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AP Classes Ranked by Difficulty

What’s Covered:

 

Advanced Placement classes offer students the opportunity to try out college-level courses and explore advanced topics in an area of interest while they’re still in high school. In some cases, students can even earn credit for college classes, ultimately saving time and money as they pursue their degrees. To that end, choosing the right AP classes to take is extremely important.

 

With the College Board offering a large number of exams on an annual basis, it’s only natural that students sometimes struggle to decide which classes to enroll in. In addition to any concerns about the difficulty of the relevant exams, students may wonder what courses are the hardest to pass. After all, the grades they earn in AP classes will affect their GPAs and may impact their odds of getting into their dream colleges and universities. Keep reading for tips on evaluating the relative difficulty of various AP classes and determining which ones to fit into your schedule.

 

How to Pick the Right AP Classes for You

 

Consider Your Strengths

 

When choosing AP classes, your own strengths and weaknesses are the most important factors to consider. After all, you’re likely to perform better on a test in a field that interests and excites you. So, if you’re strong in quantitative subjects and enjoy physics, you might want to take the Physics 1 AP exam despite the fact that it’s reportedly challenging. On the other hand, if you struggle in art history, you might not want to take a course in this subject even if many students earn passing scores on the AP exam. When in doubt, take AP classes in the fields you’re most passionate about and willing to work at, rather than those that leave you feeling uninspired.

 

Check the AP Policies of the Colleges You Want to Attend

 

You should also think strategically when it comes to earning AP credit. In college, AP credits can be especially helpful for getting general education course requirements out of the way, or for getting placed into higher-level courses. If you know which colleges you hope to attend, check their AP credit and placement policies. Some schools offer credits for all scores 3 and above, while others may require a 4 or 5 for specific classes. Very selective colleges might not offer an AP credit at all, and only use them for placement. 

 

Based on the policies of your potential colleges, you might decide to take or refrain from taking certain AP courses. For instance, if more than half of the schools on your list require a general education math course, and they allow a 3 or above on the AP Calculus BC exam to fulfill that requirement, it might tempt you to take the AP Calculus BC course. On the flip side, if you were interested in taking AP Latin for credit, but only a couple of your schools offer credit for it, you might consider another class.

 

Of course, this is not to say that you should base your course decisions only on credit and placement policies; your interests should first guide your choices. If you’re having trouble deciding between classes though, checking college policies can help guide your decision in a more practical way.

 

Assess Educator Experience

 

While strengths are a key consideration when selecting AP classes, students should also evaluate the experience level of their respective teachers. In general, the longer a teacher has been providing instruction in a particular AP subject, the better their students perform on the test. So, if you have a choice between taking a “harder” subject like Physics with a teacher who has ten years of experience and taking an “easier” subject like Art History with someone who has just two years’ experience, you might want to go with the former option. 

 

Of course, students shouldn’t write off an AP class that interests them just because the teacher is less experienced. If you’re passionate about a class and confident in your talent in that arena, it’s still worth signing up. However, you should expect to do some extra studying on your own or with the aid of a tutor.

 

Easiest and Hardest AP Classes

 

The College Board grades AP exams on a scale of one to five, with one representing the lowest possible score and five representing the highest. In general, a score of three is considered to be passing. However, students should note that many colleges require a score of four or five to receive credit. Below is a list of the AP exams offered by the College Board, along with the percentage of students who received a passing grade on each:

 

AP Exam

Percentage of Students Who Scored 3 or Higher

Chinese Language

88.2%

Art and Design: 2-D

87.1%

Art and Design: Drawing

86.2%

Seminar

85%

Chinese (Standard Group)

88.2%

Research

81.5%

Spanish Language

80%

Spanish Language (Standard Group)

77.1%

Calculus BC

75.2%

Japanese Language

74.3%

Physics C Mechanics

73.5%

Italian Language

72.4%

Government & Politics Comparative

71.8%

Art and Design: 3-D

71.4%

French Language (Total Group)

71.3%

Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

69.5%

French Language (Standard Group)

69%

Italian Language (Standard Group)

68.7%

Computer Science Principles

66.5%

Chinese Language

Exam Score (Standard Group)

66.4%

Physics 2

65.3%

Computer Science A

65.1%

German Language (Total Group)

65.1%

Spanish Literature

64.9%

Music Theory

61.2%

Biology

59.2%

Economics – Micro

59.1%

Statistics

57.9%

English Language

57.7%

German Language (Standard Group)

57.3%

Latin

56.8%

Art History

55.3%

European History

54.6%

Japanese Language (Standard Group)

53.5%

Psychology

53.3%

Human Geography

52.5%

World History

52.2%

Chemistry

51.3%

Economics – Macro

51.3%

Calculus AB

51%

Government & Politics United States

50.4%

Environmental Science

50.3%

United States History

47.2%

English Literature

43.9%

Physics 1

42.1%

 

Sourced from the College Board  

 

Which AP Classes Do Students Find Hardest and Easiest?

 

The percentage of students who earn a passing score on the AP exam is an indicator of how hard or easy an AP class is, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Consider that classes commonly thought of as the most challenging AP classes (like Physics C: Mechanics and Japanese) have high passing rates while classes often considered easier (like Human Geography and U.S. Government and Politics) are among the classes with the lowest passing rates. 

