Want to know what the hardest AP® classes are? Well, then you’ve come to the right place. If your school offers AP® classes, which most high schools in the US do, many colleges will raise an eyebrow at your application if you did not take any. Even if your school is small and only offers 1 or 2, you can talk to your guidance counselor about taking AP® classes from a certified online provider.
Certain AP® classes do have a bit of a reputation for being especially hard. The difficulty of these courses has nothing to do with a student’s personal interest or investment in the material (like a science wiz killing AP® Chemistry or a history buff excelling in AP® United States History), but rather they have more complex material to cover than other courses.
This article will list out the percentage of students who pass each AP® exam each year. To pass an AP® exam, you need at least a 3 out of 5. Most colleges will only accept 5s for college credit, although sometimes a 4 will do. Because of this, we will also list the percentage of students that receive those scores on each exam.
All those numbers might be confusing – so after you’ve read this list, stick around for some debriefing.
|Exam Name||Passing Rate (3+)||5 Rate||4 Rate|
|US Government & Politics||50.90%||12.40%||13.50%|
|United States History||52.10%||11.70%||17.90%|
|English Literature and Composition||54.60%||7.40%||17.70%|
|English Language and Composition||55.30%||10.60%||17.50%|
|Comparative Government and Politics||62.20%||20.60%||21.20%|
|Computer Science A||64.30%||20.70%||20.40%|
|Physics C E&M||68.10%||32.00%||22.60%|
|Studio Art 3D Design||74.70%||13.20%||25.80%|
|Physics C Mech||76.10%||30.20%||27.40%|
|Studio Art 2D Design||82.40%||14.30%||33.00%|
|Studio Art Drawing||82.90%||16.80%||27.20%|
Source: Total Registration and the College Board
Quick caveat about national pass rates for the APs:
When choosing your course load, you can’t just go through the table and pick the classes with the highest pass rates, thinking that the lowest ones must be the hardest APs. Think about it: Chinese has the highest pass rates. Chinese! That’s not an easy test. It is the same thing with Spanish and Calculus. The reason these tests have such high pass rates is because they appeal to a certain group of highly specialized students.
It’s the same reason that specialized schools (like women’s colleges, for example) have higher acceptance rates. It’s not that they are not highly competitive, but rather the kind of person they attract fits into a really specific mold…a mold in which their determination and familiarity with the subject will ensure they succeed. Often, schools have very strict policies for which students can take the exams with the highest pass rates. These policies propel already gifted students forward and mistakenly make the exams appear easy.
All this to say that there is so much more to the hardest AP® exams than the national pass rate. But don’t worry! Keep reading, and we’ll tell you all you need to know.
You also can’t determine the hardest APs by how many students score a 5.
Some tests, like AP® Biology and AP® English Literature have very low 5 rates, which makes sense as they have reputations for being hard and giving students a lot of work. But this can go either way, because like we mentioned, Chinese is a super hard test with a very high pass rate.
A hard AP® class really comes down to how much material you need to learn in the set amount of time.
Before we move on, another quick caveat about those AP® Language exams:
Based on these pass rate numbers, they don’t look too bad. From Chinese to Latin and everything in between, if over half of the students who take the language tests pass, and a high percentage of those students go on to earn at least a 4 or 5, they must be pretty easy, right? Wrong! To do well on the AP® Language exams, you need to be nearly fluent in the language. Sometimes, even native speakers can stumble through a few of the concepts on the exam, much like many native English speakers might do on a grammar test. The listening portions of AP® Language exams are also notorious for tripping up inexperienced speakers, because of their quick delivery speeds and nuanced expressions.
This means that you will not be ready for the material on the exam after only one year of study. If you just started French you junior year, then the AP® French test will not be a good fit for you, but if you’ve been speaking Italian with your Nonna your whole life and can understand idioms, grammar, and the like, you’ll probably do great.
Because of the near-fluency required to do well on these AP® tests, you will find that many schools have really strict policies regarding enrollment in AP® Language classes. So, they might be considered among the hardest AP® classes simply because it takes so long to prepare for them. But, if you’re passionate about the language, they are worth it.
Okay, here it is: a quick list of the hardest APs*
* In alphabetical order, because even the hardest of the hard are different for different students.
This class had such a bad reputation for difficult busywork that it was redesigned in 2012 to test student’s application of concepts and analysis instead of just regurgitating terms. But even so, you’ll still have to memorize a lot. You can read the College Board’s explanation of the class here.But, generally you have to know the ins and outs of cell biology, evolution, how different biological systems interact, sustain themselves, and more.
All of this, AND the course requires that at least 25% of instruction time be filled with a lab component. You have a lot to learn and quite a few experiments to complete in a short amount of time…so this AP® class is one of the hardest.
AP® Calculus BC
This class has a reputation of hitting students like a freight train. It covers everything taught it Calculus AB…in just one semester. You can read the College Board’s description about the class here. Calculus AB still requires you to learn some pretty tricky math concepts, but its slower pace makes it accessible to more students.
Calculus BC moves forward very quickly, leaving students little time to grapple with each new concept. Some schools even make you meet more than once a day to cover everything.
This class is definitely for students that love math and hope to continue studying it after high school. But even so, many gifted students find themselves in need of a tutor at some point during the year. If you take this class, normally excel in math, and feel like you need help, don’t waste anytime acquiring some. Because of the quick pace, it’s difficult to catch up if you fall behind.
