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Ap Literature Sample Essays 2003

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is often described as the first great American Tragedy and is an excellent choice for analysis on the AP English Literature Free Response Question. This play was published in 1949 and is a social commentary on life after World War II. To put this play into the context of postwar America, Miller portrays a capitalist society so focused on material goods that there is no room for self-expression or understanding of who one is. Death of a Salesman is a critique of the American Dream, its illusionary nature, and what trying to achieve it means for ordinary people’s lives.

Arthur Miller was born in 1915 in New York City. He wrote several well-known and award-winning plays, such as All My Sons, The Crucible and Broken Glass. Death of a Salesman’s main character Willy Loman was inspired by Arthur Miller’s uncle Manny Newman, who Miller had a contentious relationship with and was also a salesman. Death of a Salesman, arguably Miller’s most famous work, takes place during twenty-four hours and chronicles the conflicts within the Loman family.

To a modern audience this play may seem tame in its indictment of American values, but at the time of its publication, it was quite radical. Miller used a European theory existentialism, someone who emphasizes the individual as a free agent to determine their development through acts of free will. Existentialism was centered in European philosophy going back to the 19th century, and in post-World War II many American artists resonated with this philosophy in the face of America’s rising emphasis on materialism and capitalism.

Death of a Salesman serves almost like a time capsule; it uniquely reflects the trials and tribulations facing the fabric of the American family post World War II. At the same time, it is a timeless drama that can be easily transferred into modern times. This play deals with ordinary people who an audience can easily identify themselves in. The core themes of denial, abandonment and betrayal and even the elusive American Dream are still relevant to a modern audience. Miller’s ability to write a play so of its time and, yet; so timeless make Death of a Salesman a wise choice for your AP English Literature Free Response Question.

Death of a Salesman AP English Lit Essay Themes

The American Dream

The most prevalent theme in Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller’s entire play centers around the feasibility of the American Dream in a capitalist society. Willy believes that if you are “well liked” in business, you will acquire the material possessions the American Dream promises. He sees his brother Ben achieve the American Dream by traveling to Alaska and Africa and stumble into a diamond mind. Willy holds Ben up as the ideal example of a man is good looking, well liked, and manly achieving the American Dream. Indeed Ben’s achievements profoundly influence Willy’s ideas of what success within the framework of the American Dream mean, and he spends the rest of his life trying and failing to achieve it. Willy and his sons are constantly trying to reach these standards of financial success and failing. Ultimately this failure is not the true tragedy of the play. Willy’s tragedy is that he fails to enjoy the real joys that life has to offer him, as the love of his wife and children.

Willy sacrifices his life so that his family can achieve the financial security that he felt the American Dream demanded, which leaves the audience to believe that the American Dream. Sacrificing himself for this materialism makes Willy the perfect symbol of the corrupting nature of the capitalist driven American Dream. In Death of a Salesman, the audience is left with the impression that in the confines of the American Dream an individual is defined solely by their financial worth.


A defining theme for our main character Willy, who can chronicle his life by the times he’s been abandoned. Their father left Willy and his brother Ben at the age of three. In doing this, their father left them with no financial or historical legacy, creating Willy’s feeling of isolation in this world. This abandonment is later followed by Ben abandoning Willy to pursue his dreams in Alaska. It is after these two major events that Willy loses himself in his twisted version of the American Dream. As a result of his earlier abandonment, the audience can infer a fear of future adornment. Willy wants his family to conform to his version of the American Dream. Willy attempts to raise perfect sons but fails due to his inability to understand and face reality in his blind pursuit of the American Dream.

Biff in Willy’s eyes exemplifies promise, and Biff believes in his father’s version of the American Dream until he discovers his father’s infidelity. Willy’s final abandonment occurs from the people he’s been trying to protect the entire play, his sons. After Biff finally reveals that his business proposition is a failure and Willy deteriorates, his children abandon him in the washroom. Ironically Willy’s last action which he considers a sacrifice is also an act of abandonment, perhaps perpetuating the cycle his father started or that the American Dream demands.


A theme that plays out on several different levels in Death of a Salesman. A father and son who each feel betrayed by the other. Willy feels betrayed by Biff due to his unwillingness to follow through on successfully pursuing sales as a career. Biff’s failure is a major blow to Willy because sales to him are directly linked to his pursuit of the American Dream, which Willy believes in above all else. Willy’s inability to sell Biff on following in his footsteps weakens his self-esteem. Biff is betrayed by the illusion that Willy presents to his family, which he realizes when he finds out that Willy is having an affair.

