What Are the Hardest AP Classes and Tests?

What Are the Hardest AP Classes and Tests?

By Marisa Upson

Published on August 31, 2021

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Advanced Placement (AP) courses are college-level classes you can take in high school. These courses can prepare you for the rigors of college, strengthen your college application, and boost your GPA.

AP classes may also help you save time and money in college. Schools administer AP exams following the completion of the course. If you score a 3 or higher, you may earn college credit and skip the associated general education class. When deciding which AP classes to take, you'll want to consider your interests and the difficulty level.

Top 10 Hardest AP Classes by Exam Pass Rate

AP exam pass rates and the frequency of perfect scores can help you gauge the hardest AP classes. The pass rate demonstrates the percentage of students who received a passing score of 3 or higher, while the perfect score rate reflects the percentage of students who received a 5 (i.e., the highest possible score).

You should also consider the teacher of an AP course and your academic strengths — two important factors that may influence the difficulty of AP classes.

The following table presents the hardest AP classes by exam pass rate.

AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3+) Perfect Score (5)
1. Physics 1 51.6% 8.8%
2. Environmental Science 53.4% 11.9%
3. Chemistry 56.1% 10.6%
4. U.S. Government and Politics 57.5% 15.5%
5. U.S. History 58.7% 13.0%
6. Human Geography 59.0% 11.8%
7. European History 59.3% 13.7%
8. Statistics 60.0% 16.2%
9. English Literature 60.1% 9.3%
10. World History 60.2% 9.2%

Source: College Board, May 2020

1. Physics 1

This class combines physics, scientific inquiry, and algebra. AP Physics 1 is considered one of the hardest AP classes, covering topics like Newtonian mechanics and electrical charge and force. Students also spend about 25% of their class time performing college-level lab experiments and writing reports.

This AP test consists of five free-response questions and 50 multiple-choice questions (MCQs) asking students to explain physical phenomena, solve mathematical equations, interpret conceptual models, and design experiments.

2. Environmental Science

The broad nature of environmental science, which encompasses biology, geology, chemistry, and math, means that teachers cover a great deal of material. In part, AP Environmental Science explores the earth and its resources, analyzing environmental problems and applying quantitative methods to find possible solutions. Students also perform lab experiments and fieldwork.

The AP test comprises 80 MCQs and three free-response questions, which test a student's ability to analyze research, interpret data, and solve problems using mathematical equations. Test-takers also analyze an environmental issue and propose a solution.

3. Chemistry

AP Chemistry requires a solid foundation in chemistry and algebra. Students learn about complicated chemical processes and acquire the skills needed to design experiments to test theories and support evidence-based scientific claims. This course is notorious for memorization and heavy-duty homework.

The exam consists of 60 MCQs and seven free-response questions. It tests a student's ability to justify scientific claims and analyze models of chemical properties. Test-takers also design experiments and use mathematical relationships to solve problems.

4. U.S. Government and Politics

This AP course covers quite a bit of territory, including the U.S. political system, national government institutions, public policymaking, and civil rights. Students make comparisons, interpret data, and write evidence-based arguments using foundational documents and U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

The AP U.S. Government and Politics exam comprises 55 MCQs and four free-response questions that test a student's understanding of political concepts and their ability to analyze documents and court decisions.

5. U.S. History

The AP U.S. History course covers nine historical eras from 1491 to the present. There is a lot of information to learn about this long time period. In this class, students connect historical outcomes with how people and policies shaped the foundation of America.

The exam comprises 55 MCQs, three short-answer questions, one long essay, and one document-based question (DBQ). The DBQ requires students to develop and support an argument based on seven documents. Students are also tested on historical facts and their ability to interpret historical narratives.

6. Human Geography

The AP Human Geography exam is often the first AP test students take. The class explores human migration and land use, and how these factors alter the Earth's landscape and resources. Students learn to analyze geospatial data, interpret maps, and recognize patterns.

The AP test consists of 60 MCQs and three free-response questions. The exam covers migration, as well as cultural, political, and agricultural land-use patterns and relationships. Test-takers analyze maps, graphs, and satellite images to explain spatial relationships.

