AP Biology is a popular AP class, and many students are curious about the challenges it presents. Is AP Biology hard? Will you spend hours upon hours studying for the class? Are you likely to fail the exam? Or are AP tests much easier than they seem?
In this article, I’ll look at statistics, course material, and student perceptions to present you with a clear picture of the difficulty level of the class and exam. I'll also give you some tips to help you figure out how challenging AP Biology will be for you based on your academic strengths and weaknesses.
What Factors Go Into Determining the Difficulty of an AP Class?
There are a few indicators we can look at to make judgments about how hard a particular AP class might be. Here's a list of key considerations that I'll explore in more detail for the AP Biology course later in this article.
Factor #1: Passing Rate
The passing rate for an AP class is the percentage of students who earn a 3 or above on the exam. If the passing rate is on the lower side, it may indicate a more difficult class. However, the passing rate can also be a deceptive statistic. Sometimes, passing rates in the most difficult subjects are very high because only the most dedicated students take the class. A smaller pool of more serious students will be a better-prepared group overall.
Factor #2: 5 Rate
The 5 rate is potentially a better metric for determining the difficulty of AP classes. The 5 rate is the percentage of students who earn 5s (the highest possible score) on the AP test for the class. If the 5 rate is on the lower side, it may indicate that the material is more difficult to master (or even to understand reasonably well, since the 5 cutoff is around 70 percent correct on many AP tests). A low 5 rate also sometimes happens with very popular classes because the proportion of students who are prepared for an AP test tends to decrease as the number of students taking it increases.
Factor #3: Content Difficulty
The complexity of the curriculum is one of the most important factors that goes into determining the difficulty of an AP class. This essentially boils down to the amount of material the course covers and how advanced that material is. Some courses have high 5 and passing rates because their content is extremely challenging and only very driven students will take them, not because they are easy classes.
Factor #4: Student Testimonials
What do students say about the class? This can change from high school to high school, but there should be some consistency based on the fact that everyone is supposed to be learning the same curriculum, and everyone ends up taking the same test. Student feedback can provide more information about the day to day challenges of the class and whether the workload is especially daunting.
Factor #5: Timing of the Class
A final factor to consider is which year of high school students tend to take the class. The classes that students take later in high school will be more difficult overall though some students may perceive them as being easier than other AP classes that they took when they had less experience. The reverse is true of classes that students take earlier in high school.
If you are one of the lucky few to earn a 5, you should get one of these candles, put it in a cake, and eat the entire thing by yourself. Only then will you truly possess the top score.
What Do Statistics Say About the AP Biology Exam?
Let’s take a look at the passing rate and the 5 rate for the AP Biology exam. The passing rate for the AP Biology exam in 2018 was 61.5 percent. This is a middle-of-the-road passing rate as compared to other AP exams, so we would assume from it that the AP Biology exam has a medium level of difficulty. The 5 rate, however, was only 7.2 percent. This is one of the lowest 5 rates out of all the AP exams. From the 5 rate, we would assume AP Biology to be a very difficult test.
What’s actually going on here? Based on these statistics, is the AP Biology exam medium-difficulty or very challenging?
We have to keep in mind that AP Biology is one of the more popular AP classes. This means that a large number of students take the class, which tends to increase the proportion of students who are underprepared for the test.
Still, the 5 rate is so low that it can’t be completely attributed to the volume of students. It's clearly very challenging to get a high score on the test even if most students pass, so from this we can assume that the exam is difficult.
Is the AP Biology Content Difficult?
There’s no question that the breadth of content covered in AP Biology is extensive. It requires memorization of complex processes along with a deep understanding of how biological concepts and themes connect with one another. There are also many lab assignments that teachers have to schedule around lectures, so it ends up being a heavy workload overall.
The AP Biology exam could also be considered more challenging than other AP tests because of its format. The multiple choice section also includes six “grid-in” math problems related to biological concepts. The free response section has eight questions (two long response and six short response), which is more than most other AP exams. The test requires extensive knowledge of many different topics as well as a lot of stamina.
Do Students Think AP Biology Is Hard?
Personally, I found AP Biology to be one of the most difficult classes I took. There was just so much information to remember. Studying for tests took much longer than it did in any of my other classes, and I still forgot stuff. This coupled with lab assignments made the class extremely challenging.
