AP Chemistry is an intimidating subject if you're not familiar with the material. There are all these weird formulas with superscripts and subscripts to remember, and it involves what some students view as an unpleasant amount of math. But is AP Chemistry as hard as it sounds?
In this article, I'll examine five different factors to reach a conclusion regarding the true difficulty level of AP Chemistry in comparison with other high-level classes.
2020 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests will now be held remotely, and information about how that will work is still evolving. Stay up to date with the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what this means for you with our AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
What Determines the Difficulty of an AP Class? 5 Factors
Before we talk about AP Chemistry specifically, what are the main factors that determine how hard (or easy) an AP class is? Let's take a look at the top five.
Factor 1: Passing Rate
The number of test takers who score 3 or higher on an AP test is a good indication of how difficult the AP class is. If a very high percentage of students earn passing scores, it might mean that the class is less challenging.
It might also mean, however, that the particular class attracts higher-achieving students who are extremely well prepared and tend to do better on tests across the board. That's why, in addition to score averages, we also need to consider the perceptions of students and the actual difficulty of the content.
Factor 2: 5 Score Rate
Another piece of data that's slightly different from the passing rate is the percentage of students earning 5s (the highest possible score) on the AP test.
A large percentage of students may pass an AP test, but if only a small group earns 5s, it usually means that true mastery of the subject is hard to come by. The cutoff for a 5 on most AP tests only requires answering 60-70% of questions correctly, so even a 5 doesn't necessarily represent complete comprehension of the material being tested.
Factor 3: Content Difficulty
The content covered is, of course, a central factor that affects the difficulty of an AP course. Even if most students pass the exam, the class itself might be challenging because of the amount of ground it covers or because of the complexity of the material. In this case, a high passing rate would indicate that only very driven students take the class, and everyone else shies away from it.
Factor 4: How Students Perceive the Class
The difficulty of AP classes can also be judged by the way students view them.
As I mentioned, some classes with high passing rates owe these statistics to self-selection by high-achieving students. That doesn't mean that these students think the material is easy, though. They're just more dedicated to working through challenging concepts. Evidently, student feedback can provide yet another perspective on the difficulty of an AP class.
Factor 5: When Students Take the Class
If students take the class earlier in high school, they're more likely to perceive it as difficult. If they take it their junior or senior year, on the other hand, they're more likely to feel comfortable with the material. Why? By this time, most students have adapted to their high school workloads and have possibly already taken other AP classes, too.
These are the five main factors that determine the difficulty of an AP class. In the next sections, I'll analyze all these factors for the AP Chemistry class and exam to give you a better idea of how much of a challenge they'll present for you.
Chemistry's the one with the shapes and stuff, right? (Sorry, I can't use a screencap of Channing Tatum from 21 Jump Street for legal reasons, and I can't say the real line cuz I'm keepin' it clean. But you get the reference—or at least you do now because I overexplained it.)
What Do Statistics Say About the AP Chemistry Exam?
It's now time for us to determine the difficulty of AP Chemistry specifically.
First off, what's the passing rate for AP Chemistry? In 2019, the passing rate (i.e., the percent of test takers who scored 3 or higher) was 55.6%. This rate is lower than that for the AP Biology test (64.7%) and slightly higher than that for US History (53.7%). Human Geography, World History, US History, US Government and Politics, Physics 1, English Language and Composition, English Literature and Composition, and Environmental Science are the only tests that have lower passing rates than Chemistry does.
This data indicates that Chemistry is a difficult test—but, as you can see, there's an eclectic mix of different subjects with low passing rates. Passing rates don't always reflect how hard AP tests are; rather, these results represent a combination of which types of students tend to take the class and the objective complexity of the material covered. AP Environmental Science, for example, doesn't cover super challenging concepts, but students who choose to take this AP class tend to be less intense—they might take it as a one-off AP when they're in mostly mid-level classes otherwise.