7. European History

This course explores Europe's history from the mid-15th century to the present, including cultural, economic, and political developments. In addition to memorizing a lot of information, students must apply critical thinking skills and develop arguments based on historical patterns and evidence.

The AP European History exam is formulated similarly to the AP U.S. History test, and it requires students to understand historical concepts and identify connections. Many students find writing the DBQ in the given amount of time one of the biggest challenges.

8. Statistics

AP Statistics involves collecting, organizing, analyzing, and interpreting qualitative and quantitative data. The qualitative aspect of statistics can seem confusing for students who excel in mathematical equations. Topics covered include statistical inference, anticipating patterns, and experimentation.

The AP Statistics exam consists of 40 MCQs and six free-response questions. The exam includes questions on collecting and analyzing data, probability and sampling, and statistical inference.

9. English Literature

This course involves reading and interpreting complex texts and then making an argument for an interpretation. Learners must understand a book or play well enough to write an essay on it, including quotations, without looking at the text.

The AP English Literature exam consists of 55 MCQs and three free-response questions that include an analysis of fiction and poetry. Test-takers also examine how literary concepts contribute to specific works.

10. World History

AP World History used to cover prehistoric times to the present, but recently the College Board decided to cut out thousands of years of material to create an AP World History: Modern class. Course content now starts at 1200 C.E. and separates world history into nine eras, exploring land-based empires and revolutions.

Despite the reduction, this course still covers a lot of information. Formatted in the same manner as other AP history exams, much of the test focuses on explaining historical developments, making connections, and creating arguments.

Factors That Affect Which AP Classes Are Hardest

While a helpful indicator, a test's pass rate does not fully reflect the difficulty of an AP class. For example, according to the College Board, the May 2020 pass rates were 83.6% for AP Japanese Language and just 53.4% for AP Environmental Science. That said, only 2,581 students took the former, whereas 162,469 students took the latter exam.

A low pass rate may result from more underprepared students, while a higher pass rate may speak to a highly specialized, dedicated, smaller group of students. While the perfect score rate can reflect how difficult it is to master course material, it can also be skewed by the number of students taking the exam.

Three better predictors of difficulty may be your academic strengths, the amount of course material covered, and the teacher. For instance, if you excel in calculus, chances are good you'll be able to commit to the workload in AP Calculus. Additionally, if the teacher for AP Biology has earned a tough reputation, they may also possess a great track record in helping students prepare for and pass the exam.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Hardest AP Classes

Is AP Calculus hard? true

In May 2020, 61.4% of students taking AP Calculus AB passed, while 81.6% of students passed AP Calculus BC. Although these scores might not seem too low, calculus can be a difficult concept for many students to grasp. The College Board recommends a minimum of four years of secondary-school-level mathematics before attempting AP Calculus.

What is the hardest AP exam to get a 5 on? true

In May 2020, only 8.8% of students who took the AP Physics 1 exam earned a perfect score of 5. It should also be noted that only 6.4%, 7.2%, and 8.8% of students enrolled in AP Seminar, AP 3-D Art and Design, and AP Research courses earned a 5, although these are specialized, portfolio-based classes.

Is a 4 on an AP exam considered good? true

The College Board scores AP tests on a scale of 1-5. Earning a 4 on an AP exam denotes "very well qualified" and will most likely earn you college credit or advanced placement.

Will colleges accept a 3 on an AP exam? true

While a 3 on an AP exam is a passing grade and denotes that a student is "qualified" in the subject, some colleges only award credit for a 4 or 5. Additionally, keep in mind that a few colleges do not award any credit for AP exams, no matter the score.

Feature Image: PhotoAlto / Sigrid Olsson / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

Learn from a director of admissions how to get into college and discover the best questions to ask college admissions counselors. Read about AP classes and how they may benefit students preparing for college. Learn how to find the "easiest" AP classes, which have more flexible study requirements, and earn college credit through classes with high exam pass rates.