United States History, Biology, English Literature, Calculus BC, Physics C, and Chemistry are often named as the hardest AP classes and tests. These classes have large curriculums, tough tests, and conceptually difficult material.
We put together this list based on personal experience, online chatter, passing rates, 5 rates, and looking at their curricula in depth.
We are not ranking these since their difficulty will vary quite a bit based on the student. For example, if you’re a math whiz, Calculus BC will likely be easier than AP English Literature. But the opposite could be true for another student.
But if you’re considering any of these, be prepared for a tough course!
AP US History
Even though most students are exposed to American History multiple times, beginning in elementary school, AP US History is still a very tough class.
First of all, this is a harder history exam than AP World History or even AP European History, since it covers a narrower span of history and a smaller geographical area, meaning the curriculum is incredibly detailed. This means you can’t rely on general trends and observations like you can sometimes in World History—you have to know specific dates, movements, people, and laws.
To take a small example, in a world history class, you might need to know that slavery ended in the United States during the Civil War. For a US history class, you would need to know the dates of the Civil War, the exact year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the dates and content of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. You would also be expected to know about the major leaders and law-makers involved. The more detail you can remember, the better!
This is because APUSH is known for having a very difficult multiple-choice section that requires a very detailed knowledge of US History from the pre-Columbian era up to the present day. Also, the more concrete evidence you can include in your free responses, the better essay scores you will get.
If you have a knack for history, this class will be easier for you, but most students report it’s very challenging. It’s also likely to be a hard class to pass at many schools because teachers have to assign tons of reading and assignments to get through all the material before the AP test in May. Expect a fast-moving, assignment-heavy course.
This is a tough class and test any way you slice it. Even with the redesign back in 2012, which was meant to make AP Biology more accessible and less memorization-heavy, you still have to memorize tons of material for the test, everything from super detailed chemical processes (Krebs Cycle, anyone?) to cell biology to evolution.
This means AP Biology teachers have to pack a ton onto their syllabi for this class, including time for experiments. The huge volume of info, coupled with the fact that Biology can be conceptually difficult, makes this a tough AP course.
AP English Literature
Along with AP US History, this is one of the hardest AP courses in the humanities. While AP English Language is also challenging, Literature requires reading texts that are generally more difficult. Compare, say, AP English Literature staple Crime and Punishment to a nonfiction article about the criminal justice system you might read in AP English Language. As a novel clocking in at over 400 pages, Crime and Punishment is much more difficult!
AP English Literature also tests more specific rhetorical/literary terms and requires you to have a more fine-tuned ability to close read a passage. You’re not just looking for the overall argument or effect like you are in AP English Language. You have to go under the hood and explain in detail how a piece of literature works.
Finally, for AP Literature, you have to come prepared to write one of the essays about a book or play you read in class, but you can’t actually bring the book or play with you to the exam. This means you have to study what you read in AP Literature very closely. So closely that you could formulate a detailed argument about a book, and even use quotes from it, without having the book with you! SparkNotes summaries won’t cut it.
In short, expect a longer and harder reading list, tougher multiple-choice questions, and more accountability for what you read in class.
Similar to biology, chemistry has a ton of material, lots of memorization, and requires a solid conceptual understanding of complicated chemical processes.
AP Chemistry is known at many high schools for having tons of homework and tough tests—all necessary for students to learn enough to pass the AP exam at the end of the year.
Don’t attempt AP Chemistry unless you have already taken an introductory chemistry course. It would be impossible to learn everything you need to know about chemistry for the AP exam in just one year. You can read AP Chemistry’s full course description here.
AP Physics C
Physics C is especially tough because not only are you learning challenging physics material, you also need to know calculus alongside it. While AP Physics 1 and 2 are algebra-based, both Physics C courses (Electricity & Magnetism and Mechanics) are calculus-based, meaning students need to know calculus well enough to apply it in physics. Some consider it “two classes in one” due to the necessary calculus knowledge.
Furthermore, the material tested in Physics C is much more in-depth than Physics 1 or 2 (or the old Physics B). Physics C courses go into a great amount of depth about a few topics, while Physics 1 and 2 cover many topics with less depth. So just as US History is harder than World History, Physics C is tougher than Physics 1 and 2 because you need a greater depth of knowledge.
Because of this, you should definitely have a physics prerequisite under your belt before taking Physics C, and you should have either already taken calculus or be taking it at the same time.
AP Calculus BC
Finally, AP Calculus BC is the toughest AP math exam, if not one of the hardest AP exams period. AP Calculus AB is also challenging, but covers less material and moves more slowly. AP Calculus BC often covers everything taught in Calculus AB in just the first semester of school—revealing one reason why it’s so hard: intense pacing.
You move fast in Calculus BC, which means you need to be prepared to keep up. There is not a lot of time to be lost in this class. If you struggle with a concept at the beginning of the year, it can make it harder to learn everything after that. In fact, if you find yourself struggling, seek out extra help from the teacher or a tutor as fast as you can so you don’t fall behind.
In some schools, Calculus BC requires an extra period in the day to fit in all the material before the AP exam. You also get into more conceptually difficult calculus topics than Calculus AB. In short, be prepared to work very hard and be vigilant about keeping up with the course.
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