Is AP Biology Hard? A Complete Guide

Learn how to ace AP Biology to boost your GPA and earn college credit. Skip the prerequisites and get placed in a college-level biology course.
8 min read

Share this Article

  • AP Biology is the most popular course among natural science subjects.
  • Dense content and mass study materials make this course challenging to complete.
  • Of students taking this AP exam, the majority earn a "qualified" score of 3.
  • Many schools offer credit and/or placement for scores of 3-5 on this AP exam.

AP Biology is a college-level course designed to prepare high school students for higher learning. Excelling in AP Biology tends to be more challenging than other popular AP courses.

Of the more than 212,000 students who took AP Biology in 2021, less than 10% earned the highest possible score (5) on the exam for this course. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Ready to Start Your Journey?

While difficult, earning a score of 3 or above in AP Biology satisfies most general education requirements for this subject in college.

What Does AP Biology Cover?

AP Biology covers, in depth, the study of living organisms. The course includes an emphasis in inquiry-based investigations, with a quarter of the course dedicated to hands-on learning through labs. Prerequisites include high-school-level biology and chemistry.

Students may also choose to take an additional introductory or prep course before pursuing AP Biology.

AP Biology covers content across four major categories:

  • Evolution
  • Energetics
  • Information storage and transmission
  • Systems interactions

Topics explore biological diversity, development, and dynamics spanning the cycle of life.

In addition to course content, students learn to develop scientific exploration, explanation, and analysis skills.

What Determines the Difficulty of AP Biology? 3 Key Factors

Several factors determine the level of difficulty among AP courses, including the pass rate, the course material, and your subject skills.

Courses like AP Biology tend to present more of a learning challenge than some other subjects, as evidenced by their below-average pass rates and perfect scores, large amounts of study materials, and underprepared students.

The Pass Rate

How students score on an AP course can speak to the course's level of difficulty. AP courses with pass rates, or a score of 3 or higher, at or near 100% are deemed "easier," while lower pass rates indicate that students must work harder to earn a decent score on the exam.

As shown below, AP Biology yields a pass rate lower than across all AP classes, indicating a higher level of difficulty.

Additionally, as is typical of an especially challenging AP course, the percentage of perfect scores is significantly lower than that of other AP classes. This means passing, and especially perfect, scores in AP Biology are possible, yet hard won.

AP Biology Exam Pass Rates
AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
AP Biology 69.1% 9.5%
All AP Classes 71.13% 19.57%

Source: College Board

While other factors affect the level of difficulty of an AP course, exam pass rates and perfect scores are a sensible first step in determining what to expect.

Even if all indicators point to a high level of difficulty, students should remember that completing an AP course and passing the exam also heavily depend on the strength of a school and its instructors.

The Course Material

The volume and depth of the course material also affects the level of difficulty of an AP course. AP Biology, for example, requires students to study large amounts of material and digest heavy concepts to prepare for the exam.

AP Biology course material, in subjects like biochemistry and molecular genetics, is singular in nature and not casually absorbed through osmosis. Students should plan to study for months in advance to prepare for the AP Biology exam.

Your Subject Skills

Exceptional biology and general study skills can benefit students in this AP course. Students with an existing knowledge of introductory biology and chemistry can easily expand their understanding of advanced biology through an AP course.

Additionally, students with experience in inquiry-based scientific investigations, written and oral communication, and math and statistics may find this course less challenging than inexperienced learners.

When Should You Take AP Biology?

Most students take AP Biology in their junior or senior year of high school. Since AP Biology is conceptually complex, teachers recommend taking this course in the latter years of high school after satisfying introductory science courses.

In fact, some schools require that students complete first-year courses in chemistry, biology, and physics before taking AP Biology.

While stacking courses seems sensible in theory, many students find it difficult to take multiple AP classes simultaneously, in practice. Most students can handle up to four "easy" AP courses at a time, or 2-3 challenging AP classes in topics like biology.

Schools recommend spacing out AP courses over all four high school years, satisfying "easy" courses first, whenever possible.

AP Biology Exam: What You Need to Know

As shown below, the largest percentage of students scored a 3 in AP Biology in 2020, which is the minimum requirement for advanced placement and applied credit at most colleges. The following sections explain how the exam is structured and scored.

