What are AP® Courses and Why Should You Take Them?
Advanced Placement® (AP) courses are college-level classes in a wide variety of subjects that you can take while still in high school. They’re usually taken during a student’s junior year. Each AP course ends with a standardized exam, developed and scored by the College Board® on a scale of 1 to 5. Most colleges and universities in the United States grant college placement and/or credit to students who obtain high scores (usually 3 or higher) on these exams.
What is an AP Class?
Today, students face ever-increasing pressure to perform well in school and get ahead. Providing “AP classes” is one such way that high schools from across the country have begun to meet this demand. These classes are taught in parallel with the standard high school curriculum but cover more in-depth content equivalent to entry-level college courses. AP classes are a great way to jumpstart your college career. Depending on the school you’re attending, an AP class can run for just one semester or for the entirety of one high school year (two semesters).
Taking an AP class will typically sharpen your writing skills, critical thinking skills, your ability to solve problems and make connections across broad topics. For these reasons, students are strongly advised to register for an AP class if they plan to attend college, impress the college admissions committee, and save money on tuition.
How Many AP Courses Are There?
For the 2022-2023 school year, there are 38 AP courses within seven primary disciplines. The number of AP courses and classes offered varies between schools. So, please be sure to check with your school AP Coordinator or high school counselor to see the AP courses available at your high school. The following are the seven disciplines in which you can take AP courses:
This is a two-year program based on two AP courses.
- AP Seminar
- AP Research
Under Arts, you’ll have three AP courses.
- AP Art History
- AP Art Design and Program – AP Studio Art: 2-D Design, 3-D Design, Drawing
- AP Music Theory
AP English is divided into two AP courses.
- AP English Language and Composition
- AP English Literature and Composition
This discipline consists of nine AP courses.
- AP Comparative Government & Politics
- AP European History
- AP Human Geography
- AP Macroeconomics
- AP Microeconomics
- AP Psychology
- AP U.S. Government & Politics
- AP U.S. History
- AP World History
The following AP courses are included in this category.
- AP Calculus AB
- AP Calculus BC
- AP Computer Science A
- AP Computer Science Principles
- AP Statistics
Note: You may not take both AP Calculus AB and Calculus BC exams within the same year.
Under the AP Sciences, there are seven AP courses.
- AP Biology*
- AP Chemistry*
- AP Environmental Science
- AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based*
- AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based*
- AP Physics C: Electricity &
- AP Physics C: Mechanics*
*These courses have a lab component to them. Save your lab notebooks and reports! Colleges may ask to see them before granting you credit.
Under AP World Languages and Culture, you’ll have eight AP courses to choose from
- AP Chinese Language & Culture
- AP French Language & Culture
- AP German Language & Culture
- AP Italian Language & Culture
- AP Japanese Language & Culture
- AP Latin
- AP Spanish Language & Culture
- AP Spanish Literature & Culture
The Hardest And the Easiest AP Classes
In general, AP classes are sometimes labeled as “easy” or “hard” based on their national passing rates. However, the passing rate only considers AP scores ranging from a 3 (considered an average score) to a 5 (the highest score possible). As a result, passing rates are only a partial indicator of whether an AP class is actually “hard” or “easy.” Some AP classes may be easier to pass but require a lot of time commitment and homework, while others may be harder to pass because the content is challenging but has less homework.
The difficulty of any class is highly dependent on numerous factors. For example, students at different high schools nationwide will have varying aptitude, skills, learning habits, and intellect. Students will also have different teachers. The pace of learning, testing, and reviewing will be different in each class. So, classifying a course as part of the “easiest” or “hardest” AP classes is not always so clear.
With that being said, the percentage of students scoring a 5 on an AP exam can be correlated with whether the AP course is easy or hard. Below, we’ve listed several classes with the highest and lowest percentages of students scoring a 5 on the exam:
The “Hardest” AP Classes:
As of 2021, these are the top 10 hardest AP classes that you could take if you’re up for a challenge!
Approximate percentage of students scoring a 5 per AP Class
Note: This list excludes AP Foreign Language classes, Arts, AP Seminar and AP Research classes.
