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Should I Take AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC?

Posted by Halle Edwards | Apr 8, 2015 5:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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Are you trying to decide between taking AB or BC Calculus? Or are you just wondering what the difference between the two classes is?

We’ll help you decide which AP Calculus class to take, based on your prerequisite classes plus your college and career goals.

 

Overview

Calculus AB and Calculus BC are both designed to be college-level calculus courses. As such, the main prerequisite for both AB and BC Calculus is Pre-Calculus.

When it comes to the AP Calculus classes, you have three options: you can take AB and BC Calculus as a sequence, take AB Calculus only, or skip AB Calculus and go straight to BC Calculus.

The reason you can take one or the other is because AB and BC aren’t totally different classes. BC Calculus includes everything in AB Calculus, plus a few extra topics. You’ll actually get an AB Calculus sub-score when you take the BC exam.

So Calculus BC is not necessarily more difficult than Calculus AB. BC Calculus has to move faster because it covers more material, which is what makes it more intense than AB.

Some schools teach AP Calculus BC in two class periods to fit in all the material, or have more intensive summer assignments. AP Calculus BC courses often cover everything in Calculus AB in the first semester, while AB stretches that material out over a full year.

If you decide to take Calculus AB and Calculus BC as a sequence – for example take AB Calculus junior year and then BC Calculus senior year – you don’t have to worry about picking between the two classes.

But if you only have room for one AP Calculus class, which one should you take? We’ll tell you the topics and discuss the benefits of each option below.

 

AP Calculus AB Topics

  • Functions, Graphs, and Limits
  • Derivatives
  • Applications of Derivatives
  • Integrals
  • Applications of Integrals

Source: AP Central

AP Calculus BC Topics

  • Functions, Graphs, and Limits
  • Derivatives
  • Applications of Derivatives
  • Integrals
  • Applications of Integrals
  • Polynomial Approximations and Series
  • Series of Constants
  • Taylor Series

Source: AP Central

 

Should You Jump to AP Calculus BC?

If you’re up to the challenge, jumping from pre-calculus to Calculus BC can be a great option.

 

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This could be especially good if you want to study engineering or natural science in college. Taking Calculus BC shows motivation and drive when it comes to math, and you’ll need strong math skills as an engineering or science major.

If you’re big on math, you could take an even more advanced calculus course at a local university or community college as a senior (that is if you take AP Calculus BC junior year). You can also make room for AP Statistics, Economics, or Computer Science in your senior year. Jumping to AP Calculus BC gives you a chance to really challenge yourself as a high school student.

It’s also important to note, at some schools, you can drop down to the AB Calculus course if you find that BC is too challenging. This might be a good option if you’re pretty sure you want to take BC Calculus but aren’t positive you will be able to keep up. (Of course, check with your guidance counselor before you sign up to make sure this is possible.)

Finally, taking and passing the BC Calculus exam gives you more math credit in college in the vast majority of cases. This is helpful for future engineering and natural science majors since you can jump into required math courses sooner.

To give just one example, at the University of Michigan College of Engineering, getting a 5 on AB Calculus gets you 4 credit hours, but getting a 5 on BC Calculus gets you 8 credit hours. (To look up the credit policy at any university, check out the AP’s college database.)

 

Should You Take AB Calculus Instead?

Even though you often get more college credit for BC Calculus, taking AB Calculus can be a great option as well.

You will still get a calculus background that'll set you up for college math. Although you won’t get to the extra topics that BC Calculus covers, you'll still learn core calculus concepts like limits, derivatives, and integrals. This will give you the fundamentals you need for tougher college math courses.

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You'll definitely know what this is by the end of AB Calculus!

 

Furthermore, if you take AB Calculus as a junior or younger, you can ramp up to BC Calculus the next year.

You’re less likely to be overwhelmed and burn out in AB Calculus, as well. Since BC Calculus has to cover more material in one year, at many schools it has more frequent and harder assignments. AB Calculus is definitely challenging, but it doesn't move as fast, so it's less likely you'll fall behind.

Taking AB Calculus might free up your schedule for an additional class. Since some schools teach BC over two class periods, you might not be able to fit in a different AP class or extracurricular. But AB Calculus will just be one class period, which could leave you room for another class.

And finally, in some cases, you’ll get the same math placement as you would for BC Calculus if you get a very good AP Exam score. (Read more about AP Exam scoring here.) For example, at my alma mater Stanford, if you had a 5 on AB Calculus, you would get placed in the same math course as students who had gotten a 4 or 5 on BC Calculus. Again, check the credit policy at the schools you’re interested in to see how much of a difference there is between AB and BC credit.

 

How Should You Decide?

Still not sure which class is the best for you? Consider the following questions.

 

Are You Prepared For AP Calculus?

Have you taken Algebra II and Pre-Calculus? These are the main prerequisite courses at most schools for AP Calculus. If you haven’t taken Pre-Calculus yet, don’t worry about deciding which calculus class you want to take just yet. Focus on doing well in Pre-Calculus!

 

Did You Do Well in Pre-Calculus?

Say you’ve taken or are currently taking Pre-Calculus. It’s possible to get by in many math classes by doing the problems and memorizing formulas but not truly understanding the material. However, a solid understanding of Pre-Calculus is necessary to do well in either AP Calculus class, but especially if you’re making the jump to BC.

