High school students like yourself can take Advanced Placement (AP) classes if you are looking for an extra academic challenge and hope to dive deeper into a special topic of interest. Because AP classes offer a wide range of topics taught at the college-level, you can get a head start in getting used to more difficult coursework and also potentially even earn college credit while still in high school. Earning early college credit can save money in the long-run, reducing the number of required classes you will have to take while in college so that you could graduate in a shorter amount of time. Additionally, beyond college credit, AP classes are also a great way to signal to college admissions officers that you are academically prepared for college. High AP exam scores showcase your academic strengths.
With all this in mind, choosing which AP classes to take can be a big and important decision. One major factor that may be in your mind are the difficulty of AP courses. After all, your grade in the AP class will affect your GPA, which can also affect your college chances. While these decisions on which AP classes to take must be made on a case-by-case basis, there are some general statistics and information you can take into consideration.
In this blog, I will outline what are generally considered to be the hardest AP classes for students. I will provide several statistics for you to consider, including passing rates, as well as general information based on word-of-mouth, personal experiences, and online talk. By the end of this blog, you will hopefully have a good understanding of what makes an AP class difficult and whether its worth it for you, personally, to take up the challenge!
What Is The Hardest AP Class?
It is difficult to definitely determine what the “hardest” AP class is overall, because it honestly depends a lot on the student and their school. For example, an avid high school reader who devours classics and loves Shakespeare may find AP English Literature, one of the most challenging courses, to be way easier than an average student.
You can get a general sense of which classes are oftentimes considered more challenging than others, however, from data and overall word-of-mouth and reputation. (Be careful about relying to heavily on reputations though! They are oftentimes rooted in truth, but famously can be distorted and exaggerated.)
There is also a difference between the difficulty of an AP class and of the AP exam. Though the two are oftentimes related, you can sometimes find older students saying that while an AP class may have been demanding and challenging, the exam was a breeze because the class prepared them so well for it. This is a common experience – going through a harder class means having an easier exam experience.
For our purposes, I will gauge the difficulty of AP courses based on both their class content and exam results.
AP Exams By Passing Rate
One of the data points you can look at when measuring the difficulty of AP classes is by the passing rate of students taking the exams. These rates represent the percentage of students who received a 3 or higher on the test (AP exams are graded on a 1 to 5 scale, which 5 being the highest score).
Here is a list of passing rates on each AP exam offered:
|AP Exam Name||Passing Rate (3+)|
|Art and Design: Drawing||88%|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Total Group)||87%|
|Art and Design: 2-D Design||87%|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Total Group)||82%|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Standard Group)||78%|
|English Literature and Composition||78%|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Total Group)||75%|
|Art and Design: 3-D Design||74%|
|Physics C: Mechanics||73%|
|French Language and Culture (Total Group)||72%|
|Italian Language and Culture (Total Group)||71%|
|Gov. and Politics – Comparative||71%|
|Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism||69%|
|French Language and Culture (Standard Group)||69%|
|Computer Science A||68%|
|Italian Language and Culture (Standard Group)||66%|
|German Language and Culture (Total Group)||66%|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||65%|
|Computer Science Principles||64%|
|German Language and Culture (Standard Group)||58%|
|English Language and Composition||56%|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||54%|
|Gov. and Politics – United States||49%|
|United States History||48%|
Based on this table, you may draw the conclusion that the most difficult AP exams would be Physics 1, United States History, and Government and Politics – United States, because they have the lowest pass rates. Be careful, though, on being misled by the data. Following this line of logic, classes like Chinese Language and Culture and Physics C would be considered easy classes because of their high pass rate. Additionally, Environmental Science and Human Geography would be considered hard classes because of their low pass rate.
These trends are far from the truth. Chinese and Physics are notoriously hard classes across most schools in the United States, while Environmental Science and Human Geography tend to be relatively easier subjects.
What explains this discrepancy? Honestly, pass rates depend as much on the student as on the class material. Pass rates do not show how much students studied and worked hard for the test, just their result.
As a result, some classes like Physics C might have a high passing rate because students taking it are a) interested in Physics, b) probably took some prerequisite classes to prepare, and c) went through a challenging course and studied hard to perform well on the test.