The “Easiest” AP Classes:
These AP classes had some of the highest percentages of students scoring a 5 in 2021.
Note: This list excludes AP Foreign Language classes, AP Arts, AP Seminar, and AP Research classes.
Above, the table shows that analyzing the percentage of students who scored a 5 is one possible way to identify the hardest AP courses (e.g., English Literature, Physics, Biology, Chemistry). However, let’s use Environmental Science as an example; this class is considered “easy” by some metrics (students often call it easy), but it has a very low frequency of students scoring 5’s. Moreover, classes that are generally considered “difficult,” like AP Calculus BC, have a high percentage of students scoring a 5.
So, be careful about how you measure the difficulty of an AP course, as course difficulty is multifactorial and not always clear-cut. Besides, how you perceive class difficulty will be determined by your personal interests, career goals, learning ability, and the AP teacher’s impact on course rigor.
Top 10 Most Popular AP Courses
Various factors play a role in determining which AP courses are taken by the greatest number of students and why certain courses are more popular than others. However, several main reasons help to explain the popularity of an AP course.
- First, some AP courses can be broadly applied to many students’ future college credits, like AP English Language and Composition. Regardless of your specialization, many colleges require you to pass these core courses to secure the credits required to graduate. Courses like these are the top favorites among AP test-takers.
- Second, some courses can also be used to receive college credit across multiple core subjects and specializations. For example, if you plan to major in physics and pursue a career in the field of medicine, you are still required to pass foundational courses like Calculus AB and Chemistry during your first year of college. Getting a passing score in these corresponding AP Courses allows you to bypass them and go for more advanced courses in your freshman year of college.
- Third, many of the more popular AP courses, such as AP Calculus AB or AP Chemistry, are offered by most high schools. This also means you are more likely to have a teacher for AP Chemistry than one for AP Chinese Language in your high school. The popularity of a particular course is greatly affected by these factors.
- Last, there’s a ‘word-of-mouth’ reputation that some AP courses can have for being more difficult than others, which might deter some students from taking them. Sometimes, students just want to secure the “easiest” credits they can before college!
The following courses have been consistently preferred by test takers year over year based on the number of test takers in 2021:
Test Takers per Subject
Why Take AP Classes?
You might think to yourself, “But why should I take AP classes?” There are numerous and significant benefits that come with taking an AP course. They offer you the time and space to dig deeper into the subjects you love and gain a new appreciation for that discipline. With early access to college-level courses, you’ll harness and tone your creativity and intellect so that you are prepared for the next stage in your career. You will build your self-confidence and mastery over a subject, and you will learn essential time management and studying skills needed for college and career success. Next, we list four more advantages of taking AP classes during high school:
- College readiness
These AP courses are challenging, fast-paced, cover more subject material than your standard high school class, and even encourage you to conduct research and analysis. By exposing yourself to college-level introductory courses, you will make your transition from high school to the first year of college much more effortless. You’ll be able to harness and tone your creativity and intellect such that you are prepared for the next stage in your career goals and challenges.
- Boost your college applications
Scoring well on an AP exam looks good on your resume and implies that you are college-ready. Consequently, AP courses positively impact your college applications when admissions officers consider that you have challenged yourself academically.
“85% of institutions report that a student’s AP experience favorably impacts admission decisions.”Taking AP exams also indicates that you have worked hard and have acquired the skills and knowledge needed to take advanced college courses, which boosts your chances of getting admitted into the school of your choice exponentially!
- Strengthen your high school transcript
Your high school may also apply extra weight to your GPA based on AP classes and scores. Each AP class you take usually adds one point to your overall GPA. For example, suppose you and a fellow student take the same course load with one exception: only you take an AP class while the other student takes the regular version of the class. If you get an A in your AP class, your GPA will naturally be higher than the other student’s GPA. In addition, with enough AP courses under your belt, you can even make it into the top 10% of your graduating class.
- Save time and money!
By entering college with multiple AP exam credits, you can fast-track your way into courses usually taken during the second year of college. You can save time and tuition fees by skipping the introductory college courses that you took in the form of AP courses during your high school. With this, you may have the potential to skip through one year of college and save one-quarter of your overall college fees.
