Unlike its Language & Culture counterpart, the AP Spanish Literature & Culture course is not widely pursued by students. Only the top Spanish students reach this level of Spanish prior to study at the college level and many of those who do take the course and exam speak Spanish as a first language. Not to fret – you, too, can be successful at the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam. With a lot of hard work and insider tips like those listed here, you’ll find this exam just as conquerable as any other!
Here’s the breakdown: every year almost 20,000 students take the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam. A little over three-quarters pass with a score of 3 or above while just 28% receive a 4 and 10% achieve a 5. What does this mean for you? Well, it means that with a lot of commitment and hard work – in addition to these essential tips on how to beat the exam – you, too, can nail this exam!
How to Study for AP Spanish Literature & Culture Tips
1. Crack open a book. You probably shouldn’t be surprised that the first tip we’re giving you for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam is… to read! The better you know the extensive reading list for the exam, the better off you’ll be on exam day. And there’s no better way to get familiar with the poems, stories, and novels that form the bulk of the content on the exam than to start reading them now. Read below for some tips on how to begin to master that beast of a reading list right now.
2. Mark it up. Research shows you can recall more details when you interact with a written text by touching it, making comments in the margins, and marking it up with a pencil. Really get to know each work. How does the author transition between scenes? How does he/she introduce new characters? How are the themes intertwined in the text? You will find that the more you mark up the text, the better you will understand these components of each work.
3. Know the basics. For each work on the list, you should not only know the author and time period (think: Siglo de Oro, Romanticism, etc.) but also the central characters, the plot, and major themes. How will you ever remember all of these elements for each work on the list? There are so many! Well for starters, start writing them down and stay organized. Keep a large, standardized note card for every short story or novel chapter, for example. You should mark all of the important parts of the work on there. Then, when it comes time to review, you won’t have to reread each piece of literature on the test. Instead, you can run through the note cards and quiz yourself on the major components of each work.
4. Become a quote master. Unfortunately quotes are a part of every AP Spanish Literature and Culture student’s life. Don’t let yourself get bogged down by trying to memorize whole passages of short stories or every Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz poem. Rather, get to know the characters themselves. Maybe make a separate note card for each major character for the big works on the list (think: Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, and Dulcinea del Toboso for Don Quixote) to better remember them. And always remember to associate the character with its work. Knowing your characters inside and out won’t do you much good if you don’t know what work they’re from!
5. Vocabulary. Just as for the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, you will need an excellent command of Spanish vocabulary if you hope to get a high score on the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam. This is a reading-heavy test. Remember, this is a higher level so the demands on your knowledge are greater. Here are some great tips for incorporating Spanish vocabulary learning into your daily routine from the beginning of the semester until the day of the test:
6. Jot it down. Even the most successful of foreign language learners continue to learn new vocabulary words long after they are fluent in the language. How do they accomplish this? How can you remember words that are perhaps obscure or utilized solely in a literary context? Keep a small notebook with you at all times so that you have a place to keep track of the new words. When you’re reading for class, keep track of words that you don’t know – particularly if they repeat! Then, look up definitions of each word once you’re done reading the passage or chapter. That way your reading isn’t interrupted by constant runs to a dictionary.
7. Online dictionaries. Dictionaries are going to become your new best friend when you’re studying for AP Spanish Literature and Culture. We are so lucky that we live in a day and age where online dictionaries exist – so take advantage of it! Sources such as wordreference and Reverso contain not simply the translation, but a sample sentence to see the word in context, the pronunciation, and even some idioms that utilize the word. Note them all and really learn the new word.
8. Dealing with idioms. Often when reading in a foreign language we can get lost in figurative or idiomatic language. Tener ganas? Ponerse enojada? What do those even mean? When learning new vocabulary, it’s important to not isolate words; rather, note them down in context. Idioms in particular can be tricky because certain collocations of words take on different meanings than they do in isolation. Online dictionaries are another great resource for this.
