What are the Hardest AP Classes to Pass? - According to Data

Frustrated student studying
Updated:
November 21, 2023
7 min read
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”Mary

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 11/21/23

What are the hardest AP classes? Keep reading to find out.

When it comes to high school, there's no shortage of challenging academic courses available. But for many ambitious students, Advanced Placement (AP) courses are the ultimate test of their academic abilities. 

These university-level courses offered by the College Board provide a unique opportunity for students to demonstrate their excellence in a particular subject, stand out in the admissions process, and potentially earn college credit in the process.

However, not all AP courses are created equal. Some are notoriously difficult, with demanding coursework and rigorous exams that require a deep understanding of complex subject matter. In fact, some AP courses have earned reputations as the most challenging classes high school students can take.

Whether you're a seasoned AP student looking to test your limits, or a curious underclassman weighing your options, buckle up and get ready to dive into the most challenging AP courses out there!

Hardest AP Classes by Exam Pass Rates

A final score higher than 3 is considered a pass for AP courses in most circumstances. Below is a table that ranks all of the difficult AP classes with the lowest exam passing rates. Based on these rates alone, Physics 1 is the hardest AP class.

AP Course Passing Rate Average of Scores Standard Deviation
Physics 1 43.3% 2.47 1.29
United States History 48.2% 2.57 1.33
Government & Politics United States 48.6% 2.58 1.30
Macroeconomics 51.8% 2.71 1.50
Human Geography 53.2% 2.70 1.45
Environmental Science 53.8% 2.79 1.29
Chemistry 54.0% 2.73 1.32
English – Language 55.7% 2.83 1.21

AP Course Passing Rate Average of Scores Standard Deviation
Calculus AB 55.7% 2.91 1.44
Psychology 58.3% 2.86 1.47
European History 58.9% 2.95 1.23
Microeconomics 59.0% 2.93 1.44
Statistics 60.5% 2.89 1.37
Art History 61.5% 2.99 1.23
Music Theory 61.9% 3.03 1.32
World History 62.1% 2.96 1.25

Among the easiest vs. hardest AP courses, various factors cause discrepancies between passing rates and difficulty, such as the academic level of the test takers in general. As such, The AP exam passing rates are considered an important metric in determining difficulty, but they are not the sole method of measurement.

What Are The Hardest AP Classes?

Frustrated female student

When it comes to AP courses, some are undoubtedly more difficult than others. While some easier AP classes that can help boost a student's GPA, the hardest AP classes require rigorous preparation, dedication, and commitment. 

It's important to note that what makes an AP class challenging can vary depending on your individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests. However, certain courses are widely regarded as more difficult than most. 

In this section, we’ll delve into 10 of the most challenging AP courses that require a significant investment of time and effort to pass.

1. AP Chemistry

flasks in science lab

In AP Chemistry, students learn about the fundamental concepts of chemistry along with core concepts relating to atomic and molecular structure, matter properties and states, intermolecular forces, chemical reactions, and chemical calculations.

College Board lists high school chemistry and Algebra II as the recommended prerequisites for AP Chemistry, meaning it is highly recommended to complete both before you take this course.

AP Chemistry contains nine units covering the following topics

  1. Atomic Structure, Composition, and Properties
  2. Molecular and Ionic Compound Structure and Properties
  3. Intermolecular and Subatomic Forces and Properties
  4. Chemical Reactions and Chemical Equations
  5. Kinetics
  6. Thermodynamics and energy changes in reactions
  7. Change of Reactions and Reaching Equilibrium
  8. pH, Acids, and Bases
  9. Applications of Thermodynamics 

Important skills required to do well in this course include the following:

  • Doing hands-on lab investigations 
  • Using chemical calculations to solve problems. 
  • Designing experiments and procedures to test a prediction or theory 
  • Making graphs, diagrams, and models that represent chemical phenomena
  • Explaining how the microscopic structure of a substance determines its chemical properties
  • Balancing a chemical equation
  • Making a scientific claim and supporting it with evidence

The coursework is demanding, and the exam includes complex questions that necessitate an advanced understanding and application of chemistry-related concepts and knowledge. To do well, students need to invest significant time and possess a promising aptitude for chemistry.

2. AP Macroeconomics

Stock charts on phone and computer screens

In AP Macroeconomics, students learn about the fundamental principles of macroeconomics, such as supply and demand, inflation, monetary and fiscal policies, and the overall functioning of the economy. You’ll also learn how to analyze and apply these concepts to real-world economic situations.

Recommended prerequisites include any high school courses that cover microeconomics, or economics in general. AP Macroeconomics contains the following units:

  1. Basic Economic Concepts, Principles, and Models 
  2. Economic Indicators and the Business Cycle
  3. National Income, Price Determination, Economic Fluctuations, Employment, and Inflation. 
  4. Financial Sector and Monetary Policy Implementation 
  5. Long-Run Consequences of Stabilization Policies, Economic Growth, and Effects of Fiscal and Monetary Policy Actions
  6. Open Economy and International Trade and Finance

To succeed in this course, students must be able to analyze and explain economic concepts using graphs, charts, and data, as well as understand the outcomes of specific economic situations.