Research shows that students who receive a score of 3 or higher on AP Exams typically experience greater academic success in college, graduate early, and have higher graduation rates than their non-AP peers.
Can I Take an AP Exam Without Taking the Class?
Yes! It is not mandatory to take an AP class if you want to take the AP exam, even though AP classes do come with many benefits. You can self-study at home and use resources to prepare for the exam. However, it is always advised to seek expert guidance from course instructors to help you prep as these courses are quite content-heavy and expand beyond your standard high school curriculum. This is where the importance of online AP courses comes in! Some students prefer to prepare for their AP exams from the safety and comfort of their homes, so it will be up to you to decide what works best.
When Should I Start Taking AP Classes?
Generally, it is recommended to take AP classes in 11th grade because many AP classes have rigorous college-level curricula. Ideally, you should sign-up for your AP classes after you’ve developed the foundational knowledge needed for tackling AP-level course content. In rare situations, however, students in 9th and 10th grade opt to take one or two AP classes, which is acceptable to the College Board.
How Many AP Classes Should I Take?
It depends. In general, most AP core courses, like Math or English, are taken by students to bypass entry-level college courses. Each institution has its own AP credit policy, so the college credits you get for taking AP courses vary. However, a minimum AP score of 3 is required for you to be eligible for college credit and/or placement. On average, students take 3 AP courses per year.
Although there is no “magic number” of AP courses that guarantee your success in college, below is some information that can help:
- Ivy League universities like Princeton and Harvard seek absolute excellence and uniqueness from their candidates. So it is safer to have taken and scored exceptionally well in 8 to 12 AP courses. Try for a mix of core subjects like English, History, Math, and Science. You should also focus on taking specialized courses, such as Physics C, that may pique your interest.
- Most highly selective colleges (Top 20) look for students who have taken AP courses in many core subjects. They also expect you to take additional AP courses related to your future goals, specialization, or career interests. In all, this mix of AP courses can range from 6 to 10 courses. If you’re planning to apply to universities like Stanford or MIT, it is recommended that you start taking 3 to 4 AP classes per year. By the time you graduate high school, you’ll have enough AP classes to gain admittance into these prestigious universities if you score well on the AP exams.
- Selective colleges (Top 100) want students who have taken AP courses in most core subjects, plus one or two additional subjects. That amounts to around 4 to 6 courses, which is doable if you take 2 to 3 courses each during your 11th and 12th grades.
- Less selective colleges expect their incoming students to take AP courses in some core subjects or subjects related to their chosen college major. The number is somewhere between 1 to 5 courses.
Let’s try and break it down in the following table:
|How many AP Classes are required for certain colleges?|
|Ivy League Colleges||Minimum of 8 AP courses (5 core + 3 specialized)|
|Top 20 schools||Minimum of 6 AP courses (core + specialized)|
|Top 100 schools||Minimum of 4 AP courses|
|All other schools||Minimum of 1 AP course|
Choosing the Right AP Course
Even though there are 38 AP Courses offered by the College Board, you should always choose an AP course based on your specific passions and strengths so that you can do well. Here are some pointers to help you out:
Choose a combination of core and specialty courses to keep things balanced for your college degree. Some AP courses are easy to justify taking because they have a broad application and leave room for flexibility later! For instance, language-based AP courses like English and Math courses like Calculus AB are usually top picks if you’re not sure about your specialization or major in college.
You must remember to consider which subjects will earn you college credit and/or placement. If the AP exam you’re interested in is not accepted at your prospective college, that removes a significant benefit of taking the AP course. You should begin by identifying the institutions that offer credits for the AP classes you wish to take. Start by looking through AP Credit Policy Search on the College Board website that lists the institutions with the corresponding AP courses that they offer credit for.
Pick courses that help your college degree.
If you already know what field you’re going to major in, choose those AP courses related to that subject. For instance, selecting courses like AP Calculus BC and AP Physics 1 for Math oriented fields like Engineering, Astrophysics, or allied disciplines, can boost your career goals. Moreover, students interested in pursuing careers in the areas of Medicine and Pharmacy usually go for courses like AP Biology and AP Chemistry to prepare themselves for more advanced courses in their first year.
