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Hardest AP Classes: Which ones should you take?

As you consider your high school course schedule, there’s one thing that is (or should be) on every student’s mind: AP classes. Specifically, what are the hardest AP classes and which of them are worth taking to reach your academic goals? There is no one perfect number or type of AP classes, so you have to figure out which ones work for you (and not against you.)

Read on for:

  • the statistically hardest AP classes to pass
  • which ones are the most difficult to earn a high AP exam score on
  • how to decide which ones are worth the struggle (and which ones are not)

We do not recommend taking as many AP classes as possible. But we do recommend strategizing as much as possible to take the ones that best align with your academic goals.

What does it mean to "pass" an AP class?

38 AP classes are offered by College Board, who also administers AP exams at the end of the school year. These exams measure whether you have sufficiently mastered the college-level material taught in the class.

They are scored from 1-5. A 3 on an AP exam is considered passing, and a 5 is the highest score you can get.

You may take AP exams for a chance to earn college credits. Depending on how well you do on these exams, your prospective colleges may accept these as a “passing grade” for introductory level college courses or required general education courses.

Then, you can choose whether or not to apply AP credits when you build your college course schedule.

Do you have to take AP exams if you take AP classes?

Ideally, AP classes offer you the chance to save yourself some time (and money) by getting out of required courses.

But you can take AP classes without actually taking the AP exam. You may not be ready to take college-level exams during testing season. You may realize that you can’t (or don’t want to) skip over foundational courses in college.

Overall, whether you take the exam or not, college admissions officers will appreciate you earning high course grades in notoriously difficult classes (looking at you, AP Chemistry.)

What are the hardest AP classes? The data is in.

According to official College Board AP score distributions from 2020, we ranked the “hardness” of AP classes on two fronts:

  1. how hard it is to get the minimum passing score of 3 on the AP exam
  2. how hard it is to get the maximum score of 5 on the AP exam

Obviously, these are just the statistically hardest classes. They do not reflect which ones will be the struggle for you as an individual.

10 Hardest Classes to Score a 3 on the AP Exam

  1. Physics 1: 51.6% passing rate
  2. Environmental Science: 53.4% passing rate
  3. Chemistry: 56.1% passing rate
  4. US Government and Politics: 57.5% passing rate
  5. US History: 58.7% passing rate
  6. Human Geography: 59.0% passing rate
  7. European History: 59.3% passing rate
  8. Statistics: 60.0% passing rate
  9. English Literature: 60.1% passing rate
  10. World History: 60.2% passing rate

About 40-50% of students failed these AP exams.

10 Hardest Classes to Score a 5 on the AP Exam

These are the 10 most difficult exams to earn a 5 on, according to the percentage of students who actually earned a 5 on their exam:

Which AP classes should you take? Here's how to decide.

The answer to this question is not cut-and-dry, so we can’t give you an itemized list of which courses you should take.

But we can offer you some guidance on how to make this decision for yourself.

1. What kind of majors or career paths interest you?

Some majors and career paths require different prerequisites and skill sets. 

For example, if you want to major in engineering, you need to have a solid foundation in math. You will also need courses in chemistry and physics.

It’s wise to take AP classes in those areas for a few reasons. You get to:

  • find out whether you want to go into a field that requires certain abilities and skill sets
  • show colleges your ability to handle higher level classes that relate to your major
  • potentially skip introductory courses, or get a solid foundation for those intro courses

Related: This is how to decide what major or career path to pursue.

2. What are your target schools' AP credit policies?

Different colleges accept different AP scores as credit.

Some schools will only accept a 5 on an AP exam to let you apply it towards a required course in college. Other schools may not allow you to count your AP credits towards the number of credits you need to graduate, but they may exempt you from placement testing if you submit your AP scores to them.

Use College Board’s AP Credit Policy search tool to navigate the AP requirements of your target schools.

If you want to take AP classes just for general education credits, make sure your school accepts them before taking on the workload.

3. How many AP classes do you plan on taking?

In a perfect (academic) world, students start taking AP classes as a sophomore, or even earlier. The earlier you start taking AP classes, the more you are able to spread out the more difficult ones.

Balance your course schedule as much as possible by sprinkling easier courses in with the more difficult ones. And if you have a really difficult year ahead of you, consider cutting down on the number of AP classes you take. Devote most of your academic energy towards doing great in a few of the hardest AP classes, rather than doing “okay” in many.

And if you remember anything from this post, let it be this:

Never try to put too much on your plate. You risk failing all of your classes if you’re spread too thin. Build a course schedule that you feel is challenging but that you can realistically do well in. 

4. What are your academic strengths (and weaknesses)?

With enough hard work, you can perform well no matter what the academic subject is.

However, some people just naturally have certain skill sets. Some people are great at math, while others have very weak number sense. Some individuals produce well-written, thoughtful essays, while others are not great at writing or analyzing an essay under time constraints.

And, of course, some people are great at memorizing facts, while others have trouble retaining that kind of rote information.

While you can do well in whatever classes you choose, work with what you’ve got. 

Set your schedule, so that you can do really well in the AP classes that are important and that you will excel in. Don’t spend so much of your time trying to perform in classes that do not directly impact your academic career.

5. What else is on your plate right now?

Are you a junior who really needs to nail their SAT and/or ACT exams? Are you a senior who’s already figured out their college and scholarship options, or do you still need to put more effort into that? Are you spending time at an internship, or working a job?

Factor these other time constraints and your own self-care into your course decisions. 

They all matter when it comes to your college applications – and when it comes to maintaining your sanity.

Related: This is how and why to get an internship in high school.

To effectively study for the SAT, ACT, or AP exams, enroll in one of our online tutoring courses.

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