Calculus is a massive subject. The term broadly defines the field of math that studies derivatives and integrals. In order to fit all that is considered calculus on an AP exam, the college board divided the exam in half, creating AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC.
In this article, we’ll break down the difference between AP calculus AB and BC and discuss what topics are covered on the two exams. We’ll cover everything from figuring out which exam is harder to helping you decide which of these two AP exams is the best fit for you.
What’s on the AP Calculus Exam?
When it comes to AP calculus AB vs. BC topics, there are a number of differences. According to the College Board, there are eight topics that are covered on both the AP Calculus AB exam and the AP Calculus BC exam. However, the AP calculus BC exam also includes two additional topics and more in-depth information on three of the subjects covered in AP calculus AB.
Topics Covered in the AP Calculus AB
AP Calculus AB covers eight topics, including:
- Limits and continuity
- Differentiation: definition and fundamental properties
- Differentiation: composite, implicit, and inverse functions
- Contextual applications of differentiation
- Analytical applications of differentiation
- Integration and accumulation of change
- Differential equations
- Applications of integration
These eight topics are taught over one semester in college but over the course of an entire school year during AP calculus AB. Most students will take this course before continuing to AP calculus BC, but not all.
Topics Covered in the AP Calculus BC
AP Calculus BC covers the eight topics listed above in the AP calculus AB section, but it expands on numbers 6-8 to include: additional techniques of integration (6), Euler’s method and logistic models with differential equations (7), and arc length and distance traveled along a smooth curve (8). The exam also includes two totally different topics:
- Parametric equations, polar coordinates, and vector-valued functions
- Infinite sequences and series
In total, there are ten topics that are covered on the AP Calculus BC exam, making it an extremely fast-paced and rigorous course. You can take this course without having first taken AP calculus AB, but this is not typically recommended unless you crushed precalculus.
What’s the Main Difference Between AP Calculus AB and BC?
The difference between AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC is the amount of material covered over the same amount of time. The only actual prerequisite for either course is precalculus, so there is the possibility that you take only AP calculus AB, only AP calculus BC, or both over your time in high school.
AP Calculus AB covers about half of what an entire college calculus course would cover. It is a slower-paced course than AP calculus BC and spends more time delving into each unit since there is less material to cover over the course of a year.
Since AP calculus has so much more information to cover, it is a fast-paced course, especially when compared to AP calculus AB. On the other hand, AP calculus BC covers a full year of college-level calculus. This means that the BC course covers all the same information as the AB exam, plus a lot more.
In terms of the outcomes of taking either of these two courses, as with any other AP course, you have the option at many colleges and universities to receive some credit. Typically, you will be able to receive more credit for a good AP calculus BC score, and you will receive less credit for a good AP calculus AB score. This isn’t always the case, but it is at many schools and is something that you might want to keep in mind.
Is AP Calculus AB or BC Harder?
If you have ever found yourself thinking, “Is AP calculus AB hard?” we are here to clear up all the confusion. Wondering, “Is calculus AB or BC harder?”? Wonder no more, for that is what we are about to discuss.
Ultimately, it is worth noting that this is a very personal thing since most students will find both AP calculus AB and AP calculus BC hard. For many students, even taking AP calculus is something that they consider to be super hard, regardless of which one they take, so the short answer is that both exams are typically considered to be hard.
The more nuanced answer to the question is that AP calculus BC covers more material, at a faster pace, over the same amount of time, making it a more arduous AP course. This does not mean that you should think of AP calculus AB as easy, but simply as AP calculus BC as super hard. Both exams will likely be challenging.
Calculus as a subject is known to be difficult, so don’t feel bad if either course is extremely hard for you. There are a lot of topics to cover under the umbrella of calculus, and research is still being done to advance the field. Calling either course easy or straightforward would be wrong, but based on the differences in the amount of material covered, it is fair to say that AP calculus BC is harder than AP calculus AB.
Should You Take AP Calculus AB or BC?
If you are someone who is looking to go to college and pursue a science-based degree and career, taking either AP Calculus AB or AP Calculus BC, or even both, is highly recommended. Most science fields require you to have some working knowledge of calculus, so taking one of the AP calculus exams is a great option.
If you are someone who knows that you will not be pursuing anything related to science, it might be wiser not to take either of the AP calculus exams. Instead, consider taking AP exams that make more sense for your interests and are aligned with what you want to pursue in college.
Taking random AP courses just because you think you need to take as many AP exams as possible is not always the best idea. It is important to remember that AP courses are designed to be challenging, so taking a course that is well outside your wheelhouse on top of the APS that you are actually interested in could lead to you becoming stretched too thin. This can often lead to your grades dropping, hurting your college resume more than helping it.
Another factor that might help you make this decision is scheduling. At some high schools, AP calculus BC is taught over two class periods to make sure that you have ample time to cover all the topics. If this is the case, taking AP calculus AB might free up your schedule more to take other classes that interest you as well. This isn’t even a consideration at other schools since both courses take up one class period.
How to Decide Which AP Calculus to Take?
Deciding which of the AP calculus exams you should take might seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. Below we’ll list the steps that we recommend you take to determine which AP calculus course is right for you.
How was precalculus for you?
The easiest way to determine which exam you should take is to reflect on your precalculus class. Maybe talk with your precalculus teacher and see how they think you did in that class. How you do in precalculus should be your determining factor in which AP calculus exam you take.
In general, if you do really well in precalculus and never felt like anything was overwhelming, you could go straight to AP Calculus BC. On the other hand, if you ever felt like you were struggling in precalculus, you should consider taking AP calculus AB.
Will you have a heavy course load in the upcoming school year?
If you already have a heavy course load during the upcoming year, taking AP calculus AB might be a good idea. This course has a slower pace that is much easier to manage alongside a heavy course load.
If you think you are going to have a lighter course load, you could opt to take AP calculus BC, so long as you have already determined that it would be a good fit for you, based on how you answered question one.
Are you ok with only taking one of the AP calculus exams, or do you want to take both?
The next step is figuring out if you want to take both exams or just one. If you take precalculus during your sophomore year, you can totally take AP calculus AB during junior year and then AP calculus BC during senior year. If you have just finished precalculus as a junior, you might not have time to take both AP courses.
In that case, it might be best to think about taking AP Calculus BC if you feel up to the more rigorous course load. AP Calculus BC will have more weight on its own on your college resume than AP calculus AB will, so if you have to pick only one and you want it to have the most significant impact it can, taking AP calculus BC is the way to go.
Wrapping Things Up: AP Calculus AB vs. BC: What’s the Difference?
There are a lot of differences between AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC, but the most significant difference is just the speed of the course. AP Calculus BC is forced to go at a fast pace just to keep up with all the material that will be included in the exam. On the other hand, AP Calculus AB has less material to cover, so it will feel slightly less fast-paced.
We know you will do great at whichever AP calculus exam you choose to take! Taking either AP calculus exam is not anything to sneeze at. Both courses cover difficult and complicated material. These are not courses that you sign up for on a whim but are courses that you need to think about before you decide to take them. All that being said, many resources are available to help you determine what course to take and crush the exam.