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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 colonial times to the present. It is primarily a test of knowledge about literary works—their content, background, and authors—but 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.

An optional essay section can be taken in addition to the multiple-choice test. The essay section requires that two essays be written during a total time of 90 minutes. For the first essay, a common theme in American literature and a list of major American authors are provided. Test takers are asked to write a well organized essay discussing the way that theme is handled in works by any two of those authors. For the second essay, test takers are asked to respond to one of two topics—one requiring analysis of a poem, the other requiring analysis of a prose excerpt. In each case, the specific poem or prose excerpt is provided and questions are offered for guidance.

Test takers are expected to write well organized essays in clear and precise prose. The essay section is graded by faculty at the institution that requests it and is still administered in paper-and-pencil format. There is an additional fee for taking this section, payable to the institution that administers the exam.

If you have questions about whether you need to take the optional essay, you must contact the institution that will receive your scores. If you do not select an institution to receive your optional essay on exam day, CLEP will retain your essay for 18 months.

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.

  • Knowledge of particular literary works—their authors, characters, plots, style, setting, themes, etc. (about 45 to 60 percent of the exam)
  • Ability to understand and interpret short poems or excerpts from long poems and prose works presented in the test (about 25 to 40 percent of the exam)
  • Knowledge of the historical and social settings of specific works, their relations to other literary works and to literary traditions, and the influences on their authors (about 10 to 15 percent of the exam)
  • Familiarity with critical terms, verse forms, and literary devices (about 5 to 10 percent of the exam)

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% The Colonial and Early National Period (Beginnings-1830)
  • 25% The Romantic Period (1830-1870)
  • 20% The Period of Realism and Naturalism (1870-1910)
  • 25% The Modernist Period (1910-1945)
  • 15% The Contemporary Period (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.