling the exam, an extensive coverage of the syllabus and expert advice from top scorers which they claim guarantees a high score (or your money back).

Study With Resources From the College Board:

The college board provides unrestricted access to AP English Language and Composition Classroom Resources which can be useful for both teachers and students for evaluating progress and ensuring focused-study checks. The board is also introducing a bank of AP practice questions which we can all agree is a very welcome addition -- practice after all, makes perfect.

Use Visual Aids, Flash Cards etc…

It goes without saying that the most effective tools for stimulating memorization are visual aids such as charts, demonstrative illustrations and even flash cards. This helps students understand and retain complex ideas, theories and strategies. So, if there are specific problem areas that are proving to be a concern, maybe it is time to get illustrating; or better still, break out the flash cards.

Pace Yourself

The best way to ensure that you are properly prepared for an exam is to recreate the conditions of the exam. So, while tackling practice questions, a timer will come in very handy to evaluate your speed and strengthen your ability to perform under pressure.

Practice Essays

AP English Language students conveniently abandon essay question types while studying. Not only does this produce terribly lopsided results, it makes them struggle with uncharted territory on exam day. Students must not just practice essay question types but ensure that their attention is evenly spread between all the various types. Ultimately, each student should be capable of synthesizing, analysing and arguing or defending based on any passage or text.


Hopefully, this guide will come in handy while you try to navigate the somewhat challenging waters of AP English Language and Composition.

In any case, the most invaluable part of any study routine is understanding what specifically works for you regardless of what gets popular vote.

As soon as you figure out what works best to keep you engaged, and promotes assimilation, retention and productivity, you will be well on your way to a perfect 5 -- just be sure not to ruin it by choosing substandard study materials.