AP World History seems like it would be a pretty hard class. There's so much to cover—I mean, it's nearly 1,000 years of global human history! 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.
2021 AP Test Changes Due to COVID-19
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, AP tests will now be held over three different sessions between May and June. Your test dates, and whether or not your tests will be online or on paper, will depend on your school. To learn more about how all of this is going to work and get the latest information on test dates, AP online review, and what these changes means for you, be sure to check out our 2021 AP COVID-19 FAQ article.
What Factors Determine the Difficulty of an AP Class?
Before we try to answer the big question, "Is AP World History hard?" let's go over the factors that determine how challenging a particular AP class is. We've grouped these five factors into three categories.
This section deals with hard data about students' performance on the AP exam.
Factor 1: Pass Rate
The pass rate is the percentage of students who earn 3s or higher on a particular AP exam. A low pass rate taken at face value indicates a harder test; however, sometimes classes that are more popular have artificially low pass rates because there's a higher proportion of under-prepared students in the testing pool. Therefore, it's important to consider an AP test's pass rate in context.
Factor 2: 5 Rate
The 5 rate is the percentage of students who earn 5s on an AP test. This can be a slightly more accurate indicator of difficulty than the pass rate because it shows how hard it is to master the material. Still, the 5 rate can also be affected by the popularity of a class, so it is important to keep that information in mind.
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Objective and Subjective Assessments of the Content
These next two factors relate to the actual difficulty of the course content according to students and educators.
Factor 3: 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 pass rates and 5 rates because only the most dedicated students are willing to take them.
Factor 4: 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 large difference in the time commitment required for the class.
Factor 5: Timing
When do students take the class? If it's during your freshman or sophomore year, this can cause students to perceive the content as more difficult, since they might 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 really is.
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What Do Statistics Say About the AP World History Exam?
First, I'd like to note that World History is one of the more popular AP exams: 302,942 students took it in 2020. The only AP exams to surpass this number of participants were English Language & Composition, US History, and English Literature & Composition.
The popularity of the World History test means that 5 rates and pass rates might 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 under-prepared. This often happens when an AP test is closely related to a class that many students need to take to graduate (such as 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 thus more likely to be well prepared for the test. In these cases, they've typically chosen to take a class outside the core requirements because they want to learn more about the subject.
The 2020 pass rate for the AP World History exam was 60.2%. Only nine AP tests had lower pass rates. We can say definitively that this is a low pass rate compared to that of most other AP exams.
The popularity of the AP World History test can partially account for the lower pass rate, but it's so close to the bottom of the stack that it does seem to indicate that it's quite a difficult test. More shockingly, the average document-based question score in 2019 was only 2.28 out of 7 points! This emphasizes the difficulty of the DBQ in particular for most students.
Now, let's take a look at the 5 rate. The 2020 5 rate for AP World History was 9.2%, which is very low by anyone's standards. Only AP Research, Physics 1, 3-D Design, and Seminar had lower 5 rates. Like the pass rate, this also seems to indicate that AP World History is a difficult AP exam. Although test popularity can partially account for such a low 5 rate, this rate is so low that it points to an inherently high difficulty level.
Before we move on, it's important to note that the AP World History test is underwent some big changes for 2020 in terms of content (we will talk more about this in the next section). As a result, these pass rates and 5 rates might not be as reliable indicators of the difficulty of the course and exam (since it might take a few years for things to even out).
Just like 5-star reviews, 5s on the AP World History exam are hard to come by.
Is the AP World History Content Difficult?
For this class and exam, you're dealing with around 800 years of human history. This is actually a new, tighter scope beginning with the 2020 exam, which is now called AP World History: Modern (an AP World History: Ancient course is in development). Before, the exam dealt with thousands of years of history, so now the content will likely be much more manageable for students.
Still, 800 years is a huge chunk of time to cover in a single class! Fortunately, the AP World History class is mainly about being able to understand long-term trends throughout history and identifying how the six themes of the course relate to events throughout the nine units and their accompanying time periods. It's slightly different from classes such as AP US History and AP Euro, 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 for you.
You 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 some early civilizations.
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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 mentioned in the previous section, it's more of a general overview of history compared to classes such as 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.
Still, there's no denying that there's a lot of material to cover. As a result, you'll have to do frequent readings and prepare for quizzes regularly. Even if you're not struggling to master the content, you'll still have to put in a significant amount of time and effort.
Most students take AP World History in 10th grade, meaning they're underclassmen who have less experience with AP classes. The fact that students are encouraged to take this class before classes such as AP US History (typically taken junior year) indicates that it's more of a basic foundational course.
Additionally, these younger students don't seem to think that World History is an extraordinarily hard class, further supporting 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 instead of real analysis.
Most 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 above, you should think about your specific situation. Every student has different strengths and weaknesses, and every school is different in its treatment of the AP World History course.
Here are a few steps you can take to find out exactly how hard AP World History will be for you.
#1: Ask Knowledgeable People about the Class
The most reliable way to figure out whether the class will be hard is to ask other students who've already taken it for their opinions. You can also ask your current history teacher what they think about the World History class at your school and whether they think it will be manageable for you.
You might even talk to your guidance counselor about your options, since they should have a good sense of how you might fare in the course based on their 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 circumstances into account. Some teachers assign tons of projects and quizzes all the time, whereas others adopt a less intense style that's focused on larger long-term assignments.
#2: Think About Your Academic Strengths and Weaknesses
If you have strong skills in critical reading and writing, you'll likely find this class easier than someone who struggles with writing and prefers questions that have 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.
#3: 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'd 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.
If 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 actual 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. Furthermore, with the big changes in content to the exam starting in 2020, students no longer have to worry about studying thousands upon thousands of years of human history.
All in all, you'll likely do fine in AP World History if you practice honing your writing skills and keep up with the homework assignments!
Looking for ways to practice your skills in AP World History? Check out this article that lists all the World History practice tests available online.
The document-based question is the scariest part of the AP World History exam for most students. Learn 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 guide will help you decide which APs fit best with your goals and academic strengths.
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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.