AP Calculus for Math Average Person: How Hard?

Here’s how hard AP Calculus is for someone who is average at Math:

It really depends on how the class is taught.

AB calculus isn’t terribly difficult for students who have passed prerequisite classes, and average students will be fine.

BC calculus is still fine for average students who have passed AB calculus.

When AB and BC are combined, it can be a bit much for average students.

So if you want to learn all about how hard AP Calculus is for an average math person, then this article is for you.

Let’s jump right into it!

AP Calculus for Math Average Person: How Hard? (All Info)

What Is AP Calculus?

mathematical equations written in a notebook with a calculator next to it

It’s a calculus class, obviously.

But seriously, if we’re going to get into this, I should talk a little bit about what AP calculus is and why a student might want or even need to take it.

As the name suggests, it is a calculus class.

I’ll get into what is covered by calculus and what students will learn a little later.

For now, I want to focus on the “AP” part of all of this.

AP stands for Advanced Placement.

It’s a standardized set of curricula for high schools that allows high school students to get college credits for their classes. 

Here’s how it works.

An AP class is designed to cover the same material as a corresponding college class.

In this case, the college class is calculus (there are actually multiple calculus classes, and I’ll explain all of that later).

The idea is that high schoolers can learn calculus, and they can even get college credit.

When they do get to college, they won’t have to retake the calculus classes.

But, in order to get that college credit, students have to pass a standardized exam.

This exam is approved by the College Board.

The test is scored 1 through 5.

If you get a 3 or higher on the test, you get college credit.

The thing about AP calculus is that it’s a little different.

There are actually two AP tests: AB and BC.

They cover different calculus topics, and they give you credit for different college calculus classes.

I’ll be breaking all of this down as we go.

The one thing to keep in mind is that the recommendations do change depending on whether you are considering AB or BC calculus (BC will include everything in AB while adding to it).

How Hard Is AP Calculus for the Average Math Student? (6 Things)

focused female student thinking while doing homework

If you asked me how hard calculus is for the average math student, I would tell you that it’s impossible.

That’s because calculus reaches into some of the very hardest aspects of math, and you can’t do advanced calculus with an average understanding of math.

The whole point is that you have to be something of a math expert to do the most advanced kinds of calculus.

But, that’s not the question I’m answering today.

Instead, I’m specifically talking about AP calculus, and that’s a very different question.

AP Calculus is an introduction into calculus, and as such, you don’t need to be a math expert to get through it. 

In fact, I would encourage the average student to take a class that covers the topics in AP calculus.

The real question is, when should you take such a class?

In order to understand that, I have to really explain what is covered in calculus and why it matters.

To do that, I’m going to break this into a few different sections.

First, we’ll talk about the things you need to know before you even start with calculus.

Without some prerequisite knowledge, calculus is going to feel insurmountable.

Once you have that knowledge, you can dive in, and an average student really can succeed.

But, success will also depend on how the class is taught.

As I mentioned, AP calculus is split into AB and BC curricula.

The average student will do fine with AB calculus.

That same average student will also do fine with BC calculus, provided they do AB first.

But, not all schools set it up that way.

So, I’m going to explain what is covered in these curricula, and I’m going to do that by comparing the AP classes to the standard way calculus is taught at colleges.

#1 Prerequisite Knowledge

female hand writing answering a math problem on the blackboard using white chalk

The first thing to understand about calculus is that it regularly applies math concepts that come before it in the learning pattern.

Calculus students are expected to already understand algebra and trigonometry.

Both concepts come up a lot in calculus, and they are usually prerequisites before a student is allowed to take calculus.

Any student who struggles with algebra and/or trig will also struggle with calculus.

Even if they take to the new calculus concepts very well, calculus classes don’t take the time to go back and reinforce prerequisite knowledge.

Any student who has already passed algebra and trig has enough background knowledge to get through calculus.

Obviously, a stronger understanding of the prerequisites helps, but if you did well enough to pass those classes, then prerequisites shouldn’t really hold you back in calculus.

#2 Calculus I

cheerful student doing homework and typing on his laptop

Ok. Let’s talk about college calculus.

Pretty much every engineering and physics student has to take calculus, and a whole lot of students in other majors have to take at least some calculus.

Every school gets to do things its own way, but for the most part, calculus is split into three different courses, each taught in one semester.

For those wondering, I’m not touching on differential equations or other applied calculus classes at all today.

The first semester of calculus (often called Calc I) covers differentiation.

