Thoughts on AP Exam Curriculums

Darren Yao
2021, Apr 27    

Most of us take many AP classes and the corresponding exams, whether we like it or not. However, the quality of these curriculums varies wildly from subject to subject. In this blog post, we’re hoping to share our thoughts and opinions on the various AP subjects we’ve taken.

Contributors:

  • Albert Tam, Lynbrook High School ‘22
  • Albert Zhu, Bellaire High School (TX) ‘22
  • Darren Yao, Carlmont High School ‘21
  • Druv Pai, UC Berkeley CS + Stat ‘22
  • Gavin Yu, Piedmont Hills High School ‘21
  • Kenneth Choi, Ridgefield High School (CT) ‘21
  • Kevin Moy, UCLA MechE ‘24
  • Matthew Ho, Palo Alto High School ‘21
  • Monica Chan, The Pingry School (NJ) ‘21
  • Steven Huang, San Mateo High School ‘21

Overall Thoughts on the Advanced Placement Program

Kevin: AP courses are like great for buffing your college application and all, but it’s a broken program so the college board can profit. Basically, AP is sort of in the gray area between standard college prep classes and true college level courses, while advertising itself as a replacement for introductory level undergraduate classes. AP, while offering a smoother transition between high school level courses and college level coursework, offers many programs that make it an unsatisfactory replacement for college level courses due to the fact that it is still a high school course.

Gavin: In my experience, AP courses teach more content and are more intellectually rewarding to take than regular classes, so I would recommend taking them. There are some critiques of their flaws, so another option would be to take classes at community colleges or self-study with online material for classes that don’t meet one’s desired standards.

Kenneth: As of 2021, it’s impossible to not fall into the hole that the College Board has created with its AP program. Sorry, but you’re merely a pawn in the eyes of the not-for-profit organization. If you go to a magnet or private school, or a school that offers high-level classes other than APs, then you’re in luck. Take as many specialized classes as you can. Don’t consider, for example, that taking AP Bio for a year is more beneficial than taking Organic Chemistry and Microbio each for a semester. Since APs are general subjects, you will most likely dislike some aspects of each curriculum. Find what most interests you, and follow that interest.

AP Calculus BC

Darren: I think this definitely one of the better designed AP curriculums. It’s completely adequate in every way and covers all the major topics typically in an introductory calculus course. While it has a lot of computational “plug and chug”, this is typical of all calculus classes. (if you want a rigorous course that proves every result in full detail, you should take real analysis) Overall, I think the course does a good job of doing what it claims to be: an introductory calculus course.

Matthew: Agreeing with the above commentary, this is one of the best AP courses I’ve taken. While this course does make it so that students tend to memorize formulae, it’s much better in this respect than classes such as AP Physics and AP Stats which literally give formula sheets and have you plug things in. The introduction to Taylor series and Maclaurin series felt very satisfying to go through for a high school math course.

Gavin: A good AP class that teaches everything needed to be taught about calculus for high school applications, and a little bit more. The problems in this class are better designed than those of other math classes, although I dislike the AP FRQs that try to shove calculus into algebra word problems filled with ugly arbitrary numbers; having some algebraic derivatives and integrals would be nice, because in high school the main application of calculus is in physics anyways, where students will only be dealing with algebra expressions when deriving formulae. Still a very good class overall.

AP Computer Science A

Darren: The course description states that the college course equivalent is a “one-semester, introductory college course in computer science”, but really, this is false advertising. The most advanced topics covered in this curriculum are two-dimensional arrays, basic recursion, ArrayLists, and inheritance. My friends and I were constantly bored in APCSA. We’d race each other to finish the coding assignments as fast as we could, and then proceed to have nothing to do for the rest of the class period.

Now, let’s compare APCSA to an actual first-semester college course, UC Berkeley’s CS 61A: Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs The Berkeley course covers all the APCSA topics in less than half the semester. Then, it also covers other topics, like the Scheme language, memoization, computational complexity, and SQL. All in all, the one-semester Berkeley course probably covers three times the content of the full-year APCSA. Therefore, we should not be surprised when Berkeley, along with several other UCs and many top private universities like Princeton don’t have course equivalencies for APCSA, instead giving either “general elective credit” or nothing at all. In its current state, APCSA simply does not cover enough content to be considered the equivalent of a college course.

