AP Exams

Is AP® Human Geography Hard?

Is AP Human Geography Hard?

For many high schoolers, AP Human Geography is often the very first AP exam – or even very first exam playing a role in the college admissions process – that students must prepare for and power through. As with many uncertain challenges in life, the first question you may ask is “is it hard?”

Whether AP Human Geography would be your first or last AP exam, it is important to get a grasp of how you would fare on test day so that you can make sure whether it’s worth it to muster up the courage to register for the course and then cough up the $94 for the test at the end of the year (or even $124 if you’re an international student). My purpose here is not to make that decision for you, but rather provide you with the information and resources to help you make that decision.

I still remember AP Human Geography as my first AP exam. It was my freshman year of high school, and my first ever AP testing season. Although I was only taking one AP exam, it was still the most anxious I had ever felt in preparation for a standardized test.

Let’s Talk Numbers: Passing Rates, Scoring Percentages, and Test Content Composition

First, a general overview of how students across the nation perform on AP Exams along with a basic idea of the weight of various components of the exam will provide you with a sense of whether AP Human Geography – both the course and the AP Exam – would be right for you.

In May of 2019, 225,325 students took the AP Human Geography exam and 49.1% of students earned a passing score of a 3 or higher (source: The College Board May 2019 Student Score Distributions). 10.8% of students earned the highest possible score of a 5, which was the smallest percentage of any of the scoring groups of 1-5. AP Human Geography was also the only AP Exam in 2019 where a third of students earned the lowest possible score of a 1

Scores in 201954321
AP® Human Geography10.8%18.2%20.1%16.7%34.

Compared to the passing rates of other AP Exams covering content in topics categorized under History & Social Studies, which are 

  • AP World History (55.3%)
  • AP United States History (53.7%) 
  • AP European History (58.1%) 
  • AP Macroeconomics (58.9%)
  • AP Comparative Government & Politics (66%)
  • AP United States Government and Politics (55.1%)
  • AP Microeconomics (69.6%)
  • AP Psychology (64.5%)

Is AP Human the hardest AP Exam?

AP Human Geography has the lowest passing rate in data from 2019. However, this information must be understood in the context that AP Human Geography is often the very first AP Exam that many high school students take, and therefore the learning experiences that come from taking AP Exams over the years have not quite kicked in yet.

 Also, oftentimes exams with very high passing rates, such as some the aforementioned exams or even AP exams such as Calculus BC (81%), Spanish Language (82.4%), and Physics C Mechanics (81.8%), are usually taken by students who have a specific interest in that topic or have specialized in that topic for a longer amount of time.

For example, by the time students take the AP Spanish Language exam, they may have already taken multiple years of Spanish classes beforehand, and as for students who take the AP Calculus BC exam, they normally already have a background from AP Calculus AB or tend to have a heightened ability for math. In contrast, AP Human Geography isn’t a class in which students already have years of specialized knowledge on the content of the course nor is it a class which students intentionally choose over an easier counterpart to challenge themselves (as is the case with students taking AP Calculus BC rather than AP Calculus AB). AP Human Geography is a class to dip your toes into the world of Advanced Placement.  

While statistics about passing rates and high scorers might lead us to form a judgment about whether the AP Human Geography exam is hard or not, it is important to also note that these numbers are generalized views of the entire national group of test-takers. Factors such as where you go to school or the experience of your AP teacher can sway your entire school’s passing rate for the exam. For example, states such as Florida pay for all of their students to take AP exams, meaning that students who might not be sufficiently prepared would still feel compelled to take it. After all, if you feel like you don’t have a shot at passing, you probably won’t take the exam. As a result, consider that low passing rates include students who were urged into taking the test, even if not properly prepared. 

One final note on the percentage of passing students from the 2019 AP Human Geography Exam: according to a Tweet from Trevor Packer, the Senior Vice President of Advanced Placement and Instruction at The College Board, the passing rate for 2019 was the lowest it has been for the decade. This fact reminds us that the variance in the test content from year to year can strongly influence whether students perceive the exam as difficult or not. 

How is AP Human Geography scored? What is the structure of the test? 

As for the scoring of the exam, multiple-choice will make up 50% of your exam while the Free Response section will take up the other 50% of your score. Some good news for 2020 test-takers and beyond – the multiple-choice section now has only 60 questions with a one-hour time limit, as compared to the past tests that have had 75 multiple choice questions! 

The scoring of other AP Exams such as AP World History and AP US History place a lower weight on the multiple choice sections – 40% for both exams – and require longer written responses, so AP Human Geography gives students who feel more comfortable with multiple choice questions that extra cushion in their total score. 

