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AP Biology vs. Biology: Which Course Is Right for You?

Almost 40% of all high schoolers who graduated in 2018 took at least one AP, or Advanced Placement, exam. Anyone who takes an AP exam is basically proving mastery of college-level material while still in high school—which is especially useful for core classes like Biology. 

The choice between AP Biology and Biology should be influenced by your plans after high school. The right course for you will be largely determined by your choice of university and your ideal career pathway. 

In this article, I’ll explore the differences between AP Biology and standard high-school biology class. I’ll also discuss how to prepare for AP Biology and how to decide whether or not you should take this – or any – AP class. 

What’s Included in the AP Biology Curriculum

According to CollegeBoard, the following skills are taught in AP Biology: 

  • Designing experiments and procedures to test a prediction or theory
  • Collecting and analyzing data
  • Interpreting data to draw conclusions
  • Developing and supporting a scientific claim with evidence

Overall, the AP curriculum tries to help students “learn to think critically, construct solid arguments, and see many sides of an issue.” These are all skills prized by a typical four-year university. High school classes are usually less rigorous about critical thinking and analysis. Instead, in high school, teachers focus on basic knowledge. 

Choosing between Biology and AP Biology courses.

Biology involves a lot of rote memorization. Unlike chemistry, there are few “rules” to biology; the body works by the solution evolution came up with, and students just have to learn and memorize it. On top of that, understanding biology requires a strong base of scientific knowledge about chemistry, a little physics, math, and subjects covered in earlier general science courses. 

Specifically, AP Biology covers the following units: 

  1. Chemistry of Life
    1. The structure and chemical properties of water
    2. Makeup and chemical properties of macromolecules
    3. Basic DNA and RNA structure 
  2. Cell Structure and Function
    1. Parts of cells and their functions 
    2. How cells interact with their environment 
    3. Structure & function of the cellular membrane 
    4. Regulatory mechanisms of cells, including osmosis; selective permeability
    5. Compartmentalization within cells 
  3. Cellular Energetics
    1. Enzyme structure and function 
    2. The role played by energy in biotic systems
    3. Photosynthesis
    4. Cellular Respiration 
    5. Molecular diversity & how cells respond to changes in the environment
  4. Cell Communication and Cell Cycle 
    1. How cells communicate 
    2. Transduction of signals between cells 
    3. Cellular responses and feedback mechanisms
    4. The parts of the cell’s reproductive cycle 
  5. Heredity
    1. Process and function of meiosis (reproductive cellular division)
    2. Genetic Diversity
    3. Mendel’s Inheritance Laws
    4. Non-mendelian Inheritance
    5. Things that affect inheritance and gene expression
  6. Gene Expression and Regulation 
    1. DNA and RNA roles & functions 
    2. How genes are expressed 
    3. Relationship between genotype and phenotype
    4. Mutations, genetic diversity, and natural selection
    5. Biotechnology and genetic engineering
  7. Natural Selection 
    1. The evidence behind evolution and common ancestry
    2. Mechanisms of natural selection and speciation
    3. Environmental and anthropogenic factors in evolution
    4. Phylogenetic trees and cladograms 
    5. Extinction
    6. Possible origins of life on Earth
  8. Ecology 
    1. Organisms’ responses to environmental changes
    2. Movement of energy within and between ecosystems
    3. Factors in the growth, density, and success of different populations
    4. Community and ecosystem dynamics 
    5. Invasive species, human interaction, and environmental changes

Source: CollegeBoard: AP Biology 

Can You Take AP Biology Without Taking Biology First?

You can take AP Biology without taking biology first. However, CollegeBoard, the organization that administers the AP classes/exams as well as the PSAT and SAT exams, recommends that you take high school courses in biology and chemistry before enrolling in Advanced Placement Biology. 

AP Biology is a college-level course, so the curriculum and the teachers will assume you’re already familiar with some ideas from biology and chemistry

Look at the units and subtopics listed above. If you already know a little about most of these concepts from your other science classes, you may be able to take AP Biology without a previous biology class. You can also find many free resources online.

A great example is Khan Academy; this highly successful and popular website provides both regular and AP-specific Biology review videos and quizzes. Dedicated self-study with resources like this can help prepare for an AP Biology course. 

Source: College Confidential Forums

What Makes AP Biology Harder Than Regular Biology?

AP Biology is harder than regular biology because it covers more depth and breadth of subject matter. This means that not only will it cover more general topics, but even in topics that a regular biology class would cover, the AP Biology course will go into the subject in a lot more detail. 

The AP Biology final exam is one factor in the class’ difficulty. AP exams are scored out of 5; a 3 is a passing score. These exams are usually more complex than the “final” you would take for a class grade, and they’re standardized across the country, meaning your score will be compared to the scores of everyone in the country who takes the test that year. 

Exam Study Expert surveyed AP students and found that AP Biology was given a 6.3/10 difficulty score, beaten only by Chemistry, English Literature, and Physics. Students also said AP Biology was one of the more time-consuming AP classes they’d taken. All the memorization involved in studying biology adds up to hours of flash cards, vocabulary lists, and homework assignments. 