Now that I’m done criticizing College Board, let’s talk about how they could improve the course. An AP course for high schoolers obviously doesn’t need to cover as much content as Berkeley’s course, but it should definitely cover more than it currently does. Some topics they could add include time complexity, algorithms and data structures, functional programming, or even basic discrete mathematics and propositional logic.

Monica: Additionally, the AP Computer Science A curriculum keeps watering down, with the recent removal of testing on interfaces, I feel as though the testing is not thorough enough. Interfaces teach fundamental ideas of polymorphism, and while those can still be achieved through abstract classes which are still on the exam, the use of interfaces and how they differ from abstract classes is essential for any student wishing to continue with Java or Computer Science in college. I felt as though I learned more Java through doing robotics than I did through the Computer Science A curriculum. I also feel as though the AP curriculum lacked enough projects, my teacher had to design the curriculum and her exams to be more challenging. She even told us right after the exam when all of us were surprised on how quickly we finished, “I test you on the harder stuff so the easy stuff would be easy.”

Kevin: the AP computer science curriculum is not nearly up to standard for the 21st century. “Advanced Placement” Programming classes in the 21st century should not be teaching what integers, for loops, and arrays are. Instead, going beyond how to write some basic code loops and recursive functions and discussion of more advanced topics that is typically learned in the second term of a university CS curriculum at a high school is a key pillar in moving the education system forward and the college board should adopt that instead of removing items on the AP cs exam and effectively making it easier.

AP Statistics

AP Stats Sentence Frames

Monica: This class is extremely formulaic and encourages students to write “sentence frames”. I remember explicitly when studying for this exam someone made a whole packet of sentences applicable to various questions with blanks to be replaced with numbers and words in each problem. This does not encourage critical thinking, merely memorization of sentences that likely in a few weeks after the exam, students will not remember.

Matthew: The ideas covered in this course were somewhat interesting. The issue is that most students taking this course will not have finished calculus (many haven’t finished precalculus), so there are not many proofs. I think this course does give a good intuition as to how to think about p-values, hypothesis testing, etc., but it would be a lot more fun with some more rigor. Students who enjoy rigor can have fun by proving the formulae on the sheet.

Druv: Most problems with AP Statistics center around the formulaic aspect of most problems. A lot of AP Stat concepts seem like rote memorization and uninteresting application of various procedures that are taught by rote.

From what I understand, most such problems may be resolved by implementing a more natural language for statistics than the English language – of course, here I am referring to the language of probability. No college course in statistics proceeds without a notion of probability with which to concisely and precisely state their various results. Even just introducing a notion of “taking a random sample w.r.t. some distribution” is nontrivial with respect to AP Stat, but is one of the most fundamental notions of statistics. And most of the tests that AP Stat presents become clear when motivated probabilistically.

As it is right now, AP Stat covers probability for around one chapter, and almost all of this is finite combinatorics, very little concerning distribution theory, or even phrasing statistical concepts probabilistically. One person I know is currently an MIT student majoring in mathematics, and he got a 4 on AP Statistics, not even knowing what a probability density function is by the time of the exam! This is pretty ridiculous if you have any sort of statistics background.

So maybe I would restructure the course like so. In the first semester, one gains an understanding of probability from the ground up. Starting from the idea of a random variable, distribution theory, joint and conditional expectations, the standard notions of expectation/variance/covariance, and so on. Students should get from this semester what a random variable is (even introducing the concept of samples as random variables over a product distribution), and overall getting comfortable with the concepts of probability. Here we can look at basic statistical descriptions – what is a statistic? What is an estimator? and talk about distributions of those as well. Then in the second semester we can talk about hypothesis testing and regression like the regular AP Stat course does.

Kenneth: Class sucks. Bad. Don’t take. Dual enroll in a different math class. Thank me later.

AP Biology

Albert Tam: AP Biology is one of the better AP courses out there. It pretty much does what it promises: lay the necessary foundation for further study in biology. Barring a few topics such as recombinant plasmids, complementation tests, western blots, and some newer biotechnology advances, the course provides a surprisingly in-depth conceptual understanding of topics that are foundational to the rest of biology. While the curriculum’s omissions might make it slightly more surface-level than a typical introductory undergraduate course, AP Biology still remains one of College Board’s stronger APs. It still provides decently detailed treatment of concepts like operons, gene linkage, and PCR, and works well within the constraints of a high-school curriculum. Its omissions are a little disappointing, but the rest of the course is still great. If you end up taking AP Biology and find yourself interested in what you cover, I’d suggest just cracking open a copy of Campbell’s Biology and reading more about the topics beyond the AP curriculum: secondary messengers, blots, Sanger sequencing, recombinant plasmids, etc.–you might just like what you find!

