AP Physics: A Comprehensive Guide

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Introduction 

Do you enjoy learning about how the universe works? Are you eager to gain college-level knowledge on theories of matter and energy? If so, an AP Physics course might be the perfect addition to your high school curriculum. AP Physics courses are generally taken during the last two years of high school, during your junior and senior years.

An advanced placement (AP) course is a college-level course offered by certain high schools. Developed by the College Board, AP courses give high school students the opportunity to take college-level classes in subjects of their choice. Students have the option to sit for the associated AP exam to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in these subjects. However, it’s also possible to self-study the material and then take the exam or to take the course without taking the AP exam. For more information on the benefits of taking AP classes, read our ultimate guide to AP classes.

There are currently 38 AP courses in total, and these include four different AP Physics courses:

  •       AP Physics 1
  •       AP Physics 2
  •       AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  •       AP Physics C: Mechanics

Each course focuses on a different aspect of physics. A wide variety of topics are covered, including electricity and magnetism, classical and modern physics theories, and relativity.

This blog post gives you details on what each AP course is about, the differences between the different AP Physics courses, and the difficulty level of the AP Physics exams. We have also included tips on preparing for AP Physics exams, along with some recommended study resources, so don’t forget to read until the end!

What Is Covered in AP Physics?

In the past, the concepts taught in AP Physics 1 and 2 were contained in a single course known as AP Physics B. Thankfully, the College Board split the content into two courses in 2014, making it more manageable for high school students to learn these college-level physics theories.

AP Physics 1

AP Physics 1 is equivalent to the first semester of an introductory algebra-based physics course in college. This full-year course comprises seven units that cover the foundational principles of physics: kinematics, torque and rotational motion, simple harmonic motion, circular motion and gravitation, energy, dynamics, and momentum. Hands-on laboratory work will take up 25% of classroom hours. Students can expect to develop skills in modeling, mathematical routines, scientific questioning, experimental methods, data analysis, argumentation, and making connections. If you’re interested in taking the class, you should have already completed geometry and at least be taking Algebra II, if you haven’t already passed the class.

The AP Physics 1 exam is three hours long and split into two sections. Section I contains 50 multiple-choice questions, and Section II has 5 free-response questions.

You can view the official course syllabus here.

AP Physics 2

AP Physics 2 is equivalent to the second semester of an introductory algebra-based physics course in college. It is a full-year course. Just like AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2 has seven units on topics such as electrical circuits, thermodynamics, fluids, geometric and physical optics, magnetism and electromagnetic induction, electrical force and field, and quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics. You’ll also need a bit more math to do well on AP Physics 2, so most schools require that you be in or have already passed pre-calculus.

The AP Physics 2 exam lasts three hours, with 50 multiple-choice questions in Section I and 4 free-response questions in Section II.

The official course syllabus can be found here.

AP Physics C: Mechanics

AP Physics C: Mechanics is the first of the two AP Physics C courses. It covers oscillations, gravitation, Newton’s laws of motion, kinematics, energy, and power, circular motion and rotation, and systems of particles and linear momentum. The key concepts of the course are change, force interactions, fields, and conservation. During this half-year course, 25% of classroom time will be spent doing laboratory work. Unlike AP Physics 1 or AP Physics 2, both of the AP Physics C classes are based in calculus, so if you want to take it, you should have already passed AP Calculus or be in the class.

The exam lasts 90 minutes, with 35 multiple-choice questions in Section I and 3 free-response questions in Section II. You can view the official course syllabus here.

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

This is the most advanced of all AP Physics courses. AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism is taken after Physics C: Mechanics. The half-year course focuses on more advanced physics topics, including electromagnetism, magnetic fields, electrostatics, electric circuits, conductors, capacitors, and dielectrics. To take the AP Physics C courses, students need to be taking or have completed AP Calculus.

The exam has the same format as Mechanics, where Section I contains 35 multiple-choice questions and Section II has 3 free-response questions, all to be answered over three hours. The official course syllabus can be found here.

That’s a lot of information to take in! To give you a better overview of the different courses, we have created a table that compares the most important details you need to know about each AP Physics course.

A Comparison of AP Physics Courses

 

  AP Physics 1 AP Physics 2

 

AP Physics C: Mechanics

 

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

 

Duration Full-year Full-year Half-year Half-year
Units

 

Unit 1: Kinematics

Unit 2: Dynamics

Unit 3: Circular Motion and Gravitation

Unit 4: Energy

Unit 5: Momentum

Unit 6: Simple Harmonic Motion

Unit 7: Torque and Rotational Motion

Unit 1: Fluids

Unit 2: Thermodynamics

Unit 3: Electric Force, Field, and Potential

Unit 4: Electric Circuits

Unit 5: Magnetism and Electromagnetic Induction

Unit 6: Geometric and Physical Optics

Unit 7: Quantum, Atomic, and Nuclear Physics

Unit 1: Kinematics

Unit 2: Newton’s Laws of Motion

Unit 3: Work, Energy, and Power

Unit 4: Systems of Particles and Linear Momentum

Unit 5: Rotation

Unit 6: Oscillations

Unit 7: Gravitation

Unit 1: Electrostatics Unit 2: Conductors, Capacitors, Dielectrics

Unit 3: Electric Circuits

Unit 4: Magnetic Fields

Unit 5: Electromagnetism

Exam Section I: 50 multiple-choice questions

Section II: 5 free-response questions

Section I: 50 multiple-choice questions

Section II: 4 free-response questions

Section I: 35 multiple-choice questions

Section II: 3 free-response questions

Section I: 35 multiple-choice questions

Section II: 3 free-response questions

Prerequisites Geometry (completed)

Algebra II (concurrently taking or completed)

AP Physics 1

Pre-calculus (concurrently taking or completed)

Calculus (concurrently taking or completed) Calculus (concurrently taking or completed)

 

Who Should Take AP Physics Classes?