The Free Response written section of the AP Human Geography exam is also shorter, and in my opinion, less demanding, than other exams. While courses such as AP World History or AP U.S. History will have Document-Based Questions or Long Essay Questions that are intended to be thoroughly developed essays which require the student to build a multi-paragraph argument utilizing outside or in-test evidence, the Free Response questions on the AP Human Geography exam can usually be answered in no more than five sentences per section.

Lastly, the distribution of the content of the exam is important to understand, as it will ultimately reflect what will be covered in the course and help you decide whether this is a course that not only is beneficial to take but that you would enjoy. The topics on the AP Human Geography and the corresponding portion of the weight in the multiple-choice section are as follows:

  •  “Thinking Geographically” (8-10%) 
  • “Population and Migration Patterns and Processes” (12-17%) 
  • “Cultural Patterns and Processes” (12-17%)
  • “Political Patterns and Processes” (12-17%) 
  • “Agriculture and Rural Land-Use Patterns and Processes” (12-17%)
  • “Cities and Urban Land-Use Patterns and Processes” (12-17%) 
  • “Industrial and Economic Development Patterns and Processes” (12-17%)

While nearly all of these content areas are weighted about the same in the multiple choice section, the degree of difficulty of each section varies among students. From the 2019 exam, students performed the best in the topic of “Cultural Patterns and Processes”, whereas topics such as “Agriculture & Rural Land-use”, “Cities and Urban Land-Use”, and “Political Organization of Space” were the most difficult, according to another tweet from Trevor Packer

Of course, your own perception of “difficulty” among the topics will vary depending on factors such as background knowledge or interest in the topic. In my experience, as a first-year in high school, AP Human Geography was one of my favorite classes. Unlike other AP History & Social Science classes I took later in high school, AP Human Geography covered much more contemporary topics that were more engaging (don’t get me wrong, World History and U.S. History are still important!), and class debates or movies about current events related to the content of the course made class even more interesting. Understanding the topic overviews of the exam and the course and how you might find them to be useful or interesting is important to determining whether the AP Human Geography will be “hard” or not.

Is the AP Human Geography Exam worth it?

I get it — after looking at the passing rates for the exam and seeing how test-takers for AP Human Geography fare in comparison to test-takers for other exams, you might be feeling uncertain or even discouraged about whether or not to take the course and the exam. After all, you need to know if the hefty registration fee for the exam along with the hours of work that you will likely put in will be worth it. In my opinion, even if it seems daunting, I encourage students to take the AP Human Geography course at the very least and hopefully also decide to register for the AP exam by the end of the year. Here are three reasons why I think AP Human Geography is a worthwhile opportunity:

#1: AP Human Geography is a good introduction to the world of AP classes and testing

Or the alternative: if you are taking AP Human Geography towards the end of your high school career, odds are that you’re already familiar with many of the skills and content SO AP Human Geography will function as a review of what you’ve learned so far. In taking AP Human as my only AP class during my first year, I truly felt that it was a valuable stepping stone between what I had been used to in middle school and the future challenging AP courses I would take later in high school. 

The exam itself is on the shorter side at just 2 hours and 15 minutes total, which is an entire HOUR shorter than AP exams I took later on, such as AP World History and AP Calculus BC. The shorter length of the exam meant less stress about test endurance and taking it as a lone AP course allowed me to focus all my time on energy on preparing. By the end of high school, you may be preparing for multiple AP exams at once, or even have to take two different 2 three-hour exams in one day, which you might find very exhausting. Your first AP exam can be a taste of this world and help you decide whether taking more AP courses later on is right for you or not.

Content-wise, AP Human Geography also serves as a useful introduction. Understanding the regions of the world and the cultural, political, social, and economic developments within them is an interwoven throughout the topics of the course. This foundation will serve as a useful in courses such as AP World History, where you will learn a much more in-depth history behind these regions of the world but will have a background familiarity with the regions of the world and important developments or attributes of each region. In sum, AP Human Geography can provide a foundation of knowledge and skills that are applicable to future AP classes.

#2: The skills from AP Human are applicable to the real world

Of course, I know the cynical and achievement-minded young high schooler will mostly respond “Who cares? I’m here for the college credit and/or GPA and college admissions boost from taking an AP exam!” However, in my years since taking the exam, I have come to appreciate how my takeaways from AP Human Geography have benefitted me not just in future AP classes, but also the world beyond.

