Kate Sundquist 8 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam

Is your profile on track for college admissions?

Our free guidance platform determines your real college chances using your current profile and provides personalized recommendations for how to improve it.

The Advanced Placement (AP) Foreign Language and Culture curriculum is administered by the College Board and serves as a standardized set of high-school coursework that is roughly equivalent to a college or university-level foreign language class.  While many students will enroll in AP classes at their high schools to prepare for AP exams, many others will self-study for the exams. In the specific case of the AP Foreign Language and Culture exams, native-speakers or students with exceptional exposure to the foreign language are particularly well-suited for self-studying.    

The AP Spanish courses are the most popular AP foreign languages classes. In fact, they are so popular that two sets of Spanish curriculum exist—AP Spanish Language and Culture and AP Spanish Literature and Culture. This is the only AP foreign language that has more than one course offering.  In 2016, over 150,000 students took the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, making it by far the most popular foreign language exam taken. Of these students, about 66% identified themselves as students who regularly spoke or heard Spanish outside of school, while only about 33% fell into the standard group of foreign language learners.

The curriculum for the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam emphasizes communication by applying interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational skills in real-life situations. As you undertake the coursework or exam preparations, you will need to focus on understanding and being understood by others. If you are interested in taking the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, whether you have taken the class, are a native-speaker, or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.

About the Exam

The AP Spanish Language and Culture course is taught almost exclusively in Spanish and includes instruction in vocabulary usage, language control, communication strategies, and cultural awareness. Although there is some emphasis placed on correct grammar usage, the College Board specifically warns against overemphasizing grammatical accuracy at the expense of communication. Instead, more time will be spent on applying interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational communication skills in real-life situations, exploring culture in both contemporary and historical contexts, and building an awareness and appreciation of cultural products, practices, and perspectives.

There are no explicit prerequisites for the AP Spanish Language and Culture course, but students who take it are typically in their fourth year of high school–level Spanish language study or have extensive practical experience communicating in both written and oral Spanish language.

The AP Spanish Language and Culture course was redesigned in 2014, though its content remains mostly the same. Changes mostly reflect a new exam format and a newly reformatted course outline that reflects the College Board’s shift towards standardized course outline formats based on clearly defined learning objectives.

At three hours long, the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam is one of the longer duration AP exams. Like others, it consists of two primary sections. The first section contains 65 multiple-choice questions, lasts for one hour and 35 minutes, and accounts for 50% of your total score. In this section, you will encounter 30 questions based on printed texts that you read, and 35 questions based on audio texts or a combination of audio and print texts.   

The next section of the exam, referred to as the free-response portion, presents you with four tasks to complete in one hour and 20 minutes, accounting for the remaining 50% of your total exam score. These tasks will include both written and oral responses. When delivering oral responses, you will be digitally recorded and your proctor will submit your recordings with the rest of your test materials.    

In 2016, students generally did quite well on the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam. More than half of all students received a score of four or five, and nearly 90% of test-takers received a passing score (three or higher). Though students who regularly spoke or heard Spanish outside of school did perform slightly better overall than the standard group of foreign language students, the standard group still passed the exam at a rate of nearly 85% and only 2.2% received the lowest score of a one.      

A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the test can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Start with assessing your skills

It’s important to start your studying off with a good understanding of your existing knowledge. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

Although the College Board does not provide a complete practice test, you can find sample questions with scoring explanations included in the course description. Additionally, you can find an online test available from Barron’s study guides. You may also find practice or diagnostic exams in many of the commercially printed study guides.

Step 2: Study the material

In the case of the AP Spanish Language and Culture course, the theory you’ll need to know falls into six themes and six learning objectives. The six themes are:

  • Beauty and Aesthetics
  • Contemporary Life
  • Families and Communities
  • Global Challenges
  • Personal and Public Identities
  • Science and Technology

Many textbooks will be divided into units based on these themes. Even if they are not, you should find threads of them throughout your studies. As you learn about the specific themes above, you will naturally build the skills required by the course learning objectives. These objectives require that you: 

  • Engage in spoken interpersonal communication;
  • Engage in written interpersonal communication;
  • Synthesize information from a variety of authentic audio, visual, and audiovisual resources;
  • Synthesize information from a variety of authentic written and print resources;
  • Plan, produce, and present spoken presentational communications; and
  • Plan and produce written presentational communications.

Of course, the best way to study a foreign language is to truly immerse yourself in it. Although your course will be taught primarily in Spanish, this will account for only a tiny percentage of your day. You should find other ways to further your exposure to the Spanish language, and given the prevalence of Spanish in our own contemporary culture, this should not be difficult. You can easily find engaging young adult books written in Spanish, interesting Youtube videos or TV shows in Spanish, or even Spanish podcasts. Check out comic books, news, or websites in Spanish. Make sure you are speaking, listening to, and reading Spanish as much as possible even outside of your regular study or class hours.     