Willy has set an unattainable standard and expectations upon his sons and living with what reality has to offer becomes tough for Biff. Willy’s family is also betrayed by the American Dream, which promised them the perfect life. Ultimately the pursuit of the elusive Dream leads to Willy’s suicide and tearing the illusion of their perfect family apart.


A theme played out through every member of the Loman family. Willy lives in a world of denial. He cannot admit that he is a mediocre salesman because it goes to the core of his belief in the American Dream. Willy lives in the past, distorting his reality, he can hardly distinguish between past recollections and the present. Willy’s sons learn denial directly from their father’s behavior, each distorts and manipulates the truth to try fit Willy’s mold of the American Dream. It isn’t until the end of the play that Biff admits that he, like his father, is a “phony”. Out of the entire Loman family, Linda is the only one who recognizes the denial, but instead of confronting it she goes along with Willy’s fantasies to maintain his fragile mental state. All denial stems from Willy: his sons learn it, and his wife enables it.

How to use Death of a Salesman for the 2014 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the act of sacrifice. In your, English Literature Essay analyze how a characters act of sacrifice illustrates their values and how that gives deeper meaning to the overall play.

It has often been said that what we value can be determined only by what we sacrifice. Consider how this statement applies to a character from a novel or play. Select a character that has deliberately sacrificed, surrendered, or forfeited something in a way that highlights that character’s values. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how the particular sacrifice illuminates the character’s values and provides a deeper understanding of the meaning of the work as a whole.

Willy Loman’s ultimate sacrifice in Death of a Salesman underscores his true values in life: achieving success through the American Dream at all costs. Willy Loman commits suicide, sacrificing his life for the financial security of his family that will come with his life insurance. Willy sacrifices the most precious thing he could, his life. This sacrifice illustrates that Willy values are achieving the American Dream above his life. When he realizes that the American Dream is unattainable for him, Willy finds a way to make it a reality for his family. The American Dream that Miller depicts is one predicated on materialism, which is reinforced when Willy chooses to give his family these material comforts instead of a father.

Willy Loman has been abandoned multiple times in his life. First by his father, who left when he was three, then by his brother who left for Alaska and a life of prosperity. These initial abandonments shape Willy’s view of the American Dream. Toward the end of the play, Willy is abandoned a third time by his sons in the Chop House. This action propels him into despair; he sees no way out for his family except sacrificing his life. Ironically this decision leaves his children abandoned and without a father, just like him.

Through Willy’s sacrifice, Miller is ultimately asking the audience to consider what this sacrifice truly is for? Is it a heroic action of a tortured man to better his family or the selfish action of a deluded man who must achieve his ultimate goal even in death? Miller doesn’t provide an answer, but Willy’s sacrifice serves to underscore the corrupting nature of capitalism and the American Dream on the fabric of the American family.

How to use Death of a Salesman for the 2007 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the act betrayal. In your English Literature Essay, you will need to analyze the nature of betrayal and what it shows about the greater meaning of Death of a Salesman.

Works of literature often depict acts of betrayal. Friends and even family may betray a protagonist; main characters may likewise be guilty of treachery or may betray their own values. Select a novel or play that includes such acts of betrayal. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the nature of the betrayal and show how it contributes to the meaning of the work as a whole.

Several characters commit acts of betrayal in Death of a Salesman. Willy feels betrayed by his son Biff, whom he sees so much promise in but who cannot succeed in business. Willy betrays his marriage vows to his wife, Linda. There is so much denial and manipulation in the Loman family, that betrayal must naturally follow.

Biff is betrayed by his father when he learns that Willy has been having an affair. Willy believes that it is the affair itself that is the betrayal that Biff begrudges him for. Biff is understandably upset with his father’s infidelity, but what upsets him is the false reality Willy has created. Biff has wholeheartedly bought into Willy’s idea of the American Dream his entire life, but when he discovers the infidelity, that whole reality is called into question. His values, his path in life, all of his previous decisions are now taken out of the fantasy world that Willy has created.

Biff feels that he is ill-equipped to survive in reality, as he has been brought up to be an unsuccessful phony just as his father. Willy’s real betrayal is creating a false world and allowing Biff to believe he could be truly successful if he just followed in his father’s footsteps. This betrayal underscores Arthur Miller’s message that pursuing the materialism and the American Dream at the expense of the individual will lead to suffering.


With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of Death of a Salesman, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.

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When you’re studying for your AP Literature Exam, you’re going to want to use practice tests and questions to hone your skills. But where can you find AP literature practice tests? And are all practice exams equally useful for you? 

The real exam has 55 multiple-choice questions and three free-response questions, but there are practice tests with every conceivable number and combination of question types. 

In this article, you’ll learn where to find every official College Board AP English Literature and Composition practice exam, free unofficial tests, and paid practice test resources. You’ll also find out which tests are high-quality and how you can best use different practice exams to fulfill your studying needs.