 

There are a number of factors that can skew pass rates. For example, Chinese attracts a small, highly specialized group of students, many of whom have prior familiarity with language—just 13,122 students took the exam in 2021. Compare that to a class like Human Geography, which saw 211,735 test-takers in 2021. Additionally, it’s not uncommon for classes with higher pass rates to have more stringent prerequisites at some schools, which filters out unqualified students. 

 

The Three Hardest AP Classes 

 

1. AP Physics 1

 

Despite a reputation as one of the most difficult AP classes, Physics 1 is also one of the most popular—137,229 students took it in 2021. Physics 1 has the lowest pass rate of any AP exam (42.1%) along with one of the lowest percentages of students scoring a 5 (just 6.9%). 

 

Physics 1 is an algebra-based physics class that explores topics such as Newtonian mechanics,  simple circuits, and mechanical waves. The class will test your math skills, so the better you are at math, the better your odds of passing the AP Physics 1 exam. 

 

In addition to the ability to solve algebraic and computational problems, AP Physics 1 is devoted to hands-on learning: 25% of class time is devoted to performing college-level lab experiments, making observations and predictions, designing experiments, analyzing data, and constructing arguments.  

 

2. AP U.S. History

 

AP U.S. history is one of the hardest AP classes in the humanities and in general. U.S. History’s reputation for difficulty doesn’t scare many students away, though—it’s the second-most popular AP class (454,204 students took it in 2021). Its 47.2% passing rate is the third-lowest among all AP courses and only about one in ten students (10.1%) score a 5. 

 

What makes AP U.S. History particularly challenging is that it covers a relatively slim slice of history and a small geographic area, especially compared to other AP courses like European History and World History. Consequently, it requires students to possess a very detailed knowledge of U.S. history. For example, knowing the exact date an event took place. 

 

To pass AP U.S. History, you’ll need more than just the ability to memorize key information, you’ll also need to analyze historical events, interpret cause and effect, and write analyses and arguments.   

 

3. AP Chemistry 

 

AP Chemistry has a well-earned reputation for difficulty, thanks in part to its low pass rate. Only about half (51.3%) of students pass the course and just 11.2% score a 5—one of the lowest rates among all the AP courses. 

 

To successfully pass AP Chemistry, students need to memorize a ton of vocabulary and have an exceptional conceptual understanding of chemical processes. Additionally, moderately advanced math skills are required. AP Chemistry also requires a great deal of hands-on learning and you’ll spend a lot of time in the lab. 

 

It’s not just that AP Chemistry is hard, it’s also notoriously time-intensive. There is an abundance of homework, regular tests, and you’ll spend a great deal of time studying. 

 

The Three Easiest AP Classes 

 

1. AP Psychology 

 

With a reputation as one of the easiest AP classes, it comes as no surprise that AP Psychology is also one of the most popular—288,511 students took the exam in 2021. Despite the relative ease of this course, students still struggle; just 53.3% of students pass and only 14.1% earn a 5. The tough numbers are likely the result of students not taking this course seriously enough, which many agree is its crux.  

 

AP Psych is commonly considered easy due to its uncomplicated coursework. Memorization is at the foundation of AP psychology—you’ll need to know psychology-specific vocabulary, understand psychological concepts and details about notable scientists in the field, and be versed in important experiments. 

 

Another reason why AP Psychology is considered among the easiest courses is its test. The AP Psychology test is only two hours long and predominantly multiple choice. 

 

2. AP Comparative Government and Politics

 

AP Comparative Government and Politics has a well-deserved place among the easiest AP classes and the numbers back it up. Almost three out of four students (71.8%) pass the exam and 16.6% of students score a 5. 

 

What makes AP Comparative Government and Politics seem easy? The coursework is fairly broad, covering the political institutions and processes of six countries: China, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Because the curriculum covers such a broad range of material—unlike a course like U.S Government and Politics, which has a 50.4% pass rate—it doesn’t go into the depths that other AP classes do. 

 

Much like AP Psychology, the AP Comparative Government and Politics test also helps solidify its position as one of the easier AP courses. The test is only two-and-a-half hours long and contains 55 multiple-choice questions and four free-response questions. 

 

3. AP Environmental Science 

 

Regarded as one of the easiest AP classes, AP Environmental Science still manages to give students trouble. Just 50.3% of students score a 3 or above and a mere 7% score a 5—one of the lowest rates among all the AP courses. However, the tough scores are generally attributed to students underestimating the effort required to successfully complete the class. 

 

AP Environmental Science is an interdisciplinary course and while you don’t need a razor-sharp singular skill set, you will need knowledge from a wide range of fields, such as biology, geology, chemistry, algebra, and social studies. Relative to other AP courses, the curriculum is not particularly rigorous and has a hands-on lab component that is frequently supplemented with field trips.   

 

Like the other less-challenging AP courses, the AP Environmental Science test is thought of as easy. It’s under three hours and is mostly multiple-choice—the exam has 80 multiple-choice questions and 3 free-response questions. 

 

How AP Classes Impact Your College Chances

 

The number of AP classes you take can help make your admissions profile more competitive. Ivy League colleges and other highly selective institutions often use something called the Academic Index. A tool for assessing applicants, the Academic Index is a calculation that reduces a student’s academic record to one numerical score for easy comparison. 

 

We’ve made it easy to understand the impact of your AP classes by creating a free Admissions Chances Calculator. We recommend using it when deciding how many and which AP classes to take. You can also filter for other helpful things, such as location, major, cost, and even application difficulty! We highly recommend you check it out.


Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.