AP Physics Exams

Good day, Magooshers, and welcome back. Today’s agenda is physics. From the study of the universe’s origins to the smallest atoms, physics is a broad subject enveloping many different disciplines. For aspiring physicists like you, there’s a lot to know before you start playing with the big boys and girls at the world’s universities and laboratories.


AP Physics Exams -magoosh


That being said, it should come as no surprise that AP Physics is actually two AP courses, AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2. They’re both full-year AP courses, and each is regarded as equivalent to a semester of college-level coursework. In this article I’ll be breaking down both AP Physics Exams in full details. But if you get to the end and still have questions, be sure to check out the College Board’s AP Physics website.

Note: This article accounts for all the changes made to the AP Physics Exams during their last revision in Fall 2014. For students studying for the May 2017 exam, it is best to use study materials dated Spring 2015 or later.

As this article is long, here is a table of contents if you just want to learn something specific about the Exams:

How You’re Assessed on the Exams

AP Physics 1 & 2 are regarded as two halves of the same course. Therefore, both courses are centered around the same seven ‘big ideas.’ These big ideas are summarized below:

  1. Properties of Matter
  2. The Fundamental Forces of Nature
  3. How Natural Forces Influence the Interactions Between Matter
  4. The Interactions Between Systems
  5. The Laws of Conservation
  6. How Waves Transfer Energy and Momentum
  7. Using Mathematics (Algebra) to Describe/Interpret Complex Systems

Each of these big ideas contain dozens of learning objectives. If you’re planning to take AP Physics 1 next year, expect your teacher to touch upon all seven big ideas. AP Physics 2 expands upon these ideas and goes more in-depth.

Algebra is a large part of AP Physics 1 & 2. It is likely that your high school will require you to take (or have already finished) Algebra 2 alongside AP Physics 1. I mention this because the actual name of AP Physics 1 is ‘AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based.’

Successful Time Management

In this section, I will break down the length of the AP Physics Exams, and offer suggestions on how to make sure you successfully finish each section of the test. First a piece of recycled advice from my ACT articles: take multiple timed practice tests to become used to the tests’ format, content, and pacing. For students will a College Board account, a full-length test is available for you to take right now.

Note: Unless states otherwise, these time management tricks are identical for the AP Physics 1 & 2 Exams.

Section I: Multiple Choice (50 Questions, 90 Minutes, 50% of Exam Score)

First, take a look at my article on ACT Time Management. The same basic rules apply to the AP Physics Exams’ multiple-choice section. You have exactly one minute and 48 seconds to answer each question. Fortunately for you, the AP Physics Exam is graded the same way as the ACT. Only correct answers count. If you’re stuck on a question and one minute and 48 seconds have passed, it’s time to guess and move on.

Now, I understand that it’s impossible to exactly time one minute and 48 seconds, especially when you have more important things to do — like answer physics questions. There are ways to get around this. In short, check how many questions you have answered at the end of 9 minutes. If you’ve answered 5 questions, you’re on track. Any less than that and I’d recommend more practice tests between now and test day to improve your time.

Break (10 Minutes)

Break is an important time during any AP Exam. But for a three-hour test like the AP Physics Exam 1 or 2, you’re only at the halfway mark. Go to the bathroom, drink a little water, and don’t forget to eat something. You’re going to need some fuel to finish strong.

Section II: Free Response (AP Physics 1: 5 Questions, 90 Minutes, 50% of Exam Score; AP Physics 2: 4 Questions: 90 Minutes, 50% of Exam Score)

Okay, so here’s the only structural difference between the AP Physics 1 & 2 Exams. As you can see, the AP Physics 1 Exam has one more question, specifically one more short answer question. Both exams feature one experimental design question and one qualitative/quantitative translation question.

As you take practice tests, you’ll discover that each question is a series of tasks. As you might expect, the experimental design question and qualitative/quantitative translation question have more tasks than the short answer questions. To manage your time well, when Section II begins, count the number of tasks you have to complete in 90 minutes. Dividing 90 by that number gives you the time you can spend on each task.

