What Are the Most Popular AP Exams?

Many AP tests and classes are available to high school students for college credit. Learn about the seven most popular AP exams.
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The College Board administers a whopping 38 AP exams, but most high schools only offer a select amount.

As a result, certain AP exams — typically those for courses more commonly offered at high schools and with a reputation of being easier than other AP classes — are more popular among test-takers.

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Here, we rank the seven most popular AP exams by number of test-takers in May 2021.

1. AP English Language and Composition

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 518,548
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 57.7%

AP English Language and Composition is by far the most popular AP test, with over half a million students taking the exam in 2021.

The test contains two sections: multiple choice (45 questions) and free response (three essay questions). In the multiple-choice section, students must read and analyze nonfiction texts and suggest revisions to those texts.

For the essays, students must compose arguments that cite provided sources and analyze the language choices in a text.

2. AP U.S. History

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 454,204
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 47.2%

The second-most popular AP exam is AP U.S. History. In 2021, about 450,000 high school students took the test.

Considered equivalent to a two-semester introductory college class, APUSH spans the history of the United States from 1491 to the present.

Students are required to analyze texts, historical documents, and visual sources. The exam tests skills like evaluating sources, making connections between historical developments, and producing a thesis based on provided evidence.

3. AP English Literature and Composition

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 321,029
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 43.9%

In 2021, around 320,000 students took the AP English Literature and Composition exam. This English exam focuses on analyzing fictional works and the literary craft. Critical reading and familiarity with literary techniques are essential skills for acing this test.

Students must evaluate works of fiction, poetry, and drama. The test requires students to draw conclusions, identify techniques, develop interpretations, and present arguments.

4. AP World History: Modern

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 302,232
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 52.2%

Just over 300,000 students took the AP World History: Modern exam in 2021. This test covers the historical development of human societies from the 13th century to the present.

Students should have a strong recall for historical information like transoceanic interconnections, revolutions, industrialization, globalization, and various global conflicts. The AP exam assesses skills like evaluating sources, analyzing evidence, contextualizing historical development, and creating a source-supported thesis.

5. AP Psychology

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 288,511
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 53.3%

AP Psychology is the fifth-most popular AP exam, with 288,000 test-takers in 2021. The test focuses on skills like analyzing psychological research and studies, interpreting data, and connecting concepts to real-life scenarios.

Test-takers should understand foundational concepts like cognitive psychology, behavior and learning, developmental psychology, social psychology, and clinical psychology. They should also be familiar with famous psychologists, groundbreaking experiments, and common research methods.

6. AP U.S. Government and Politics

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 283,353
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 50.4%

About 283,000 students took the AP U.S. Government and Politics assessment in 2021. This exam tests students on their ability to connect political concepts to real-life scenarios, analyze data and texts, explain the impact of political movements, and develop a thesis.

Topics covered include the foundation of democracy in the U.S., the branches of government, American ideologies, civil rights, and political participation.

7. AP Calculus AB

  • Number of Test-Takers (2021): 251,639
  • Pass Rate (3 or Higher): 51.0%

About a quarter of a million students took the AP Calculus AB exam in May 2021. The most important skills test-takers must demonstrate include using mathematical procedures to solve for values, justifying their solutions, and using correct mathematical conventions. 

Students who pass the AP Calc AB exam typically earn credit for an introductory college calculus course. To pass, students must understand limits and continuity, differentiation, inverse functions, accumulation of change, differential equations, and applications of integration.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Most Popular AP Exams

What are the least popular AP exams?

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In 2021, the least popular AP exams were as follows, based on number of test-takers:

  • AP Italian (2,102 test-takers)
  • AP Japanese (2,204 test-takers)
  • AP German (4,315 test-takers)
  • AP 3-D Art and Design (4,573 test-takers)
  • AP Latin (4,889 test-takers)

Many of the least popular AP exams are world language tests, as these exams generally target a more niche group of students. What's more, some languages are less commonly taught at high schools than others (e.g., Japanese and Italian courses are rarer than Spanish courses).

How do I decide which AP classes to take?

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There are many factors to consider when choosing AP classes. You should keep your subject strengths and weaknesses in mind. If historically you're a poor math student, then it'd probably be best to avoid AP Calculus AB.

You should also consider your workload. Students may not want to stack two intense AP classes in the same semester.

Do you have to take the AP exam if you take an AP class?

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No, the College Board does not require students who take an AP class to also take the exam. However, you need to take (and pass) the AP exam to be eligible for college credit. A passing AP score can also be included on your college applications.

Still, many AP students choose not to take the corresponding AP exam if they're confident they won't receive a passing grade.

Can you take an AP exam without taking the class?

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Yes, students are allowed to sign up for an AP exam without taking a class. Whether your school doesn't offer the AP class, you're homeschooled, or you simply wish to self-study, the College Board will allow you to sign up for any AP exam.

Note that you may need to register for the exam at a different school if your own does not administer it.

Feature Image: Hill Street Studios / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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