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The Ultimate Guide to the National Latin Exam

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Young woman attending an online class in a room.

The Ultimate Guide to the National Latin Exam

The National Latin Exam, in a way, is an annual celebration of sorts of a legendary tradition: Latin. The supposed language of the Gods; the dominant mother tongue of the powerful kings of ancient Rome; the official language of the Roman Catholic Church and all of Vatican City – as you can imagine, this regal language has always carried its weight in magnitude and influence. But in a paradoxical turn of events, the modern world has termed it a “dead language”.

And yet, Latin is vibrantly alive, in the root words of many an English word, in the origin of almost every science, and in the phonetic nuances of several spoken languages. The National Latin Exam is thus a fitting tribute to all scholars who still believe in the power of its expression. The National Latin Exam is especially favorable to high school students, who consciously study the language and choose to keep its dynamic narrative alive.

Group of students taking an exam.

Highlights of the National Latin Exam

The National Latin Exam is held every year at the beginning of summer (typically in February/ March) and is jointly sponsored by 2 nationwide organizations – the American Classical League and the National Junior Classical League. This is a winning combination, as both organizations are staunchly committed to promoting Latin in secondary education. Additional details of this exam are listed below:

  • This is conducted on school premises at a nominal cost. ($10 for venues with a single participant, $5 each for multiple participants.) This can also be taken at home for those who are homeschooled. However, the answer sheets must be mailed and postmarked to the organizers on the same day as the exam.
  • It is typically open to grades 6 through 12 and thus requires the applicant to be between ages 11-18 in order to be eligible for the exam.
  • The exam runs for 45 minutes and includes 40 multiple-choice questions. This includes sections that test grammar and usage based on 2 Latin paragraphs provided in the latter part of the exam.

The 7 levels of fluency catered by the exam

    1. Introduction to Latin (covers half the syllabus of Latin I)
    2. Latin I
    3. Latin II
    4. Latin III
    5. Latin III-IV Prose
    6. Latin III-IV Poetry
    7. Latin V-VI

There is no limit to the number of times a student can take the exam, at any particular level. In fact, students may attempt a level multiple times, in order to improve their scores. (This may be pursued by students due to their passion, or even to win the coveted awards/ rewards showered for top scorers.)

The exam can only be taken once a year by a student. Also, the student needs to be enrolled in a Latin course during the academic year. The level of the exam corresponds to the level of Latin taught in the course. (Note: This can get confusing for homeschooled scholars, and it is hence best to check with a Latin tutor on what level best suits your current understanding and fluency in the language.)

Finally, the National Latin Exam is NOT a competitive exam. Instead, it is conducted in order to promote learning, just for the love of the Latin language. This is by no means an inconsequential exercise and thus comes with several tangible and intangible benefits.

Students walking and resting in front of University Hall.

How does the study of Latin prepare you for the future?

In this competitive world, students are conditioned right from their early years to study subjects that strengthen the end goal – graduate school to get a job or get into college. But in this setup, the educative experience is gradually diluted as students very rarely get an opportunity to study, just to satisfy their pure love for learning. The study of Latin and the subsequent preparation for the National Latin exam fulfill this critical need.

You see, Latin is not an easy language to learn. It is not difficult either. However, it is a provocatively complex language that stimulates both parts of your brain. With the study of Latin, the right brain thrives on decoding its creative nuances. This also helps in understanding the subtle features of many modern languages, so English grammar woes are a thing of the past.

Also, the seemingly disjointed portions of the language all come together under a clear logical structure, cleverly grasped by the left brain with persistent study. With this, students can handle sophisticated analytic problems, with patience and persistence. The result is a challenging curriculum that adequately exercises both parts of the brain, thus developing well-rounded scholars with deep critical thinking skills.

Benefits of Studying for the National Latin Exam

Studying Latin and participating in the National Latin Exam offers several rewards. Each year, the organizers recognize top students with various honors, depending on their level of Latin fluency. Students who answer all questions correctly receive a hand-lettered certificate. The highest scorers at each level earn a “summa cum laude certificate and a gold medal, while second-place finishers receive a maxima cum laude certificate and a silver medal. Third-place finishers get a “magna cum laude” certificate, and those in fourth place are awarded a “cum laude” certificate.