9. Don’t forget the forum! Again with the online dictionaries (we did say they would become your best friend, didn’t we?). Most big online dictionaries not only have word entries, but also online forum where native speakers and non-native speakers alike can discuss difficult translations or dialect-specific words. Most word entries have these discussion boards – scroll to the bottom of the page and you should see a list.
10. How to do vocab cards. Just like for the AP Spanish Language & Culture exam, we recommend using vocabulary cards to quiz yourself on new words for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam. Using different colors for different word types such as yellow for verbs and pink for nouns or even green for masculine nouns and brown for feminine can really help seal in new terms. And remember: no English translations! Instead, write a description of the word in Spanish. Research shows that you will remember words faster (and access them faster come test day) if they have their own representation in your mind.
Insider tip: There are a couple of “musts” when learning vocabulary in a foreign language – especially one like Spanish with tough masculine/feminine rules like Spanish. Firstly, always note the gender of a new noun. A noun in Spanish is nothing without its article! This includes those tough-to-remember exception words such as agua. Second, you’re at an advanced enough level that graders of the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam will expect you to know your accent markings. Pérdida and perdida are two very different words! Finally,
11. A little bit louder now. Although the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam does not demand the same level of oral proficiency as other AP foreign language exams, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be learning the pronunciation of these new vocabulary words. In fact, many students are oral learners and acquire information best by speaking and repeating it. Recording yourself on your phone and playing it on repeat can be an excellent new way to study vocabulary.
12. Don’t hold back. A key thing to remember for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam is that questions come from works on the (extensive) reading list but also works that are not on the reading list. Yikes, right? Not quite. With enough preparation, you will even be able to master questions concerning works that you don’t know. After all, on test day, even the most prepared student won’t know every single work referenced on the test inside and out. A great deal of the questions that reference works that were not on the list will be common sense or will follow the six themes taught in class.
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AP Spanish Literature and Culture Free Response Tips
1. Ease up. It may seem silly, but at four essays totaling 100 minutes, or 55% of the total exam time, the free-response writing section of the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam is tough. With that much writing, your hands are bound to cramp up. So although it may seem silly to mention, take it easy when writing for that long. Give your hands plenty of breaks when writing, even when you’re in a hurry. Writing several practice essays in a row can also help ready you for the demands of that much academic writing in Spanish on test day.
2. One at a time. You can’t work ahead on the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam. Still, with that many essays, it is important to take them one at a time. Focus on the thesis or comparison at hand. If you are thinking back to how you responded to the text and art comparison while you’re writing the text comparison, you could get lost in your ideas and your thesis could lose focus. These essays go by quick so you don’t have a lot of time to correct mistakes – particularly if you mistakenly write entire paragraphs on the wrong topic! One essay at a time. Breathe. Next essay. Breathe. Next essay.
3. College Board online. For starters, get on the College Board website and look up the grading guidelines. And the practice tests. And the exam structure outline. Believe it or not, College Board does want you to succeed on the test. So they stock their website full of great resources for you to download and peruse as you prepare for the exam. Get familiar with them!
4. And your teacher! There may be no better resource than the person who stands in front of you each day in Spanish class – your teacher we mean! Your teacher knows the ins and outs of the exam and has seen many students succeed and master the concepts necessary to pass the test. What’s more, as we’ll discuss below, many AP teachers spend a week each summer grading the tests. They know everything that is expected of students and what is emphasized in order to score the most points (hint: it’s not excellent use of subjunctive!). And no one wants to see you do well on the exam more than your own teacher – take advantage of this.
5. Two is better than one. Your classmates are a great resource! Get together with a group of friends and share study tips or new vocabulary words. In our article on the Ultimate Tips for the AP Spanish Language & Culture exam, we discuss the importance of group study for exam prep. The same idea applies for the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam. By sharing notes and ideas, not to mention exchanging practice essays and reading each other’s practice exams, you will get to know the test better and learn new information. This is especially important given the beast of a reading list for this exam. No one has time to read each work on the list to the depth that it deserves. So instead, divvy up the list and share the plot summaries, major themes, and character descriptions with classmates to lighten the load.
