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Top 10 Hardest AP Courses

Top 10 Hardest AP Courses

5 min Read|May 23 2024
|Written by:

George Christofi


Are you ready to tackle the world of Advanced Placement courses? Do you have what it takes to navigate their academic rigor and achieve highest AP grades? AP courses are known for their depth and difficulty, and some are notoriously tougher than others. This journey isn't just about learning; it's about stretching your limits and testing yourself to the next level.

In this article, we dive deep into the top 10 hardest AP courses. Ever wondered why AP Physics leaves so many students perplexed, or what makes AP United States History a colossal challenge? We've gathered insights from student experiences, exam pass rates, and content depth to shed light on these tough subjects. As a student selecting courses, a parent involved in academic planning, or a teacher guiding pupils, understanding the intricacies of these challenging courses is key. Get ready for an eye-opening exploration into what sets these AP courses apart in their demand and complexity.

Top 10 Hardest AP Courses and the percentages of students who scored 3 or higher.

Graph of the percentages of students who scored 3 or higher in the top 10 hardest AP courses

Here's what Dr Zhen Shao, a lecturer at Oxford University has to say:

"AP Physics 1 has been the hardest AP subject over the past few years. Even this year, less than 50% of students managed to pass. It's tough, but it's worth the effort for the knowledge and skills you gain and can help you a lot, especially if you want to pursue a future in engineering."

1 - Physics 1

AP Physics 1, noted for its depth and breadth in covering fundamental physics concepts, poses a considerable challenge and is considered the hardest of the AP tests. Here is why:

Wide Range of Topics: It includes mechanics, kinetic theory, thermodynamics, and more, requiring students to grasp a diverse array of principles and applications.

Statistics (2023):

  • Total Students: 159,582, indicating its popularity.
  • Mean Score: 2.55, reflecting the overall challenge of the course.
  • Scoring 5: 8.8%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 45.6%.

Demanding Exam Format: The exam tests not just theoretical knowledge but also problem-solving abilities, demanding rigorous preparation.

These insights, based on the 2023 score distributions, underline the demanding nature of AP Physics 1, making it one of the toughest AP courses. Students are advised to focus on conceptual understanding and practice problem-solving extensively.

2 - United States Government & Politics

AP United States Government & Politics, often known for its detailed analysis of the American political system, poses a significant challenge to students:

Exam Statistics (2023):

  • Total Students: 329,132
  • Mean Score: 2.59
  • % Scoring 5: 12.8%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 49.2%, indicating less than half of the students scored a passing grade

Content Complexity: The course demands an in-depth understanding of governmental structures, policies, and political theories.

Exam Format: The exam assesses not just factual knowledge, but also the ability to apply this knowledge in analytical contexts.

These statistics from 2023, sourced from the College Board's AP Score Distributions, underscore the difficult nature of AP United States Government & Politics, making it one of the most challenging AP courses.

3 - United States History

AP United States History (APUSH) is a comprehensive and challenging course that requires a deep understanding of American history and the following describe why:

Broad Coverage: The course spans from early exploration and colonization to contemporary American history, encompassing key events, figures, and socio-political changes.

Exam Statistics (2023):

  • Total Students: 467,975, one of the most popular AP courses.
  • Mean Score: 2.54, reflecting the challenging nature of the exam.
  • % Scoring 5: 10.6%.
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 47.5%, indicating that less than half of the students received a passing grade.

APUSH demands not just memorization of historical facts but also critical thinking and analytical skills to interpret historical evidence and themes. The depth and breadth of the content, combined with the hard exam format, contribute to its reputation as one of the more challenging AP courses.

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4 - Environmental Science

AP Environmental Science is an interdisciplinary course that combines various scientific disciplines to explore environmental issues:

Course Focus: It covers topics such as ecosystem interrelationships, human impact on the environment, energy resources, and pollution management.

Statistics (2023):

  • Total Students: 209,757
  • Mean Score: 2.79
  • % Scoring 5: 8.3%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 53.7%

This course requires students to integrate knowledge from biology, chemistry, and earth science to understand and analyze environmental problems, making it a challenging yet essential subject. The statistics indicate a moderate level of difficulty, with a significant portion of students achieving passing scores.

5 - Human Geography

AP Human Geography is known for its comprehensive coverage of geographical concepts and human-environment interactions:

Content Overview: The course examines topics like population and migration patterns, cultural patterns and processes, political organization of space, and agricultural and rural land use.

2023 Exam Statistics:

  • Total Students: 247,043
  • Mean Score: 2.75
  • % Scoring 5: 16.0%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 54.4%

These aspects highlight the course's breadth and the necessity for students to understand and analyze complex geographical data and theories. The statistics demonstrate a challenging nature of the course, with a significant number of students scoring above average, yet a notable percentage find it difficult to achieve the highest scores.

Number of test takers of the 10 hardest subjects

Graph showing number of students who gave the AP exams of the top 10 hardest subjects

6 - English Language & Composition

AP English Language and Composition is a rigorous course that focuses on enhancing students' reading, writing, and analytical skills:

Course Content: It emphasizes rhetoric, analyzing the purpose and effectiveness of texts, and developing argumentative essays.

