SAT / ACT Prep Online Guides and Tips

Is AP World History Hard? Expert Discussion

Posted by Samantha Lindsay | Nov 4, 2018 9:52:00 AM

Advanced Placement (AP)



AP World History seems like it would be a pretty hard class. There's so much to cover - I mean, it's everything that's ever happened to humans! But how much do you really need to know? And how do people usually do on the AP test? In this article, I will examine five different factors to make a conclusion about the difficulty level of AP World History.


What Factors Determine the Difficulty of an AP Class?

Before we try to answer the question at hand ("Is AP World History hard?"), let's go over the factors that determine how challenging a particular AP class is. There are five factors, grouped into three categories:


Testing Statistics

This section deals with hard data about students' performance on the AP exam.


Passing Rate

The passing rate is the percentage of students who earn 3s or above on the AP exam. A low passing rate taken at face value indicates a harder test. However, sometimes classes that are more popular have artificially low passing rates because there's a higher proportion of underprepared students in the testing pool. It's important to consider the passing rate in context.


Five Rate

The five rate is the percentage of students earning 5s on the AP exam. This can be a slightly more accurate indicator of difficulty than the passing rate because it shows how hard it is to master the material. Still, the five rate can also be affected by the popularity of the class, so it's important to keep that information in mind.


Objective and Subjective Assessments of the Content

These factors relate to the actual difficulty of the course content according to students and educators.


Objective Content Difficulty

This is determined by the scope of the content and the types of skills required in the class to be successful. Courses with a large volume of complex content are going to be more challenging. Sometimes, these objectively difficult courses have strangely high passing rates and five rates because only the most dedicated students are willing to take them.


Student Testimonials

Student opinions of the class are important to consider apart from an objective assessment of the content. Is there a ton of homework? Do you have to do projects all the time? Even if the content isn't the most complex, these factors can make a big difference in the time commitment required for the class.



When do students take the class? If it's freshman or sophomore year, this can cause students to perceive the content as more difficult, since they may not be used to AP classes yet. If students are encouraged to wait until junior or senior year to take the class, they might compare their experience to other AP classes and come up with a more reliable assessment of how hard the class is.



There's a big difference between sophomore year and senior year. For example, this girl gained the confidence to express her true self with a unique fashion statement. Seriously, though, graduation robes are hideous. We need to kill that tradition.


What Do Statistics Say About the AP World History Exam?

First, I'd like to note that AP World History is one of the more popular AP exams; 265,308 students took it in 2015! The only AP exams to surpass that number of participants were US History, Psychology, US Government, English Literature & Composition, English Language & Composition, and Calculus AB.

The popularity of this exam means that five rates and passing rates may be skewed lower. The greater the number of students taking an exam, the more likely it is that a large proportion of them will come into it underprepared. This often happens when an AP is closely related to a class many students need to take to graduate (like world history). Sometimes students are pushed into the AP version of the class when they aren't ready or when they have little interest in the material but have to take the class to fulfill graduation requirements.

On the other hand, if an exam is less popular, the students who take it are usually interested in the subject and, therefore, more likely to be well-prepared for the test. In these cases, they've typically chosen to take a class outside of core requirements because they want to learn more about the subject.

The 2016 passing rate for the AP World History exam was 51.2 percent. The only exams with lower passing rates were Physics 1, Environmental Science, and US Government. We can say definitively that this is a low passing rate compared to most other AP exams.

The popularity of the test can partially account for the lower passing rate, but it's so close to the bottom of the stack that it does seem to indicate a difficult test. More shockingly, the average document-based question score in 2016 was only 2.96 out of 9 points! This emphasizes the difficulty of the document-based question in particular for most students.

Now, let's take a look at the five rate. The 2016 five rate was a 6.5 percent, which is very low by anyone's standards. Only Physics 1 and Biology had lower five rates in 2016. Like the passing rate, this also seems to indicate that AP World History is a difficult test. Although test popularity can partially account for such a low five rate, the rate is so low that it points to a high inherent difficulty level.


body_fivestarrating.pngJust like five-star reviews, fives on the AP World History exam are hard to come by.


Is the AP World History Content Difficult?

For this class, you're dealing with the entirety of human history. It would seem that the content is difficult just based on its scope! That's a little deceptive, though. The class is mainly about being able to understand long-term trends in history and identify how the five themes of the course relate to events throughout the six designated historical eras. It's slightly different from classes like US History and European History, which focus more on specifics.

AP World History requires critical thinking about the relevance of particular themes at certain historical moments (and knowledge of some specific examples to back up your conclusions). It's not necessary to memorize everything that's ever happened to do well, so the content isn't as hard as it appears at first glance.