6. And all the practice. Like any AP test, the more you review old exams and previous questions, the better prepared you’ll be for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam when you actually take it. Why? Well because the test doesn’t change that much year to year! For statistical purposes, test creators hesitate to change too much too fast. Great. Use this to your advantage. The content of the question may change, but the structure will not. And of course you can anticipate the overall structure of the exam – that won’t change any time soon.
Insider tip: What is that structure again? The AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam is three hours long. It consists of two primary sections: multiple choice (first) and then free-response (last). Within multiple choice, you will have interpretive listening of audio texts (15 minutes) followed by reading analyses (60 minutes. Within the free-response section, you will have two shorter essays followed by two longer essays. Firstly you complete the text explanation, then the text and art comparison. Finally, for the two long essays you have the text analysis followed by text comparison. Whew!
7. The whole shebang. Speaking of practice, it’s not enough to simply practice one section of the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam in isolation. Although helpful, that won’t prepare you for the intensity of the three-hour exam on test day (see above for description). You need to devote 1-2 afternoons prior to taking the test to do a couple of full run-throughs – that means both sections. This will help you to build up the endurance necessary to complete the exam and will make it much easier on you come test day!
8. Front of the class. One thing that AP Spanish Literature & Culture teachers consistently advise to new students is active participation in class – from the beginning of the semester. You can’t acquire all the knowledge tested on the exam the week or two prior to taking it. So instead, be an active participant in class from day one by asking inquisitive questions about content and the major themes that you will be tested on in class. By beginning this type of analysis early on in the course, you will be more prepared for the type of hard-reaching questions that the AP Spanish exams are famous for.
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AP Spanish Literature and Culture Multiple Choice Tips
1. Skip ‘em. Instructions, we mean! Don’t lose valuable test-taking time reading instructions that you most likely have memorized. Know exactly what’s expected of you for each section and while other students around you are listening for those instructions, you will already have a couple of questions answered!
2. But don’t skip those! On some standardized tests such as the SAT or ACT you can be punished with point reductions if you answer incorrectly. Lucky for you, this is not the case for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam. So use this to your advantage and answer every question. Every. Single. One. Even if you’re not finished at the end, go through and mark the answers. It could get you a couple of extra points – maybe the difference between a 3 and a 4!
3. Know the literary devices. They are everywhere on the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam. How will you respond to a question asking you to identify the alliteration in a passage if you don’t know what alliteration is? These are not difficult concepts but do take some time to recognize in a literary context. Be an active reader and search for them as you’re reading. See a hyperbole? Mark it. And when you make those note cards to define the literary terms, include an example from a text you’ve read – it may just show up on the test.
AP Spanish Literature and Culture Essay Tips & Advice
1. Teeny tiny writing details. It even comes down to those. We asked graders for the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam what set exam that received a 4 or 5 apart for them and several mentioned the usage of language-appropriate quotations. Yup, did you know that written Spanish employs different quotation marks than the standard “” that we use in English? So on your practice exams this year, start using quotation marks as they’re used in Spanish: << >>. Your essay will stand out from the pack!
2. Outlines and theses. Circle this tip with bright yellow highlighter – or at least jot it down on a piece of paper: organize your essays with a thesis and clear outline! There are simply too many essays on the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam for you to “wing it” and start writing without a plan. Your essays will start to converge and will read the same to the AP graders. This is especially bad since one of the essays is a piece of poetry analysis but another is text comparison – couldn’t be more different! By writing down your thesis and the supporting arguments, you’ll avoid the pitfall of repeating yourself or forgetting what you’re defending in your essay.
3. Don’t forget your transitions. You’re a seasoned AP Spanish student so you probably know this already – but don’t forget your transition words! Of course these are super important between paragraphs, but don’t forget to also incorporate them within paragraphs to flow between ideas. You don’t want a series of disconnected sentences that supposedly reference the point you’re making. Nope, use your transition words: sin embargo, como resultado, de esta manera, además de eso, entonces, al otro lado, por el otro lado, a pesar de
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Tips by AP Spanish Literature students:
Who knows better how and what to prepare for the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam than students who have already taken the exam? From Allende quotes to García Lorca text analyses, they’ve already seen it all. So follow their tips to master this tough exam and perform to your best on test day.
