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Exactly How Hard Are AP Tests and Classes?

Posted by Halle Edwards | Jul 5, 2017 1:30:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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Sure, they can help you get college credit and make your transcript more impressive. But are AP tests hard?

The answer isn’t an easy yes or no. You need to consider many factors, including your own academic strengths, your school, and national score statistics. We'll guide you through these different factors and help you decide for yourself how hard AP tests will be!

 

The AP Test Versus the AP Class

There are two factors to consider when deciding how hard an AP subject is: the difficulty of the AP exam itself, and how the AP class is taught at your high school. Your score on the exam will affect whether you can get college credit for the class. Your grade in the class will affect your GPA and overall transcript impressiveness.

For example, if you’re wondering, “is AP Biology hard?”, the answer depends on a few factors. AP Biology could be a very tough course at one high school but an easy A at another, depending on the teacher and curriculum.

The exams, however, are pretty similar year to year. Some are harder than others, though your experience will depend on your personal strengths.

In general, all AP classes are challenging and the exams are difficult, since they’re meant to be at the same level of an introductory college class. But we will explore some factors that could make an AP class and test harder or easier.

 

How Hard Is It to Pass the Exam?

Earning a passing score (3+) on the AP test proves that you mastered the material and are able to study for a college-style cumulative exam. Doing well on the AP exam can help you get college credit and give your college applications a boost.

It’s important to think about how hard an AP exam will be for you before signing up for the class. The average passing rate is between 60-70%, so your odds of passing an AP exam are generally good. However, just because the odds are in favor of passing does not mean you can slack off—far from it.

The odds of passing with a 5—the highest score—are quite low on any exam, between 10% and 20%. They are even lower for popular tests like both AP English tests and AP US History which have 5 rates below 10%. This is likely because a wider pool of exam takers results in more less-prepared students taking the test. Check out the table below with passing rates for all of the AP exams.

Exam Name Passing Rate (3+) 5 Rate
Chinese Language and Culture (Total) 92.6% 68.8%
Spanish Language and Culture (Total) 88.5% 19.5%
Seminar 86.8% 6.7%
Studio Art: Drawing 85.5% 21.9%
Calculus BC (AB Subscore) 85.1% 48.4%
Studio Art: 2-D Design 85.1% 19.3%
Spanish Language and Culture (Standard) 83.7% 15.9%
Calculus BC 80.6% 42.6%
Physics C: Mechanics 79.4% 36.4%
Japanese Language and Culture (Total) 76.9% 45.1%
German Language and Culture (Total) 75.5% 23.0%
French Language and Culture (Total) 75.4% 17.0%
Computer Science Principles 74.5% 13.8%
Spanish Literature and Culture 73.2% 9.6%
French Language and Culture (Standard) 71.8% 11.0%
Studio Art: 3-D Design 71.6% 12.0%
Italian Language and Culture (Total) 71.5% 18.4%
Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism 71.4% 31.9%
Chinese Language and Culture (Standard) 70.3% 21.8%
Research 70.3% 16.8%
Microeconomics 69.5% 23.5%
German Language and Culture (Standard) 68.9% 9.7%
Italian Language and Culture (Standard) 68.4% 7.6%
Gov. and Politics - Comparative 68.1% 23.2%
Computer Science A 67.0% 24.2%
Psychology 64.2% 19.1%
Biology 64.1% 6.4%
Physics 2 63.5% 12.9%
Latin 63.4% 12.5%
Art History 61.2% 11.1%
Music Theory 60.9% 19.2%
Music Theory (Aural Subscore) 60.7% 18.7%
Japanese Language and Culture (Standard) 60.6% 17.9%
Music Theory (Nonaural Subscore) 59.9% 19.1%
European History 56.0% 9.3%
Macroeconomics 57.6% 17.4%
Calculus AB 57.5% 18.7%
English Language and Composition 55.0% 9.1%
World History 55.0% 8.5%
Statistics 54.3% 13.6%
English Literature and Composition 52.6% 6.8%
Chemistry 52.4% 10.1%
United States History 50.9% 10.8%
Environmental Science 49.4% 9.5%
Gov. and Politics - United States 49.3% 11.1%
Human Geography 48.9% 10.7%
Physics 1 41.9% 5.4%

Source: College Board. For language rates, "Total" includes all students, while "Standard" includes only those students who didn't indicate they speak this language at home or spent more than four weeks studying it abroad.

 

Note that a lot of AP classes self-select for motivated students and/or students with experience in a subject—especially the ones with ridiculously high pass rates like BC Calculus, Chinese, and Physics. Even though they have high pass rates, these exams are often viewed as some of the hardest AP classes to pass.

Also notice that exams with some of the lowest passing rates, like Environmental Science and Human Geography, are ones many students say are the easiest. They have lower passing rates because younger high school students who are less prepared for AP exams often take these classes, but also because students simply underestimate them and don’t study enough. So they can be easier to pass, but you have to be prepared to study and not expect to pass without some hard work.

If you are studying for a test with a particularly low pass rate or 5 rate, make sure to do plenty of multiple-choice and free-response practice if you want that top score. Also consult our scoring guide to learn how to come up with a target raw score while practicing.

Also, instead of just going off the pass rate table only, think about subjects you’ve traditionally been strong at—they will likely be easier APs for you to pass.