How can you tell if you truly understand Pre-Calculus? See if you can explain your Pre-Calculus homework to a friend or younger sibling. If you can teach something, odds are you know it pretty well. However, if you struggle to explain a concept, it might be a sign you don’t know the material very deeply. If you're not sure you get Pre-Calculus, consider taking AB Calculus, since it moves slower and you'll have more time to learn the concepts.

 

Is There a Placement Exam?

This is another practical consideration. At some schools, you have to pass a placement exam to get into AB and/or BC Calculus. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched – make sure you pass the placement exam for AP Calculus before worrying about which course to take.

 

Is There a Summer Assignment?

Many schools have summer assignments for AP Calculus, since there is a lot of material to cover during the year. BC Calculus is more likely to have a longer assignment.

If you can, ask the teachers for copies of their summer assignments to see what they’re like. And think about your summer schedule. For example, have you already committed to a camp or service trip that’s going to take up most of your summer? If you’re not sure you’ll have time to complete the BC summer assignment, you might want to consider taking AB instead. You don’t want to start out the year behind!

 

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If you've committed to a service trip abroad, you might not have time for summer BC Calculus homework.

 

Will Taking AP Calculus BC Change Your Schedule?

As we discussed above, some schools require more class periods for BC Calculus since it covers more material. Would this cause you to have to give up an extracurricular, like band or newspaper? Or give you less flexibility in other parts of your schedule?

If you have to give up an extracurricular you’re very involved in, a language course, or another AP class, you'll have to decide if taking BC Calculus is worth it for you. If you want to study science or engineering, it likely will be. But if you’re undecided or think you’re going into the humanities or social sciences, it might be better to take AB Calculus.

 

What's Your Future Major?

Push for BC Calculus if you’re fairly certain you want to pursue engineering, natural sciences, or pre-medicine studies in college. BC Calculus will allow you to challenge yourself with a fast-moving, college-level math course, which will give you the skills you will need for engineering and science classes.

If you’re going to study the humanities/social sciences, AB Calculus is likely to be plenty to meet your future college’s basic math requirement. And even if you have to take a few math classes in college, AB Calculus will give the preparation you need.

 

What Are the Teachers Like?

Often, some of the best math teachers at a school teach the AP courses. But it’s also possible that less effective teachers end up in those classes, especially if more students than expected sign up for AP Calculus. So how do you figure out whether the AP Calculus teachers are your school are good?

How To Scope Out Classes

  1. Ask for a copy of this year’s syllabus for both AB and BC Calculus. See the workload is like. Also see how the teacher integrates practice AP problems and full exams. If AP exam practice isn't part of the course, that can be a red flag.
  1. Talk to current students about how they like the class. Older siblings and their friends, as well as older friends from clubs and sports, are a good place to start. Ask if they feel prepared for the AP test and/or feel confident about the material. Don't trust student word-of-mouth entirely, but if you hear the same thing from multiple students (“the BC calculus teacher is amazing!") it’s probably true.
  1. Ask your guidance counselor about the teacher’s AP test passing rate if they’ve been teaching the class for a while. If they have a high passing rate (above the national average) that’s a good sign. If it’s markedly lower, you might want to reconsider.

One thing to keep in mind: it’s possible that if your school has an excellent BC teacher but a less strong AB teacher, BC could actually be easier since you’ll be learning the same concepts with a better teacher. If you’re especially reliant on your teachers in math classes, you might want to take the course with the better teacher.

On the flipside, if the AP Calculus AB teacher is excellent and the AP Calculus BC teacher is not, it would be smart to start with AB Calculus to get a strong foundation before attempting BC.

 

The Bottom Line

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Take BC Calculus if…

  • You feel confident about your math skills and want to challenge yourself
  • You’ve taken math through Pre-Calculus
  • You can pass any required placement tests
  • You want to pursue engineering/natural science/pre-medicine studies in college
  • The class and teacher at your school seem good (no obvious red flags in terms of student word-of-mouth or AP test passing rate)

Take AB Calculus if…

  • You want or need more flexibility in your schedule
  • You've taken math through Pre-Calculus
  • You’re less confident in your math skills and/or want to ramp up to BC Calculus after taking AB Calculus
  • You can pass any required placement tests
  • You plan on studying the humanities or social sciences in college
  • The class and teacher at your school seem good

 

What’s Next?

Getting strong SAT/ACT math scores is important for college too, especially if you’re a future engineer. Get tips for a perfect SAT math score or a perfect ACT math score.

Want to get into top engineering schools? See our guide to the scores you’ll need.

Interested in math competitions like the International Math Olympiad? See our guide for passing the qualifying tests – the AMC 10 and the AMC 12.

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Halle Edwards
About the Author

Halle Edwards graduated from Stanford University with honors. In high school, she earned 99th percentile ACT scores as well as 99th percentile scores on SAT subject tests. She also took nine AP classes, earning a perfect score of 5 on seven AP tests. As a graduate of a large public high school who tackled the college admission process largely on her own, she is passionate about helping high school students from different backgrounds get the knowledge they need to be successful in the college admissions process.



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