To get there, you also have to learn about limits, and once the techniques are learned, you’ll also get into applications of differentiation.

It’s actually ok if you don’t already know what these terms are.

That’s what the calculus classes are for.

But, a few quick applications of differentiation include figuring out rates of change, using relative rates of change to solve problems, and graphical analysis (formally known as analytical geometry).

Without diving into a full-blown math lecture, here’s what you need to know about Calc I if you haven’t already taken it (or an equivalent course).

Every problem in Calc I can ultimately be solved by following a system.

If you stick to the system, you’ll get to the right answer.

As such, the average math student can do just fine in Calc I, and it’s part of the reason why Calc I is the cutoff for math requirements for a lot of degrees (many computer science degrees only require Calc I, for example).

I often say that if you can do algebra, you can handle differentiation (and everything in Calc I).

#3 Calculus II

focused female student studying her notes

The second semester of calculus is a little different.

In Calc II, you’ll learn about integration, summations, series, and applications of the three.

You’ll start by learning some systematic ways to solve integrals, but what you’re going to find out very quickly is that integrals can’t always be solved systematically.

The same applies to summations and series.

Because of this, Calc II is conceptually more challenging than Calc I.

It’s at this point where I have less confidence saying that the average student can succeed here.

Allow me to explain.

If you went through Calc I, passed everything, and don’t feel like any of the concepts are too hard or out of reach, then you’ll probably be fine in Calc II.

That said, some students just hit a wall with Calc II.

It’s a different kind of math, and it does sometimes separate the math aficionados from the math proficient.

Let me put this another way. If you enjoy math (regardless of how good you think you are at it), then you can do Calc II.

If getting through math is like pulling teeth, then Calc II is probably going to be miserable and hard.

A lot of Calc II feels like solving math puzzles.

If you enjoy it, you’ll find a way to succeed.

If you don’t enjoy it, you might get stumped.

#4 Calculus III

happy female student studying and calculating with a calculator

As for Calc II, I’m going to be brief because it’s not really on the AP exams.

It’s very lightly touched, but for the most part, you don’t cover Calc III in AP classes.

Basically, Calc III runs back through differentiation and integration, but you learn how to do it with more variables.

Everything in the first two semesters only covers two-variable calculus.

Calc III is where you learn to do things in three dimensions—and then add as many variables as necessary for a problem.

If you passed the first two calc classes, then this one shouldn’t be a problem.

#5 Calculus AB

a group of students writing answers to tasks on whiteboard in class

Getting back to AP curricula, the AB class and exam only cover topics in Calc I.

Based on everything I said before, I think the average student absolutely can do well in this class.

You don’t need to be a gifted mathematician for this class, and learning this part of calculus can really help with other math that might come up.

It’s also useful in analyzing things that come up all the time.

You hear about studies and research on a daily basis.

When you know at least Calc I, you weed out the good studies from the bad studies a lot more easily.

#6 Calculus BC

busy male student sitting at desk writing in his notebook

Let me stop the tangents before they get out of hand.

What about BC calculus?

The thing to really understand about BC calculus is that schools handle it differently.

The AB and BC tests are given separately.

If you pass the AB exam, you get credit for Calc I.

If you pass the BC test, you get credit for Calcs I and II.

Also, the tests are always given at the same time, so you can’t take both in the same year.

I don’t know why it’s set up that way, but that’s how it is.

All of this boils down to the fact that schools take different approaches.

Some schools only offer BC calculus.

That is, they treat AP calculus a lot like colleges do, and you learn Calc I in the first semester and Calc II in the second semester.

This approach is a lot tougher.

Other schools split AP calculus into two years.

In the first year, you learn AB, and in the second year, you learn BC.

As you can imagine, this difference impacts the recommendation a lot.

So Can an Average Math Student Get Through AP Calculus?

focused female student looking at notes in library

As I mentioned before, it depends on the type of student more than anything.

If you enjoy math, then even if you feel average at it, you can do BC calculus.

The bigger question comes down to how the school handles the classes. 

If your school splits AB and BC into separate, year-long classes, then average math students should feel comfortable trying.

If you end up struggling with AB, then don’t take BC (or get a little more math help before you tackle it).

If you do fine in AB, then you’ll probably do fine in BC too.

Even though the concepts are tougher, the extra time makes a big difference in how the class feels.

If your class only offers BC, then you can still jump in.

If the first semester goes well, then keep at it.

If the first semester is a struggle, things won’t get easier in the second semester.