hardest ap classes

Hardest AP Classes

One of the most important decisions you will make as a high school student concerns the classes you add to your schedule. This decision will not only affect your time in high school, but also your path towards college. Admissions committees consider the rigor of an applicant’s high school schedule when making admissions decisions. So, if you’re looking to get into an elite college, it helps to fill your schedule with difficult, college-level courses.

Advanced Placement classes (or AP classes for short) are one of the most popular offerings for students looking to take more challenging coursework. AP classes cover a wide variety of subjects and signal a student’s readiness for college. With a high enough AP score on the final exam, they can even translate to college credit. Many high schools have extensive AP class lists and offer everything from AP Biology and AP Calculus to AP English Language and Composition and AP United States History. 

In this article we will be looking at several topics related to AP classes, including:

  • What are AP classes and how do I enroll in them?
  • What are the hardest AP classes (and the hardest AP exams)
  • What are the pros and cons of AP classes?
  • What are the best AP classes for college?
  • Which AP classes should I take? 

Although AP classes have many benefits, they are also especially challenging. Furthermore, most of the benefits only apply to students who excel in their AP classes. Because of the increased difficulty level, it is important to be selective in the AP classes you choose and set yourself up for success. 

What are AP Classes in High School?

hardest ap classes

Before going more in-depth about what are the hardest AP classes and which are the best AP classes for college, it is important to know exactly what an AP class is. So, let’s discuss what these courses are in more detail.

AP classes are advanced courses offered by the College Board, where students study a set curriculum of materials to prepare for an end of year AP test. These courses and exams are college level, but taken while students are still in high school. For this reason, AP courses are more difficult than standard or even honors level classes. 

AP Classes and Dual Enrollment Courses

Because both can be used to earn college credit in high school, AP classes are often compared to dual enrollment courses. These courses are similar in terms of their difficulty and required prerequisites. However, AP classes are more standardized than their dual enrollment counterparts, and more elite private colleges are likely to accept AP credit than dual enrollment credit. In either case, both AP and dual enrollment courses are more difficult than honors courses and therefore more attractive to colleges.

In general, there are a variety of reasons why students choose to take AP courses in high school. Many students enroll in the hardest AP classes to strengthen their college applications and improve their high school GPA. Others are looking for college credit so they can bypass lower level courses and complete their major requirements more quickly. However, it’s important to remember that individual colleges determine credit eligibility. For this reason, students should absolutely use College Board’s search tool to review the policies at their top choice schools before deciding to enroll in any AP courses. 

How to get into AP Classes in High School

Students interested in AP classes should talk to their high school counselor or scheduling administrator about which classes are offered. Some schools require students to apply to get into the hardest AP classes, so make sure you know the requirements of the classes you want to enter. 

For example, students wanting to take AP Biology may need to have earned a high grade in 9th grade biology to show their readiness for the AP Biology curriculum. Similarly, AP Calculus students must have foundational pre-calculus knowledge in order to grasp the advanced material and succeed on the AP Calculus exam.

These requirements exist to help ensure that students who enroll in courses with the hardest AP exams, like AP United States History, have the tools they need to succeed. Certainly, the hardest AP classes require all students to put in extra effort. However, the best AP classes for college are those in which you are able to do well.

Additionally, make sure to research any fees and other costs associated with courses on your school’s AP classes list. Otherwise, you can register for any AP, even the hardest AP classes, the same way you would any other in your school’s course catalog.

For those who attend a school that does not offer even the easiest AP classes, there are other options to consider. Honors or accelerated classes can sometimes mimic the rigor of the easiest AP classes, making them better than the standard versions of those classes. Your school may even offer dual enrollment or dual credit courses as an alternative to the hardest AP classes. 

AP Classes Pros and Cons

Before you sign up for AP classes, it is important to know both the benefits and the drawbacks of signing up! Here is a table describing the pros and cons of AP classes:

• Enrolling in the hardest AP classes shows that you’ve challenged yourself academically, thereby strengthening your college applications.

• AP classes help you prepare for the rigor of college level coursework.

• AP classes can be used to earn college credit, allowing students to save time and money as they earn their degree. 

