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The Hardest AP Courses: The Ultimate Guide

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Advanced Placement (AP) is a program designed by the College Board to offer college-level courses and exams to high school students.

These courses can help you prepare for college and earn college credit, and they boost the competitiveness of your applications. If your school calculates weighted Grade Point Averages, AP courses also boost your GPA—these classes count for five points instead of the traditional four.

Of course, AP classes aren’t easy. They’re designed to give you a preview of rigorous college coursework. In this article, we’ll provide an in-depth look at the most challenging AP courses, filling you in on why they’re challenging, what to expect, and the end-of-year AP exam.

Keep in mind that our intention is not to scare you away from AP classes, but to ensure that you can make an informed decision about which AP courses to take!

How Many AP Classes Are There?

We’ll start by taking a look at the complete list of AP courses. The College Board currently offers 38 AP classes:

  • AP Research
  • AP Seminar
  • AP Art History
  • AP Music Theory
  • AP Studio Art: 2-D Design
  • AP Studio Art: 3-D Design
  • AP Studio Art: Drawing
  • AP English Language and Composition
  • AP English Literature and Composition
  • AP Comparative Government and Politics
  • AP European History
  • AP Human Geography
  • AP Macroeconomics
  • AP Microeconomics
  • AP Psychology
  • AP United States Government and Politics
  • AP United States History
  • AP World History
  • AP Calculus AB
  • AP Calculus BC
  • AP Computer Science A
  • AP Computer Science Principles
  • AP Statistics
  • AP Biology
  • AP Chemistry
  • AP Environmental Science
  • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  • AP Physics C: Mechanics
  • AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based
  • AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based
  • AP Chinese Language and Culture
  • AP French Language and Culture
  • AP German Language and Culture
  • AP Italian Language and Culture
  • AP Japanese Language and Culture
  • AP Latin
  • AP Spanish Language and Culture
  • AP Spanish Literature and Culture

To find out what AP classes are available at your high school, visit your school website or consult your guidance counselor.

Which AP Classes Are the Most Challenging?

It’s important to note that “challenging” is a subjective term. Try to select AP subjects in which you have some background knowledge, experience, or skill.

You should also consider your future college major. If you want to major in Psychology, it would certainly make sense to take AP Psychology (and doing well in the course and on the test would look great on your college applications).

But to objectively rank the most challenging AP classes, we considered AP exam pass rates. Based on pass rates, here are the seven most challenging AP courses (from lowest pass rate to highest):

  • AP Physics 1 (41.9%)
  • AP Human Geography (48.9%)
  • AP United States Government and Politics (49.3%)
  • AP Environmental Science (49.4%)
  • AP United States History (50.9%)
  • AP Chemistry (52.4%)
  • AP English Literature and Composition (52.6%)

Below, we’ll take a closer look at each of these challenging AP courses.

AP Physics 1

In this introductory college-level physics course, students learn through inquiry-based investigations while exploring topics such as kinematics, dynamics, circular motion and gravitation, momentum, energy, torque and rotational motion, electric charge and electric force, mechanical waves and sound, and more.

Related career areas:

Agricultural and food scientists, architects, computer scientists, conservation scientists, electronics technicians, forensic scientists, graphic designers, mathematicians, meteorologists, pharmacists, statisticians, technical writers

Related majors:

Architecture, Astronomy, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Science, Marine Biology, Mathematics

What to expect:

AP Physics 1 focuses on introductory college-level physics topics and the seven science practices outlined in the course framework. The course requires that 25 percent of instructional time is devoted to hands-on laboratory work, so be prepared to design and conduct experiments, analyze data, and write lab reports.

You’ll also be introduced to the methods of error analysis including mean, standard deviation, percentage error, propagation of error, and linear regression.

Why it’s challenging:

Physics is a broad subject that spans many concepts and skills. The course combines principles of physics and scientific inquiry with extensive algebra, which is difficult for many students. You’re also expected to complete college-level laboratory investigations and reports.

The exam:

The AP Physics 1 exam is 3 hours long and is evenly divided into two sections: multiple choice and free response.

According to the College Board, students are assessed on the ability to:

  • Provide explanations of physical phenomena, grounded in physics principles and theories
  • Solve mathematical problems
  • Develop and interpret conceptual models
  • Design and describe experiments, analyze data, and draw conclusions based on the evidence

The free response section consists of three different types of questions:

  • Experimental design
  • Qualitative/quantitative translation
  • Short-answer questions (one of which requires a paragraph-length argument)

AP Human Geography

In AP Human Geography, students study the distribution, processes, and effects of the human population on the planet. The course also covers analysis of maps, geographic models, data sets, GPS, satellite, and aerial photographs.

Related career areas:

Anthropologists, archaeologists, archivists, curators, drafters, museum technicians, foreign service officers, geographers, government lawyers, historians, judges, librarians, political scientists, sociologists, urban and regional planners

Related majors:

African American Studies, Anthropology, City, Community, and Regional Planning, Geography, Geology, Linguistics, Mass Communications, Sociology, Urban Studies

What to expect:

You’ll need to understand and use geographic terminology, interpret graphs and maps, and read college-level texts. The course also involves substantial writing, including summaries, analyses, evaluations, interpretations, short answers, and multi-paragraph essays.