Other explanations could include the tendency for native-language Chinese speakers to take the Chinese Language test, explaining their high pass rate. Low pass rates for Environmental Science and Human Geography might be explained by the huge number of students who take the class, probably incorrectly assuming that it’ll be a breeze, and failing to pay attention and study enough for the actual exam.
Passing rates are only one piece of the pie. You should triangulate this data with others, like the percentage of perfect scores, to get a more accurate picture on the difficulty of AP classes.
AP Exams By Rate Of Perfect Scores
Another piece of data that is slightly more accurate in portraying the difficulty of AP classes is the 5 rate. The 5 rate are the percentage of students who received a 5, the highest possible score, on the exam. We can potentially draw a correlation between classes that are most difficult and classes that had the lowest 5 rate.
Here is a list of AP exams ranked by the percentage of test-takers who got a 5:
|AP Exam Name||5 Rate|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Total Group)||49%|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Total Group)||49%|
|Calculus BC: Calculus AB Subscore||49%|
|Computer Science A||27%|
|Physics C: Mechanics||26%|
|Physics C: Mechanics||26%|
|Spanish Language and Culture (Total Group)||24%|
|Italian Language and Culture (Total Group)||23%|
|German Language and Culture (Total Group)||20%|
|English Literature and Composition||17%|
|Chinese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||16%|
|Japanese Language and Culture (Standard Group)||16%|
|Art and Design: Drawing||15%|
|French Language and Culture (Total Group)||13%|
|Gov. and Politics – Comparative||12%|
|Gov. and Politics – United States||12%|
|Art and Design: 2-D Design||11%|
|Computer Science Principles||11%|
|Italian Language and Culture (Standard Group)||11%|
|United States History||11%|
|English Language and Composition||10%|
|French Language and Culture (Standard Group)||8%|
|German Language and Culture (Standard Group)||8%|
|Art and Design: 3-D Design||6%|
While considering the 5 rate can paint a better picture than the passing rate, it still has its flaws. As you can see, Chemistry and US History have very low 5 rates, which correspond well to their high difficulty level.
The table, however, also still misrepresents the difficulty of Chinese and Physics C as they have high 5 rates. Additionally, an easy exam like AP Environmental Science is still categorized has having a low 5 rate. The same reasons distorting the passing rate data could explain the discrepancies here.
So while looking at both 5 rates and passing rates are helpful ways to generally sense the difficulty of some courses, it does not apply to all! This is where you should take other, more qualitative factors, into account.
Other Factors Affecting The Difficulty
These are other factors to take into account when determining the difficulty of AP classes. Considering these alongside the pass rate and 5 rate can lead to a more accurate representation on whether or not an AP class and exam is difficult.
- Course Material And Breadth
Examining the course material and breadth is one of best factors to focus on when assessing its difficulty. Usually, the complexity of a topic and the amount you have to cover in a short period of time is what makes an AP class difficult. For example, Calculus BC is generally considered easier than Calculus AB because it covers everything in AB, plus more. Thus, the time you have to learn and study the AB material is condensed into a singular semester, where students taking the Calculus AB class would have had a whole year to review it.
Additionally, classes like AP US History are generally considered more difficult than classes like AP World History because it is more specialized and narrow. While AP World History might only expect you to learn and understand general trends and historical events, AP US History digs deep into the details and expects you to learn dates, the major players, and the specific factors leading up to historical events. In short, it is more complex, thus takes more time to learn and can be more difficult to understand.
- Teacher Quality
Your teacher plays a huge role in making an AP class and exam easy or difficult. A teacher that has been teaching the course for many years that has seen many students successfully complete it is a good sign that you should take the course. How well they can teach you the material makes a big difference in whether or not it is super difficult. Of course, you can always self-study the material if your teacher does not teach it well, but that is an extra effort on your part and probably makes the class more challenging overall.
- Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Finally, you must reflect and assess your own strengths and weaknesses when deciding if a class is difficult or easy. Students have different strengths – math might come easier to one student, while it is the bane of another student’s existence. Think about what topics excite and interest you. Usually, even though a topic may be complex, your enjoyment of the subject can make studying the subject less arduous. Ultimately, “easy” and “hard” are subjective terms that come down to your own experience, skills, and personal preferences.
