The Hardest AP Classes – 2023 Edition
January 30, 2023
Building your high school course schedule can sometimes feel like playing Tetris. Can you maneuver every course into just the right sequence? What happens if two classes that you want to take are only offered during the same period? And how difficult are certain AP classes, anyway? Feel like those blocks are falling too fast yet? You’re not alone. Many students find it necessary to consider course difficulty when finalizing their schedules, and although course decisions should always be made in conjunction with your school counselor, read on for a breakdown of considerations regarding the hardest AP classes.
What is the hardest AP class?
If you ask an avid marathoner to run ten miles with you, they won’t even blink. Now, ask the same question to a 5K-dabbler, and they’ll likely tell you they’d rather reorganize their sock drawer. To sum it up, the “difficulty” of a particular distance is entirely relative–just like AP classes. Math and science whizzes may struggle with writing-intensive courses like AP English Literature or US History, while Shakespeare gurus may balk at AP Physics or Chemistry. When building your schedule, be honest with yourself about your strengths. Perhaps you feel comfortable taking AP Calculus and Biology simultaneously but would rather avoid doubling up on literature and/or history courses.
There’s also a difference between class difficulty and exam difficulty, although the two sometimes go hand in hand. Due to the intense preparation, it’s often said that a harder AP class=an easier AP exam experience. Moreover, more popular & widely offered classes, like AP Chem, may have lower pass rates because the students who take them may not be appropriately qualified.
Alternatively, if you’re self-studying for an exam not offered at your school, you’ll have different considerations than a student who is taking a full-year AP course taught by an instructor with a record of 4s and 5s. Likewise, experienced AP teachers whose students have a solid track record of passing the exam will make a huge difference in your preparation. The courses that you’re most interested in earning college credit for may factor into the decision as well. For example, you may decide to throw your energy behind Physics 1 rather than Environmental Science because you hope to pursue the hard sciences in college and want to get a head start.
Hardest AP Class Chart
By pass rate percentage, here are the hardest AP classes ranked from most to least difficulty:
|AP Exam||% scoring a 3 or above|
|English Language & Composition||55.7%|
However, this list is not without shortcomings. AP US Government and Politics, Human Geography, and Environmental Science are generally considered to be among some of the easiest AP classes. Since relying on just one data point rarely (if ever) reveals the full picture, we’ve taken pass rate, overall student reviews, and course material difficulty into consideration when building our list of hardest AP classes:
1) AP Biology
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 237,338
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 67.8%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 38.1%
The course is broken into eight sections that cover topics like cellular energetics, gene expression, and ecology. Each section is broken into 6-13 modules that you’ll be moving through quite quickly–sometimes, one per class period.
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 120,238
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 76.9%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 56.8%
Don’t let the high pass rate fool you–Calc BC moves quickly and expects students to have high-level math skills. Also, the course covers more units than Calc AB (10 vs. 8). The class will likely be challenging regardless, but if you haven’t taken Calc AB as a foundation, this may prove to be one of your hardest AP classes.
3) AP Chemistry
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 124,780
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 54%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 29.5%
“What, like it’s hard?” Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods famously uttered to slack-jawed Warner (in regard to getting into Harvard Law). You’ll look just like Warner if you ever hear another student proclaim the same about AP Chem–it is infamous for its difficulty. You’ll be moving quickly and covering an astounding amount of material while you’re at it–often an entire module every 1-2 days. Additionally, topics include intermolecular forces, chemical reactions, and thermodynamics, among others.
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 520,771
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 55.7%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 31.5%
AP Lang requires students to work through nine different units as they develop skills in analysis, evaluation, and argumentative & persuasive writing. You’ll be reading a variety of nonfiction pieces (such as essays, speeches, and memoirs) and will be expected to display high-level critical writing on the exam.
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 339,401
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 77.9%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 44.2%
Unlike several of the other courses profiled, AP Lit does not have a scary sub-50 pass rate, and students tend to do better than on the more popular AP Lang exam. However, the class is known to require an intense amount of reading and writing, and the test itself requires students to be well-versed in literary analysis and have the ability to produce three high-level, full-length essays in under two hours.
Hardest AP Classes (Continued)
6) AP Language Exams
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): Chinese (15,277); French (19,554); German (4,450); Italian (2,194); Japanese (2,765); Spanish (155,931)
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: Chinese (86.9%); French (71.6%); German (65.6%); Italian (70.5%); Japanese (75.4%); Spanish (81.8%)
- % Scored a 4 or 5: Chinese (67.8%); French (36.8%); German (39.1%); Italian (43.2%); Japanese (58.3%); Spanish (52.1%)
Unless you’ve been taking a language for 3-4 years, think hard before taking an AP language class or exam (Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish are offered). While there are no official prerequisites, it is assumed that you are in your fourth year of language study (or equivalent). In sum, if you just started taking French last year, the AP class and exam may be one of your hardest AP classes. However, if you’ve been taking French since seventh grade, you have a much better chance of success.
7) AP Latin
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 4,832
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 27.3%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 57.1%
According to the CollegeBoard, AP Latin is “equivalent to an upper-intermediate level college course in Latin” rather than an introductory college course (as most other APs are). In addition to studying works by Vergil and Caesar, students will be expected to become proficient in Latin translation and analysis in order to do well on the exam.
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 19,978
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 55.1%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 69.4%
The self-selecting nature of Physics C (students should have previously taken calculus) explains its high pass rate, but the class itself is anything but easy. Consequently, both Physics C courses (Mechanics as well as Electricity & Magnetism) are regarded as two of the hardest AP classes that you can take in high school. You’ll cover topics like electrostatics, conductors, and electromagnetism over the course of five units. Finally, the course includes intensive lab work.
9) AP Physics 1
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 144,526
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 43.2%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 24.9%
At many high schools, AP Physics is notorious for its difficulty level. In addition, it has the lowest overall pass rate of any AP exam. Students undertake laboratory work (which they are encouraged to save, as colleges may request to see it before granting credit) while completing extensive work in seven subjects, such as kinematics, energy, and harmonic motion.
10) AP US History
- Number of Students Taking Exam (2022): 456,520
- % Scored a 3 or Higher: 48.3%
- % Scored a 4 or 5: 26.4%
Covering 1491 to the present, APUSH is well-known for requiring heavy reading, a great deal of writing, and extensive knowledge of myriad historical events. At the beginning of the course, you’ll cover about 100 years of history every two weeks. Then, as you move into the 1750s (and beyond), you’ll cover about 50 years every 2-3 weeks.
Final Thoughts – Hardest AP Classes
Above all, deciding which of the hardest AP classes to Tetris into your course load will largely be a matter of personal preference, level of preparation, and motivation to succeed. Whether you’re pursuing a full-year AP class offered through your high school, an online AP course, or a self-guided course of study, we wish you the best of luck as you build a rigorous yet realistic schedule.