Why it’s challenging:

AP Human Geography incorporates a variety of skills and knowledge: world geography, world history, earth science, economics, basic mathematics, research, and the interpretation of data, graphs, and maps. Students are also expected to read and write high-level texts regularly, and the course is rich in content-specific vocabulary.

The exam:

The AP Human Geography exam is 2 hours and 15 minutes long. Students have one hour to complete the multiple-choice section and 75 minutes for the free response section.

Some questions are vocabulary-based, while others require students to apply models or concepts to a provided scenario. Many questions are based on tables, maps, diagrams, and photographs.

The free-response section requires students to answer three questions. The questions may ask test-takers to analyze and evaluate geographic concepts, cite and explain geographic processes, synthesize various topics from the course outline, or demonstrate an understanding of models.

AP United States Government and Politics

AP United States Government and Politics covers subjects including the constitutional underpinnings of the United States government, the nation’s political beliefs and behaviors, political parties, interest groups, mass media, public policy, and civil rights and civil liberties.

Related career areas:

Curators, economists, financial analysts, geographers, government executives and legislators, government lawyers, historians, judges, librarians, news analysts, reporters, and correspondents, political scientists, public interest lawyers, sociologists

Related majors:

American Studies, Economics, Environmental Studies, Geography, History, Journalism, Mass Communications, Philosophy, Political Science and Government, Prelaw Studies, Public Administration, Public Policy Analysis, Social Work, Sociology

What to expect:

In this course, you’ll be expected to explain patterns of political processes and behavior, describe and compare concepts and theories related to U.S. government and politics, interpret data, and critically analyze and apply relevant theories and concepts. You will work from a college-level textbook and be expected to write evidence-based arguments.

Why it’s challenging:

AP Human Geography requires students to become familiar with the beliefs, ideas, institutions, and groups that constitute United States government. You’ll explore advanced theoretical perspectives and apply them.

Plus, you’ll have to use higher level thinking skills such as interpreting cause and effect relationships, analyzing data, evaluating various theories, and writing evidence-based arguments.

The exam:

On the AP Human Geography exam, students have 45 minutes to answer 60 multiple choice questions and an hour and 40 minutes to respond to four free response questions.

Typically, the free response questions require students to analyze political relationships and evaluate policy changes using examples from the course to support their arguments.

AP Environmental Science

AP Environmental Science explores earth systems and resources, the living world, population, land and water use, energy resources and consumption, pollution, and global change. Students analyze environmental problems and investigate alternative solutions to resolve or prevent them.

Related career areas:

Agricultural and food scientists, biological scientists, biomedical engineers, chemical engineers, conservation scientists, economists, environmental engineers, foresters and forestry technicians, geoscientists, landscape architects, meteorologists, park rangers, veterinarians, wildlife technicians

Related majors:

Botany, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Ecology, Environmental Science, Environmental Studies, Fishing and Fisheries, Forestry, Geography, Geology, Marine Biology, Marine Sciences, Natural Resources and Conservation, Zoology

What to expect:

Like other AP science courses, AP Environmental Science has a major lab component. Teachers are required to provide students with opportunities to investigate air, water, and soil qualities. Students should perform as many labs and field investigations as possible.

It’s recommended that students have a background in life science, physical science, and earth science. Quantitative analysis is required, so it’s also helpful to have taken at least one year of algebra.

Why it’s challenging:

The interdisciplinary nature of Environmental Science can make it extremely challenging. The course incorporates topics from geology, biology, chemistry, geography, environmental studies, mathematics, and more.

Some students also struggle with designing experiments, using tools and instruments appropriately, and analyzing data. Communication skills are a must as well, since students must write and speak effectively about their observations and conclusions.

The exam:

The three-hour Environmental Science exam consists of 100 multiple choice questions and four free-response items. Time is evenly divided between the two sections.

The multiple-choice questions appear in sets and are often based on data, charts, and graphs. The free response questions include a data set, a document-based question, and two synthesis and evaluation questions.

AP United States History

AP United States History (commonly called APUSH) spans nine historical periods from approximately 1491 to the present. Students explore the events, individuals, developments, and processes that shaped each of these periods.

The course is based around seven key themes: American and national identity; migration and settlement; politics and power; work, exchange, and technology; America in the world; geography and the environment; and culture and society.

Related career areas:

Anthropologists, archaeologists, archivists, clinical psychologists, curators, economists, federal agents, geographers, government lawyers, historians, judges, librarians, political scientists, postsecondary teachers, public interest advocates and lawyers, sociologists, top executives, writers

Related majors:

African American Studies, American Studies, Economics, Geography, History, International Relations, Mass Communications, Political Science and Government, Prelaw Studies, Public Policy Analysis, Religious Studies, Sociology, Urban Studies

What to expect:

You’ll use the same skills and methods used by historians: analyzing primary and secondary sources, making historical comparisons, developing historical arguments, and reasoning about contextualization, causes, and changes over time.