It is certainly possible to take all four AP Physics courses, but it is not necessary to do so. In fact, most universities will only give you credit for taking either Physics 1 and 2 or one of the Physics C classes. The best AP Physics class for you depends on your choice of major and the requirements of the colleges you are interested in, so I encourage you to look up what AP classes your dream schools will give you credit for taking.

The algebra-based AP Physics 1 and 2 are suitable for students with a general interest in science-based majors such as life sciences. As they are slightly easier than the Physics C courses, you may have more time for other AP science courses, such as AP Biology or AP Chemistry. In contrast, the calculus-based AP Physics C courses are more advanced and hence geared towards students interested in engineering or physical science majors.

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How Hard Are the Exams?

AP exams are scored from 1 to 5. Generally, scores of 3 and above are considered to be passing, but most colleges require a 4 or a 5 to get college-level credit for taking the exam. Here is a breakdown of the 5-point scale:

5 – Extremely well qualified

4 – Very well qualified

3 – Qualified

2 – Possibly qualified

1 – No recommendation

Tip: Be sure to keep all lab reports and notebooks. You may need to show them to colleges to get laboratory credit.

Just by looking at the 2022 pass rates on the College Board website, it is clear that AP Physics is one of the most challenging AP courses. That said, the difficulty of the AP Physics exams varies depending on the type of course.

AP Physics score distribution for 2022

Scores 5 4 3 2 1
AP Physics 1 7.9% 17.0% 18.3% 27.1% 29.6%
AP Physics 2 16.3% 18.1% 35.3% 24.1% 6.3%
AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism 31.5% 23.6% 14.3% 18.1% 12.5%
AP Physics C: Mechanics 26.4% 25.7% 21.3% 15.6% 11.0%

 

As you can see, only a small percentage of students scored a 5 for AP Physics 1, while almost one-third scored a 5 for AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. At the same time, more than half of all students received scores of 3 or higher for AP Physics 2. The score distribution suggests that AP Physics may be challenging, but it is certainly doable.

If you do get a good score on an AP Physics exam, it’s an accomplishment that will reflect well on your college application! So if you take one of the classes and find yourself struggling, consider getting a tutor!

Are the AP Physics Exams Different from the SAT Physics Test?

While some universities used to require the SAT Physics Subject Test, this test is no longer offered, even though you’ll still see it mentioned on some websites. However, since much of the content tested on the AP Physics exams overlaps with the SAT Physics Subject Test, the current recommendation is to take one of the AP Physics exams instead.

If you’re uncertain about whether a particular school will accept the AP Physics exam in place of the SAT Physics Subject test, we recommend that you email the admissions office.

How to Prepare for the AP Physics Exams

The AP exams are open to everyone, meaning you don’t necessarily have to take an AP course to sit for them. This makes the exams accessible to all students, including homeschoolers. It is possible to self-study for AP exams, but most students take courses offered by high schools. The good news is, whether you’re self-studying for the exam or taking the course in school, there are several resources you can use.

 

Websites

APlusPhysics is a free web resource that teaches AP Physics courses in the context of problem-solving and real-world application. Alternatively, the Physics Classroom has interactive simulations to take your learning to the next level. Another popular website is Learn AP Physics. It has a very simple layout, but the content is well-organized and there is a new physics problem to solve every day.

Practice Exams

To test out your newly-learned knowledge, AP Practice Exams offers a comprehensive selection of practice exams on their website. There are links to quizzes, problem sets, and even flashcards! You can also find past exam questions on the official College Board website.

YouTube Resources

If you are an audio-visual learner, there is a lot of useful content on YouTube. The Advanced Placement YouTube channel has entire playlists with AP Physics lectures covering all four AP Physics courses. Bozeman Science has shorter review videos, perfect for on-the-go learning. For fun animations that bring physics to life, physicsfinau offers AP Physics crash course videos.

Self-Study Books

Chances are, if you’re studying for any of the AP Physics exams on your own, you’ll need a book to help you. We recommend checking out College Physics if you’re studying Physics 2 or AP Physics 2, or Physics for Scientists and Engineers if you’re aiming to self-study AP Physics C. In both cases, you’ll want to pay attention to the topics the AP exam actually covers, and read accordingly.

When are the AP Physics exams?

Here are the dates for the 2023 AP Physics exams.

AP Physics C: Mechanics – Tuesday, May 9, 2023 (noon local time)

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism – Tuesday, May 9, 2023 (2:00 p.m. local time)

AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based – Thursday, May 11, 2023 (noon local time)

AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based – Friday, May 12, 2023 (noon local time)

Conclusion

If you find yourself acing your high school physics classes, an AP class could be an enjoyable challenge for you. The added depth of knowledge will bring you one step closer to understanding the laws that govern the universe. Taking an AP Physics class also has other benefits. If you are preparing to apply to highly competitive colleges, an AP Physics class might be exactly what you need to give your application that extra boost.

Overall, an AP Physics class may be challenging, but it is well worth considering. You will be gaining college-level knowledge within the supportive environment of a high school. Not only that, acing an AP Physics class  will definitely indicate your passion and motivation for physics to college admissions personnel.

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