2023 Exam Statistics:

  • Total Students: 562,328
  • Mean Score: 2.82
  • % Scoring 5: 10.3%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 56.1%

This course requires students to dive deep into diverse texts, ranging from historical documents to contemporary literature, and challenges them to articulate their ideas both verbally and in writing. The statistics reveal that while a good number of students achieve a score of 3 or higher, earning a top score of 5 remains challenging for many, especially for non-native speakers.

7 - Latin

AP Latin is renowned for its rigorous curriculum focusing on Roman poetry and prose. It is taken by very few students however still is one of the most difficult ones:

Course Emphasis: Students engage deeply with works like Vergil's "Aeneid" and Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic War," honing their translation skills and understanding of ancient literature.

2023 Exam Statistics:

  • Total Students: 4,533
  • Mean Score: 2.79
  • % Scoring 5: 12.3%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 56.7%

The numbers from the 2023 AP exams reflect the challenging nature of AP Latin. A notable percentage of students manage to score 3 or higher, but achieving the top score is quite rare, indicating the depth and complexity of the subject matter. This course not only demands a firm grasp of Latin language but also an analytical understanding of ancient texts.

8 - Calculus AB

AP Calculus AB is a challenging course that dives into the world of advanced mathematics. Here is what the course covers and what were it's student performance statistics for 2023:

Course Focus: This course covers differential and integral calculus, offering a foundation for various mathematical and scientific fields.

2023 Exam Statistics:

  • Total Students: 273,987
  • Mean Score: 2.99
  • % Scoring 5: 22.4%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 58.0%

With a mean score of 2.99, AP Calculus AB is a testament to its challenging nature. The course not only requires students to have a strong grasp of mathematical concepts but also to apply them in complex scenarios. A significant percentage of students score 3 or higher, yet a top score remains a formidable challenge. This rigorous course prepares students for further studies in mathematics, engineering, and sciences.

9 - European History

AP European History is known for its comprehensive coverage and analytical depth related to the rich history of Europe:

Course Coverage: This course spans European history from Renaissance to present, requiring an understanding of major events, movements, and figures.

2023 Exam Statistics:

  • Total Students: 81,788
  • Mean Score: 2.95
  • % Scoring 5: 12.9%
  • % Scoring 3 or Higher: 59.4%

With a mean score of 2.95, AP European History presents a formidable challenge, evident in the less than 13% of students scoring a top grade. The course demands not just rote memorization but critical analysis and essay writing, skills crucial for success. While almost 60% of students score 3 or higher, achieving a 5 is quite rare, highlighting the course's difficulty.

10 - Psychology

AP Psychology offers an in-depth exploration of human behavior and mental processes, attracting students interested in understanding the intricacies of the human mind. The course covers a wide range of topics, from the biological basis of behavior to social influences, cognition, and mental health.

Statistics from 2023:

  • Total Students: 321,329
  • Mean Score: 2.89
  • Scoring 5: 16.9%
  • Scoring 3 or Higher: 59.6%

The majority of students (59.6%) managed to score 3 or above, suggesting a good level of understanding overall. However, a notable 28% scored a 1, highlighting the course's complexity and the need for thorough preparation. AP Psychology requires a balance of memorization and application of concepts, challenging students to think critically and analytically about the various psychological theories and their practical implications.

Mean scores of the 10 hardest AP subjects

Table showing mean scores of the top 10 hardest AP subjects

Strategies for Tackling the Hardest AP Courses

Successfully tackling the most challenging AP courses requires a multifaceted approach:

  • Early and Consistent Preparation: Begin your studies well before the exam period. Consistency is key to understanding complex topics.
  • Deep Understanding of Exam Format: Familiarize yourself thoroughly with the exam structure. This includes understanding the types of questions and the scoring rubric.
  • Leverage AP Resources: Utilize a variety of resources like AP review books, AP study notes, online practice tests, and previous exam questions.
  • Study Groups: Collaborating with peers can provide mutual support and different perspectives.
  • AP Tutoring: Consider enlisting the help of an AP tutor for subjects you find particularly challenging.
  • Effective Time Management: Balance your AP studies with other academic and extracurricular commitments. Avoid overloading your schedule to maintain a healthy study-life balance.
  • Regular Review Sessions: Periodically review previous topics to ensure retention and understanding.

These strategies, especially seeking assistance through AP tutoring, can play a crucial role in mastering the rigors of difficult AP courses.

Conclusion: Preparing for Success in AP Challenges

Choosing your AP courses and preparing for success in the most challenging AP courses involves understanding their difficulty and approaching them with the right strategies. Some stand out from the rest such as AP Physics and AP United States Government & Politics. These subjects, while being the hardest AP courses, offer invaluable learning experiences and college readiness. Success in these courses is not just about intelligence; it involves dedication, effective study habits, and often, strategic use of resources like tutoring and AP review materials. Balancing these studies with other academic and extracurricular commitments is crucial. Remember, a high score in these courses demonstrates exceptional understanding and is highly regarded by colleges. Ultimately, the key to excelling in challenging AP courses lies in persistent effort, smart preparation, and a willingness to seek help when needed.