On the other hand, if there is a subject you have always struggled in, the AP exam will likely be hard, even if it seems like a lot of students are able to pass it every year.

 

How Hard Are AP Classes?

So what about the classes themselves? Is AP Chemistry hard? Is AP Psychology hard? How about Statistics or English?

How hard an AP class itself will be for you is important to consider. While a B in an AP class is generally more impressive than an A in a regular course, if you take a bunch of AP classes but your GPA gets dragged down by them, that’s not the best outcome either.

After all, your GPA is very important in college admissions and is used in many scholarship calculations. You want to make sure you challenge yourself but don’t spread yourself too thin.

 

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Of course, getting an A in an AP class is ideal.
 
 

The difficulty of a particular AP class depends on your school and your school’s grading policy (some schools weight AP classes so getting lower than an A won’t necessarily drop your GPA below a 4.0).

AP class difficulty also varies a lot from teacher to teacher. Some teachers won’t assign a lot of work but will expect you to study on your own. Others will keep you busy with nightly assignments, practice tests, and projects.

As an example, I took both World History and U.S. History AP courses while I was in high school. Both exams are considered difficult. You have to learn a ton of material, and also be able to write quality free-response answers in a short amount of time, to pass the exams.

However, even though the tests were similarly hard, these two AP history classes were taught very differently at my school. For World History, we were given reading assignments out of the textbook and unit tests, but there were not many daily assignments or projects. In other words, we were expected to keep up with the material on our own. For that class, I had to independently handle much of my own studying for the test.

For US History, we had textbook readings, outlines, vocabulary lists, and research projects. Our teacher also held many after-school and Saturday study sessions. The class itself kept me very busy, but the assignments were all important practice for the AP test, and so there was less I had to do on my own.

World History was fairly easy to get an A in but a tough test to pass. US History was tough to get an A in and a tough test to pass.

There is no “right” way to teach an AP class, but as a student, you should be aware of your strengths and limitations. Do you do better directing your own studying, or is it helpful for you to have daily assignments to force you to stay on top of things?

Knowing this will help choose AP classes that will play to your strengths, and help you get good grades and pass the exam.

In general, there is a lot of material to cover in an AP class so they tend to be more challenging than regular classes—especially courses like AP Calculus, AP Biology, AP Physics, US and World History, and English. These are all much harder than their regular or Honors equivalents.

Some exceptions are US Government, which some schools cover in one semester because there is less material, and Environmental Science, which has less memorization than Biology and Chemistry.

Still, how hard any one AP class will be depends on your school and the teacher. Find out about the teacher and curriculum of an AP class before signing up, to make sure it’s a good fit for you and your study style. (See our post Which AP Class Should I Take for more on scoping out classes.)

 

How to Decide If an AP Class Is Too Hard for You

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Before You Sign Up

#1: Think about which classes have you taken to prepare. For example, to take AP Biology, most schools have students take regular or honors biology first. The more background knowledge you have, the better you will likelier do in the class.

If you haven’t had a ton of prerequisites for an AP class, think carefully about whether the course will be out of your reach. It would be very tough to take on, say, AP Physics, if you have never taken a dedicated physics course before.

#2: Can you find a copy of the syllabus from this year? Find out what the workload is like and how the teacher integrates practice AP exams. You could also talk to current students and ask about their experience in the class.

#3: Find out the passing rate for that AP test at your school. If it’s low, recognize you might have to put in a lot of work on your own to pass. If it’s high, that’s a good sign the teacher has a strong AP-prep curriculum in place.

#4: Also find out if there is a summer assignment. Many AP classes kick off with work over the summer. If you already have summer plans that will make it hard to complete the work, think carefully about whether you can fit the class into your schedule.

 

After You Sign Up

#1: Evaluate how things are going at your first midterm: what’s your grade so far in the class? How do you do with the teacher’s style? How well are you getting the material? Consider dropping to the regular class if you are seriously struggling, but try to push through the first marking period (just make sure you don’t pass your school’s class change deadline).

#2: Reevaluate at the end of the first term. If by the end of the first quarter/trimester your grade hasn’t improved and/or you don’t think you are getting the material, seriously consider dropping to regular. It’s not worth taking the exam if you’re certain you won’t pass, and it’s definitely not worth damaging your GPA over an AP test you won’t pass.

#3: Before dropping, explore extra resources you could take advantage of—including in-school tutoring, private tutoring, online resources, and study groups. If meeting with a study group once a week or doing your own online practice problems helps you keep up with a class, then consider pushing through.

However, if you try adding an outside resource and are still seriously struggling to understand the material and get through the class, drop to regular and focus your efforts on other advanced classes.

 

What’s Next?

Learn more about AP testshow long are they, and how can you deal with the exhaustion? Also learn about how AP tests are scored. The first step to getting a 5 is finding out the minimum raw score you need to earn one!

Have you taken the ACT or SAT yet? Not sure which one you’ll do best on? Read our guide to choose the test that’s right for you.

If you have taken the SAT and want to improve, see our guides to improving your Critical Reading, Writing, and Math scores.

If you're taking the ACT, learn the vocabulary you need, all of the necessary grammar rules, and how to write an ACT essay.

 

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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