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The Difference Between AP Physics 1, 2, and C – Everything a High-Achieving Student Needs to Know

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Beginning at the start of the 2014 academic year, the College Board replaced AP Physics B with AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. This changed happened in light of a study conducted by the National Research Council that recommended a two-year sequence replace Physics B so that students could delve further into key physics concepts.

These two courses, along with AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism, make up the various Advanced Placement courses in physics that students can choose from.

While it is possible to take all four classes within your high school career, it may be best to choose one or two based on your goals for college. So, what are the differences between the classes?

Algebra-Based Physics

AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 are algebra-based courses. This means that they don’t require a background in math beyond Algebra II. These are also two one-year classes, as opposed to AP Physics B, which was a one-year class. As a result, these together are more expansive and cover more topics than Physics B.

AP Physics 1

AP Physics 1 is a first-year, introductory, college-level physics course, and it was designed so that you do not need any prior experience in physics. The College Board and AP program recommend that students have completed at least geometry and are concurrently taking Algebra II during this course. According to the College Board, AP Physics 1 covers basic fundamental physics concepts, such as:

  • Kinematics
  • Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Torque
  • Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
  • Gravitation and Circular Motion
  • Work, Energy, and Power
  • Linear Momentum
  • Oscillations, Mechanical Waves, and Sound
  • Electric Circuits

Getting a satisfactory score on this AP exam can be used as credit for an introductory college-level physics course. However, be sure to look at your target colleges’ websites to see whether these universities will take AP Physics 1 as college credit.

Some high-ranking schools, such as MIT, Reed College, and Yale University, do not offer any credit or placement for AP Physics 1, while others like Notre Dame will only take the highest possible score of 5 to provide college credit.

AP Physics 2

AP Physics 2 works as a follow-up to AP Physics 1, and consequently is designed to be a second-year physics course, so you will need to complete another physics course, such as Physics 1, as a prerequisite.

This course most closely follows the old AP Physics B curriculum. The topics covered in Physics 2 are the following:

  • Fluid Statics and Dynamics
  • Thermodynamics with Kinetic Theory, PV Diagrams, and Probability
  • Electrostatics
  • Electrical Circuits
  • Magnetic Fields
  • Electromagnetism
  • Physical and Geometric Optics
  • Topics in Modern Physics

These topics tend to be more complex and advanced than the mechanical physics covered in Physics 1. Like Physics 1, a good score on the AP Physics 2 exam can count as college credit for introductory college-level physics courses.

Again, make sure that your target colleges will take AP Physics 2, as those with strong physical science and engineering programs, like MIT, will not provide college credit for any score on the exam.

Calculus-Based Physics

The Physics C courses, Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism, make up the calculus-based physics courses. This means that they go more in depth than the algebra-based classes and use calculus to solve more complex physics questions.

Prerequisites usually include at least an introductory physics course, and you should be taking AP Calculus AB or BC if you haven’t completed calculus already.

Unlike AP Physics 1 and 2, which are designed as separate classes, one may take the two Physics C topics as one course, with Mechanics being taught one semester, and Electricity & Magnetism the second. However, there are two exams, one for each topic.

AP Physics C: Mechanics

This course closely follows the curriculum covered in AP Physics 1. However, because Physics C introduces calculus with the equations and formulas you need to know, it is much more challenging.

Like Physics 1, Physics C: Mechanics covers

  • Kinematics
  • Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Work, Energy, and Power
  • Systems of Particles and Linear Momentum
  • Circular Motion and Rotation, and
  • Oscillations and Gravitation

Again, Physics C delves much deeper into these concepts than Physics 1. And, unlike the other AP courses, most colleges will take at least a 3 on the Mechanics AP exam, though schools with prestigious engineering programs may require a 4 or 5.

Always check your target colleges to make sure you have a high enough score for credit and potential placement.

AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism

Just like how AP Physics C: Mechanics closely mirrors AP Physics 1, Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism closely follows Physics 2.

And, like Physics C, it goes more in depth with the subject material because it incorporates calculus in its equations and formulas. The main topics this course covers are:

  • Electrostatics
  • Conductors, Capacitors, and Dielectrics
  • Electric Circuits
  • Magnetic Fields
  • Electromagnetism

It is possible that your high school may not offer AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism as a course. Schools are much more likely to offer Mechanics over Electricity & Magnetism.

However, you can consult your guidance counselor and ask if it is possible to pursue an independent study class, in which you would essentially teach yourself the subject with some mentorship from an adviser, usually in the form of a teacher in that field.

Like Mechanics, most colleges will accept a satisfactory score on the AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism exam in place of an introductory college-level physics course. Check your target colleges’ websites for the exact score you need to aim for.

Which Class Suits My Needs?