The College Board also provides some valuable study tools for your use. Reviewing the four sample course pacing guides and syllabi available can help you to more deeply understand the course content and format. You should also review the exam audio files and the official Exam Practice Tips to help guide your studying.

In addition, you should take advantage of the many commercial study guides available for your use. One of the top rated AP Spanish Language and Culture study guides is the Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Spanish Language & Culture Exam with Audio CD, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5. This compilation of content reviews and strategies also contains two full-length practice tests with complete answer explanations and access to the Princeton Review’s AP Connect portal online. Another great option is Barron’s AP Spanish Language and Culture with MP3 CD, 8th Edition, which again contains towo full-length practice exams along with an enclosed MP3 CD that supplements the book’s exercises and includes audio sections for both practice exams.

There are also vast amounts of study materials available online. Taking one of the more popular AP exams means that many students have been in your shoes, and often they or their teachers have posted past materials to supplement their studying. You can find a huge database of resources including sound files, Spanish reading sites, and grammar sites available here and more here.

Finally, apps are a relatively new and fun way to squeeze in a little more studying. The Fluent U app is a great option for AP foreign languages. Its basic version is free, but watch out for in-app purchases. The premium versions can set you back between $30 and $240 dollars.   

Step 3: Practice Multiple Choice Questions

Once you’ve gotten a good handle on the major course content and theory, you can begin putting it to use. Start by practicing multiple-choice questions. You will be able to find plenty of these available online for the AP Spanish Language and Culture exam, or you can try the practice ones provided in commercial study guides.

The College Board course description also contains a number of multiple-choice questions with answers and explanation. As you are reviewing these, keep track of which broad content areas are coming easily to you and which still require more effort. Think about what each question is really asking you to do, and keep a list of vocabulary, grammar, and content areas that still seem unfamiliar. These will be points for more review before you move on.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

Even if you’ve studied for the free-response section of other APs in the past, your studies for the free-response section of the foreign language AP exams will be quite different. In addition to practicing your written responses, you’ll also need to finetune your listening skills and oral responses. 

Begin your preparations by brushing up on your vocabulary and grammar. Make sure you have a handle on a broad variety of verbs and how to conjugate each. Also reaffirm that your knowledge of vocabulary will allow you to express yourself as fluently as possible. A great tool for this is a supplementary set of Barron’s AP Spanish Flash Cards. These cards emphasize word usage within the context of sentences and review parts of speech, noun genders, verb forms and tenses, and correct sentence structure.

Beyond vocabulary and grammar, your studies should also include practicing written and oral responses. The written responses will come in two forms. One prompt on the exam will ask you to demonstrate your interpersonal writing skills by reading and responding to an email over the course of 15 minutes. The other written prompt will ask you to demonstrate your presentational writing skills by writing an original persuasive essay. For this task, you’ll be given 15 minutes to review materials, and 40 minutes to write your response.

On the speaking portion of the exam, you’ll also demonstrate both interpersonal and presentational skills. To demonstrate your interpersonal speaking skills you’ll participate in a simulated conversation, answering five prompts with 20 seconds given for each one. To demonstrate your presentational speaking, you’ll deliver an oral cultural comparison to a given prompt, with four minutes to prepare and two minutes to respond.

The best way to specifically prepare for both the written and spoken portions of your free-responses is to practice repeated similar prompts. There is a huge resource of past free response questions available on AP Central dating back to 2014, with accompanying scoring explanations and examples of authentic student responses. To make the most of these, also review the Student Performance Q&A wherein the Chief Reader of the AP Exam compiles feedback to describe how students performed on the prompts, summarize typical student errors, and address specific concepts and content with which students have struggled the most. Also review the Scoring Guidelines available on page 100 of the course description.   

It can be especially difficult to prepare for the oral portion of your free-response section since it’s difficult to identify your own spoken errors. Try recording your responses and comparing them to the authentic student responses available above. Alternatively, collaborate with a classmate to record and trade responses, offering one another constructive criticism framed by the scoring examples available above.

Step 5: Take another practice test

Just as you took a practice test at the beginning of your preparations to gauge your readiness for the exam, do so again after a thorough review of the course content and each exam portion. Identify areas in which you’ve improved the most, and areas still in need of improvement. If time allows, repeat the steps above to incrementally increase your score with each pass.

Step 6: Exam day specifics

In 2017, the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam will be administered on Tuesday, May 2 at 8 AM.   

For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).

For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?

If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.