• AP classes allow you to further explore your interests and find the subjects that truly inspire you.
• The hardest AP classes are more difficult than regular courses. The workload will be higher, the pace faster, and students will be need to have a deeper level of understanding to succeed.

• Some colleges only offer credit to students who score a 5 on the AP exam, so you may miss out on credit with a lower score.

• Students must pay in order to take AP exams.

How many AP Classes Should I Take?

hardest ap classes

Once you have decided to add an AP class to your schedule, you may wonder how many you should take over the course of your high school years.

Here is our number one piece of advice: you should only take the number of AP classes that you feel like you have the ability to succeed at. This is especially true if you are taking the hardest AP classes, like AP Calculus and AP English Language and Composition, which also have the hardest AP exams. Earning good grades in a few of the hardest AP classes is better than earning mediocre grades in many different AP classes.

Keep in mind that academics are just one part of who you are and therefore should be balanced with your extracurricular activities. Taking AP English Language and Composition and AP United States History in the same year might limit the amount of time you could spend in an extracurricular activity, like marching band. Therefore, when thinking about what are the hardest AP classes, it might help to pick a few subjects and focus on those rather than risk your grades or extracurricular involvement because of too many AP classes.  

AP Classes Ranked By Difficulty

hardest ap classes

One of the biggest questions that students have regarding AP classes is: “what is the hardest AP class.” However, this question might be better rephrased to “what are the hardest AP classes for you” because the answer differs for every student.

With that in mind, there are certain classes that have a reputation for being the hardest AP classes. Some examples are AP Calculus or AP Biology. While challenging, these can also be some of the best AP classes for college. Even so, that does not mean you have to take them to be accepted.

It is also difficult to land on a single answer to the question “what is the hardest AP class” because there are many different tools to measure success in an AP class. Some metrics determine what is the hardest AP class by looking at AP scores. They see which tests report the lowest average AP scores, and conclude that those must be the hardest AP exams and consequently hardest AP classes. Others look at course grades and determine what is the hardest AP class by seeing which ones students are earning the fewest A’s in. 

When determining what is the hardest AP class, it is important to look at many different factors, including AP scores and beyond. Keep in mind, the AP exams themselves are standardized. That means every student across the country takes the same test. On the other hand, individual teachers determine course grades. In some instances, students may get an A in an AP Calculus or AP Biology class only to earn a 3 on the exam. This is not uncommon when it comes to the hardest AP exams.

What are the Hardest AP Classes?

To further answer the question of “what are the hardest AP classes,” we’ve compiled a list of the top 15 hardest AP classes based on AP scores. In determining this hardest AP classes ranking, we looked at score distribution. Specifically, the percentage of AP exam takers who scored at least a 3, which is considered a passing grade. In this case, the hardest AP classes are the ones with the hardest AP exams, where the lowest number of students earned a 3 or higher.

Below, you’ll find out list of the hardest AP classes, along with the percentage of students who earned that score of 3 or higher. For more information on the hardest AP classes list, see the College Board course guides here.

Hardest AP Classes

AP Physics 1 – 45.6%

The AP Physics 1 exam contains similar content to a college level algebra-based Physics class. The test is a mixture of free-response and multiple choice questions. It covers a variety of physics topics including Newtonian Mechanics, energy, waves, and electric circuits.

AP United States History – 47.5%

AP United States History is separate from AP United States Government and Politics. The exam covers United States history from 1491-present day. However, the majority of the exam is devoted to US History after the Colonial period. The AP United States History exam contains a mixture of multiple choice, short answer, and free response questions. One thing that makes this exam difficult is that the free response questions require students to analyze primary historical sources to craft their argument. 

AP United States Government & Politics – 49.2%

AP US Government focuses on America’s founding documents and notable Supreme Court cases more than general US History. Topics covered include foundations of American democracy, civil liberties, and the branches of government. The exam contains a variety of free response questions including a Supreme Court case comparison and an argumentative essay.

AP Environmental Science – 53.7%

AP Environmental Science is different from AP Biology because the curriculum. Environmental Science focuses on issues related to conservation, natural resources, pollution, and ecosystems. The exam contains 80 multiple choice questions and 3 free response questions. In the free response, students will be asked to pose a solution to an environmental problem.