Steven: This class gives a good overview on basic biology concepts, ranging from Mendelian genetics to the production of ATP in both plants and humans. Surprisingly, this class doesn’t have much brute force memorization like classes like AP Psychology or AP Government; it instead has the content and vocab centered around concepts, phenomena, or case-studies, making it easier and more enjoyable to learn. Outside of content gone over in lecture, any prospective student should expect a decent amount of time self-studying the textbook and reviewing concepts in order to stay on top of their coursework. This was definitely one of the more challenging, but rewarding classes to take. If a student wants to excel (and potentially go beyond) in grasping the entirety of AP Biology’s curriculum, I would suggest for them to take AP chemistry to gain a chemical perspective of the biological reactions and phenomena. This chemical perspective can provide a deeper understanding in the metabolic pathways studied (Krebs/Calvin Cycle), monomer-polymer bonding, DNA charge and structure, and much more.

AP Chemistry

Steven: This class gives a really great and broad overview on the conceptual building blocks of chemistry. It was honestly a more difficult, but enjoyable class that taught me the rigor in studying the sciences from a conceptual perspective. This class puts much more emphasis on chemical concepts and their applications, which may not be the most straightforward for some people. One thing that makes this class enjoyable is how its content is reused in further analysis and application as you progress through the units, so studying for the AP exam is much easier and less time consuming. While many may argue that AP Chemistry is notorious for its rigor, I believe that the difficulty and content covered in this course is a great reflection of what a student may expect taking the initial life science courses at their college.

Monica: This class was frankly my favorite AP class. I felt as though it gave me a good grasp on basic chemistry, stoichiometry, and problem solving. It laid the groundwork for what I think will be a more advanced chemistry curriculum at the university level. The curriculum provides fundamental learning blocks on which chemistry is based, placing heavy emphasis on the mathematical ways in which to solve a chemistry problem provides problem solving practice and also makes students analyze the relationships between the various topics we are learning. Labs were also an interactive way of remembering things we were discussing, and the labs in my AP Chemistry experience at least were far more rigorous than in my other science AP classes, but that also could just be because I took a majority of AP Chemistry pre-covid.

Gavin: A good AP class that teaches students about things like stoichiometry, thermochemistry, reactions, atoms, and states of matter. It covers much more information than non-AP chemistry and provides better explanations for the topics discussed. I just didn’t find the material to be too interesting. The labs are fun, especially the ones with explosions and fire.

AP Physics C: Mechanics

Monica: I felt as though this class covered everything I covered in the previous year’s introductory physics course, but with the words “derivative” and “integral” attached. I did not find it particularly challenging. The questions that I have done through practice problems are only a fraction of the difficulty I felt my introductory physics class had on its exams. My introductory physics teacher thought it important to be able to reason through difficult thinking questions, and put a lot of them on our tests to push our thinking. However, I do not feel like the AP Physics C Mechanics curriculum or exam has these. In general, I feel as though Mechanics requires a certain baseline of reasoning, such as relating energy to velocity, potential energy to kinetic energy, etc. However, there are far fewer logical thinking questions being asked.

Gavin: Mechanics is my favorite part of physics. Students learn about motion, speed, acceleration, collisions, and other fun things that they’ve likely seen in their day-to-day lives. The labs can be very fun if you have a good teacher; we had cardboard boat race and egg drop, which were the highlights of the year. My only critique is that the formula sheets don’t encourage students to learn physics the right way, which will make the course difficult.

AP Physics C: E&M

Gavin: I took this test along with the other 3 AP physics classes and I think they go well together. They should really just be a total of 1 or 2 classes, but having physics 1 and 2 make sense for students who haven’t learned calculus; the extra GPA and AP count boost won’t hurt anything except for your wallet. I enjoyed the discussions of various physics experiments in history that shaped our understanding of physics; it gave the experience of slowly discovering the beautiful order underlying all of the chaos in the world. I would say that this class is much better than the E&M learned in physics 2 because calculus lets students derive most of the formulas they work with, which helps them see how physics is an (almost) unified theory, most results are intuitive, and that the formulas are not arbitrary. However if students rely too heavily on memorizing formula sheets they may struggle as they get farther into the class and will miss out on the full experience.