Whether you find the class difficult depends partially on your skills in writing and analysis. If you're good at those things, you'll probably find AP World History manageable. If you have trouble answering vague thematic questions and are more memorization-oriented, the class will likely be more of a struggle.


body_omniscient.jpgYou don't have to possess Godlike powers of recall to do well in AP World History, but you DO have to know how religious beliefs shaped the formation of early civilizations.


Do Students Think AP World History Is Hard?

Students typically find AP World History to be a medium-difficulty class with relatively simple concepts but a significant workload. As I mentioned in the previous section, it's more of a general overview of history compared to classes like AP US History and AP European History. AP World History offers greater flexibility in answering essay questions, and it doesn't ask for specific facts as often. Once you have a handle on the main themes and how they connect key developments in history, you should be able to answer most questions that are thrown your way.

However, there's no denying that there's a lot of material to cover, so you'll have to do frequent readings and prepare for quizzes regularly. Even if you're not struggling to master the content, you still will have to put in a significant amount of time.

Most students take AP World History in 10th grade, so they're still underclassmen who have less experience with AP classes. The fact that students are encouraged to take this class before classes like AP US History (typically taken junior year) indicates that it's more of a basic foundational course. Also, these younger students don't seem to think it's an extraordinarily hard class, which supports our conclusions about the difficulty level being somewhere in the middle range.

This brings up an interesting discrepancy. Why do students think the class isn't that hard when so few of them end up earning a high score on the exam? Since this is one of the first AP classes most students take, history teachers might present them with in-class assignments that are less challenging than the material on the exam. The class is likely to be less thematically-focused and more fact-based than the exam because the information is taught in smaller chunks.

Students also don't necessarily know the best way to prepare for the AP exam if it's one of the first ones they've seen. Even if they do practice with real AP materials, it's common to write practice essays without adhering to realistic time constraints or do practice questions that test factual recall and not real analysis.


body_Stillgrowing.pngMost students take AP World History when they are still lil' academic saplings that have yet to grow to their full potential.


Will AP World History Be Hard for You?

After considering the general factors in the previous sections, you should also think about your specific situation. Every student has different strengths and weaknesses, and every school is different in its treatment of the course. Here are a few steps you can take to find out exactly how hard AP World History will be for you.


Ask Knowledgeable People about the Class

The most reliable way to figure out if the class will be hard is to ask other students who have already taken it for their opinions. You can also ask your current history teacher what he or she thinks about the AP World History class at your school and whether it will be manageable for you. You might even talk to your guidance counselor about your options. He or she should have a good sense of how you might fare in the course based on experiences with other students.

Every AP teacher does things slightly differently, so you shouldn't make broad assumptions about the difficulty level without taking your specific situation into account. Some teachers assign tons of projects and quizzes all the time while others adopt a less intense style that's focused on larger long-term assignments.


Think About Your Academic Strengths and Weaknesses

If you have strong skills in critical reading and writing, you'll find this class easier than someone who struggles with writing and prefers questions with clearly defined answers. Strong English students shouldn't have much trouble getting through this class. As I've mentioned, memorization isn't as important as the ability to connect the themes of the course to events throughout history.


Consider the Rest of Your Schedule

It might be harder for you to manage this class if you're also taking other classes that involve oodles of writing and memorization. It would be a big challenge to take AP World History alongside another AP history class (US or European) or one of the AP English classes, just based on the sheer amount of work. But this also depends on the way the teacher at your school structures the class and how much work you can expect on a weekly basis.

Be mindful of your limits, and try not to overload yourself! Even a class that wouldn't be that hard for you normally can become overwhelming if you have to do the work on top of a million other assignments.


body_barbedwire-1.jpgIf you have to drag yourself through metaphorical barbed wire to overcome your limits, it's usually not worth it.


Conclusion: Is AP World History Hard?

Based on the factors examined in this article, AP World History is a medium-difficulty AP class, verging on slightly more difficult. The statistics indicate that the test is challenging, but it's also taken by a large number of students, many of whom are still underclassmen who aren't used to APs. The content of the class is also not as hard as you might think. It's more about making sense of broad themes than actually remembering everything that's ever happened.

You'll probably do fine if you practice honing your writing skills and keep up with the homework assignments!


What's Next?

Looking for ways to practice your skills in AP World History? Check out this article that lists all the practice tests that are available online.

The document-based question is the scariest part of the AP World History exam for most students. Read our article on what the DBQ is and how you can prepare for it effectively.

Still not sure which AP classes you want to take in high school? This article will help you decide which APs fit best with your goals and academic strengths.


Want to build the best possible college application?

We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League.

We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools.

Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.

Get Into Your Top Choice School


Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
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.

Get Free Guides to Boost Your SAT/ACT
100% Privacy. No spam ever.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!