These are the Hardest AP Classes to Pass

Every May, millions of high school students charge up their graphing calculators, crank out practice essays, and brush up on topics like participatory democracy and kinematics in preparation for what’s likely one of the biggest challenges of their academic lives: AP exams.

However, the challenge is often worth it. Taken at the end of Advanced Placement classes, a passing grade on an AP exam can be a game changer for high schoolers. These college-level courses are appealing to students who want to get ahead, take a deep dive into topics of interest, and explore potential careers.

Passing AP tests before senior year can also mean a more attractive college application and an easier time adjusting to the academic rigors of college. Some colleges even accept passing AP test scores as college credit—a major incentive for students to take the exams when college costs at four-year institutions average $36,436 per year.

It’s no wonder then that over the past two decades, the AP program has experienced tremendous growth. In 2023, more than 2.8 million students took AP tests, according to the College Board. That’s nearly four times the number of test takers in 2000.

To be clear, these college-level courses—and the exams that go with them—are not easy. For many high school students, an AP course is their first foray into all types of advanced skills such as developing political arguments and quantitative data analysis. All AP courses are designed to be rigorous, but some prove to be more challenging than others.

Numerade used data from the College Board to identify the 10 AP courses with the lowest pass rate in 2023, meaning students scored at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 to pass, with 5 being the highest score. While the subjects are ranked by pass rate (the highest pass rate is at #10 on the list, while the lowest is at #1), exam difficulty is only one factor influencing outcomes. For example, a course with a high share of first-year students may have a lower pass rate since it is many students’ first AP course ever.

Though the College Board considers 3 to be a passing score, some colleges will only count an AP course toward college credit with a score of 4 or higher. While AP classes may count as college credit, not all schools will allow AP courses to meet general education requirements.

#10. AP Psychology

– Number of test takers: 321,329 (Mostly 12th grade, 142,624 students)
– Students who passed: 59.6%
— Scored a 3: 19.5%
— Scored a 4: 23.2%
— Scored a 5: 16.9%

Equivalent to a college-level introduction to psychology course, this AP class covers the basics of psychology and behavior. Course concepts include cognitive, developmental, clinical, and social psychology; students will spend time applying key concepts and psychological theories. Practical skills like quantitative data analysis and investigating research studies are also part of the course scope.

#9. AP European History

– Number of test takers: 81,788 (Mostly 10th grade, 53,835 students)
– Students who passed: 59.4%
— Scored a 3: 25.2%
— Scored a 4: 21.3%
— Scored a 5: 12.9%

This course covers major events and developments in Europe from the Renaissance to the present day, with themes of exploration, colonization, and industrialization as common threads. Students discuss the French and Russian Revolutions and World Wars I and II while learning how to make connections and comparisons between events. Modern-era topics include decolonization, the fall of communism, and the European Union.

#8. AP Calculus AB

– Number of test takers: 273,987 (Mostly 12th grade, 170,652 students)
– Students who passed: 58.0%
— Scored a 3: 19.4%
— Scored a 4: 16.2%
— Scored a 5: 22.4%

Students who want to bypass their first college calculus course take this class, which focuses on differential and integral calculus. A solid mathematical foundation is critical: Course prerequisites include analytic geometry, trigonometry, and elementary functions. The exam consists of multiple choice and free response sections, and graphing calculators are allowed in some sections.

#7. AP Latin

– Number of test takers: 4,533 (Mostly 12th grade, 2,546 students)
– Students who passed: 56.7%
— Scored a 3: 28.0%
— Scored a 4: 16.5%
— Scored a 5: 12.3%

For advanced Latin students, this course goes deep on Virgil’s “Aeneid” and Caesar’s “Gallic War.” Students study these works within their historical contexts, and they hone their ability to read, comprehend, translate, and analyze Latin. This class compares to an intermediate-level college course on the same material.

#6. AP English Language & Composition

– Number of test takers: 562,328 (Mostly 11th grade, 487,414 students)
– Students who passed: 56.1%
— Scored a 3: 26.1%
— Scored a 4: 19.7%
— Scored a 5: 10.3%

Students take AP English Language & Composition for the chance to bypass English 101 in college. Students develop academic writing skills, namely evidence-based analytic and argumentative writing. They also learn how to conduct a rhetorical analysis of nonfiction work by examining an author’s work and develop an argument around what they believe the author is trying to convey.

#5. AP Human Geography

– Number of test takers: 247,043 (Mostly 9th grade, 176,232 students)
– Students who passed: 54.4%
— Scored a 3: 18.4%
— Scored a 4: 20.0%
— Scored a 5: 16.0%

Human geography is the study of how humans relate to and change their environments. Because it has no prerequisite requirements, this course is popular among ninth and 10th graders. Students cover several patterns and processes including migration, agriculture, urban, and industrial. They use three “big ideas” as the foundation of their learning and analysis: Patterns and spatial organization; impacts and interactions; and spatial process and societal change.

#4. AP Environmental Science

– Number of test takers: 209,757 (Mostly 12th grade, 96,308 students)
– Students who passed: 53.7%
— Scored a 3: 17.0%
— Scored a 4: 28.4%
— Scored a 5: 8.3%

In this course, students learn concepts about ecosystems and biodiversity and how to conduct experiments, analyze data, and develop solutions to environmental problems. Core topics include human impact on the environment, including overfishing, mining, and pollution. The multiple-choice portion of the exam counts for 60% of the final score, with the remaining 40% assessing students’ ability to design an investigation for an environmental scenario.

#3. AP United States Government & Politics

– Number of test takers: 329,132 (Mostly 12th grade, 218,135 students)
– Students who passed: 49.2%
— Scored a 3: 25.1%
— Scored a 4: 11.3%
— Scored a 5: 12.8%

A nonpartisan examination of the U.S. government and political system, this course uses the country’s founding documents and Supreme Court decisions as the basis for understanding governmental processes and institutions. Students will apply key concepts to real-life scenarios, hone their analytical abilities, and write argumentative essays. The exam is weighted equally between multiple-choice questions and free responses and requires students to develop sound political arguments.

#2. AP United States History

– Number of test takers: 467,975 (Mostly 11th grade, 377,048 students)
– Students who passed: 47.5%
— Scored a 3: 22.1%
— Scored a 4: 14.8%
— Scored a 5: 10.6%

Covering 1491 to the present, students take a thematic approach to America’s geography, national identity, position as a world leader, and more. This course uses Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s “Backward Design” framework, which centers student learning goals rather than existing lessons linked to the course objective. It crams in a lot of information—two semesters of intro-level college classes. The two-part exam includes analyzing a historical document.

#1. AP Physics 1

– Number of test takers: 159,582 (Mostly 11th grade, 95,657 students)
– Students who passed: 45.6%
— Scored a 3: 18.5%
— Scored a 4: 18.3%
— Scored a 5: 8.8%

The College Board is making changes to this algebra-based course and exam for the 2024-2025 school year. The course will add a unit on fluids—formerly part of AP Physics 2—to go along with units on kinematics, dynamics, energy, momentum, and different types of motion. The test will have fewer multiple-choice questions and free-response questions. Despite minor time changes to different sections, students will still have three hours for the test.

Author

  • Jill Jaracz

    Jill Jaracz is a Cleveland-based writer who has covered a number of topics including bridal, financial services, and local news. She's also the co-host and executive producer of Keep the Flame Alive, a podcast for fans of the Olympics and Paralympics. Jill covered the Beijing 2022 Olympics and Paralympics from the closed loop in China, where she saw some amazing sports moments, geeked out about curling ice, and ate bao every day for six weeks.