 By the end of the course, you should be able to “analyze geographic theories, approaches, concepts, processes or models” such as in maps, graphs, satellite images, photographs, or cartoons in a variety of different contexts (source: The College Board Website). The outcome will benefit you as you grow your abilities to be analytical and therefore make good choices. In fact, the College Board even states that the design of the course encourages “active global citizenship”, a valuable perspective that enriches a student’s view of society. Whether or not you choose to academically or professionally specialize in human geography or a related social science many years after your high school career, the skills from AP human can still prove to be worthwhile. 

#3: You have a chance to earn college credit

One of the most obvious and popular reasons to take AP classes is the prospect of earning college credit. While you may not be sure of where you want to go to college and whether they will accept credit from this particular exam, AP Human Geography is a good course to have in your collection of completed and passed AP exams for later on in the road. AP Human Geography can be equivalent to a college introductory course in human geography. 

Assessing your own performance throughout the course can provide some insight on whether taking the test is worth it or not — if you find that you’re struggling through the assignments in the course, the exam might not be for you. Speaking to your guidance counselor or AP teacher can help you make this decision as well. Practice exams are also a way to gauge where you are in your starting point for test preparation. Above all, I believe that with the right amount of determination and test prep, any student has a justifiable chance at passing the AP Human Geography exam.

How can you prepare for the AP Human Geography Exam?

Once you set your heart to registering for the AP Human Geography course at your high school and/or registering for the AP exam, you can follow these tips so that when test day comes around, you won’t stay up cramming the night before!

Free resources should always be the first step when preparing for the exam. There’s a reason why they’re the most accessible – AP Exams are designed so that students shouldn’t have to spend extra money in order to be successful. Your teacher and your class textbook and materials are generally a good place to start reviewing. 

While I was preparing for this exam (What a throwback!), my teacher was very supportive in providing practice AP Exams and extra review sessions for us to refresh our understanding of key concepts studied in the beginning of the year. I found it especially useful to study over vocabulary flashcards that I had made by myself based on our textbook, The Cultural Landscape by James M. Rubenstein, and reading through past assignments and notes taken in the class. 

Don’t worry if you feel that your own AP Class at school or your teacher have not adequately prepared you for the exam – there is still a plethora of other ways to study for the test at not cost. Other free resources to prepare for your AP Human Geography exam can be found on the College Board website. There are Free Response questions along with scoring guidelines so that you can test your abilities to properly complete the sections and then see how you did. 

When I was studying for the test, I found it very helpful to read Free Response section sample responses from previous years’ exams and understand why particular ones scored lower or higher so that I understood mistakes to avoid and examples to follow. 

YouTube is also a gold mine of review videos that are a great way to find instruction or reviews on AP Human Geography topics. A simple search for “AP Human Geography review” will bring up thousands of results, but some of my favorite online videos for AP exam prep include Crash Course or Khan Academy. While neither of these channels have videos specifically for the AP Human Geography exam, they have uploaded plenty of videos on topics from other AP courses, many of which are applicable to the topics in AP Human Geography. 

Due to the closing of schools across the country in 2020 for the COVID-19 pandemic, the College Board created an Advanced Placement YouTube channel which has a playlist of AP Human Geography review session videos recorded by teachers that have been uploaded to help students study for the AP exam while missing out on in-person instruction from their usual teachers. Taking advantage of these free resources with a reasonable amount of time before the test, you should be in good shape for the exam!     

If you’re willing to spend some extra money to bolster (or frantically speed up) your test preparation process, there are many options available. In my own experience from my first year in high school, my AP Human Geography required us to purchase AP Human Geography: A Study Guide, by Ethel Wood. This was a book that we used throughout the course to understand key concepts and vocabulary with review sections containing practice problems that are tailored to the specific topics of the exam. The book also contained multiple choice and free response questions for each topic along with two entire sample exams at the end of the book, which were very useful for getting used to the timing and mental endurance for when test day came around. 

Aside from the Ethel Wood book, there are many other AP Human Geography exams preparation books available, with some of the most notable publishers including the Princeton Review, Barron’s, and Kaplan. To get that extra boost from these test prep books at reduced costs, I recommend looking to purchase books on used book sites or asking friends who have already taken the course if they can lend you theirs!

Ultimately, your studying for the AP exam (content-wise) will come down to understanding thematic connections within and between the topics on the exam and being able to recall relevant and specific vocabulary to answer your FRQs. With a combination of reviewing content from the course and solidifying your understanding through practice questions and tests, you should be adequately prepared for the exam! 

About the Author: Masaraat Asif is born in Texas and lives in Washington D.C. She spends most of her day cranking out papers for her Georgetown classes or writing jokes about her family on Twitter. She was an AP Scholarship with distinction and the valedictorian of her high school.

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