AP Human Geography – 54.4%

AP Human Geography is part of the Social Sciences slate of exams. Therefore, it is similar to a college level Sociology or Anthropology course. Students study patterns and processes across a wide variety of domains including geography, politics, culture, and industry. The exam contains 60 multiple choice questions and 3 free response questions. Many multiple choice questions require students to analyze graphs, charts or other materials.

AP English Language and Composition – 56.1%

The AP English Language and Composition exam is one of the few that weighs the free response questions more heavily than the multiple choice questions. However, it make sense because the AP English Language and Composition exam is testing students’ fluency with reading and writing in English. Topics include rhetorical situation, claims and evidence, and writing style. 

AP Latin – 56.7%

The AP Latin exam covers selected parts of both Vergil’s Aeneid and Julius Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Gallico. The exam includes several sections of multiple choice questions. Some are based on passages that students may have not seen before. The free response section requires translations of both texts as well as an analytical essay. In the essay, students must make an argument about two related passages of Latin text.

AP Calculus AB – 58.0%

AP Calculus is a mathematics course that centers on the topics of functions, limits, differentiation, and derivatives. Although you may not expect it, there are 6 free response questions on the AP Calculus exam, along with 45 multiple choice questions. Showing your work and demonstrating command of mathematical language are essential to completing the free response questions.

AP European History – 59.4%

The AP European History course covers the time period from the Renaissance to the Cold War. The length of the time periods covered and the breadth of content across multiple countries makes this a challenging exam to prepare for. There are 2 free response questions, including a document based question. Plus, 3 short answer questions, including primary and secondary source analysis. These are both in addition to multiple choice questions. 

AP Psychology – 59.6%

AP Psychology exposes students to topics they would see in an introductory college Psychology course. Different branches of psychology and behavioral sciences are discussed over the course of the year. The exam contains 100 multiple choice questions and only 2 free response questions. This might make it an easier option for those who prefer multiple choice answer formats.

AP Statistics – 60.0%

Students who do not want to take AP Calculus may find the subject of AP Statistics more enjoyable. The class covers probability, data collection, and data analysis in several different ways. The exam contains 40 multiple choice questions and 6 free response questions. One free response question requires students to apply course themes to a real-world task or situation. 

AP Music Theory – 60.7%

AP Music Theory covers topics such as harmony, melodies, chord combinations, and other elements that make up music. The exam includes a mixture of multiple choice questions. Some are written, and some are answered in response to recorded prompts. The free response section includes 9 questions. 2 are sight singing questions, where students must perform a given melody, which some students struggle with. 

AP Computer Science Principles – 63.1%

AP Computer Science Principles has become one of the most popular AP courses in the curriculum. The course focuses on programming, computer systems and networks. It also examines the history and impact of computing on modern society. Students are required to create their own coding project and answer questions about the process they used. This is in addition to answering multiple choice questions.

AP Biology – 64.4%

AP Biology is the easiest of the science based AP Exams. It covers large topics like cells and gene expression with smaller units on communication and ecology. The AP Biology exam includes 60 multiple choice questions. Plus, free response questions with themes of data analysis and interpreting experimental results.

AP Art History – 64.6% 

Rounding out our hardest AP classes list is AP Art History. This class explores different periods and movements in world art from prehistoric times to contemporary art. The scope of the class is one of the most difficult. The class explores all different art media across every region of the world. The exam contains 80 multiple choice questions and 6 free response questions. And, you’ll need to be prepared to complete a compare and contrast essay.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the hardest AP class.

What is the Hardest AP Class?

Just barely beating out AP United States History, AP Physics 1 takes the top spot on our ranking of the hardest AP classes. It is considered more challenging than other STEM courses like AP Biology or AP Calculus.

AP Physics is one of the hardest AP classes with one of the hardest AP exams. Therefore, it’s difficult to earn the AP scores needed to get college credit. So, how can you get the most out of the hardest AP classes, like AP Physics? To start, it helps to know what to expect from this course and exam.