To do well in the class, you need to have already taken an introductory Chemistry course. At the pace this class moves, there is no way you could keep your head above water without a solid foundation. You can read about the course on the College Board website here. Like AP® Biology, AP® Chemistry requires that 25% of instruction time be spent doing experiments. So you’ll have to master the Laws of Thermodynamics, molecular bonds, and chemical properties pretty quickly, and then know how to apply them.
To keep up with all these concepts, teachers tend to assign lots of homework so they make sure students are absorbing and retaining the material. AP® Chemistry is also notorious for long and difficult tests throughout the year.
To do well in the course, you’ll need a solid study schedule and be willing to set aside at least an hour or two a day after school to review.
AP® English Literature
AP® English Literature is slightly harder than AP® English Language. While both require critical thinking and analysis of texts, the material you are required to devour in AP® Lit is usually more complex. For example, in AP® Language you might read an article about the effects of social media on interpersonal relationships. You’d have to identify the overall argument on the piece (is social media harmful or is it helpful?) and then determine the impact the author could have on his or her premise.
But, in AP® English Literature, you’d read the entire Pride and Prejudice novel in a similar amount of time. You would not only be able to discuss its commentary on interpersonal relationships in Regency Era England, but also be able to point out the specific literary elements that work together to push the book’s ideas along.
Another aspect that makes this one of the hardest APs is that you not only have to close-read the material, you have to remember the details of what you read. This is because one of the essays on the AP® English Literature test asks you to discuss a book you read during the school year in such detail that you are basically required to use quotes from it – and cite them!
Thankfully, if you like to read, and see yourself as an aspiring English major, the complex texts, intricate essays, and probing-multiple choice questions are nothing you can’t handle…with a lot of hard work, that is.
You can see what the College Board says about the class here.
AP® Physics C
AP® Physics 1 and 2 are algebra-based classes. The thing that sets both sections of Physics C (Electricity & Magnetism and Mechanics) is that they are calculus-based. So, to excel in this course, you need to have taken calculus already, or be taking it at the same time. Sometimes this class is considered two classes in one because of the information to have to cover. To succeed, you’ll also need a base knowledge of physics’ principles.
This class is one of the hardest APs because it covers concepts in such depth and detail. If you’re thinking about becoming an engineer, this is a great class to test the waters. You can read all about what to expect from each section on the College Board website. Find Electricity and Magnetism here and Mechanics here.
AP® United States History
Everyone knows that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and that on July 4th, 1776 American declared its Independence from England and the greatest country ever was born. This class should be easy right? Not so much. AP® United States history covers less than 500 years worth of events on relatively small fraction of the globe. Because of this, the questions on the exam are really, really specific. You have to understand the context of major events that dominoed into each of the wars America has been involved in, but you also need to know the names of the people, the exact dates certain things happened, and the names of laws and tariffs.
For example, you might know that America fought in World War II. But in AP® US History, you’ll need to know why America did not join the war at first, why it eventually did, all the major battles that it participated in, any laws passed during the period, the major generals and politicians, the attitude on the home front, and more. You’ll need to maintain this level of specificity from your knowledge of pre-colonial times, all the way to the present. Expect to do lots of reading, and lots of memorization.
The AP® test has also changed its curriculum over the past few years. You can read about the controversy here. But what it really boils down to is politicians from both sides of the aisles are quarreling about how to portray our nations past. So, as you trudge your way through this reading intensive course, make sure to inspect everything with a critical eye. Ask questions. Draw inferences. By doing so, you’ll have a greater knowledge of your nation, and get a better score on a difficult exam.
See what the College Board has to say about this course here.
A final word of warning about classifying the hardest APs:
We know we might sound a little bit like your mom here, but hear us out: a student’s experience in an AP® class has a lot to do with their own attitude and commitment to the material. Any class is going to be hard for you if your slack off and don’t apply yourself.
That said, we also understand that a teacher can make or break a student’s classroom experience. Maybe you have always struggled in science, but both of your older siblings took AP® Biology with Mrs. Jones and aced it. If a certain teacher has a great reputation at your school, you might explore taking their class, if it is one of the “statically harder” APs.
On the flip side, an “easy” AP® class, like AP® Environmental Science, might be a nightmare at your school because Mr. Doe smells spits, smells like Cheetos, and could not properly explain the material if his life depended on it. This why it is a good idea to ask around school about particular AP® classes. You should talk to your friends, your teachers, and even your guidance counselor to make sure that an AP® class and test’s national reputations align with how they operate at your own school.
- The hardest AP® classes are the ones with the most amount of material to cover.
- Depending on your personal interests, the classes deemed the most difficult might actually be enjoyable for you.
- All the classes mentioned will take a lot of diligent, hard work.
- Talk to your friends, teachers, and guidance counselor to find out if the AP® classes at your school match up with their national reputation.
Building the best class schedule that you can be a difficult task, but you are now armed with knowledge to make an informed decision. You know how to avoid the hard APs (at least, the ones that could be hard for you), tackle the ones you think you’d enjoy, and build a killer transcript to impress even the toughest admissions committees.
You got this!
By the way, in case you’re curious, you can also read our post on the easiestAP® classes here.
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|AP Class/Exam*||Pass Rate (3+)||Perfect Score (5)|
|2. Calculus BC||81.6%||44.6%|
|3. Spanish Literature||75.1%||17.6%|
|4. Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism||74.4%||40.4%|
|5. Physics 2||73.3%||14.0%|
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United States History, Biology, English Literature, Calculus BC, Physics C, and Chemistry are often named as the hardest AP classes and tests. These classes have large curriculums, tough tests, and conceptually difficult material.