Official Free AP Literature Practice Tests

The gold standard of AP English Literature practice tests and AP English Literature practice exam questions are College Board released materials. That’s because the College Board administers the AP exams, so their practice questions are most like the actual AP questions you’ll see on the test. There are three different kinds of resources offered by the College Board: complete released exams from past years, released free-response questions from past years, and sample questions from the “AP Course And Exam Description.”


Official Released College Board Exams

There are two official released College Board Exams. However, neither is quite complete--while they each have the standard 55 multiple-choice questions, both are missing parts of the 3-question free-response section. You can still use these as complete exams if you supplement with released free-response questions from past years.


1987 AP English Literature and Composition Exam

For reasons that are not totally clear, this exam excludes the third essay question, the poetry analysis. If you want to take this as “complete” exam practice, use a free-response poetry analysis prompt from the bank of free response questions linked to below. 


1999 AP English Literature and Composition Exam

This test excludes the poetry and prose analysis questions of the free-response section and only has the student choice question. So, to take it as a complete exam, you’d need to supplement it with questions 1 and 2 from the released free-response questions below. You can actually get question 2 for the 1999 test from the official free-response questions bank, but the excerpt for question 1 can’t be reprinted, so you’ll need to supplement with another poetry analysis question.


Or supplement with this tree-poem.


Official Free-Response Questions

There may not be very many complete released exams, but there are tons of available free-response questions from previous administrations of the test. These are great practice, not just for practicing complete essays, but for practicing writing thesis statements, outlines, and so on. What’s also great about these is that most of them come with sample response and scoring guidelines, so you’ll be able to see exactly what makes a high-quality AP essay by College Board standards. Be aware, though, that some of the prose and poetry excerpts can’t be reprinted due to copyright concerns.

Below is one link for more up-to-date free response questions and another for older versions. However, there doesn’t appear to be a significant substantive difference between the old and new prompts.

AP English Lit Free Response Questions 2003-2017

AP English Lit Free Response 1999-2003


Sample Questions From the Course and Exam Description

The AP English Literature Course and Exam Description has practice multiple-choice questions and practice free-response questions. They don’t add up to a complete test--there are only 46 multiple-choice questions and a whopping six free response (enough for two tests!)--but they are great for simple practice.


Your Teacher

Your AP teacher may have access to copies of old AP exams that you can use for practice. She probably can’t let you take them out of the classroom, but she may be allowed to loan them to you in a supervised setting. This is because teachers can purchase resources directly from the College Board that students can’t. Asking your teacher may not bear fruit, but it’s worth a try.


Why are you asking me for AP lit practice tests? I'm your econ teacher!


Free Unofficial AP Literature Practice Tests

In addition to the free College Board resources, there are also several places online where you can get free, unofficial practice tests. Be aware that, because these resources aren’t College-Board created or approved, they are of variable quality.  For each of these resources I’ll describe what’s offered and how it compares to official College Board tests.


Barron’s Books Free Practice Test

Barron’s, those distinguished makers of review books, also offer a complete free practice test with multiple choice and free response. They provide the author and name of the work, but not the date. All of these free resources probably credit the authors for copyright reasons, but you won’t have this information on the actual exam.

You can take the test timed or in “practice” mode. While answers are provided for the multiple-choice questions, no scoring guidelines are provided for the free-response prompts.

This isn’t an official resource, but the questions are of a high quality and are a good option when you’ve run out of official material. If you combined the multiple-choice questions with some official released free-response questions (with scoring guidelines and sample essays) you could get a pretty good approximation of a complete practice test.


McGraw-Hill AP Diagnostic Quiz

McGraw-Hill, textbook and review book publisher, offers a 25-question multiple-choice diagnostic quiz for the AP English Literature exam. You may actually be able to get more than 25 questions out of this, because each time you open a new test window, you get 25 randomly ordered and selected questions from a question pool.

The passages open in another window, which is a little annoying. However, the questions are fairly difficult and pretty well-written AP imitations, so the annoyance is worth it. You’ll get the author and title of the works excerpted.


Varsity Tutors AP Literature Practice Tests

This site has practice multiple-choice quizzes divided by concept--things like “interpreting the passage,” “claims and argument,” and “interpreting excerpts.” The questions aren’t worded exactly the same way as AP test questions, but they are still okay for testing your passage-interpretation skills. Basically, the questions test for similar skills, but don’t necessarily mimic AP test questions in style.

Also, the site provides the date, title, and author of each work, which is not something you’ll receive on the AP exam.You can make a free account at the site to track your scores, but it’s not necessary to be able to take the tests.


Kittens not included with free practice tests, unfortunately.