On a side note, it is fitting that all these honors – “summa/ maxima/ magna cum laude” – gain their origin in the elite Latin language!

The rewards don’t stop there. There are also monetary awards for consistent gold medal winners which are the Maureen O’Donnell award and Carter Stubbs Drake Goad award.

For high school students with college aspirations, perhaps the most coveted form of recognition from the National Latin exam lies in its prized scholarships.

$2,000 Graduate scholarship: Here, the organizers invite winners of gold medals in the higher levels (Latin III and above), if they are high school seniors. Based on funding, the organizers then award them to students for a Latin-course study during college (renewed for 3 years). Again, you should know that in 2017, as many as 17 graduate scholarships were awarded to NLE gold medalists.

$2,000 Post-graduate scholarship: This is a single scholarship, intended to encourage the learning and teaching of Latin. Accordingly, the winner can use this scholarship for postgraduate study, following which he or she is expected to teach Latin (or Greek) to school students for at least one year.

As the above notes illustrate, Latin study and the preparation for the National Latin Exam open up a lot of exciting possibilities. With this, you come out stronger at multiple levels – academics, self-development, and even job opportunities after graduation. Fortunately, several top universities recognize this opportunity (including the Ivy League club). It is hence no surprise that some American universities may give preferential treatment to a top student with a high NLE score.

For instance, an admissions officer from Harvard University recently shared how an applicant’s passion for Latin (and his top score in NLE) set apart his graduate application, thus winning him a spot at Harvard. A Princeton University review indicated that students with a Latin-study background tended to be more successful with med-school applications (since they were already familiar with Latin terms used in medical sciences).

There are similar opinions from the National Jurist, indicating that law students who studied a classical language in school scored highly on LSAT tests. These affirmations are heartening and encourage more students to pick up the study of Latin and subsequent preparation for the National Latin exam during their high school years.

Group of students smiling at the camera.

Comprehensive Study Guide for the National Latin Exam

While there is no structured textbook for the exam syllabus, tutors often use past exam questions to prepare students. For this, experienced teachers classify the questions under 5 broad categories.

Grammar, comprehension, and usage

Some tutors refer to this section as “Latin in use”. Verbs, tenses, voice, etc., are covered in this session. Here, the NLE organizers include 2 paragraphs in Latin as part of the exam. Questions to gauge grammar and comprehension are raised against these 2 paragraphs. Also, the level of the exam determines the complexity of the paragraphs and the subsequent questions. In addition to these elements, this section also tests students on their ability to analyze syntactic structures and translate sentences accurately, helping to deepen their understanding of how Latin grammar functions within larger texts.

Furthermore, students are encouraged to apply their knowledge by identifying grammatical errors and suggesting corrections, which reinforces their learning and application skills. This practical approach to grammar and usage enhances comprehension and prepares students for advanced studies in Latin literature and linguistics. Engaging with authentic Latin texts helps students improve their language skills and deepens their appreciation for the historical and literary context of these works.

History

This section consolidates the relevance of Latin in world history. Obviously, the Roman Emperors are a big part of it. So be prepared to read up on Julius Caesar (not the Shakespearean version!), and his fellow Roman warriors. Also, battles are a big part of the momentous events considered in this session. Again, the level of detail gets more layered and challenging at higher levels of the National Latin Exam. This segment also explores the broader impact of Roman policies and law, examining how these foundational aspects shaped the empire and influenced the regions under Roman control. 

Students will learn about the administrative systems, such as the Senate and the role of consuls, which were crucial in managing the vast territories of the Roman Empire. The session also covers economic factors, including trade networks that connected Rome with distant parts of the world, and how these economic interactions facilitated cultural exchange and the spread of Roman influence. Understanding these historical contexts enriches students’ perspectives on the Roman world, providing a comprehensive view of how the empire’s legacy continues to influence modern governance, law, and culture.

Students gathered around in a table reading a book.

Geography

The Geography section of the National Latin Exam explores European geography during the Middle Ages, focusing on the extensive reach of the Roman Empire. Students learn about the strategic importance of regions and cities like Rome, Carthage, and Constantinople, and study the roles of natural features such as the Alps and major rivers in shaping Roman military and administrative strategies.