What is the least passed AP class?

The least passed AP class in 2023 was AP Physics 1. This course is known for its challenging content and rigorous examination, making it one of the more difficult AP subjects. In 2023, only 8.8% of students achieved the top score of 5, while a considerable 26.4% scored a 1. The overall passing rate (scores of 3 or higher) was 45.6%, reflecting the challenging nature of the course.

What is the least difficult AP class?

The least difficult AP class varies based on student preferences and strengths. But one that has consistently stood out is Chinese Language and Culture which topped the list of top 10 easiest AP subjects. This subject requires strong reading and comprehension skills rather than advanced mathematical or scientific knowledge, making it more approachable for a wide range of students.

Is AP Physics or AP Chem harder?

Determining whether AP Physics or AP Chemistry is harder depends on individual student strengths and interests. However, AP Physics 1 is regarded as being more difficult due to it's lower mean score and lower percentage of students that score 3 or higher. Students with a strong background in mathematics might find AP Physics more manageable, while those with a keen interest in the sciences may lean towards AP Chemistry. The difficulty is subjective and varies based on a student's academic skills and preferences.

How hard is AP Biology?

AP Biology is also considered one of the more challenging AP courses due to its extensive curriculum that covers a wide range of biological concepts. This includes molecular biology, genetics, ecology, and evolution. The course not only requires a good memory to retain detailed information but also demands a strong understanding of scientific processes and the ability to apply concepts to new situations. Students need to be prepared for in-depth study and have the ability to analyze and interpret scientific data. The level of difficulty can vary for each student depending on their background in biology and study habits.

How hard is AP Chemistry?

AP Chemistry is known for its rigor and is often considered one of the more challenging AP courses. It requires a strong foundation in chemistry concepts, mathematical skills for calculations, and a good understanding of laboratory practices. The course covers a wide range of topics, including atomic structure, chemical reactions, and thermodynamics. Students must be prepared for in-depth study and have the ability to apply theoretical knowledge to practical problems. The difficulty of AP Chemistry lies in its detailed content and the need for precision in both theoretical understanding and laboratory work.

What is the highest scoring AP exam?

The highest scoring AP exam can vary from year to year. However, traditionally, AP exams in foreign languages like AP Chinese Language and Culture have seen high scoring rates. These exams often have a significant percentage of students achieving the top score of 5, possibly due to the smaller number of students taking these exams and many of these students being native or heritage speakers. It's important to note that the difficulty of an exam can depend on a student's background and strengths in the subject matter.

Are APs harder than GCSEs?

Yes, AP (Advanced Placement) courses are generally considered harder than GCSEs. AP courses are equivalent to A Levels, which are studied after GCSEs in the UK education system. Therefore, APs cover more advanced material and are more in-depth, making them more challenging compared to GCSEs. The higher level of difficulty in AP courses is reflective of their closer alignment with first-year college coursework, whereas GCSEs are more foundational. This comparison is based on the overall curriculum and academic expectations of these qualifications.

Why is AP so difficult?

AP courses are designed to be challenging as they are meant to be equivalent to introductory college courses. This means they cover a lot of material at a deeper and more complex level than typical high school classes. The difficulty of an AP class and exam can depend on various factors, including your school's approach to teaching the course, your personal strengths, and the specific AP subject. AP classes require not only a good understanding of the content but also the ability to apply this knowledge in a college-style cumulative exam. The overall objective is to prepare students for college-level coursework, which is why they are more challenging compared to regular high school courses​.

Is IB math harder than AP?

The comparison between IB and AP can vary depending on the specific courses compared and the student's strengths. In general, IB higher-level (HL) courses are often considered more challenging than similar AP courses. IB emphasizes writing, critical-thinking skills, and comprehensive learning. In contrast, AP courses are more focused on specific content knowledge and their exams. For example, IB Math HL is typically seen as more difficult than AP Calculus. However, the difficulty can vary greatly depending on the student's background and the school's implementation of these programs​.

Is it hard to get a 5 in AP Chem?

Yes, getting a 5 in AP Chemistry is considered difficult. The content is extensive, involving in-depth memorization of chemical principles and mathematical skills. The exam requires a balance of memorization and critical thinking. With a relatively low rate of students scoring 5, it reflects the challenge in mastering the subject comprehensively. The exam's complexity and breadth make achieving a top score a significant accomplishment.

What is the longest AP exam?

The longest AP exams are AP Calculus AB, AP Calculus BC, AP Chemistry, AP English Language and Composition, and AP United States History, each lasting 3 hours and 15 minutes. These exams are lengthy due to their extensive content coverage and the need for both multiple-choice and free-response sections.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

George Christofi

Written by: George Christofi

Oxford University - Masters Philosophy

George studied undergraduate and masters degrees in Classics and Philosophy at Oxford, as well as spending time at Yale. He specialises in helping students with UK and US university applications, including Oxbridge and the Ivy League. He writes extensively on education including on schools, universities, and pedagogy.

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