To best plan out your class schedule, you should consider what you want to major in and the colleges you plan to apply for. For instance, it may not be wise to take the AP Physics 1 exam if none of the colleges that admit you take accept it as college credit.

Likewise, if you’re just looking to fill a few credits in science and physics doesn’t relate closely to your major or career, you may prefer to choose AP Physics 1 or 2 over the more difficult AP Physics C courses.

Your math placement is equally important in deciding. If you aren’t taking calculus in high school, your Advanced Placement options narrow to just Physics 1 and Physics 2. If you want to take either or both of the Physics C classes, make sure that you are on track to take an AP Calculus class as well.

Should I Take More Than One AP Physics Class?

This question depends on what you want to do in college, as well as your high school ranking. If your school weights AP classes more heavily than other courses, and ranking highly or becoming valedictorian is a goal you want to achieve, then it may be best to take as many AP courses as you can without necessarily taking the corresponding exams.

As for the exams, it depends on your future career and college goals. Many college programs only require one semester of algebra-based physics for a science requirement, and AP Physics 1 may cover that requirement.

However, if you want to pursue a degree in engineering or physics, then you should expect to take at least one AP Physics C class, if not both.

Remember, taking all four AP Physics courses will take away the time you could be taking biology or chemistry courses. If you are not planning to pursue a major or career in engineering or physics, it may be more beneficial to look into the AP programs in the other sciences.

The AP Exam: What to Expect

Like other AP exams, all four AP Physics exams consist of a multiple choice section, as well as a free-response section. Both sections are weighted equally, so it is important to do well in both of them. While Physics 1 and 2 are 3-hour exams each, Physics C exams are 90 minutes and can be taken in sequence for a total of 3 hours.

All exams approve a four-function, scientific, or graphing calculator for both multiple choice and free response sections, so you are graded on your comprehension of the various concepts, rather than on your mathematical skills.

Multiple Choice

The multiple choice section will consist of 50 questions for the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 exams, and 35 for both AP Physics C exams. These can include discrete, individual problems, sets of questions that cover the same scenario, and multiple-correct questions, in which two options are correct.

While your work will not be graded, you will be given some paper on which you can write out your equations and solutions. You should use that paper to write your steps and double check that your answer is correct.

If you want, you may also jot down as many formulas as you can remember when you first receive the paper. This can work as a formula sheet for you to refer to without having to immediately remember each formula.

While you might think that you’ll remember everything, after answering difficult physics questions for 45 or 90 minutes, brain fog may set in, making a physical reference handy.

After the multiple choice section, you will take a short break from the exam. You shouldn’t discuss any of the questions with your classmates, but you can relax, take a drink or eat a snack, and prepare yourself for the free response section of your exam.

Free Response

Unlike the multiple choice section, which is graded by a computer, the free response section of each exam is graded individually by AP Exam Readers. Because this section is graded by another human, you should structure your answers in a clear and logical manner so that the AP Reader can easily see your work and give you as much credit as possible.

Remember, a wrong answer on one part of a free response question will not penalize you any further, so if you can’t figure out an answer, you can make one up and use it in the next part of the question to get as many points as you can.

You should also make sure to answer each part as comprehensively as possible, as you are graded on the process, not just the answer.

AP Physics 1 and 2

For the AP Physics 1 and 2 exams, you should expect 5 questions. One will be classified as an “Experimental Design”, in which you will read about a theoretical experiment and your goals in performing said experiment, and you will answer conceptual questions related to it.

Another is a “Quantitative/Qualitative Translation,” in which you will be given a standard physics problem and must solve it using the various formulas and equations you have learned. The last three consist of short answer responses, one of which needs to be a paragraph-length argument.

For the paragraph-length response, the College Board recommends that your response should comprehensively and coherently argue their analysis of the situation using evidence and physical principles.

Try to make your answer as clear and concise as possible, as full credit may be revoked if you do not present your argument in a logical order, make lengthy digressions, or you just write equations or diagrams without much linking prose, which details your thinking process.

AP Physics C

Both AP Physics C free response sections consist of 3 questions, each of which takes about 15 minutes. While some may use just numbers, others may substitute only variables, forcing you to use what you know of physics concepts rather than your calculator.

Each question has multiple parts. Make sure that you cite every formula that you use to reach your answer, as those are often requirements for receiving credit.

Conclusion: AP Physics 1, 2, and C

Each course offers different benefits for you. Be sure to consider AP Physics C if you are considering a career in engineering or physics, though AP Physics 1 and/or 2 are perfectly acceptable for other STEM majors and can even cover the science course requirement for a humanities major.

However, as AP classes can affect your class ranking and GPA, keep in mind that you can take an AP class without needing to take the test.

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