Even keeping these factors in mind, I think AP Chemistry's low passing rate is reflective of a high level of difficulty. Usually, only the most driven students take AP Chemistry, and they're still not passing the test at an especially high rate.
We can also look at the 5 rate for the test. The 5 rate for AP Chemistry is 11.5%. Only nine other AP tests have lower 5 rates. This statistic is consistent with the passing rate in terms of AP Chemistry's position among other AP tests. Because the passing rate and the 5 rate are well aligned in this way, I'm inclined to conclude that AP Chemistry is a test on the difficult end of the AP spectrum.
You know, the AP spectrum. It's like the color spectrum except with no colors—only darkness and pain.
Is the Content of the AP Chemistry Class Difficult?
There's a lot of material covered in AP Chemistry. The course involves memorization of complex principles, mastery of specific mathematical skills, and the ability to visualize interactions between tiny things that can only be represented abstractly. It's similar to AP Biology in some ways, but it's even harder to intuitively understand if you don't know much about chemistry in the first place.
Take this official AP Chemistry multiple-choice question, for example:
If you haven't taken any chemistry classes, this question will be virtually incomprehensible to you (the answer is D, if you're wondering). There's a whole separate language around chemistry, with symbols and words that are almost never used in daily life—unless you're a chemist or chemical engineer. Questions on a test like AP Biology might ask about advanced concepts, but there aren't as many unfamiliar terms or new ways of thinking involved as there are on the AP Chemistry test.
In general, you need a wide range of skills to succeed in chemistry, and these skills build on each other from the ground up. The foundations of the Chemistry course deal with memorizing the properties of different substances and developing an understanding of why they behave in certain ways under certain conditions. You'll use this knowledge to conduct data analysis and do calculations.
To show you what I mean, here's an example of a question you might see on the Chemistry test:
For part a, the conjugate base form, In-, is the predominant form of HIn in the buffer in Beaker Y. This is because the pH of the beaker (7) is greater than the pKa of HIn (5), which means that the equilibrium reaction will form a significant amount of products (In- and H3O+).
For part b, the acid form of HIn predominates the aqueous layer of Beaker X since pH (3) < pKa (5). HIn is a neutral molecule, so some of it can dissolve in the oil layer of Beaker X due to London dispersion interactions with the oil (which leads to the yellow color of the oil layer). The oil layer in Beaker Y, on the other hand, is colorless because In- is charged. It will mainly dissolve in the aqueous layer of Beaker Y due to ion-dipole interactions with water.
This question asks students to draw on background knowledge of acids and buffer solutions to explain the chemical interactions present in a specific scenario. If you don't understand the basic concepts of the course, you won't be able to justify your answers to more advanced problems. The cumulative nature of AP Chemistry's wide-ranging curriculum and the complex critical-thinking skills required to answer most questions on the exam contribute to its reputation as a very challenging course.
If you have cracks in your foundation, you'll have to halt construction on the monument to AP Chemistry that symbolizes your understanding of the material. Seriously, though—stop building that thing and do your real homework.
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Do Students Think AP Chemistry Is Hard?
From personal experience, I'd say yes to this question—but ultimately it depends heavily on your aptitude for the material, the quality of your teacher, and your previous experiences with chemistry. As someone who had a terrible AP Chemistry teacher, I found it very difficult to understand the concepts I was being taught. It was especially hard because my high school didn't give us the option of taking an introductory chemistry course before AP.
Students who have a stronger background in chemistry might find the class easier to get through, but AP Chemistry is still notorious for having lots of homework and challenging tests.
This goes back to one of the factors listed at the beginning of this article: when students tend to take the class. Many high schoolers take AP Chemistry in their junior or senior year after taking an introductory chemistry course. The fact that even these students see AP Chemistry as a hard course validates the judgments we've made thus far about its high difficulty level.