AP Biology
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 22,063 9.5%
4 52,990 22.7%
3 86,176 36.9%
2 56,220 24.1%
1 15,995 6.9%

Source: College Board

How Is the AP Biology Exam Structured?

The AP Biology exam comprises two equally timed sections of multiple-choice and free-response questions. The exam may present multiple-choice questions individually or in sets of 4-5.

All six science practices are tested in the multiple-choice section: concept explanation, visual representations, questions and methods, representing and describing data, statistical tests and data analysis, and argumentation.

Section II requires responses to six different prompts, assessing skills including reading comprehension, interpreting experimental results, and conceptual analysis.

  • Section I: 60 Multiple-choice Questions (90 Minutes)
  • Section II: 6 Free-response Questions (90 Minutes)

How Is the AP Biology Exam Scored?

Both sections of the exam account for half of the total score. Since section two includes six questions, each one counts for an equal percentage of the score, totaling 50% for that section.

Students receive one point for each multiple-choice question answered correctly and, in the free-response section, up to four points per each short-answer question and 8-10 points per long response. Students' composite scores are converted to a final score from 1-5.

How the AP Biology Exam is Scored
Section 1 50%
Multiple-choice Questions 50%
Section 2 50%
Experimental Results Question 8.33%
Experimental Results with Graphing Question 8.33%
Scientific Investigation Question 8.33%
Conceptual Analysis Question 8.33%
Analyze Model Question 8.33%
Analyze Data Question 8.33%

Source: College Board

AP Biology: What Score Do I Need for College Credit?

Most schools offer college credit to students with a score of 3 or higher on the AP Biology exam. Generally, a score of 3 is considered "qualified," a 4 is "well qualified," and a 5 is "extremely qualified."

Some schools will accept a 3 but prefer scores of 4-5 to apply credits toward a college-level biology course. Others, though rarer in their exclusivity, require a minimum score of 4 or, even more exclusively, a perfect score of 5, to achieve advanced placement in biology.

Should You Take AP Biology?

Challenging subjects like AP Biology require major studying and planning to earn college credit. This course best suits students with a working knowledge of biology, chemistry, and physics, and established successful study habits including time management and detail orientation.

Students who feel easily overwhelmed, have no science experience, and/or are looking to cram AP courses for "easy" college credit should steer clear of AP Biology.

While AP Biology may be considered challenging compared to other subjects, each student is different and difficulty is relative when it comes to academics. Asking teachers and past students for their perspective is a great way to gauge the level of difficulty for AP Biology at your particular school.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP Biology

Is AP Biology worth it?

Chevron Down

Yes, taking AP Biology and passing the AP exam can boost a student's GPA, prepare them for rigorous college coursework, and offer college credits. Students may take AP Biology in their junior or senior year of high school to potentially skip this general requirement upon future enrollment in a college program.

While this course has a reputation for being challenging, students who put in the effort to complete this course and earn a "qualified" score of 3 or above on the exam can reap the rewards through advanced college placement.

Prospective life sciences majors are especially well suited to an AP Biology course.

Do colleges care about AP Biology?

Chevron Down

Yes, especially since AP grades can boost a student's GPA and reflect positively on their high school transcripts. Students can also highlight their commitment to prepare for college-level coursework through high school AP courses.

Due to the level of difficulty of AP Biology and the majors that require it, schools tend to favor the hard-won scores of AP Biology exams. Students with high scores are typically rewarded with advanced placement in college-level courses and credit toward biology programs.

How many credits do you get for AP Biology?

Chevron Down

Though schools vary, most offer 3-8 credits for a top score on the AP Biology exam. Schools may offer advanced placement, course credit, or both, depending on a student's AP Biology exam score.

For example, many schools grant students who scored a 5 on the exam advanced placement in a college-level biology course. Others offer a set number of credits for a score of 3, 4, or 5, with or without placement in a biology class.

Some schools assign credits for a high score on the AP exam only after students also complete a prerequisite biology course.

Feature Image: SolStock / E+ / Getty Images is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Compare Your School Options

View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.