This part also examines ancient trade routes and the influence of geography on the Empire’s political and social structures. Using maps and visual aids helps students connect Latin language study with the historical and geographical context of its usage, enhancing their understanding of the ancient world.

Roman Life

This section of the National Latin Exam focuses on everyday aspects of ancient Roman culture, from clothing and diet to entertainment and architecture. Students learn about traditional Roman garments like togas and tunics, the staple foods they ate, and popular activities such as chariot races and theater.

This section also explores Roman architecture, highlighting their advanced engineering in aqueducts and roads, as well as their social and political structures, including the roles of public offices and civic duties. By studying these elements, students gain a comprehensive understanding of the social, cultural, and political fabric of Roman society, providing a deeper context to their language studies and a fuller appreciation of the ancient world that used Latin.

Mythology

How do the Roman Gods relate to each other? What mystical myths impact men and women even to this day? In this section, students examine significant myths and legends, such as the story of Romulus and Remus, to understand their impact on Roman values and societal norms.

This exploration extends to how these ancient myths continue to influence modern literature, art, and culture, demonstrating the lasting legacy of Roman mythology. By studying these stories, students gain insights into ancient Roman religious and cultural life, enriching their understanding of the Latin language and its historical significance.

A woman taking an exam

Additional Resources and Techniques

To further enhance your preparation, many educators recommend supplementing study sessions with additional resources such as Latin dictionaries, online forums, and classical literature excerpts that provide context and expand understanding of the language’s usage in historical texts. Engaging in group study sessions can also be beneficial, as it allows for discussion and deeper exploration of complex topics.

Interactive learning tools such as flashcards for vocabulary, mobile apps for Latin language drills, and video tutorials on Roman history offer dynamic ways to engage with the material. Participating in Latin clubs or online communities can also provide practical experience and insights from peers who share a passion for Latin.

As students consistently discover, Latin study and preparation for the National Latin Exam build a unique learning experience. For instance, an ordinary language class may first teach you equally ordinary phrases like, “Hello, how are you?”, “My name is Interesting,” or “Please guide me to Fancy Street”.

On the other hand, NLE-prep will train you to belt out a thrilling Latin monologue, which perhaps served to inspire Roman warriors just before the final battle cry! And for Latin aficionados, this can be riveting!

AP Courses Prep Books for students to study

Final Thoughts

The National Latin Exam celebrates the rich heritage of the Latin language and offers an educational experience that goes beyond traditional classroom learning. By exploring grammar, history, mythology, and more, you can gain a deep appreciation for a language that has significantly shaped our modern world. The exam’s structured approach motivates continuous learning and improvement, with different levels of achievement that encourage you to excel. Furthermore, the recognition and rewards associated with the exam, such as scholarships and medals, can greatly enhance your college applications and future academic prospects. 

Ultimately, the National Latin Exam is an opportunity to connect with a timeless linguistic tradition that continues to impact many fields of study. Whether you’re driven by a passion for learning, the excitement of competition, or the appeal of awards, participating in the National Latin Exam can offer a rewarding and transformative experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the National Latin Exam?

The National Latin Exam is an annual exam that celebrates the Latin language, offering students from grades 6 through 12 the opportunity to test their knowledge in various aspects of Latin, including grammar, history, and mythology.

2. Who sponsors the National Latin Exam?

The exam is jointly sponsored by the American Classical League and the National Junior Classical League, organizations dedicated to promoting the study of Latin in secondary education.

3. What are the levels of fluency tested in the National Latin Exam?

The exam caters to seven levels of fluency, starting from “Introduction to Latin,” which covers half the syllabus of Latin I, through to Latin V-VI, allowing for a wide range of knowledge and skills testing.

4. What are some of the awards and recognitions given to top scorers in the National Latin Exam?

Top scorers are recognized with various awards such as hand-lettered certificates for perfect papers, and medals (gold, silver) accompanied by summa cum laude, maxima cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude certificates based on their scoring level.

5. How can participating in the National Latin Exam benefit my college applications?

Success in the National Latin Exam can enhance college applications, as some top universities recognize the skills and dedication required to excel in the exam. It showcases a student’s capability to handle challenging material, which can be appealing to admission officers looking for well-rounded candidates.

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