The Freedom to Respond: Q3 on the AP Exam


The one question on the AP exam that produces the most anxiety is the free response question, Q3. I have had students tell me they become overwhelmed with the choices listed and cannot decide which book best fits the question. Or, they go in with a novel in mind that they know well, and the question doesn’t match their selected novel, and they scramble to make a suitable choice.

I wanted to find out which books provided the most versatility for the AP exam and which books students were expected to have read or have knowledge of in college courses.

The criteria for the novels seemed to fit into these three categories: length, readability, and versatility. Students wanted books that were not too long and would hold their interest. They were also looking for a text they could read, one that had interesting characters, and was perceptible in depth and analysis without being completely obscure. The last indicator students looked for was versatility. The content of the book had to provide numerous opportunities for critical interpretation: feminist, historical, structural, archetypal, etc.

So, is there a foolproof plan to beat Q3? Not necessarily; however, after surveying the experts, former students, they tell me, you can’t go wrong with these all-star selections.

The Awakening

It was the only novel mentioned that had a strong female voice. Edna’s struggle for independence and personal voice evoked feelings of admiration and scorn from readers. Students either felt she was brave for defying the typical role of a woman during that time period or felt her decisions were selfish and irresponsible. The character foils were easy to understand and the storyline easy to follow. Students, especially young female readers recommended this novel.

Lord of the Flies & 1984

They both captured the dystopian audiences. Lord of the Flies seemed to fall into the easy-reading category for most students. All said they could find multiple layers of the text for analysis and the structure of the novel made it easily accessible to even the most literal students. Many students mentioned this was a great starting text for literary analysis. One former student mentioned that 1984 changed him. Students seem to find relevance within this novel and connectivity to whatever the political situation of the time happens to be. They also mention the numerous options for analysis such as history, government, psychology, and human nature. All who read this novel said it made them think and look at the world differently. Those who took college courses in history, humanities, and psychology mentioned 1984 is a must read.

The Things They Carried

It was unique to students because of O’Brien’s writing style. Students didn’texpect the short stories within each chapter and found the common themes interwoven in those stories engaging. Being a more modern novel, the writing style was accessible. Even though the book was written about Vietnam, the stories within the novel appealed to both a male and female audience. Students felt there were multiple approaches to analyzing this text and found the content relevant to any number of possible topics that might appear in question three.


Shelly’s novel came very highly recommended as well. Students were surprised at the story because it was contradictory to what they had expected. Students felt there was much more to this book than just the story they were familiar with. The book was manageable and students were able to make connections between the words on the page and the world around them. The narrative structure of the story also kept students interested, and the various allusions allowed for depth of analysis and connections to other literature. They felt there was depth to this book that made it relevant to many questions posed on the exam. This was the second most selected novel.

Heart of Darkness

This was the most recommended book. This recommendation did not come without controversy. Many students would say they had a love hate relationship with this novella; however, they also admitted that most college professors expected students to have at least a basic knowledge of the text. Most complaints referenced Conrad’s writing style. Why choose 200 words to describe something when 10 would suffice? Students felt the reading was challenging to manage without guidance. I believe one student said it was “pure torture” to read because of the loquacious writing.

However, this was the most frequently used piece of writing to answer Q3. Students found a wealth of material to choose from and found this novel to be the most adaptable to a wide range of prompts posed on the exam. While the topic of Imperialism isn’t fully relatable to students today, the themes of inequality, racism, and stereotyping are. Students who had read this felt confident approaching the material in college level courses.

So, is there a best novel to read to prepare for question three? One student said it best when he said that any book dealing with gender, racial, religious, or class issues is necessary for a liberal arts education. These are themes in both classic and contemporary society and would best prepare any student for both the AP exam question three and a liberal arts college experience.

11 thoughts on “The Freedom to Respond: Q3 on the AP Exam

  1. I would add Things Fall Apart as a novel that would fit into several different themes. Any Toni Morrison would also work in several ways.

  2. I’m almost embarrassed to say how many years I’ve been teaching AP Lit. I agree with most of these choices, especially The Awakening and HoD, but I would add Huckleberry Finn as a choice to make when you find yourself in a panic. I don’t remember ever seeing a Free Response question that couldn’t be tackled with this novel. As for plays, Hamlet al
    so meets that threshold, but I have traded it in for Othello.

  3. I’m curious to know what other contemporary novels AP Lit teachers think are just as multi-faceted as these mentioned here. Any on the Man-Booker list?

  4. Amy,
    There seems to be no shortage of the “classics” for my students to read. I’ll be honest, ordering contemporary books is rarely an option for me because of budgets for books. However, if I were to choose a book to add to the list, I would love to add something by Margaret Atwood. The presence of a strong female voice would add more depth to the list. Also, Rohinton Mistry would also add a multicultural perspective to the list of novels.

  5. I agree that Huckleberry Finn can be used to answer most any prompt. Another contemporary novel that I love to teach and that my students enjoy is Atonement by Ian McEwan. It lends itself well to feminist, psychoanalytic, and Marxist criticism; I even just had a student write a successful deconstruction of it! It also contains topics that can be molded to fit several themes: love, war, revenge, guilt, atonement, family obligations, etc.

  6. My students find most success with The Kite Runner, Poisonwood Bible, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness (if they understand it), and Gatsby.

  7. When I attended the training program for teaching AP Lit., our instructor said that if students come in prepared to write at length about at least one work by Shakespeare, one 19th century text and one modern text, they would probably be okay.

    I would certainly add any play by Shakespeare to this list — they’re fairly easy go-to texts in terms of eliciting themes, usually complex enough to analyze through a variety of lenses, and Q3 suggested works almost always feature at least one of Shakespeare’s plays, if not more — particularly the tragedies.

  8. My choice is Great Expectations. Dickens is difficult but if they can understand him, they can understand college level texts. As a class, we reviewed the Q3 prompts for the last 20 years and there were none that could not have been used with that title. I know that Gatsby is a good choice, as well as Their Eyes Were Watching God.

  9. I’m suggesting Jane Eyre: Bildungsroman; Byronic hero; setting affects overall meaning; moral dilemmas; Gothic; interpersonal relationships; time period commentary; suspense; imagery, allusions, symbolism-goodness, it’s hard to stop once I get going. Plus, most of my guys are okay with it. Only one rabid Jane Hater in five yrars.

  10. I’m suggesting Jane Eyre: Bildungsroman; Byronic hero; setting affects overall meaning; moral dilemmas; Gothic; interpersonal relationships; time period commentary; suspense; imagery, allusions, symbolism-goodness, it’s hard to stop once I get going. Plus, most of my guys are okay with it. Only one rabid Jane Hater in five years.

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