AP Psychology

Steven: This class is a class that revolves around multiple theories, ideas, concepts, and a plethora of vocabulary to memorize. Despite all of this, AP Psychology was one of the most enjoyable AP classes I’ve taken in high school due to how it offers a unique perspective of our behaviors, consciousness, and cognition. However, this class took up much more time than expected to study for due to (sometimes) a lack of connection between vocab terms and the unit concept. If you want to stay on top of the coursework and curriculum, I would say that the amount of coursework/studying in this class rivals that of AP Biology. Overall, this class gives a really great and broad overview of the psychological concepts, theories, and practices that occur in our time. Also, this was a class that taught me how to actually “study”; a combination of coursework that covers learning effectively (Learning + spacial repetition + ebbinghaus forgetting curve) and a wide variety of coursework that is not very concentrated in relation to each other forces you to learn how to optimize the way that you retain and recall information.

Gavin: This was one of my favorite AP classes. It deals with memory, perception, reasoning, and other types of meta-knowledge. It will be an enjoyable class for rationally and emotionally oriented people alike, describing things like emotion logically for a deeper understanding of the human experience. The course isn’t difficult but is still interesting and rewarding. As a stem-focused student, I highly enjoyed the class; perhaps it is classified as a social science only because of its real-world practicality. My teacher was great too, so individual experiences may vary. 10/10 would recommend.

Kenneth: AP Psych is sometimes known to be one of the easier APs. At my school, where the average number of APs taken is three, AP Psych is even advertised as an easy class. IMO, AP Psych will be easy if you’re good with thinking broadly instead of focusing on memorizing specific details like in, say, APUSH. It’s totally okay to brush past vocab terms as long as you get the general concepts and have common sense. On my version of the 2020 AP test, there was a vocab term that I had never seen before: it wasn’t in the AMSCO, textbook, or even online. It was probably a word from an obscure source or inaccessible research paper. But using common sense, I was able to piece together the word’s meaning. Because you think broadly in this class, it won’t be too much work. AP Psych is very much a “define + apply” class. It’s enjoyable if you like philosophy or any kind of science.

AP World History

Note: Recently, in 2018, College Board replaced AP World History with AP World History: Modern, which only covers content after 1200 CE.

Albert Tam: I took AP World History before the redesign, so I can’t speak to how the course is now. Unfortunately, as with any AP history exam, AP World suffers from a lack of depth and undue emphasis on memorization. While it is difficult to cover 6000+ years of history in a single course, the curriculum is forced to make overarching generalizations and miss out on many of the nuances that make history interesting. Take a look at the College Board’s last practice exam published for AP World, a practice exam I took myself for preparation! From the graph on page 9 that suggests that North Gaul was 100% depopulated by 500 C.E. to question 53, which claims that one of Mandela’s speeches is best understood within the context of the Cold War, the exam–and ultimately the curriculum–is rife with inaccuracies at worst and misunderstandings at best. History lends itself to thorough research and long-form assignments, not multiple-choice questions and timed essays. Unfortunately, the AP system simply can’t accommodate this. Still, there is a silver lining: if you’re interested in history, or if you think you could potentially enjoy it at all, I’d still recommend taking the course. College Board’s interpretation of the subject may be deeply flawed, but any decent teacher should be able to make the course at least somewhat interesting.

Albert Zhu: Personally, I found AP World History to be one of my favorite AP classes since I had a very good teacher, although I agree with the above commentary in that the testing format is extremely unfit for the course. To elaborate on this, I think that one of the most important reasons why we study history in the first place is because reviewing past events allows us to shape and inform our own views on issues in the present; the problem with the AP testing format is that multiple choice questions are inevitably easily predictable, and essay prompts will often have a very limited range of available approaches – this encourages teachers to provide the same limited range of perspectives when they cover topics in the curriculum, which ultimately results in students who are only able to spit out nearly identical, nuance-less, liberal-biased interpretations of history.

Kenneth: WHAP (yes, WHAP is the correct abbreviation, not APWH) is, hands-down, an amazing class. You aren’t forced to memorize specific details because you simply can’t for over 10,000 years of history^ unless you want to study for the SAT Subject Test in World History^^. At the same time, you learn enough world history to become competent in, quite literally, the history of the world. If you have a good teacher, WHAP opens your eyes to the rest of the world and washes away any eurocentric knowledge you may have accumulated from middle school teachers. You can finally understand modern politics! WHAP is definitely a heavy-duty class, but it’s worth it. I’d rate it my second favorite AP class, right behind AP Calc BC.