Top 5 Most Difficult AP Courses
Nevertheless, while assessing the difficulty of AP classes is very much situational and subjective, there are several courses that have been repeatedly flagged by past students as more challenging than others. Taking into account the pass rate, 5 rate, complexity and breadth of the class material, as well as its reputation, here are what we would rank as the most difficult AP classes offered:
#1 AP Physics 1
- Exam pass rate (% scored a 3 or higher): 43%
- 5 rate (% scored a 5): 8%
The AP Physics 1 class has a notorious reputation for being difficult, even though it is one of the most popular AP courses – 144,526 students took it in 2022. From both of our statistical data points, though, Physics 1 was always at the bottom. It has a low pass rate and 5 rate, meaning that many students struggle to do well on the exam.
Additionally, the content of AP Physics can be difficult for people just starting out in the subject. It is an algebra-based physics class, so your math skills will also be tested. It explores foundational topics like Newtonian mechanics, simple circuits, and mechanical waves, which can be complex to someone who has never seen a force diagram before. Additionally, the class has a hands-on lab component, where 25% of class time is dedicated to performing college-level lab experiments. All this combined makes it a challenging class for many students. This class, however, is often a student’s introduction to physics, so if you are interested in that field, you should take it to cultivate a strong understanding of the subject’s basic concepts.
#2 AP Biology
- Exam pass rate (% scored a 3 or higher): 68%
- 5 rate (% scored a 5): 15%
AP Biology is a challenging course, in a large part due to the sheer amount of memorization that is a part of the class. Though the class was redesigned in 2012 to make it more accessible and less memorization-heavy, there is still a lot of memorization required, especially compared to other STEM classes. In biology in general, you have to memorize the ways certain processes work, like the Krebs Cycle, cell reproduction, and the basic features of ecosystems and anatomies of organisms.
There is so much material in the course that teachers often have to speed through a lot of concepts due to their limited time. Additionally, the class is expected to have experiments, which further quickens the pace of the class. Thus, the sheer volume of material you will have to learn plus the fast pace of the class make this a difficult class for students to keep up and stay afloat in. To take this class, you should make sure that you have great time management skills and a tried-and-true process of memorization that you have ideally practiced beforehand.
#3 AP English Literature
- Exam pass rate (% scored a 3 or higher): 78%
- 5 rate (% scored a 5): 17%
Though the top two hardest AP courses were in STEM, it does not mean that the humanities are less challenging. In fact, AP English Literature is one of the hardest AP subjects simply because of the complexity of the material. In AP English Literature, you are expected to read advanced texts like The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. A lot of the books tested on the exam are classics, so old language conventions are generally harder to decipher. Remember the first moment you tried to read Shakespeare! To me, it initially sounded like gibberish until I got used to the style of writing. The books you are reading can also be insanely long – take Crime and Punishment, a 500-word behemoth by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Not only is the course material difficult and the day-to-day load heavy, but the exam itself is quite challenging. The AP English Literature exam tests specific rhetoric/literary terms and asks you to go into the details of a piece, rather than just explaining its overall argument or effect.
It asks you to write an essay about a book or play you read in class, but you can’t bring the book you’re going to talk about to the test! You’ll have to draw everything from your brain – the plot, characters, specific passages, and even quotes if you can. This requires a next-level understanding and analysis of the book you will write about, beyond just simply reading it and talking about it.
#4 AP U.S. History
- Exam pass rate (% scored a 3 or higher): 48%
- 5 rate (% scored a 5): 11%
Though AP U.S. History is a humanities subject, expect a lot of memorization. Though history is taught throughout elementary, middle, and high school, AP U.S. History demands a lot more from its students and requires them to have a nuanced and complex understanding of historical events.
As mentioned before, this class’s focus on U.S. History in particular makes it challenging because it is more specialized and narrow. If you took the AP World History or even AP European History courses, you are generally only expected to know overall trends and historical events because the topics are so broad. Because the U.S. was only founded almost 250 years ago, there is a shorter time period and smaller geographic area to focus on. This gives the course more flexibility to really dig deep and go into all the details.