Plus, AP Biology has a significant laboratory component. CollegeBoard advises that “it is critical that lab work be an important part of an AP Biology course so that it is comparable to a college-level course for biology majors.” Many high school biology courses rely much less upon laboratory experiments and focus on theoretical knowledge instead. The lab aspect of AP Biology is time-consuming and also adds an element of difficulty often absent from standard biology classes. 

Source: Exam Study Expert: The Easiest & Hardest AP Classes

Should You Take AP Biology or Regular Biology?

You should take AP Biology if you want to study anything from the STEM field or if you’re trying to get accepted at a top college. You may decide to take regular biology if you have alternate plans for after high school. 

Another benefit to taking AP classes in high school is that most undergraduate programs in the United States accept AP scores in place of college credit. Many universities have graduation requirements that students take college classes in different sciences and humanities, and they often let students count AP exams towards those basic classes. 

Where you want to go to college matters, too. A student trying to get into a competitive school would be better off taking AP classes in a bunch of subjects, regardless of what they want to study in college. However, if you’re aiming for a less competitive school, or you’re sure of admission through an athletic scholarship or some other program, you don’t need to have a long roster of AP classes. 

Finally, technical or trade schools care less about AP exams than four-year colleges and universities do. If you’re planning to go straight into a technical program, you’re best off taking AP classes only if they’re relevant to that trade—unless you just really like school! 

Is AP Biology Worth It?

AP Biology is certainly worth it to help prepare for college and even gain college credit, but only if you feel confident in your ability to keep up with the course load. Whether or not AP Biology is worth it for you will also depend on what your plans for after high school are. 

Before enrolling in AP Biology, you’ll want to take the time to consider factors such as your readiness, your target GPA, and the cost associated with the course.

Assess Your Readiness as a Student

First of all, be careful not to take AP Biology too early. Younger students tend not to do as well on the AP exams, and if you take the class but wait a year to sit the exam, you’re likely to forget a lot of the information. It’s best to take AP classes as a junior or senior in high school. 

Generally speaking, AP exams are more impressive to private or out-of-state colleges and universities. This is because AP tests are standardized across the country. 

Since every state has different high school standards, it’s impossible to accurately compare a high school diploma from Kansas with one from California—unless both students have taken the national AP test or the broad-scope SAT exam. On the other hand, if you’re applying to a school in the same state as your high school, that university will know how to assess your high school performance even without AP scores. 

Consider Your Target GPA Before Taking AP Biology

Another thing to think about is GPA. You’re likely to get a higher grade in a normal high school biology class than in the AP one. If you’re already enrolled in a scholarship that’s contingent on GPA, you might want to consider not taking AP Biology. 

The exception is if your school offers something called a “weighted GPA,” where AP grades are weighted higher than normal class grades in your GPA. If that’s the case, doing well in your AP classes can actually get you a GPA higher than 4.0

As far as drawbacks go, stress is a problem for many AP students, especially those taking more than a few tests. The AP exams are a lot harder than the usual end-of-year high school test, and taking a lot of them puts a ton of stress on students. Studying, reviewing, and studying some more is a process that lasts weeks. It’s up to you to decide if the stress is worth it, and if so, how many exams you should take. 

Cost of Taking AP Biology 

You’ll also need to think about the cost. Each AP exam has a $96 entrance fee. CollegeBoard says that “if you have significant financial need, you may be eligible for a $34 College Board fee reduction per AP Exam. Depending on your state, there might also be additional funding available to supplement the College Board fee reduction and reduce your cost even further” (source). 

Even with the fee reduction, though, each test costs $62, which can add up very quickly. If you’re planning to attend a four-year university, AP can be an excellent preparation in another way. 

What Are the Advantages of Taking AP Biology?

The main advantages of taking AP Biology are college preparation and credits. An AP course load will give high school students a feel for what is required to be successful in college including how much studying is required. You can also gain college credits If you do well in an AP Biology course.  

Preparation for College

Many students feel “a really hard slap in the face” when they first have to cope with a university workload. Undergraduate professors teach large classes and invest much less time in giving students personalized help. 

College students have to manage their academic path on their own more than in high school. The rigor of AP classes helps prepare high schoolers for college, when every class is at that level or higher. 

College Credits for AP Biology

AP Biology specifically, as well as general AP credits, can be immeasurably valuable as college credit. Most four-year universities accept a score of 4 or higher (AP exams are scored out of 5; a 3 is a passing score) as proof that you have mastered introductory-level university material in different subjects. 

Counting an AP class towards a required introductory college course can pave the way to early graduation. Ultimately, this can save you tuition money. It can also help to free up your university class time for other things, which is very much needed for anyone seeking a double major. 

Source: Educational Endeavors: Pros and Cons of Taking AP Classes 


AP classes aren’t for everyone, especially the hard ones like AP Biology

It’s important to think carefully about your reasons for signing up for such a class before you do. Talk to your school’s college counselor and, if they have one, AP administrator. These people know all about AP exams generally and how your high school handles AP classes. They’ll also know how best to work with state schools near you and tricks of the college admissions process for those applying out of state. 

And if you do decide to take AP Biology, be prepared for lots of studying!

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