In any case, it is critical to review the topics and curriculum of the AP courses that you are interested in taking. Speak with your AP teachers, your peers, and seniors to learn about the course content and AP practice tests. By doing so, you will get a preview of these courses, which will help you decide on which AP courses you want to enroll in.
We’ve outlined 14 of the most popular and core courses here to give you an idea of what these courses look like and see if they are up your alley! Some of these courses are relatively harder to score than the others:
- AP English Language and Composition
The AP English Language course concentrates on honing your critical reading and writing skills, as well as your ability to argue and persuade others. This course will prepare you for copywriting, editing, translation, and journalism jobs. You’ll learn to read and analyze works of non-fiction through several centuries and create essays with diverse goals in mind, such as explaining a concept, arguing a point, or persuading your reader.
- AP English Literature and Composition
In this course, you will strengthen your ability to analyze and comprehend works of fiction, poetry, and theater from various historical periods and cultures. You’ll read works of literature and write essays to clarify and argue your interpretations. By taking the AP English Literature course, you’ll be well prepared for a rewarding career in English Literature, Film Studies, or Comparative Literature.
- AP Human Geography
This course teaches students to study the human population, migration, and land-use trends using geographers’ tools and strategies. You will learn how to apply geographic concepts and processes to real-world settings and comprehend and evaluate data presented in maps, tables, charts, graphs, infographics, pictures, and landscapes. You will also understand spatial relationships through the use of geographic scales. The AP Human Geography course will prepare you for a career in Anthropology, Civil Engineering, Environmental Studies, and Area Studies, among other fields.
- AP Psychology
The ideas, theories, and methods of the scientific study of behavior and mental processes will be covered in the AP Psychology course. You’ll learn to investigate psychological concepts through reading and analyzing data from psychological research investigations. This course will also cover how to apply psychological concepts and theories to real-life situations and how to analyze data using those principles. This course could be for you if you’re interested in fields like Anthropology, Childcare Management, Criminology, Film Studies, and Psychology.
- AP US History
In this AP course, you will learn how to grasp the cultural, economic, political, and social developments that have shaped the United States from roughly 1491 to the current day. It entails a thorough examination of the historical period and movements, dates, laws, and occurrences. While the curriculum is more thorough than other history courses, the period covered is shorter. It is generally a memory-based curriculum in which you must have a comprehensive understanding of the chronology covered. If you want to be a curator, geographer, lawyer, or historian in the future, the AP US History course is for you.
- AP World History
In this AP course, you will learn how to grasp the cultural, economic, political, and social developments that have formed the world from around 1200 CE to the present day. The course will teach you how to study texts, visual sources, and other historical evidence (both primary and secondary) and how to develop reasoning-based arguments by using evidence and making connections. If you want to work in Foreign Service, History, Political Science, or Law, the AP World History course will assist you.
- AP Calculus AB
This AP course prepares students by exploring differential and integral calculus concepts, methods, and applications. Moreover, the AP Calculus AB course helps students understand the theoretical basis of Calculus to solve problems with their mathematical knowledge and skills. As this is one of the core AP subjects, you can take the AP Calculus AB course to bypass a core Math course in your Freshman year of college. This course is crucial for those planning to enter a career in Engineering, Physics, Architecture, or other math-intensive fields.
- AP Calculus BC
Students will learn about differential and integral calculus’ ideas, methods, and applications in the AP Calculus BC course. The course will assist students in grasping the theoretical foundation and utilizing their knowledge and skills to solve problems. Students will also learn how to conduct experiments and investigations and solve issues and how to express results or answers using proper notation, language, and mathematical norms. This course will prepare you for a demanding profession such as an Actuary, Educator, Aerospace Engineer, or Mathematician.
- AP Statistics
The course will educate students on how to comprehend and utilize the major statistical methods and how to assess data using those techniques. The course is primarily intended to improve students’ ability to calculate a given result’s likelihood using statistical analysis. This course focuses on gathering and interpreting data as a means of drawing conclusions and identifying patterns. The fields of Engineering, Actuarial Science, Economics, and Criminology all require a background in statistics, and the AP Statistics course is a perfect fit.
