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Is AP US History Hard? Expert Discussion

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | May 21, 2016 10:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)



AP classes are typically more challenging than regular high school classes, but some are harder than others. Based on testing statistics and an examination of the curriculum, we can come up with accurate assessments of the true difficulty level of each AP class. In this article, I'll analyze AP US History exam scores, student testimonials, and course content to give you a clear picture of how hard the class really is!


What Factors Go Into Determining the Difficulty of an AP Class?

There are five factors that we will consider when deciding whether AP US History is a difficult class compared to other APs. I'll give you a quick rundown on all of them before we dive into answering our main question: is AP US History hard?


Factor #1: Passing Rate

This is the percentage of students who earn a 3 or above on the exam. Lower passing rates may indicate a more difficult class. However, sometimes, passing rates in the hardest subjects are unexpectedly high because only the most dedicated students take those classes. A smaller group of more serious students makes for a larger percentage of passing scores overall.


Factor #2: Five Rate

The 5 rate is the percentage of students who earn 5s (the highest possible score) on the AP test. If the 5 rate is on the lower side, it may indicate that the material is more difficult to master. A low 5 rate can also sometimes happen with very popular classes. The proportion of students who are prepared for an AP test tends to decrease as the total number of students taking it increases.


Factor #3: Content Difficulty

This 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? There should be some consistency based on the fact that everyone learns essentially 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 the nature of the workload. 


Factor #5: Timing of the Class

A final factor to consider is when students usually take the class. Classes that students take later in high school will be more difficult overall, although some students 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 as underclassmen.


body_oldwoman.jpgWhen you've taken too many AP tests in your time.



What Do Statistics Say About the AP US History Exam?

To start off, I’ll examine the statistics for passing and 5 rates on the AP US History exam in 2015. 


Passing Rate

The 2015 passing rate was 50.7 percent. Only three other tests have lower passing rates: AP US Government and Politics, AP Environmental Science, and AP Physics 1. This comparatively low passing rate would suggest that the test is difficult, but we can’t say that for sure yet.

AP Environmental Science, for example, is a test with an even lower passing rate, but that class isn’t considered particularly difficult. It’s low because more people who have little to no experience with other high-level classes tend to take AP Environmental Science as a one-off AP for their transcripts. A high volume of under-prepared students skews the passing rate lower, so the low passing rate means less about the difficulty of the class in this case.

For AP US History, since it’s one of the most popular AP classes (the number of students enrolled was second only to English Language and Composition in 2015), the passing rate may likewise be skewed slightly lower because there are so many students at different levels of preparation who take it. However, students who take AP US History also tend to be students who are better prepared and have probably taken other AP/honors classes as well. The low passing right might be slightly illusory because of the sheer number of people taking the test, but students who take it are (overall) high-achieving, so the data still points to the test being pretty hard. This fact is strongly linked to the difficulty of the content and intensity of the workload in AP US History, which I'll describe in more detail later in this article.


Five Rate 

The 5 rate for AP US History in 2015 was 9.3 percent. Only seven other AP assessments had lower 5 rates than AP US History, as compared to the 27 with higher 5 rates. This would again suggest that the test is more difficult compared to other AP tests. However, five rates can also be skewed high or low depending on the popularity of the class and the types of students who take it.

Some objectively difficult classes have high five rates because they’re less popular, and the students who do take them are more well-prepared and dedicated to the subject (Chinese Language, for example). AP US History is a popular class, so there may be a wider spectrum of preparedness among students, bringing down the five rate. But, as I mentioned in the first part of this section, it’s also a class that is usually taken by the most high-achieving students, so there shouldn’t be wide-ranging problems with a lack of preparation. The low five rate combined with the types of students who take AP US History suggest that it is a difficult test. 

So far, based on testing statistics, we’re leaning towards the conclusion that AP US History IS hard. Let’s take a look at the other factors to see if they line up.



Besides being the best AP score, five is also the ideal number of fingers for a human. What a kooky koincidence!


Is the APUSH Content Difficult?

AP US History covers the past few hundred years of history in this country, so there’s a lot to remember for the exam. However, memorization isn’t the main challenge. Throughout the test, you’re asked to analyze historical documents, demographic and other charts, and political illustrations from various periods in history. You have to apply your background knowledge to these sources and draw conclusions by blending skills of factual recall and deeper analysis. 

The free-response section is particularly challenging in this regard. Writing a coherent, well-supported argumentative essay on such a high-pressure test isn’t easy. And for the document-based question, you also have to incorporate at least six of the seven sources into your essay while using outside knowledge to bolster whatever point you’re making.  