The amount of details you need to know for the test can be overwhelming. The exam will expect you to know specific dates, movements, people, and laws. For example, while a World History class might ask you to describe how the slave trade between the US, Europe, and Africa works, the AP U.S. History class would ask you to name specific important dates and players in the slave trade, as well as factors that led to its rise, maintenance, and demise. You may have to know the date of when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued (answer: 1863), who issued it (answer: Lincoln), and the factors that led to its creation. The AP U.S. History exam is also well-known for having a difficult multiple choice section that tests you on historical details from the pre-Columbian period up until today. Overall, you are rewarded on the test for remembering as many details as you can.
#5 AP Chemistry
- Exam pass rate (% scored a 3 or higher): 54%
- 5 rate (% scored a 5): 13%
AP Chemistry is difficult for similar reasons to AP Biology: lots of memorization, a large volume of material, and complex concepts you have to thoroughly understand. In this class, you will learn a lot of the fundamental concepts to Chemistry that will be extremely important if you want to pursue the field further. The class also has in-class lab experiments and a lot of complicated, nuanced processes to understand like general equilibrium and electrochemistry. Generally, it is recommended that AP Chemistry is not your introduction to chemistry. Many will suggest taking another high school chemistry class just so you are familiar with the concepts already and can hammer them down during the actual AP course.
How To Choose The Right AP Classes
Now that you know which are the most difficult AP classes, how should you go about choosing which ones are right for you? You should not take AP classes solely because they are the most challenging ones and, vice versa, you should not avoid classes just because they are difficult. There are many factors you should weigh. There is no overall “right” schedule or courses to take because it will depend on each person, their situation, and their goals.
Here are several aspects to keep in mind when choosing AP courses.
Assess Your Strengths And Interests
This should be the largest contributing factor in your decision to take a class or not. Ask yourself, what classes have you excelled in so far? If you’re quickly progressing through your high school math sequence, consider taking AP Calculus BC. If you love reading and discussing literary theories, consider taking AP English Literature. The CollegeBoard offers a total of 39 different courses, some of which may not be offered through your school, but there is generally a wide range of topics for you to choose from. Past success is often a good indicator that you can perform well in a more challenging setting.
That said, don’t shy away from classes that you may not be the strongest in or do not have extensive experience in! This is a great time to explore different topics that might end up being super interesting to you. Even if math isn’t your strong suit, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take AP Calculus BC. I took that class, even though I’m more inclined to the humanities, and still did well. Sure, it took an extra effort and probably more time studying than my peers, but it was worth the experience and knowledge that I gained from the class.
Learn More About A Class
Because the experience of taking an AP class differs between schools and even between teachers, learn as much as you can about the class you considering. You can ask your guidance counselor for advice, or older students who have previously taken the class. Teachers are often willing to let you preview their course syllabus, too, so you can check out the class pace and how much material you will be expected to learn.
Consider Your Schedule
High school students lead busy lives. From taking classes, to numerous extra-curriculars, to SAT/ACT preparation and college essays, there will be a lot on your plate! It is important to visualize your schedule when deciding what AP courses to take and how many. The last thing you want to do is overload yourself and perform badly on a course that would’ve been a breeze otherwise.
Typically, students have adjusted to the high school transition by their sophomore year. They are also relatively less busy than juniors and seniors since they will be in the midst of the college application process. So, it is usually best to load up on courses in your sophomore year, and only take a few, targeted courses during your junior and senior year.
Think About College Plans
AP courses can boost your college application and can also make your life in college a lot easier. Though it may be a bit early to be thinking about your college plans, it is good to at least keep in mind what you may potentially consider doing in college. Do you want to graduate early, and save money? Do you want to pursue a major in a specific field? Taking into account your answers, you should choose your AP courses accordingly. If you think you want to pursue a STEM degree, taking and excelling in STEM AP courses can show to admissions counselors that you’re serious about the subject and do well. Once you enroll in college, you could potentially also apply those AP courses to some introduction STEM courses, saving you an extra class or two.
Tips On How To Succeed In Challenging AP Classes
If you decide to take one of these challenging AP classes, here are several tips to set you up for the most success. Good luck!
- Start studying early
- Take advantage of teacher’s resources
- Join a study group
- Use practice exams
- Enroll in online 1-on-1 tutoring, such as with SoFlo Tutors
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About The Author
Andie Pinga is an expert SoFlo tutor and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in Economics and a minor in Anthropology. She scored a 35 on her ACT and enjoys rock climbing and playing the guitar.