3. AP United States Government & Politics

American flag

In AP US Government and Politics, you will study the foundations and principles of the US government, the institutions and functions of the US government, and the policies and issues that affect American society. The topics this course explores include: 

  1. Foundations of American Democracy and Government
  2. Interactions Among Branches of Government And How the Government Sets and Administers Policy
  3. Civil Liberties and Civil Rights
  4. American Political Ideologies and Beliefs
  5. Political Participation and How US Citizens Influence Government Decisions

To do well, you’ll need to be able to read, analyze, and discuss the US Constitution and other federal documents. The program requires a firm understanding of the government’s various entities and functions. In AP US Government and Politics, students will learn how to do the following:

  • Connect political concepts to real-life situations
  • Explain the impact and implications of certain U.S. Supreme Court decisions
  • Analyze data to find patterns and trends and draw conclusions
  • Read and evaluate text and visual sources
  • Develop a claim or thesis and support it in an essay
  • Complete a research or applied civics project

It’s safe to say that this course has one of the most demanding requirements among all the AP courses on our list. 

4. AP Human Geography

Road through green landscape

AP Human Geography teaches you how to learn and analyze how humans have understood, used, and changed the surface of Earth. 

AP Human Geography contains seven units:

  1. Basic Concepts and Methods in Geography
  2. Population and Migration Patterns and Processes
  3. Cultural, Lingual, and Religious Patterns and Processes
  4. Political Patterns and Processes
  5. Agriculture and Rural Land-Use Patterns, Processes, and Development
  6. Cities, Urbanization, and Land-Use Patterns and Processes
  7. Industrialization and Economic Development Patterns and Processes

To do well in this course, you’ll need to learn how to think and solve problems in the same way geographers do. You must demonstrate aptitude in examining phenomena and patterns of human population, migration, land use, and other activities.

You’ll also learn how to use geographical analysis tools, interpret maps and data, and understand the interactions between humans and their physical and cultural environments. These skills are considered difficult by many students.

5. AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

Currently, there are four AP Physics courses available, and all of them are considered among the most difficult AP courses. However, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism is especially notorious for being challenging. Many students have expressed their frustration and dislike for this course.

This AP course covers concepts such as electrostatics, magnetic fields, and electromagnetism across the following units:

  1. Electrostatics, electric forces, and electric charges
  2. Conductors, capacitors, dielectrics, and how charge moves
  3. Electric circuits and its components, current, resistance, and power.
  4. Magnetism, magnetic fields, and how they relate to electricity
  5. Electromagnetism, its properties, and forces

Despite having a low number of units, this AP class covers elusive topics that require a strong understanding of both physics and calculus, making it a challenging course.

This course also requires you to develop skills such as: 

  • Performing hands-on laboratory work and in-class activities to investigate phenomena
  • Using physical concepts and calculus to effectively solve convoluted problems
  • Interpreting, describing, utilizing, and creating visual representations of data (such as graphs and diagrams) for physical situations
  • Coming up with a hypothesis and designing an experiment to test it
  • Effectively developing and supporting a scientific claim with evidence

This AP Physics course is challenging and covers advanced topics, making it difficult for many high school students due to its rigorous requirements.

6. AP Environmental Science 

Fish underwater in deep sea

In AP Environmental Science, you’ll study and investigate the interrelationships of the natural world, while analyzing both natural and human-made environmental problems.

This class contains the following units:

  1. Ecosystems, Interdependent Environmental Features and Processes, and Relationships Between Species
  2. Biodiversity and Impacting Factors
  3. Populations
  4. Earth Systems, Resources, Geologic features, Atmosphere and Climate
  5. Land and Water Use and Effects on the Environment
  6. Energy Resources, Consumption and Renewability
  7. Atmospheric Pollution and Air Quality Improvement
  8. Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution
  9. Global Change and Global Impacts on Humans

This course requires the ability to explain environmental concepts and processes, analyze data, numbers, writings, and studies, as well as problem-solving and propose solutions for environment-related issues. You will also need to take part in laboratory investigations and fieldwork, which can further complicate things.

College Board recommends students complete two years of high school laboratory science (including life science and physical science), and at least one year of algebra prior to taking AP Environmental Science. 

7. AP English Language

Woman writing in notebook

AP English Language is an introductory college-level course in English literary and argumentation analysis. You’ll learn about the elements and basic concepts of argument and composition and develop your English critical reading and writing skills. 

AP English Language contains nine units that explore the following topics:

  1. Claims, Reasoning, and Evidence
  2. Evidence Organization, Argument Construction, and Audience Appeal
  3. Argument Interaction and the Range of Perspectives
  4. Argument Development, Introductions, and Conclusions
  5. How to Bring an Argument Together
  6. Positions, Perspective, and Biases
  7. Breadth and Complexity of Arguments
  8. Effects of Stylistic Choices 
  9. Consider Different Perspectives and Develop a Complex Argument 

This course requires you to effectively read and analyze nonfiction works from various periods and write essays with different purposes, such as to explain an idea, argue a point, or persuade your reader. The text you’ll have to read takes a sizable jump in complexity and difficulty compared to the literature you read in high school. 

