AP Classes Ranked by Difficulty

Do you know how to improve your profile for college applications?

See how your profile ranks among thousands of other students using CollegeVine. Calculate your chances at your dream schools and learn what areas you need to improve right now — it only takes 3 minutes and it's 100% free.

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 try to be strategic 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, you might be inclined 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 based 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 10 years 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
Studio Art: Drawing 91.1%
Chinese Language and Culture 89.9%
Spanish Language and Culture 88.7%
Studio Art: 2-D Design 86.4%
Spanish Language and Culture (Standard) 82.4%
Physics C: Mechanics 81.8%
Seminar 81.1%
Calculus BC 81.0%
Japanese Language and Culture 79.3%
French Language and Culture 77.1%
Research 75.9%
French Language and Culture (Standard) 73.9%
Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism 73.0%
German Language and Culture 72.3%
Spanish Literature 72.3%
Computer Science Principles 71.9%
Studio Art: 3-D Design 70.0%
Computer Science A 69.6%
Microeconomics 69.6%
Chinese Language and Culture (Standard) 66.8%
Italian Language and Culture 66.1%
Government and Politics – Comparative 66.0%
Physics 2 65.4%
German Language and Culture (Standard) 65.1%
Biology 64.7%
Psychology 64.5%
Music Theory 63.7%
Art History 63.1%
Latin 62.9%
Japanese Language and Culture (Standard) 62.4%
Italian Language and Culture (Standard) 62.0%
Statistics 59.7%
Macroeconomics 58.9%
Calculus AB 58.4%
European History 58.1%
Chemistry 55.6%
World History 55.3%
Government and Politics – United States 55.1%
English Language and Composition 54.3%
United States History 53.7%
Environmental Science 49.2%
English Literature and Composition 49.7%
Human Geography 49.1%
Physics 1 45.4%

Source: College Board. Percentages apply to exams taken in May 2019.

 

Note that the AP exam passing rate doesn’t necessarily indicate the difficulty of the actual AP course. For instance, an AP course may be generally easy and not properly prepare students for the exam, leading to a lower passing rate. While you might expect an exam with a low passing rate to have a difficult course, that’s not always the case. There is also variance in AP course difficulty by school, so be sure to seek the advice of your counselor and older friends if you’re on the fence about a course.

Advocate by CollegeVine

Not sure which schools to consider for your list?

When you’re ready to apply, you’ll want 8-12 schools varying from safety to reach schools. Start looking for schools now that best fit your needs and achievements.

On Which Exams is it Easiest or Hardest to Score a 5?

 

Below are the ten easiest exams, based on the tests with the highest percentage of students scoring a 5. 

 

AP Exam Percentage of Students Who Scored a 5
Art History 63.1%
Chinese Language and Culture 60.1%
Japanese Language and Culture 45.3%
Calculus BC 43.0%
Physics C: Mechanics 37.7%
Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism 37.6%
Computer Science A 26.7%
Spanish Language and Culture 25.2%
Microeconomics 24.3%
Government and Politics – Comparative 22.4%

Source: College Board. Percentages apply to exams taken in May 2019.

 

Here are the ten hardest exams, based on the tests with the lowest percentage of students scoring a 5. 

 

AP Exam Percentage of Students Who Scored a 5
Italian Language and Culture (Standard) 5.8%
English Literature and Composition 6.2%
Physics 1 6.7%
Seminar 7.1%
Biology 7.2%
German Language and Culture (Standard) 8.7%
World History 8.6%
Environmental Science 9.4%
Spanish Literature 9.5%
English Language and Composition 9.9%

Source: College Board. Percentages apply to exams taken in May 2019.

 

What Factors Determine National Passing Rates?

 

Clearly, some AP exams have significantly higher pass rates than others. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that one test is much more difficult than another. It’s worth noting that national pass rates often reveal more about the students who take the exams than the exams themselves. For example, the fact that Chinese Language has a high pass rate doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an easy class. The pass rate is likely high because the students who take this exam tend to be well prepared, or are native speakers. Similarly, an exam like Environmental Science might have a lower rate because the class itself is considered easier than other APs. As a result, students may be less-prepared to take the exam. It’s important to consider all of these factors when deciding what AP classes are right for you and your future.

 

Deciding what AP classes to take can be stressful, and students shouldn’t hesitate to speak with their teachers and guidance counselors for help making their selections.

 

Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more! 

 

Wondering what your odds of acceptance are to your dream school? Our free chancing engine uses factors such as your GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activities to tell your chances of admission at over 500 colleges. Sign up for a free CollegeVine account today and get started using this valuable tool!

 

Check out these posts for more info on AP exams:

 

2020 AP Exam Schedule

How Long is Each AP Exam?

Want more college admissions tips?

We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.


April Maguire
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.