You will read a college-level textbook and write evidence-based historical arguments.

Why it’s challenging:

As mentioned above, the course covers the history of the United States from 1491 to the present. That’s a lot of information to learn, and the course is about more than memorization: you’ll also need to analyze historical cause and effect and write analyses and arguments.

Students also tend to struggle with the dreaded Document Based Question (DBQ), a type of essay in which students construct an analysis based on both provided sources and prior knowledge.

The exam:

The AP U.S. History exam lasts for 3 hours and 15 minutes. There are 55 multiple questions that must be answered in 55 minutes, three short answer questions (40 minutes), a DBQ (60 minutes), and a long essay (40 minutes).

Many questions require an analysis of primary and secondary texts, images, graphs, and maps.

AP Chemistry

AP Chemistry investigates topics such as intermolecular forces and bonding, atomic structure, chemical reactions, kinetics, thermodynamics, and equilibrium. Students must use the principles of scientific inquiry to conduct a wide variety of laboratory experiments.

Related career areas:

Aerospace engineers, agricultural engineers, biological scientists, biomedical engineers, chemical engineers, chemists and material scientists, conservation scientists, dietitians and nutritionists, food service managers, general practitioners, licensed practical nurses, medical scientists, registered nurses, research psychologists, veterinarians

Related majors:

Astronomy, Biochemistry, Biology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Computer Software Engineering, Environmental Engineering, Food Science, Forensic Chemistry, Genetics, Geology, Nuclear Engineering, Nursing, Nutrition Sciences, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Pre-Physical Therapy, Pre-medicine, Pre-dentistry, Public Health, Zoology

What to expect:

Expect to learn a lot of vocabulary, apply moderately advanced mathematics, and complete many labs. 25 percent of instructional time in AP Chemistry must engage students in laboratory investigations, with a minimum of 16 hands-on labs (at least six of which are inquiry-based). Typically, students are required to keep a lab notebook throughout the course.

Why it’s challenging:

Chemistry is a math-intensive course, and students should have completed at least Algebra II before signing up for AP Chemistry. Students must also develop their own scientific questions, independently design labs, collect and evaluate data, and construct arguments.

The exam:

Students have 3 hours and 15 minutes to complete the AP Chemistry exam. 1 hour and 30 minutes are devoted to answering 60 multiple choice questions. No calculator is allowed for these questions, which consist of both discrete items and items in set.

With the remaining 1 hour and 45 minutes, students answer seven free response questions. Four of these questions are short-response, while the other three are dubbed “long-answer” questions. These questions evaluate skills such as experimental design, analysis of lab data, creating or analyzing atomic and molecular views to explain observations, and following logical/analytical pathways to solve chemistry problems.

AP Literature and Composition

The AP Literature and Composition course is focused on reading, analyzing, and writing about fiction, poetry, and drama from various periods. Students must consider structure, style, themes, figurative language, imagery, symbolism, and tone.

Writing assignments include analytical, argumentative, and expository essays analyzing and interpreting literary works in-depth.

Related career areas:

Copy editors, copywriters, curators, editors, education administrators and teachers, historians, judges, lawyers, librarians, reporters and correspondents, political scientists, public relations specialists, school psychologists, sociologists, technical writers, translators, web designers

Related majors:

Anthropology, Classics, Comparative Literature, Education, English, Film Studies, History, Journalism, Library and Information Science, Linguistics, Mass Communication, Philosophy, Psychology, Theater Arts

What to expect:

The course is based on close reading and critical analysis, so expect lots of reading and writing! You’ll read texts from 16th-21st century American and British literature, and your teacher will be required to incorporate fiction, drama, and poetry.

You’ll respond to literature with informal writing (collaborative writing, response journals, textual annotations) and formal writing (expository, analytical, and argumentative essays).

Why it’s challenging:

The sheer amount of reading and writing in AP Literature and Composition is difficult for many students. All texts are college level, and students are held to college-level standards in their writing as well. Students are expected to analyze literature at a much deeper level than they may have experienced previously.

The exam:

This three-hour exam is divided into two parts: multiple choice (55 questions, 1 hour) and free response (3 questions, 2 hours). The multiple-choice section includes excerpts from drama, poetry, and prose fiction, and each excerpt is accompanied by a set of questions.

The free response questions fall into the following three categories:

  • A literary analysis of a given poem
  • A literary analysis of a given passage of prose fiction (may include drama)
  • An analysis examining a specific concept, issue, or element in a literary work selected by the student

Conclusion: Hardest AP Courses

AP courses offer many benefits, but they also require plenty of dedication and hard work.

Don’t let the difficulty deter you from taking AP courses, but do understand that success in these classes requires organization, time management, and quality study skills. Know that you can expect a heavier workload, and plan your schedule accordingly.

Select AP courses that reflect your skills, interests, and background knowledge. It’s also a great idea to choose courses that relate to your intended college major and/or career field.

We hope that the information in this guide has answered your questions and will help you find the right AP courses for you!