The difficulty of this course comes from the heightened requirements on your reading and writing abilities. You must evaluate the information thoroughly, including its source, and use everything you know to craft a well-constructed argument from top to bottom. 

8. AP US History

AP US History studies all the cultural, economic, political, and social developments that have impacted and shaped the United States from c. 1491 to the modern day. 

AP US History has a total of 9 units covering the following topics: 

  1. 1491–1607: Native American societies, European explorations and colonizations of the Americas
  2. 1607–1754: The colonies established in the New World by the Spanish, French, Dutch, and British.
  3. 1754–1800: The American Revolution and the Formation of the United States
  4. 1800–1848: Political, cultural, and economical development of the United States in its early days
  5. 1844–1877: Expansion of the USA, the secession of Southern states, and the Civil War.
  6. 1865–1898: Economic and demographic shifts in this period linked to cultural and political changes.
  7. 1890–1945: Causes and effects of the global wars on America and the economic meltdown of this period.
  8. 1945–1980: Rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, the growth of various civil rights movements, and the economic, cultural, and political transformations.
  9. 1980–Present: The advance of political conservatism, developments in science and technology, and demographic shifts with major cultural and political consequences in this period.

As you can see, this is a very content-heavy course that spans a wide range of topics and information. As such, many students consider it it hardest AP class and, at times, the most tedious. AP US History is considered equivalent to a two-semester US history college course.

AP US History requires you to effectively evaluate primary and secondary sources, analyze claims, evidence, and reasonings in writings related to history, and logically connect historical information and context. You must also be skilled in making a thesis or statement and finding evidence to effectively support it.

9. AP Physics 1

This is another AP Physics course where you will study fundamental concepts and principles of physics, but more generally. It is equivalent to a first-semester introductory college course in algebra-based physics. 

AP Physics 1 spans seven units and covers the following topics:

  1. Kinematics and motion
  2. Dynamics, forces, and interactions between objects
  3. Circular motion and gravitation
  4. Energy, work, and power
  5. Momentum and the law of conservation
  6. Simple harmonic motion
  7. Torque, axis, and rotation motion

The concepts in this AP course are less troublesome than AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, but are still quite challenging, even for an AP course. Much like other AP Physics courses, AP Physics 1 doesn’t just test your aptitude in physics, but also in advanced mathematics, in this case, algebra. 

10. AP Physics 2

Math equations on chalkboard

We’ll end off this top 10 list with another AP course in physics. They’ve earned their rightful place, after all. AP Physics 2 also concerns fundamental concepts and principles in physics, but compared to AP Physics 1, these concepts are less introductory and less well-known.  

AP Physics 2 covers seven units and includes the following topics:

  1. Characteristics of fluids: internal structure, pressure, and forces
  2. Thermodynamics: heat, temperature, and thermal energy
  3. Electric force, field, and potential
  4. Electric circuits: components, behaviors, and paths
  5. Magnetism, electrostatic forces, and electromagnetic fields, currents, and induction
  6. Geometric and physical optics
  7. Quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics

AP Physics 2 is considered equivalent to a second-semester introductory college course in algebra-based physics. Much like AP Physics 1, this course requires the understanding and application of physics and algebra.

FAQs: Hardest AP Classes

Do you still have questions about the most challenging Advanced Placement classes? Hopefully our FAQs will clear some troubles!

1. Which AP Class Is Hardest?

What can be considered the hardest AP class varies greatly from person to person. A course that can be considered difficult for one student can be considered easy for another. 

At the end of the day, to determine whether a course is hard, you need to look into the content and see if they’re within or beyond your abilities and knowledge.

2. What Is the Most Failed AP Course?

Physics 1 is the course with the lowest passing grade, with 56.7% of test takers failing to get a 3 or higher. This doesn’t necessarily mean Physics 1 is the hardest course, as passing isn’t solely determined by difficulty.

3. What Is the Best AP Class to Take?

The best AP classes one can take also varies depending on the specific student. Generally, it is optimal to take an AP course that matches the subject and content of the university program you’re applying for. The closer the match, the better. You also need to make sure your schedule can handle the AP course.

For example, let’s say you’re applying for electronic engineering, and you’re in a comfortable position to get admitted. In that case, taking AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism can be a great choice.

Final Thoughts

If you’re feeling discouraged by anything you’ve read, or if you’re sad that your favorite course is often considered the hardest AP class, don’t be! As mentioned before, just because these courses are considered difficult by many doesn’t mean you are doomed to struggle! Give it your best foot forward, and you’ll have the best chances you can get!

Once again, AP courses are more advanced and challenging than your average high school curricula, but they also offer a hefty reward, especially for university admissions, so all your blood, sweat, and tears will be worth it in the end. 

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