First of all, AP Physics students should have already completed Geometry and be taking Algebra II or an equivalent course. But maybe you struggled with Geometry or your other mathematics courses. Depending on the reason why, it may not be helpful for you to take this course.

During your AP Physics class, you will cover topics including motion, dynamics, momentum, and energy. On the exam itself, you will see a mixture of multiple choice and free response questions. Each section is weighted equally on the exam. In addition you will complete laboratory work to prepare for the free response exam questions on experimental design.

What AP Classes should I take?

There is no “one size fits all” AP classes list that a student should take. Ultimately, your goals and interests are the best tools for determining the best AP classes for college for you as an individual.

Your AP classes list should be unique to you and should take into account several factors. One of these factors is your intended college major. In fact, you may want to take AP classes in subjects that complement that potential major. If you are interested in Humanities, for example, you may want to take AP United States History. If you want to pursue a STEM major, consider AP Calculus or AP Biology. AP English Language and Composition can be helpful for most any major!

Consider time management

Another factor you should consider when building your AP classes list is time management. You want to make sure your schedule is balanced. That way, you can devote enough time to each of your classes and leave room for your extracurricular interests!

The hardest AP classes, including AP United States History, AP English Language and Composition, and AP Biology, are time consuming. So, it may be helpful not to take all of them in the same year. You also may want to consider taking the hardest AP classes in your Sophomore or Junior years. That way the final grades and AP scores will be on your transcript when you apply to college.

Focus on what interests you

Finally, think about your own interest in the subject and your school’s AP teacher. Taking a class that you think looks good on a college resume, but you have no interest in, will only hurt you in the long run. If you’re not motivated to study or complete work for that class, it will be more challenging than beneficial. Also, you may want to take AP classes from teachers you know and get along well with. AP classes require significant support, and being able to trust and know your teacher can be very helpful.

Best AP Classes for College

hardest ap classes

Again the phrase “best AP classes for college” is subjective and depends on what your goal for your education is. This is true for courses ranging from AP English Language and Composition to AP Calculus. Any AP class will help prepare you for college level workload and strengthen your college application overall. Therefore, it is important to be selective about which AP classes you take. 

Think about your goals. Maybe your goal is to bypass some general education courses in college. If so, check out the AP credit conversion chart from your top colleges. Most lists, including this example from Stanford, include both the classes an AP exam can replace and the score you must achieve in order to replace that course.

Most schools require at least a 4 on the hardest AP exams to earn credit for the class. Many elite schools require AP scores of 5. So, if your goal is to graduate early or skip a few general education requirements, AP classes can be a fantastic opportunity to get a head start!

However, maybe your goal is simply to improve your transcript with some of the hardest AP classes. In this case, think about choosing classes that you are excited to take. That way, you are more likely to earn the high grades needed to boost your GPA. And, look good on your college applications.

If you enjoyed freshman biology, for example, AP Biology might be a good class for you to take. If you struggled in English class, you may avoid AP English Language and Composition. Remember, colleges are not looking for a specific laundry list of AP exams. They just want to see that students are capable of rising to challenges and completing difficult work.

Hardest AP Classes – Final Thoughts

AP classes are popular for a reason. And, as long as they continue to provide college credit, they will likely remain popular for years to come. AP classes have many benefits for students. To take advantage of those benefits, students must put in the time and effort to succeed in the class. Ultimately, what matters most is not the number or the difficulty of the AP classes you take. Rather, it’s the results you achieve from the classes you do take. 

There are quantifiable ways of determining what are the hardest AP classes, such as examining test scores. However, the best AP classes are much more about individual interest. So, instead of asking yourself “what are the hardest AP classes” and avoiding them, create your own personal list of best AP classes for you. Don’t make a decision based solely on what are the hardest AP classes or easiest AP classes. Instead, choose the classes that you feel most confident you can succeed in. 

If you need help navigating the process of choosing AP classes, CollegeAdvisor.com can help you with that! Our trained advisors can work with you at any stage of the process. From scheduling classes in your Sophomore year, to building a college list in Junior year, to finally navigating the application process in Senior year. Sign up here to get started!

hardest ap classes

This article was written by senior advisor Alex Baggott-Rowe. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.