What Are the Most Difficult AP Exams for Self-Study?

Advanced Placement (AP) exams are an excellent way to make yourself stand out on college applications, obtain college credit while still in high school, and shorten the length and cost of your college career.

AP classes are almost as great as they sound, but there’s a catch—if you don’t pass the AP exam for any given course, you won’t receive the college credit. And this is a big catch, considering how difficult many AP exams are when it comes to self-study.

So, whether you’re reading this article because you want to avoid or embrace self-studying for the most difficult AP exams, this article will give you a good start on what you’ll be facing.

Our Picks for the Most Difficult Self-Study AP Exams

We’ll start by covering the overall most difficult AP exams. We’ll then break it down into the most challenging exams to self-study from scratch and the most difficult to self-study with background knowledge.

Most Difficult to Self-Study Overall

The following subjects are notoriously challenging AP exams when it comes to self-study.


Physics is the study of matter and energy. It may be no surprise to you that physics is considered one of the most challenging AP exams to self-study for.

However, there are several different and challenging AP physics exams. They include AP Physics C-Electricity and Magnetism, AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, and AP Physics C-Mechanics

An interesting item to note here is that AP physics exams tend to be hit and miss for students. Some students grasp the concepts well, and others struggle with severely failing grades.

English Literature

English literature is the study of texts worldwide that are written in English. It most commonly includes fiction and screenplays, although it can also encompass non-fiction and songs.

Part of what makes English literature such a challenging AP exam is that it’s subjective, particularly in the second portion of the exam, where three written tests take about 40 minutes each.

The first portion of the AP English exam involves 55 multiple-choice questions. Most of this section requires reading comprehension. Since the exam is timed, it’s easy to see how even a well-studied student could feel rushed, affecting their ability to read piece after piece of text.

Most Difficult to Self-Study from Scratch

When it comes to studying for AP exams, it can be challenging to dive right into a subject if you’ve never studied it before. Below are two of the most difficult AP exams to take if you’re starting from scratch.


Chemistry is the study of the substances that matter is composed of and its interactions with one another.

While there’s a good deal of memorization involved, particularly with the periodic table, it doesn’t change the fact that you need to have a solid grasp of math. Without it, you’ll likely find yourself studying for your AP chemistry exam while also trying to learn math equations.

The AP chemistry exam comprises 60 questions and seven free-response questions divided between short and long-answer. In total, the exam lasts just over 3 hours.


Biology is a broad field that covers the study of living things. Because this study can involve physiology, behavior, and anatomy, among many others, it can make taking the AP biology exam difficult and overwhelming.

Students who plan on taking AP biology should first take a general, high-school-level biology course. Otherwise, the class will likely be far too advanced in terminology and concepts, leaving them in a struggle to keep up.

The 3-hour AP biology exam includes 60 multiple choice questions and six free responses, including two long questions and four short questions.

Most Difficult to Self-Study with Background Knowledge

Here’s the cold hard truth—even if you have some background knowledge on a subject, it can still be difficult to self-study for AP exams. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

Physics C-Electricity and Magnetism

Physics involves algebra, so students that take the Physics 1 or Physics 2 AP exams will be better prepared. But when it comes to self-studying for Physics C-Electricity and Magnetism, it’s a much more in-depth and challenging topic.

The reason is that Physics C-Electricity and Magnetism involves calculus. However, due to the way high school classes are arranged, you’ll likely need to take calculus at the same time as your AP physics course. Therefore, you’d be gaining background knowledge at the same time that you’d be applying it to your physics studies.

An advantage of AP Physics C-Electricity and Magnetism is that it’s only a 1.5-hour exam. However, don’t let its shortness fool you; the multiple-choice and free-response questions are challenging.

European History

There’s been a lot of science on this list, so it’s about time we turn to history. European history is the study of cultures, land, and civilizations in Europe.

Self-studying for the AP European history exam is more complicated than other AP history categories in large part because U.S. schools tend to focus more on American history than European history. So, the background history you’ve learned about Europe is most likely far behind the background knowledge you need to study for this exam.

At almost 3.5 hours long, the European History exam includes four sections: multiple-choice, short answer, document-based, and a long essay.

Difficult AP Exams Uncovered

Now that we covered the most difficult AP exams for self-study, we’re going to backtrack a step and analyze why the AP exams listed here tend to have such low passing scores.

Don’t get us wrong—these are genuinely challenging exams.

However, aside from a student’s background knowledge, two other factors can make an AP exam appear extra challenging. They are as follows:

  • A student’s natural ability to grasp a given subject versus students who struggle with classes commonly considered difficult.
  • The number of students who apply for “easy AP exams” and don’t put the time into studying.

When it comes to natural student ability, it’s perhaps no better showcased than when looking at statistics for the Physics C exam. Forty percent of students passed with a score of 5 in 2020, the highest score available.

Why is this number so high, you wonder?

A lot of it probably has to do with students knowing they can handle the questions on the exam and many others with fewer physics skills avoiding it.

Another factor, particularly when it comes to seemingly easier subjects, like English literature, is the large pool of students who take the exam.

Since AP exams are so cheap, many students figure they might as well try it, even though they may not have devoted proper time to studying the subject.

Benefits of Choosing Difficult AP Exams

Have you decided to take an AP exam? Congratulations! With the proper amount of study time and background, you’ll be setting yourself up for great success.

A benefit of intentionally choosing to self-study for a difficult AP exam is that it will be one less challenging course that you’ll have to take once you’re in college. Assuming you pass, of course.

College is an adjustment for students. You’ll no longer have the buffer of relying on easier high school courses. All of your classes will be at the collegiate level, more challenging, and with greater workloads.

By taking a difficult AP course while you’re still in high school, you’ll both be prepping yourself for the demand of college courses and making your first semester easier by being able to skip over a class or more.

Even better? You can get ahead by taking another course, getting you on the path to graduation sooner.

AP Exams Overview

AP exams are offered every May. In 2020 alone, over 4 million students took advanced placement exams. According to AP students, the mean testing score was 2.91 in 2019.

To take an AP course, which ends with the AP exam, students need to pay a small fee. There’s no harm in taking an AP course and failing, aside from losing the exam’s cost.

Colleges don’t look at AP scores as part of their application process. They only pay attention if you pass. And if you do pass, you’ll save money compared to what you would have spent on the same course in college.

AP Exam Structure

There are 38 AP exams available for high school students to take.

Each exam works a little differently, but, generally speaking, the exams range from 2 – 3 hours long. Exams are typically broken up into two sections with a combination of multiple-choice and written responses.

When it comes to multiple-choice questions, nothing happens if you answer a question incorrectly or skip it altogether. Instead, AP exams are based on a point system where points aren’t taken away. Only correct answers are rewarded.

Final Thoughts

Every student has their own strengths and background education, meaning that not every AP exam on this list will be difficult for everyone. We hope this guide has helped you understand what goes into making some AP exams difficult and how you can choose the right AP exam for you.

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Hannah Young

Contributor at ExamCave. Hannah is pursuing a degree in middle school English education at The Ohio State University. Hannah has worked as a writing and math tutor for elementary, middle school, and high school students.