I would argue the content is challenging because of the way you’re asked to synthesize what you’ve learned and relate it to themes that span multiple periods in history. These types of assessments are usually reserved for college classes because of the high-level thinking skills required. You have to look beyond the facts to draw larger informed conclusions.


body_confusedparrot.jpgYou want me to synthesize the what now?


Do Students Think AP US History Is Hard?

History was my best subject in high school, but I definitely didn’t think AP US History was an easy class. The tests were always challenging because my teacher had us take them with the same time constraints as the real AP exam. We would have one 50-minute class period to answer a bunch of multiple-choice questions and write a long essay. I remember the tests being stressful, but most people did well on the AP test because they knew what to expect. 

APUSH was time-consuming outside of class because of the number of textbook reading assignments and other outside projects. We had “seminars” every couple of weeks where we were assigned to different sides of a historical issue and had a class-wide debate. We had to do write-ups of each seminar and were graded for participation during the debate. There were also quizzes on the nightly readings at the beginning of every class, so your grade would suffer if you didn’t do the homework.

The consensus among other students (based on what I’ve seen in online forums) is reflective of my experiences. Most say that AP US History is a lot of work. Not all of it is difficult, and much of it is interesting, but it will take up a big chunk of your time. You have to be prepared to put in the effort, especially if you prefer science and math to the humanities, and the type of work you do in the course doesn’t come as naturally to you.

I'd also like to consider briefly the last of the five factors I mentioned in the first section, which is when students tend to take this class. AP US History is typically taken later in high school (during junior or senior year). Many students have already experienced other AP classes, and all are familiar with the high school workload. Still, they find AP US History to be challenging in comparison to other classes. Our theory in the section on testing statistics has held true here as well - seems like this is a tough class from any angle.


body_studentsapushistory.jpgYou're required to use authentic study materials and methods from each period. Sorry, electricity didn't go mainstream until the 1920s. 



Will AP US History Be Hard for YOU?

It seems like APUSH is a hard class overall, but every student is different. You may have to do more research and self-reflection before you decide definitively whether this class will fit comfortably into your schedule. Here are a couple of measures I’d recommend taking if you want to get a clearer picture of what your experience with APUSH might be like:  


Ask Teachers and Past Students About the Class

The most reliable way to decide whether AP US History will be difficult for you is to ask students and teachers who are familiar with it to give you their perspectives. If you know any older students who have similar academic records to you, ask them what they thought of the class and the workload. You can also ask your current history teacher if he or she thinks you’ll be able to handle AP US History based on your performance this year. You can even ask your guidance counselor what his or her opinion is of the class based on the performance of past students. Every AP US History class is slightly different because teachers have the freedom to design their own curriculum within the course framework. 


Be Aware of Your Academic Strengths and Weaknesses

Which subjects challenge you the most? If you’re better at quantitative subjects like math and science and struggle with subjects that require lots of reading, writing, and memorization of facts, you can assume that AP US History will be difficult for you. On the other hand, if you prefer subjects that incorporate critical reading skills and essay writing (and have some interest in history), the class will probably be much easier. 

Keep in mind that this might be different from other history classes you took earlier in high school. Lower-level history classes are about factual recall, whereas the skills you need for AP US History are more analytical. It’s about applying your knowledge rather than just restating it. 


Check Your Class Schedule

AP US History is a time-consuming class, so you should consider your schedule to make sure you aren’t overloading yourself by adding it into the mix. If you’re taking other challenging AP classes at the same time, you should be prepared for a daunting workload. Don’t take on too much, or you'll end up sacrificing your sanity and/or GPA.


body_warningsigns.jpgPay attention to warning signs that your eyes may be bigger than your academic stomach.


Conclusion: So, Is AP US History Hard?

Based on all the factors I’ve examined in this article, AP US History is a hard class compared to most other APs. It has low passing and 5 rates, the content is challenging, students testify to a heavy workload, and most people don’t take it until junior or senior year. You should think carefully before you decide to enroll, but don’t underestimate yourself. Even if it’s a challenge, most students also think it’s an engaging and interesting class, and you’ll learn valuable analytical skills that will come in handy later in your academic career! 


What's Next?

Looking for resources to help you get through this class with minimal suffering? Check out our list of the best review books available for AP US History this year. 

You can also read my ultimate study guide for AP US History for advice and links to tons of online practice questions!

US History is on the more difficult end of the AP spectrum. Are there any easy AP classes to balance out your schedule? Read this article to find out which AP classes will be easiest for you. 


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Samantha Lindsay
About the Author

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.

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