Almost every academic skill is involved. You'll have to deal with problem sets, labs, and extensive memorization of chemical properties. The math aspect of the course includes unit conversions, reaction balancing, and other stoichiometry problems (which use relationships between reactants and products in a chemical reaction to do calculations). If math doesn't come easily to you, AP Chemistry will be more difficult.
Students have varied opinions of the class depending on how it's taught at their schools. The main response is that although it's a lot of work, it can be a rewarding experience. Everyone seems to agree that the quality of teaching has a huge impact on the difficulty level and enjoyability of the class.
Here's what some students think about AP Chemistry. Quotes come from College Confidential, and all bold emphasis is mine.
I took it sophomore year and it was definitely rough. However, much of that was because of the teacher. If you've already taken CP Chem, AP likely won't be as hard for you as it is for many others.
I think that it is hard compared to my other classes (I am taking 5 more APs at the moment in addition to this one), and the science department practically had to beg the ten people that are in the class to take it.
Behind Calc BC, Chemistry is the hardest AP at my school as well. However, it is so much fun—a great curriculum. If you love chemistry, or even have an interest in it, definitely take it.
If you can look at this without feeling a wave of panic rising in your chest, you'll probably do well in AP Chemistry.
Will AP Chemistry Be Hard for You?
Based on what we now know about AP Chemistry, how can you determine how hard the class (and test) will be for you? Here are three actions you can take:
#1: Ask Teachers and Previous Students About the Class
Every school is different, so the AP Chemistry class offered at your school could be more or less demanding than those offered at other high schools.
This is why it's best to consult with people who have the inside scoop. Talk to your current science teacher to see what he or she has to say about AP Chemistry. Will you be able to handle it based on how you did in science this past year? Have students who are similar to you had trouble with AP Chemistry in the past? You can also discuss this with your guidance counselor, who should have access to additional data on how previous students fared in the class.
Previous students are great resources as well. If they've been through the class, they can give you a better idea of how overwhelming (or underwhelming) the workload actually is.
#2: Think About Your Academic Strengths and Weaknesses
If you enjoy math and science and are genuinely interested in chemistry, AP Chemistry will be an easier class for you than it would be for someone who would rather never look at a math problem again.
Chemistry is more technical and math-centric than AP Biology is. It's hard to memorize or reason your way out of aspects of the content you only vaguely understand on a deeper level. If you don't know exactly how to do a chemistry problem, it can start to look like a meaningless jumble of numbers and letters pretty quickly. If you tend to rely on memorization to do well in most subjects, AP Chemistry might be a rude awakening for you.
#3: Pay Attention to Your Schedule
Only you know how much effort you're willing to put into your classes. However, I can pretty much guarantee that it'll be hard for anyone to take AP Chemistry at the same time as other time-consuming classes, such as AP Biology or AP English Lit.
I don't recommend taking more than two intense AP classes simultaneously (see our take on which APs are the hardest), particularly if you have lots of extracurriculars.
You should also try to fit an introductory chemistry class into your schedule the year before you take AP Chemistry so that you're well prepared!
If you get to the point where you're eating whole coffee beans to stay awake, it's time to reevaluate your choices.
Conclusion: Is AP Chemistry Hard?
Based on the evidence I've seen, we can say that Chemistry is one of the harder AP classes. It has a low passing rate, a low 5 rate, and its content is considered pretty challenging from both an objective viewpoint and a student's perspective.
Don't let this scare you away from the subject, though. Chemistry is truly fascinating once you break through the first couple layers of understanding. You'll learn so much about how the world works and why it works that way. If you take an introductory chemistry class beforehand and are prepared to work hard, you'll be more than capable of doing well!
Still not quite sure what to expect from AP Chemistry? Read this article for more details about the structure and content of the exam.
Already taking AP Chemistry and need some extra help? We go over how to balance chemical equations in this guide.
Are you planning on taking SAT Subject Tests in addition to APs? Learn about the differences between these two types of tests and which scores matter more to colleges.
If you're still trying to figure out your schedule, take a look at this article for advice on which AP classes you should take in high school.
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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.