Dec 21

The Ultimate AP Guide for International Students

by Emily Chen

Introduction

International students from around the world still flock to US colleges and universities for the quality of education and career opportunities available. A key component of getting into US colleges – top ranking or not – is proving academic rigor in the form of GPA (grade point average) and standardized test scores, including AP exams.

With a total of 38 subjects, AP (Advanced Placement) courses are college-level classes that run for a full academic year, culminating in 2-hour-long exams administered by the College Board (usually conducted on your high school campus).

Many international schools in major cities around the world typically offer AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) programs. In Japan, for example, Tokyo has the American School in Japan, Canadian International School, and International School of the Sacred Heart, which offer AP programs, while schools such as Seisen International School, St. Mary’s International School, Yokohama International School, Aoba-Japan International School, and Saint Maur International School follow the IB system.

Students from these schools apply to countless US colleges every year, regardless of which track their school follows. While IB scores can be converted to AP or GPA equivalents, some students still choose to self-study AP subjects and take the exams themselves.

Seeing as AP scores and exams are quite important in the US college application process, let’s answer a few common questions we often get from students:

  1. What exactly are the benefits of AP exams?
  2. Exactly how many AP classes should you take?
  3. What are the hardest AP classes and tests?
  4. What is a good AP score?

Ultimate AP Guide for International Students

What exactly are the benefits of AP exams?

Taking college-level courses as a high school student – and scoring well on the final exams – is a strong signal to colleges and universities that you have what it takes to succeed at their institutions if they were to accept you as a student. AP tests are scored from 1-5, where a score of 4 translates roughly to a B and a 5 = A in the class. This means that scoring a 5 on AP Calculus BC tells colleges that you already excel at college-level math.

Another more concrete benefit of AP exams is that you can get college credit for each subject you take and subsequently skip that subject in college, leading to graduating early and saving on tuition costs. Each college is different, but most colleges usually offer college credit for AP scores of 3 or above. This means if you get a 5 on AP Calculus BC, AP Japanese, and AP US History, when you get to college, you may be able to skip a freshman math course, the college’s language requirement, and one of the college’s graduation requirements (which usually include a history course).

Since taking AP courses and AP exams comes with so many benefits, students and parents often think taking as many as possible is the best approach for college admissions. But is that really true?

Exactly how many AP classes should you take?

The answer to this question depends on your academic strengths, how busy you are outside of school, how difficult your existing course load is, and what colleges/majors you’re aiming for.

As you can see, preparing for college applications is a long and arduous process! As a result, many institutions offer college admissions consulting services – a lighthouse guiding students in the right direction as they navigate an overwhelming sea of information and choices.

A student who wants to major in STEM-related fields would benefit from taking STEM-related AP courses in high school: Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Calculus. These would likely knock out a lot of their freshman courses in college, fast-tracking them towards an early graduation, while also demonstrating rigorous, major-specific experience on their college applications. 

As everyone is different, the majors and careers a student is aiming for will dictate which AP classes are best for them.

The exact number of AP classes you take depends on the AP availability (classes offered) at your school as well as the type of colleges you’re aiming for. Successful applicants to Top 20 schools tend to have 8 to 12 AP courses under their belt. 

What are the hardest AP classes and tests?

While difficulty is subjective, some subjects have gained a reputation over the years for being notoriously difficult – both over the course of the academic year and in the exam itself. 

First, let’s take a look at the passing rates of each exam in 2023:

Exam Name Passing Rate (3+)
Chinese Language and Culture (Total Group)
88%
Seminar
85%
Art and Design: Drawing
84%
Research
84%
Art and Design: 2-D Design
83%
Spanish Language and Culture (Total Group)
83%
Spanish Language and Culture (Standard Group)
79%
Calculus BC
78%
English Literature and Composition
77%
Japanese Language and Culture (Total Group)
76%
Chemistry
75%
French Language and Culture (Total Group)
74%
Physics C: Mechanics
73%
Art and Design: 3-D Design
72%
Italian Language and Culture (Total Group)
72%
French Language and Culture (Standard Group)
72%
Gov. and Politics - Comparative
70%
Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism
70%
Physics 2
69%
Computer Science A
68%
Microeconomics
68%
Spanish Literature
67%
Italian Language and Culture (Standard Group)
66%
German Language and Culture (Total Group)
66%
Chinese Language and Culture (Standard Group)
65%
Biology
64%
Art History
64%
Macroeconomics
64%
World History
64%
Computer Science Principles
63%
Music Theory
60%
Statistics
60%
European History
59%
Psychology
59%
German Language and Culture (Standard Group)
58%
Japanese Language and Culture (Standard Group)
58%
Calculus AB
58%
English Language and Composition
56%
Latin
56%
Human Geography
54%
Environmental Science
53%
Gov. and Politics - United States
49%
United States History
47%
Physics 1
45%

While this chart might look like a good representation of which tests are the hardest, passing rates actually don’t tell the full story. This is because students who take the harder exams (like Physics C and Calculus BC) are often also better prepared. People who take the “harder” AP classes in high school usually only do so if they’re confident they will do well in the class, for the sake of their GPA, while less-confident or less-prepared students will opt out of taking the class – and the exam – entirely. This self-selection results in harder exams being taken by people who are already more prepared for them, thus leading to the higher passing rates we see above.