Then again, I didn’t take an introductory bio class before taking AP Biology, and it was my first-ever AP class. It’s a good idea to take a basic biology class beforehand if you have the opportunity so that you get a basic foundation for advanced concepts covered in the AP class.
The most common way that students describe AP Biology (based on College Confidential threads) is that it’s very, very memorization-heavy. The test and curriculum were redesigned in 2012 to try and mitigate this a little, but it still covers a ton of conceptually difficult material.
Most students take AP Biology their junior or senior year. This makes the claims about the difficulty of the class even more valid. Students have had a chance to adjust to the demands of high school academics and compare their experience in AP Biology to other high-level classes, and they still find it challenging. Since students see AP Biology as a hard class, it’s less likely that unmotivated or unprepared students will take it. This makes the low 5 rate on the test all the more daunting.
Your lab assignment is to take this cutie for a walk! If only...
Will AP Biology Be Hard for You?
Since schools and students are different, I can’t say for sure whether AP Biology will be as hard for you as it might be for other students. To decide whether the class will be a challenge, you should:
#1: Ask Reliable Sources About the Class
The best way to learn what AP Biology is like at your school is to question people who are familiar with the class or have already taken it. If you know any older students or have siblings, you might ask them what they thought of the class. You can also speak with your current teachers (probably your science teacher is the best person to ask) and see what they say about AP Biology at your school. Since they know your academic abilities and have observed how similar students performed in the class, they might be able to give you a more accurate idea of how hard it will be for you.
The same goes for your guidance counselor. He or she is probably very familiar with the grades that students earn in AP Biology and how people have performed on the exam in the past. Your guidance counselor may also be able to give you perspective on how challenging the class will be for you based on the grades you’ve earned in high school thus far.
#2: Take Your Academic Strengths and Weaknesses Into Account
As I’ve said, AP Biology is memorization-heavy, but it's also important to have a solid understanding of basic science and experimental design to succeed. There's a small mathematical component to the class as well, although it doesn’t go beyond algebra, geometry, and graphing skills. If math and science aren't typically your strong suits, AP Biology may be more difficult for you than it is for some other students. If, on the other hand, you've always done well in these types of classes, you might find AP Biology to be less challenging.
Still, AP Biology incorporates skills from many different subject areas. Since there’s a lot of memorization involved, the actual study skills that you need to succeed are somewhat similar to those required in social studies classes. Well-rounded students may actually have the biggest advantage in the class because it draws on skills from a variety of subject areas but requires you to implement them in a scientific (and sometimes mathematical) context.
#3: Consider Your Schedule
If you have the opportunity to take an introductory biology class before you take AP Biology, you might find the AP class less challenging. You'll also be able to manage AP Biology better if your schedule isn’t loaded up with other difficult, memorization-heavy classes. For example, if you’re thinking about taking AP Biology and a class like AP US History at the same time, you should understand that both classes could end up being more stressful because of the time you’ll have to spend studying the material (which is extensive and complex in both cases).
If you take too many intense classes, it can create a perfect storm of stress.
Conclusion: So, Is AP Biology Hard?
AP Biology is one of the more difficult APs based on its challenging curriculum, the low rate of students who earn 5s on the exam, and the consensus from students on the demanding nature of the class. Ideally, you should take an Intro to Biology class before you take AP Biology so that you’re fully prepared. It's a challenging class for most students, but it should be manageable if you’re aware of what you’re facing.
Want to get a taste of what you'll be learning in AP Biology? Find out what an enzyme is, what the differences between homologous and analogous structures are, and three tenets of cell theory.
If you're already a biology pro, don't sweat—we have a few more in-depth articles for you, too. Review with our articles about the functions of the endoplasmic reticulum and cell membrane and what the photosynthesis equation is.
Thinking about signing up for AP Biology? Read this article on how to register for AP classes and exams.
You can also check out this article to learn which additional AP classes you should take in high school.
Looking for an easier AP class than Biology? Learn which AP classes tend to be the least challenging for students.
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Samantha is a blog content writer for PrepScholar. Her goal is to help students adopt a less stressful view of standardized testing and other academic challenges through her articles. Samantha is also passionate about art and graduated with honors from Dartmouth College as a Studio Art major in 2014. In high school, she earned a 2400 on the SAT, 5's on all seven of her AP tests, and was named a National Merit Scholar.