1. Less is more. We’ve mentioned briefly the importance of knowing all of the major works. Well, there’s such a thing as knowing too much and overthinking the reading list: “If there’s one piece of advice that I would give to you guys taking the test next year it’s to not try to memorize every piece on the list! I was so worried about obscure quotations from smaller works. I spent just hours and hours reading and rereading. You forget that the test makers do want to see you succeed so they write the questions in a way so that even if you can’t remember the exact work, you can at least narrow it down to two answers.”
2. Particular poetics. When preparing for the essays, it’s easy to forget that one big portion of the written section is a text analysis of a poem. This is not at all the same as the text comparison of two short stories, for example, or even an essay remarking on a provided text. Poems are another beast. As one student astutely remarked: “One thing that surprised me in class and when I took the exam was how different the poetry analysis section was. Don’t treat this section like another text analysis – it’s not. Poetry is analyzed much differently. If your teacher doesn’t explicitly address poetry analysis in class, (luckily mine did!) look some tips up online for how to write a good analysis and essay.”
Surviving the text analysis of the poem:
As we mentioned above, the text analysis of the poem really is completely different from any other essay that you’ll write on test day. Below are some tips for, firstly, analyzing poetry, and secondly, writing a killer, memorable essay when you actually take the test.
1. Form a thesis – and stick with it. Well, this one is pretty similar to most other essays you’ll write on the test and even those that you’ve undoubtedly been working on in your English writing classes. Still, theses for essays that analyze poetry are different because their content is different. You won’t have huge passages to draw ideas from. Indeed, some poems are small sonnets of just fourteen lines. So instead, go into the poem with some ideas on potential things you could write about: theme, genre, historical context (see below for the importance of knowing the time periods of major works) – all poems on the list will have these things so they are excellent elements from which you can form a thesis.
2. Which tense to use? Again, perhaps not too different from other essays, but still very important to mention especially given the age of some of the poems on the exam (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz wrote in the 17th century!). Even though an author may have written close to four hundred years ago, you still need to write in present tense. No “el autor escribió estas líneas pensando…” – rather, you should stick to the here and now, even though the author is clearly passed, writing “la autora describe muy bien la diferencia…” etc. This is simple style mechanics of writing about poetry and the AP graders will expect to see it.
3. Know poem-specific terminology. And know it in Spanish. Maybe you’ve discussed elements of poetry such as stress, syllable, rhyme, caesura, and enjambment in your AP English courses. So, you should be able to recognize them when reading a poem in Spanish – but do you know how to describe them in Spanish? No, you don’t get a free pass on test day to write about poetry in English just because you don’t know the Spanish word for a piece of terminology. Graders will not be impressed if you have to resort to English to discuss Spanish poetry on a Spanish exam. So know how to talk about poetry in Spanish well before getting to the test.
4. You must know your time periods. Great works of canonized literature are traditionally sorted into time periods that often coincide with major historical events and philosophical schools of thought of the day. It is vital that you know these time periods for the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam – you won’t be able to comment freely on the differences between two works on the text comparison, for example, if you can’t discuss the time periods in which they were written.
“Know the épocas – the time periods. Wow those came up a lot on the test. My teacher said they would and so I prepared well, but I was still surprised! What I did actually was to create a large poster board that mapped out the different literary periods chronologically – Siglo de oro, surrealismo, modernismo, etc.. This way I could also correlate it with historical events that propelled one period into another. Whew it was a lot to cover!”
5. Who wrote it? We’ve already talked about the importance of knowing the authors of the works on that big reading list for the exam. But even for students like the one below, this can be a challenge. Follow our tips and start reading now. Make note cards for the major works and the major characters. Again, this simply can’t be learned a week before the text – start doing it now as you read the works in class and save yourself a lot of stress later.
