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2021 CLEP Official Study Guide

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This study guide provides practice questions for all 34 CLEP exams. The ideal resource for taking more than one exam. Offered only by the College Board.

CLEP® American Literature Examination Guide

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This guide provides practice questions for the CLEP®  American Literature Exam only.

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American Literature


The American Literature exam covers material that is usually taught in a survey course at the college level. It deals with the prose and poetry written in the United States from pre-colonial times to the present. It tests literary works—their content, background, and authors—and also requires an ability to interpret poetry, fiction and nonfiction prose, as well as a familiarity with the terminology used by literary critics and historians. The examination emphasizes fiction and poetry and deals to a lesser degree with the essay, drama, and autobiography.

In both coverage and approach, the examination resembles the chronologically organized survey of American literature offered by many colleges. It assumes that test takers have read widely and developed an appreciation of American literature, know the basic literary periods, and have a sense of the historical development of American literature.

The test contains approximately 100 questions to be answered in 90 minutes. Some of these are pretest questions that will not be scored. Any time test takers spend on tutorials and providing personal information is in addition to the actual testing time.

Knowledge and Skills Required

Questions on the American Literature exam require test takers to demonstrate one or more of the following abilities in the approximate proportions indicated.

  • 35–40% Ability to understand and interpret prose works and poems: 
    • Short poems
    • Excerpts from long poems
    • Excerpts from prose works
  • 25–30% Knowledge of literary works
    • Authors 
    • Characters 
    • Plots 
    • Setting 
    • Style
    • Themes 
  • 15–20% Familiarity with critical terms: 
    • Critical terms
    • Verse forms 
    • Literary devices 
  • 15–20% Knowledge of the historical and social settings:
    • Historical and social settings of specific works
    • Relations between literary works
    • Relations of specific works to literary traditions
    • Influences on their authors

The subject matter of the American Literature exam is drawn from the following chronological periods. The percentages indicate the approximate percentage of exam questions from each period.

  • 15% Beginnings-1800
  • 20% 1800-1865
  • 20% 1865-1910
  • 25% 1910-1945
  • 15% 1945-Present

Study Resources

To prepare for the American Literature exam, you should read critically the contents of at least one anthology, which you can find in most college bookstores. Most textbook anthologies contain a representative sample of readings as well as discussions of historical background, literary styles and devices characteristic of various authors and periods, and other material relevant to the test. The anthologies do vary somewhat in their content, approach, and emphases; you are advised to consult more than one or to consult some specialized books on major authors, periods, and literary forms and terminology.You should also read some of the longer works that are mentioned or excerpted in the anthologies.You can probably obtain an extensive reading list and sample syllabi of American literature from a college English department, library, or bookstore.


A survey conducted by CLEP found that the following textbooks are among those used by college faculty who teach the equivalent course. You might purchase one or more of these online or at your local college bookstore.

  • Baym, ed., Norton Anthology of American Literature (Norton)
  • Belasco and Johnson, Bedford Anthology of American Literature (Bedford/St. Martin's)
  • Cain, American Literature (Penguin/Longman)
  • Cushman and Newlin, Nation of Letters (Brandywine/Blackwell)
  • Lauter, ed., Heath Anthology of American Literature (Wadsworth)
  • McMichael, Anthology of American Literature (Prentice Hall)
  • McQuade et al., Harper American Literature, Single Volume Edition (Longman)
  • Perkins and Perkins, The American Tradition in Literature (McGraw-Hill)

Online Resources

These resources, compiled by the CLEP test development committee and staff members, may help you study for your exam. However, none of these sources are designed specifically to provide preparation for a CLEP exam. The College Board has no control over their content and cannot vouch for accuracy.

Score Information

Credit-Granting Score for American Literature

ACE Recommended Score*: 50
Semester Hours: 3

Each institution reserves the right to set its own credit-granting policy, which may differ from that of ACE. Contact your college as soon as possible to find out the score it requires to grant credit, the number of credit hours granted, and the course(s) that can be bypassed with a satisfactory score.

*The American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT) has evaluated CLEP processes and procedures for developing, administering, and scoring the exams. The score listed above is equivalent to a grade of C in the corresponding course. The American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for all the nation’s higher education institutions, seeks to provide leadership and a unifying voice on key higher education issues and to influence public policy through advocacy, research, and program initiatives. Visit the ACE CREDIT website for more information.