How to Write an AP Latin Essay

The free-response section of the AP exam has three parts to it: translation, short answer questions, and an analytical essay comparing two passages that may come from the Aeneid, Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (DBG), or both. Of these, the essay counts the most. Unfortunately, it is also the section that many students are the least prepared for. Translation and comprehension are tasks that your average AP Latin student is at least semi-proficient at, but the essay is something which he, quite often, has no clue how to do. That isn’t to say he hasn’t done his homework. The issue lies with the fact that he’s approaching the essay the wrong way, treating it more like a standard English essay than an essay designed to test his knowledge of Latin. That’s a recipe for failure; here’s how you should approach it.

1. Forget English Class

Good-sounding semantics in Anglice won’t score you any points with an AP reader. Beyond basic grammar, the College Board doesn’t give a flying crap about how your English sounds on a Latin exam, only about what it says and what it’s supported with.

2. Don't worry about length

You should take no more than 45 minutes to write this essay, and, with practice, you’ll probably be able to write it in considerably less time than that. Thus, the appropriate length for an AP Latin essay is approximately 1-1.5 pages on standard notebook paper. Think quality over quantity; it will yield results.

3. Answer the question

Your thesis should directly answer the question (or directly related to the prompt if it’s not a question); don’t be ambiguous.

4. Short intro and conclusion

As stated above, you should be able to complete your essay in no more than 45 minutes. As such, there is no time to waste on lengthy introductions or conclusions. Your intro should be 2-3 sentences in length, just long enough to introduce the question and state your thesis. Similarly, your conclusion should be only a few sentences, just long enough to state how your thesis is supported by all your analysis.

5. Quote the Latin

The main purpose of this section of the exam is to test your ability to comprehend and analyze. As such, you should be quoting from BOTH PASSAGES throughout. In fact, your ideal essay is one where the English serve only to set up your thoughts and act as bridges between Latin quotes.

This being the case, before you even write your essay, you should go through both passages and underline, bracket, etc. all the snippets that support what you’re saying. Figuring out what to say shouldn’t be too difficult for you, since, if you’ve done your homework, you should be very familiar with all the passages that could potentially be used, BUT DO NOT make a single claim about the passage that isn’t backed up with a quote.

What should a quote look like, you ask? For the Latin, it should be underlined (Don’t use quotations); if it’s a longish spiel, using elipses is fine. Pretty simple, BUT YOU’RE NOT DONE. Equally important to quoting the Latin is making clear that you understand it. You can do this three ways: first, you might just use a literal translation in quotations right after the quote, second, you can paraphrase the meaning, or, third, you can make the meaning clear using the surrounding English co-text. Nota bene, if you opt for either of the last two options, make absolutely certain that it’s clear that you know how to translate the Latin, not just the general meaning of it. If you don’t, the reader will mark you down.

6. Know the texts

Your life will be made infinitely easier if you are hyper-familiar with the passages. The Latin exam is different from other AP language exams in that it tells you beforehand about certain passages from the Aeneid and DBG. These are the only passages that will be used for the essay; as such, you should take advantage of it. If you are familiar with, you can begin formulating your answer as soon as you’ve read the prompt. Then, instead of having to translate the whole of both passages to get your points, you can come up with them based on what you already know, and then just skim both passages to get supporting quotes.

That, beatissimi discipuli, in a nutshell, is how to get a five on your AP Latin essay.

Elijah M.
TutorOcean Tutor | + posts

Hi, I'm Elijah M! A student at Ashland University, I specialize in tutoring math, latin, humanities, civics, and social sciences