Are you trying to decide which AP Calculus course to take? We’re here to help.
The College Board, the distributor of AP tests, splits calculus into three levels: A, B, and C. These levels roughly correlate to derivatives (A), integrals (B), and special cases and series (C). We’ll go over what these mean below.
From this, you can see that Calc AB covers less material. Calc BC actually covers all the content from Calc AB, plus a few other C-level topics.
There are also differences in the grading rubrics on the AP. When you take the AP Calculus BC exam, you earn an AB subscore, which is the score you earned based only on A and B level problems. We’ll explain that too.
What Does AB and BC Mean in AP Calculus?
As mentioned before, AB and BC are just names assigned by the College Board.
AP Calculus AB topics are, in vast overview, derivatives (the tangent slope of a line, which is to say, the slope at a certain point on the line) and integrals (the area under a curve, and also the opposite of a derivative). These two things are the basis of calculus.
AP Calculus BC topics are derivatives, integrals, special cases (such as taking the integral of 3-D shapes, and using calculus in word problems) and series (infinite sequences, like 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + … + n, onwards to infinity).
All of Calc AB is included in Calc BC.
So which one should you take? Talk to your future calculus teachers and ask for advice. While some BC classes start from the beginning, many begin with the assumption that you already know derivatives. If that is the case, then you’ll want to take an honors course to prepare, or self-teach (which can be extremely challenging). Your teachers know their courses best, so we advise you to seek their advice when choosing which AP course to take.
What’s the Difference Between AP Calculus AB and BC?
AP Calc BC covers more material, and the AP is harder for this reason. However, when you take the BC exam, you are given an AB subscore. How does this work?
Basically, the College Board ranks all the test questions as either A-level, B-level, or C-level (A-level being related to derivatives, B-level being integrals, and C-level using derivatives and integrals to solve real-world problems, or to work with series). Your BC score is calculated based on your responses to all of these questions. Your AB subscore is calculated based only on your responses to the A and B level questions.
If, for example, you bombed every C-level question, but answered every A and B level question correctly, you could expect to earn a 3 or a 4 for your BC score, but a 5 for your AB score.
There is no additional cost to receiving an AB subscore. The AP Calculus BC exam is offered at the same exorbitant price as all the other APs, which tends to rise by incremental amounts every year under the College Board’s monopoly on standardized testing.
Which is Harder? AP Calculus AB vs. AP Calculus BC
AP Calculus BC is harder, but if you already have some knowledge of calculus, it may be the best choice for you! We’ll go over reasons to take either AP below. Ultimately, it’s up to you, based on your own knowledge, how much you care about math, and what your future teachers recommend.
Reasons to Take AP Calculus AB Over BC
AP Calculus AB is probably a good choice for you if:
You have never encountered calculus before.
You are a senior (and therefore unable to take an honors calculus course this year and BC next year).
The college(s) you most want to attend give equal credit for AB and BC exams (many don’t).
You are taking other challenging courses this year, and don’t want math to be your top priority.
Note, however, that although AP Calc AB is less challenging than BC, it is still a challenging course, and it will look good to colleges. Do what makes the most sense for you.
Reasons to Take AP Calculus BC Over AB
AP Calculus BC is probably a good choice if you:
Are already familiar with derivatives.
Feel comfortable teaching yourself derivatives over the summer!
You are majoring in STEM.
The college(s) of your choice grant more credit to BC than to AB (the majority of colleges will give more credit to a BC score than an AB one).
You are taking AP Physics C (you really want to have encountered integrals in first semester, not second, as you would with Calc AB).
Wrapping Things Up: What AB and BC Stands for in AP Calculus
To summarize, Calc BC covers more content than Calc AB. Calc AB is a good choice for someone who has not encountered calculus before, while Calc BC is optimal for those who know a bit about derivatives already. Ultimately, however, the choice is yours. If you have no calculus background but you really want to take BC, and you’re willing to persevere, then go for it!
Also, Calc BC is the highest math offered by the College Board and by most high schools. However, it ain’t the highest math there is! BC content does not touch on multivariable calculus or vector calculus (though it is advisable to know at least integrals and derivatives before starting on either of those). There’s much more out there to discover.
Now go talk to or email your teachers, lay out the pros and cons of each class, and make your choice!