Is AP Environmental Science Hard?

As a college entry exam, AP Environmental Science is certainly challenging but it is also a fascinating and important topic, with much practical application. A grade of 3 or higher should stand you in good stead when making university applications. Statistically, it is one of the hardest AP courses, with the third-lowest pass rate. it would best suit a student with an established interest in science. With the right preparation and hard work however, you should be able to grasp the central concepts and apply them successfully.

Lets take a look at what the course comprises, what skills it requires and how challenging the final exams are.


The course is designed to be similar to a one-semester introductory laboratory science class. It applies scientific knowledge to ecological issues and addresses environmental problems and solutions. The units studied are as follows:

Unit 1: Ecosystems including water and carbon cycles, photosynthesis and food chains.

Unit 2: Biodiversity: Ecological tolerance and disruption, adaptation and succession.

Unit 3: Populations: Human population growth and dynamics, resource availability and fertility.

Unit 4: Earth Systems: Plate tectonics, soil composition, atmosphere, wind patterns, solar radiation and weather systems

Unit 5: Land and Water Use: History and sustainability of agriculture, forestry, food production, aquaculture

Unit 6: Energy Use and Consumption: renewable and non-renewable resources, fossil fuels and clean energy

Unit 7: Atmospheric Pollution: including air, water and noise.

Unit 8: Aquatic and Terrestrial Pollution: human impact including waste management, thermal pollution and pathogens

Unit 9: Global Change: greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, oceanic warming, species depletion and extinction


You’ll need a basic understanding of scientific methods, some knowledge of chemistry and biology, and an ability to understand interrelated systems and concepts. The course is wide-ranging but practical examples are given throughout and it is structured in a logical and accessible way. The histories of the central ideas are explored, as well as current solutions to wide-ranging environmental problems.

CollegeBoard recommends that would-be students have “at least two years of high school laboratory science, including life science and physical science, along with at least one year of algebra.”


The exam structure was revised in 2020 and now comprises:

  • 80 multiple choice questions, to be answered within 90 minutes (counts for 60%)
  • Three free-response questions, which you have 70 minutes to complete (counts for 40%)

The exam is therefore weighted slightly more towards factual knowledge than written ability. AP exams are scored from 1 to 5 with 3 and above comprising a pass grade. In 2019, 49.2% achieved a pass grade and only 9.4% obtained the highest grade (5)



Do not spend too long on each multiple choice question. If you find you are stuck, move on – remember, you can always return to the questions you did not answer first time round. Make sure you keep an eye on the clock, however. You have a little over a minute on average to answer each question. Do try to leave a buffer of additional time to double-check your work before submitting your responses.


There are three of these and each is divided into a number of sections. You will be given data to examine and the questions will all relate to the environmental issue revealed by that data. Pay close attention to the verbs used in each part of the question – i.e. identify, explain, describe, propose. They will tell you what is expected from each part of your answer. As with the multiple choice section, do not linger too long on each part of your answer. You can always fill in missing pieces later, so long as you have left sufficient time to return to them. Give 20-25 minutes to each question then use the remaining time to check over your work before submission.

A useful guide to the exam and some sample questions can be found here.

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