Another thing to remember before you go jumping into practice tests is that on Section II, you get to use your calculator.

My Advice: Choose a calculator and stick with it. The more comfortable you are with your calculator, there’s less of a chance of it slowing you down (or you making a mistake on it) on test day.

Section II Pro-Tip: If you’ve taken multiple timed practice tests and are comfortable with time management, try to squeeze in the last 2-3 minutes to review what you wrote. Even if the correct answer is in your mind, the stress of the situation might cause you to leave out important information in your replies. If you have time to catch these mistakes, you can fix them.

Test Content: Section I (Multiple Choice)

Even though the exam in its current form is only two years old, many multiple choice questions from previous years’ AP Physics 1 & 2 Exams are still a valid way to practice for test day. If your teacher knows what he or she is doing, you will see old (but still relevant) exam questions on just about every one of your unit tests throughout the year.

The multiple-choice questions will test your Physics knowledge in many different ways. Some questions will be ‘stand alone,’ while others will be grouped together around a data set or chart. A few questions will even have two correct answers. Like when taking the ACT, when you encounter a group of questions, take a moment to read what the questions are asking before analyzing the data set, chart, or whichever graphic it may be.

One last thing about time management: If you’re comfortable with time management on other standardized tests, you should have little to no trouble with the AP Physics Exams’ multiple-choice sections. Even so, remember my previous advice: if necessary, guess and move on.

Test Content: Section II (Free Response Questions)

Like many of the questions on the multiple-choice section, to answer the Free Response questions, you need to analyze data in the form of text, charts, or graphs, or graphics.

Let’s say, for example, the five free response questions represent 15 tasks (parts). That means you have just over 7 minutes to complete each task. To write your best replies, consider trying the following strategy when you tackle a practice AP Physics Exam:

  • 1-2 minutes: Plan out your reply.
    • Time to brainstorm. Write relevant information in the margins of your test booklet. If the question requires any calculations, do them now.
  • Write your reply.
    • Remember that your graders are not looking for the next great American novel. The only thing that matters is that you a) answer the question and b) follow the directions.
      • If you take multiple practice tests, the act of writing answers under pressure will become second nature, something that doesn’t take up a lot of brain power compared to the questions themselves.

The End

AP Physics 1 is course traditionally taken by 11th grade students. After the exam is over, you have summer break to look forward to. Yet as you relax by the pool or flip burgers at your part-time job, AP graders across the country are reading your replies and assessing your physics knowledge. In short…

The College Board will release AP Physics scores in early July.

Yep, one day in the middle of summer you’ll get an email saying that your scores are ready on your College Board account. For those of you that earn a 5, congratulations. You just earned yourself some sweet college credit. For scores 4 and below, you potentially have my condolences, as you may or may not have earned credit, depending on your school.

“But,” you may ask. “I earned a 4. Why don’t my top choice colleges accept 4s?” Take it from me, someone who never had the nerve to even take college-level physics…it’s hard…really hard. As far as most colleges are concerned, unless you’re a physics savant, there’s no way they’re letting you into a higher level class.

But hey, there are certain advantages to retaking physics in college. First of all, it’s a good time to ‘fill in the gaps’ that occurred in AP Physics. Also, coming into Physics 101 with a foundation of knowledge is a great thing. The experience will be less stressful for you than to students who did not take AP Physics in high school. After all, freshmen year in college is already stressful enough.

AP Physics 1 & 2 are challenging courses, for sure. Even so, the AP Physics Exams are far from impossible. If you take notes, do your homework, and commit some time to test prep, you’re on your way to AP Exam success.

Till next time, Magooshers.

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  • Thomas Broderick

    Thomas spent four years teaching high school English, social studies, and ACT preparation in Middle Tennessee. Now living in Northern California, he is excited to share his knowledge and experience with Magoosh's readers. In his spare time Thomas enjoys writing short fiction and hiking in the Sonoma foothills.

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