On the flip side, some subjects with a reputation for being “easy”, such as Environmental Science, appear to be very difficult due to their lower passing rates. This can be due to many possible reasons, one of which is that people study less for exams they believe will be easy, which inversely leads to a lower score due to being underprepared (while students taking harder exams might study very diligently as they anticipate a very difficult exam).

Another possible reason is that students who take “easier” AP subjects just want to keep their GPA up while the exam itself is not a top priority for them. While we do want to demonstrate academic rigor in taking harder courses, keeping your GPA up first and foremost takes priority, which is why some students take easier APs.

What if we looked at the percentage of people who get a 5 on each exam? This might reveal a bit more about which exams are truly difficult.

Exam Name 5 Rate
Chinese Language and Culture (Total Group)
54%
Japanese Language and Culture (Total Group)
50%
Calculus BC: Calculus AB Subscore
46%
Calculus BC
43%
Physics C: Electrical & Magnetism
33%
Computer Science A
26%
Physics C: Mechanics
26%
Spanish Language and Culture (Total Group)
24%
Italian Language and Culture (Total Group)
23%
Chinese Language and Culture (Standard Group)
22%
Calculus AB
22%
German Language and Culture (Total Group)
21%
Microeconomics
21%
Macroeconomics
17%
Japanese Language and Culture (Standard Group)
17%
Human Geography
16%
Psychology
16%
Chemistry
16%
Gov. and Politics - Comparative
16%
Physics 2
16%
Art and Design: Drawing
15%
Statistics
15%
English Literature and Composition
14%
Biology
14%
Art History
13%
Research
13%
French Language and Culture (Total Group)
13%
European History
12%
Gov. and Politics - United States
12%
Latin
12%
Italian Language and Culture (Standard Group)
12%
Art and Design: 2-D Design
11%
Computer Science Principles
11%
United States History
10%
English Language and Composition
10%
German Language and Culture (Standard Group)
9%
French Language and Culture (Standard Group)
9%
Environmental Science
8%
Spanish Literature
8%
Physics 1
8%
Art and Design: 3-D Design
7%

This chart is a bit more accurate when it comes to assessing true subject difficulty. US History and Chemistry are notoriously difficult and have expectedly low 5 rates. Calculus BC, however, has a higher 5 rate than Calculus AB, when AB is supposed to be easier than BC. 

At the end of the day, pass rates and 5 rates can only tell us so much. Sometimes, lived experiences tell us more than charts and tables can, and large numbers of students vouch for these being the most difficult AP courses:

AP US History – often abbreviated as APUSH, this class involves extensive amounts of reading on a weekly, even daily, basis, and near-impossible levels of memorization for not only the AP exam but in-class assignments and tests throughout the academic year as well, making it one of the most time-consuming and labor-intensive classes you could take.

AP Physics C – pushing the limits on a high schooler’s grasp of advanced math and abstract science concepts, this course is heavy on both theoretical calculations as well as solving real-world problems in the form of hands-on projects. 

AP Chemistry is known to be harder than AP Biology due to it having more abstract concepts and calculations, while AP Biology has more memorization and less abstract (more physical and visible) concepts. 

AP English Literature has more classical literature and poetry while AP English Language is more similar to college-level writing, where you might use data or reading passages from the history, psychology, or economics fields in research-based writing. Which one is more difficult depends on each student’s individual strengths and interests.

AP Calculus BC is a harder version of AP Calculus AB – the same concepts are taught, except BC also includes integration and differentiation on top of what is taught in AB. 

The above is just a brief overview of some of the most common AP subjects, but the next question is…regardless of difficulty, what range of AP scores should you be aiming for?

2023 AP Test Dates Compilation

What is a good AP score?

The simple answer is that this again depends on your individual goals and motivations. If you want to knock out as many college credits as possible, most schools accept a score of three or higher so you could aim for just threes and fours. If your goal is to stand out as an academically rigorous candidate in the college admissions process, you want to aim for mostly fives. At the end of the day it’s important to remember that your GPA is one of the most important indicators for universities of your academic ability. If spending too much time studying to ensure you get fours and fives is costing you your grades in other classes and tanking your GPA, even getting those fours and fives won’t be of much help to you anymore.

What’s next?

If you’re currently planning for college and are looking for help with strategizing which AP classes to take, we can help! For over 10 years, Tokyo Academics has helped thousands of students score 4s and 5s on AP exams and gain admittance into the colleges and universities of their dreams. Our tutors, experts in their fields, offer more than exam prep; they provide a comprehensive toolkit for college readiness, from crafting compelling essays to strategic extracurricular planning. Joining Tokyo Academics means embarking on an educational journey that’s about holistic development, ensuring you’re not just exam-ready, but future-ready. Let’s turn your college aspirations into reality, one lesson at a time.

If you have any questions about your AP journey, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of Tokyo Academics’ expert advisors for a free consultation.