- AP Biology
The main scientific ideas, theories, and processes linked to biological systems will be studied in the AP Biology course. You’ll also have the opportunity to examine natural phenomena in a hands-on lab setting. The course encourages students to create experiments and processes to test a prediction or theory, gather and analyze data, and interpret data to draw conclusions. We recommend this course to any student who wishes to pursue a career in Medicine, Pharmacy, Biochemistry, or Biomedical Engineering.
- AP Chemistry
This course introduces students to concepts such as structure, states of matter, intermolecular forces, and reactions, which are among the fundamental principles of chemistry. You’ll learn how to create tests and processes to test a hypothesis or theory, as well as how to balance chemical equations. You’ll need a solid conceptual understanding of complex chemical processes to succeed in AP chemistry. The AP Chemistry course is recommended for those interested in chemical structures, compounds, and chemical reactions! If you want to work in Atomic and Nuclear Sciences, Biochemistry, or Chemical Engineering, taking the AP Chemistry exam will benefit you.
- AP Physics
The fundamental scientific ideas of Newtonian physics, work and energy, momentum, rotational motion, and simple harmonic motion will all be covered in the AP Physics course. The course will also teach you how to apply algebra to problems involving Newtonian mechanics, energy, and other topics. You’ll also get great experience in the lab investigating physical phenomena. This course will lay the groundwork for a demanding career in Meteorology, Astronomy, or Mathematics.
- AP United States Government and Politics
Students must describe, analyze, and compare concepts in US politics for this course. Students are also presented with real-world circumstances in which they must apply legislative decisions and assess the consequences. This course is required for anybody interested in a career in Law, African American Studies, Area Studies, or Journalism.
- AP European History
This course involves using analytical abilities to correlate historical events in the context of the European economy, political system, colonization, and other relevant variables that shaped the Old and New Worlds. If you want to work in Ethnic Studies, History, Sociology, Urban Studies, or Film Studies, this is a must-take course.
Regardless of the AP subjects you choose, be conscious of your personal preferences, future goals, and career orientation before committing to take an AP class. Think of it as laying the foundation to help ensure you are committed to pursuing your future career options!
Discover the fastest path to AP® success.
Frequently Asked Questions – FAQs
Yes, you can take AP classes over the summer if you have access to a local school offering AP courses. You can also take AP classes online.
You cannot take AP classes outside of school. However, you can independently prepare for your AP exams by self-studying through guide books or online courses.
Ideally, they don’t. AP classes culminate with the AP exam, which is held once every year during May. However, your teacher may still give your AP class tests and quizzes throughout the course to make sure you are learning the material.
You can switch out of an AP class, but conditions apply! You have to put in the request at the beginning of your school year. If you decide to switch out of the class right after the school’s deadline for switching or dropping classes, you may not be able to switch out of the class, and a withdrawal will show up on your high school transcript for that class. Talk to your AP coordinator if you plan to switch out of your AP class, as policies might differ from school to school.
AP courses start at the beginning of your school term.
If you’re interested in taking AP courses online, you can reach out to your AP teacher to get a recommendation for online AP course providers.
As a homeschooled student, you can prepare for the AP course by self-studying or by getting help from online course providers. Your AP coordinator can help you with suggestions for online AP course providers.
It is generally not recommended that 9th graders take AP classes. This is because AP classes have a rigorous university-level curriculum that students new to high school and in the 9th grade may not be prepared for. Certain AP subjects, such as European History and World History, are excellent choices for 10th graders, but most AP classes are best suited to high school juniors and seniors. But if you’re up for a challenge, there is no harm in trying!
An AP class gives you one extra point towards your high school GPA.
College Board: Student Score Distribution AP
Crux Research Inc.: Unpublished institutional research
The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation
College Outcomes Comparisons by AP and Non-AP High School Experiences – The College Board
The Relationship Between Advanced Placement and College Graduation – National Center for Educational Accountability