^10,000 years in the old WHAP curriculum. AP World History: Modern cuts this down by a lot. Sad.

^^Actually outdated now since the College Board removed SAT Subject Tests.

AP US Government and Politics

Gavin: This is a great class that teaches essential knowledge about the function of the US government, which would benefit every student to know. The class can get very political and heated, depending on the teacher and the students in the class. I especially liked learning about historical Supreme Court cases and learning about how laws are interpreted and applied.

Darren: I think the course is important for students as part of being an educated citizen. Even though the content is rather boring and heavy on the rote memorization, I can’t really fault College Board for this, because I don’t think there’s too much they can do to make the historical study of American government interesting.

AP Microeconomics

Gavin: I should have enjoyed the contents of the class more. The models used to describe the economy and individual companies felt much too general and neither practically useful nor conceptually beautiful.

AP English Language and Composition

Kevin: A single term of English composition in college, where we write approximately 3 papers and some other stuff, can be replaced by AP English in high school. While this may be beneficial to students, the way the college board administers it’s AP English exam is not representative of what really goes on in a college class. You don’t need to memorize all these rhetoric terms or remember multiple plots of famous novels unless you are aiming for a career as a writer. Even so, while the AP course is more difficult than the college “equivalent”, the mismatch between the levels can’t be more apparent.

Gavin: Personally I found the class to be more interesting than AP Literature because I enjoy non-fiction more than fiction. However, the problem of over-stressing memorization of rhetorical terms is the same.

Kenneth: My school teaches AP English classes differently from other schools. In a way, my AP Lang experiences are the opposite of Kevin’s and Gavin’s. Essentially, my class was just an Honors discussion-based English class with much more reading and essays. My summer work was to read 6 books, and I read some 15 more books over the course of the school year (before COVID). In class, I never memorized literary terms or studied for multiple choice exams. As a result, I didn’t get much as practice with writing AP essays as I should have. My school’s AP English Lang class should honestly be called “AP English Reading”—idk why some of my teachers were so set on this curriculum. Point is that, especially for English, your experiences will vary widely based on the teacher you get and what your state requires schools to teach in English education.

AP English Literature and Composition

Gavin: There’s too much focus on memorization of rhetorical terms and on specific rules of analysis. The fiction books we read were fun and each presented interesting new ideas. However the class itself allows for much less creative freedom than I expected coming into it.

Kenneth: Again, what you learn in AP Lit will depend on your teacher and school. My experiences in AP Lit were the exact same as my experiences in AP Lang. I feel like I gained quite a bit of knowledge about English literature. However, I don’t feel like I’m prepared for the AP exam at all lol. There’s probably a good tradeoff between AP-based curriculum and Honors-based curriculum that teachers should follow to best prepare their students. But my school doesn’t attempt to find this tradeoff. Oops!

AP Chinese

Gavin: AP Chinese is statistically the easiest AP exam (highest 5 rate), but only because most people who take it have previous Chinese language background. The AP exam requires you to know how to understand and speak the language, some basic reading, and how to type the characters with pinyin. Writing Chinese is the hardest part of the class because of the number of Chinese characters, and while the AP test only requires you to know pinyin, many teachers require students to know who to write by hand, so be prepared for lots of memorization. On the other hand, it’s fun to learn a pictorial language and to learn about Chinese culture developed over thousands of years. The class does a great job of covering everything one needs to know to talk to Chinese people and even to visit China oneself. My favorite part of class was learning to cook Chinese dishes. 10/10

Steven: In my experience taking AP Chinese, I believe the test and the class was the easiest overall out of the other APs I’ve taken. However, my success is largely correlated with prior experience learning chinese as I grew up. In general though, for those that are learning chinese, AP Chinese allows you to get a really firm grasp on identifying commonly found characters (Simplified or traditional!), speaking commonly spoken phrases to get around, and communicating with another individual. Speaking from just the application of the language itself, this class paves the path for those that are interested in pursuing further studies regarding chinese in college. On the other hand, this class also covers a lot on Chinese culture and folklore, and even a brief history of China too. If someone just wants to get their language credit fulfilled and is already a native speaker of chinese, this is a great class to take; if someone wants to learn how to set themselves up to understand chinese culture and communicate in chinese with others in a proficient manner, this is also a great class to take!