Learnerator AP English Literature Quizzes

Learnerator offers multiple-choice quizzes divided into prose, poetry, and drama categories. You are given the title, date, and author of the work--which you will not receive on the real AP exam. Like the Varsity Tutors quizzes, Learnerator offers questions that test similar skills as the AP exam, but the questions are worded differently.


High School Test Prep Tests

This site offers three short multiple-choice practice tests. You’re given the title and author of the work. The questions for these tests are fairly surface-level, so I would only use these if you are working on your reading comprehension skills.


Practice Quiz AP English Literature

This site offers a 20-question multiple-choice quiz on two passages--one poetry, and one prose. The passages are extremely basic, however, so again, I would only use this resource if you are working on your reading comprehension skills.


4Tests AP English Lit Test

This site offers 35 multiple-choice questions. However, there are lots of ads, the questions are poorly written and vague, the interface is clunky, and the passages are very long. Overall, I do not recommend this site.


College Board SAT Literature Materials

While they aren’t identical by any means, you can definitely use SAT Literature Subject Test practice questions to hone your skill in answering multiple-choice questions about passages. The SAT Subject Test in Literature focuses a little more on the meaning of words and phrases in context and less on making inferences and describing the author’s purpose, but they can still be a useful resource simply for reading and answering high-level, in-depth questions on prose and poetry.

You can get sample SAT Literature questions online here or in the “Getting Reading for The SAT Subject Tests” booklet released by the College Board.


The queens of AP Lit practice give you their blessing.



Paid Unofficial Practice Tests

There are also several paid resources that offer unofficial practice questions. 


Shmoop - Paid Subscription

This is a subscription service with questions for tons of different tests--SAT, ACT, AP exams.They also have videos and other review resources. I can’t really speak to the quality of the questions because the entire service is behind a paywall of a dollar a day.


Peterson’s AP Practice Tests

You can pay twenty dollars to get two English Lit practice tests from this site. However, I wasn’t able to find much information on these tests or reviews from students who had taken them.


Review Books

Most, if not all, review books contain practice tests and questions. These will vary in quality depending on the quality of the review book, so be sure to look for reviews online of any book before you buy it. In general, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are fairly reliable review book sources.


I definitely advise paying for all of these resources with whatever loose foreign change you have lying around. 


How to Use AP Literature Practice Tests

How to use a given practice test depends somewhat on the resource itself. I’ll offer some recommendations here on how to best use different resources.


Complete Official Released Tests

The best way to use a complete official practice test is to do a practice-run for the exam. So find a quiet room, bring a timer or watch so you can time sections, and get to work! This will help you get familiar with the exam experience so you’ll feel more comfortable on exam day!

Since there are two complete AP Lit practice tests, it makes sense to take one early on in your studying time, and one later. You can get a parent, tutor or teacher to grade the exams. The early test will help you figure out what you need to work on, and the later test will show you how you’ve improved! Since the AP English Literature test is more skills-heavy than content-heavy, you shouldn’t feel totally lost taking a practice test even in the middle of the school year.


Official Released Free-Response and Sample Questions

Official resources that aren’t complete tests are best for practicing individual sections of the test. The sample multiple-choice questions in the “Course and Exam Description” make for great AP English Literature multiple-choice practice--they’ll help you get familiar with the style of the questions and practice close-reading.

The wealth of released free-response questions are great resources for building your timed essay-writing skills. You can practice complete essays or develop essay outlines.


Unofficial Practice Tests and Resources

Since unofficial practice tests aren’t going to be quite as similar to the real AP exam as official College Board materials, they won’t be quite as useful for preparing for the format of the exam or its questions. However, they can be very valuable close-reading practice. And since that’s a critical skill for the exam, it’s still worth it to use unofficial resources.


Be very quiet. She's close-reading.


Key Takeaways

Practice tests and questions are a hugely important resource as you prep for the AP Lit exam. The gold standard of practice resources are those that come from the College Board, but there are many other places where you can get practice questions that will help you hone your close-reading skills for the exam. Most of the resources listed in this article are free, but a few are paid.

When you’ve assembled a stable of practice resources, you might not be quite sure how to use them. Official College Board practice tests are best for simulating the exam experience.  College Board questions are good for focused preparation for individual sections of the exam--especially the essays. Unofficial resources are best for further honing your close-reading skills.

Now that you know where to find these resources, you’ll have even more time to prep for the AP Literature exam by completing practice questions!


What's Next?

Need more study guidance for your APs? See my five-step AP prep plan. Or see our guide on when to start studying for your APs. 

If you're looking for practice tests for other AP exams, see our assembled practice tests for AP US History, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP World History, and AP Psychology. 


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