“I did well on the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam (got a 4) but I feel as though I could have done better had I known the authors better. It’s not so much a matter of memorizing passages and books and being able to recognize them on the test as it is associating certain ways of writing and even character names. Still, knowing those things about the stories and poems won’t do any good if you don’t know the author too! And you will be out right asked to name the author of a work on the test.”
6. Even use English translations online. Yes, that’s right, we’re even encouraging you to read in English for this Spanish exam! It is true that if Spanish is not your first language, there are some stylistic elements and idiomatic phrasing that you just might not pick up on when reading the works. (This can be especially true with poetry although unfortunately that is one form of literature that we actually don’t recommend reading translations of since poetry can be very complex to translate). So do your best, ask questions in class, and yes, go ahead and read a story or two in English in addition to the Spanish version. Were there elements that you didn’t capture when reading in Spanish? Great! Add them to your note cards.
“Maybe I shouldn’t advise this, but I’m going to because it helped me pass the exam. Don’t be afraid to read some chapters of works in English! The translations are super easy to find online – especially for major works like “La noche boca arriba” (Julio Cortázar), “Dos palabras” (Isabel Allende), or La casa de Bernarda Alba (Federico García Lorca). If you’re a native English speaker like me, it can really help with comprehension of tough passages. I don’t recommend reading everything in English though – it can be a waste of time because after all, you don’t read in English on the test!”
7. Be organized. “The writing is tough on the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam – four essays! I suggest being really organized with your thoughts well before starting an essay. It always helps me to physically write out my thesis – don’t just think it – write it so that you can reference it later. Then, make an outline with the two or three points that you are going to address in the essay. This will help you so much. You have no idea how lost you can get in your writing by essay number three.”
8. Careful, native speakers! We’ve already mentioned that 80% of those who take the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam are self-declared native speakers. Don’t worry if you’re not, hundreds of non-native speakers pass this exam every year and you’re not necessarily at a n=disadvantage if you didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. Case and point – the following:
“If you’re a native speaker of Spanish, even if you speak it at home with your parents or grandparents and family, do not be fooled by this test! I am also a native speaker, but keep in mind that around 80% of those who take the AP Spanish Lit exam are too! And even though your Spanish is really good, you still have to know the literary devices. You still have to know how to analyze a poem. And you still have to write really good, well-organized essays. Your native abilities might make you a faster writer, but they could even make your writing sloppy if you’re not careful.”
9. Forget time. Finally, relax! Go so far as to ignore the clock. This isn’t completely possible, but the worst thing you can do on test day for the AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam is to obsessively watch over the clock, stressed about finishing an exam on time. You’ll spend so much time glancing back and forth that it will take away from the flow and content of your essay. Don’t believe us? Here it from those who have been there pretty recently!
“I know this sounds like strange advice, but it’s what someone gave me last year and I think it really helped: forget time. Okay, so you can’t do this completely when you’re writing because you have strict time limits. But I heard some students say that they were so worried about not finishing the essays in time that they kept watching the clock and then didn’t actually finish! I focused more on my essays, knowing that I could complete them because I had timed myself a lot when I took my practice exams. I was confident in my abilities to organize and finish a good essay even in the limited time and so I didn’t obsess over time – worked for me!”
Are you a teacher or student? Do you have an awesome tip? Let us know!
The AP Spanish Literature & Culture exam is notorious amongst the AP foreign language exams for its tough content and extensive reading list. Still, every year thousands of students take this course and pass the exam, earning valuable experience with the Spanish language in addition to college credit. If Spanish is your passion and you hope to study it at the college level, or even if you just really love literature and are looking for another outlet, this course and exam is for you. Don’t get bogged down in the details of the exam and enjoy the texts that you read in class. Think about them in their historical and cultural contexts – what was the author saying? Who were they speaking to? Get lost in the amazing power of Spanish literature and you will undoubtedly find success on the AP Spanish Literature and Culture exam.
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