Students considering an Advanced Placement course in physics have four options to choose from: AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based; AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based; AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism; and AP Physics C: Mechanics.
Each end-of-year exam and the resulting potential college credit correspond to an AP class, but students may not know how to select the appropriate course and test.
AP Physics 1 covers topics such as Newtonian mechanics, mechanical waves and the basics of electric circuits. AP Physics 2 continues with topics like electricity and magnetism, fluids and thermodynamics. They are equivalent to first-semester and second-semester college courses, respectively, in algebra-based physics.
Both classes and their exams emphasize logic and reasoning, with an overall goal of students understanding the core concepts of physics and basic algebra.
AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism explores electricity and magnetism in detail. AP Physics C: Mechanics also discusses certain Newtonian concepts, as well as kinematics, oscillations and a few other content areas. While conceptual understanding absolutely matters, these two C series options follow more mathematically rigorous paths.
Before you settle on a specific AP physics course – whether one that your high school offers or one you are self-studying for – ask yourself these five questions:
- What are my career plans?
- What credits am I hoping to earn?
- How prepared am I for the required math?
- How do I feel about the test formats?
- Should I take more than one test?
What Are My Career Plans?
Before you decide which AP physics course or end-of-year test to register for, consider your potential career goals. Where do you see yourself working in 10 years?
The College Board has an online tool that can help you explore the professional applications of each AP exam, if you would like some direction in that area. However, be aware that there is some overlap in the college majors and careers that may be suggested.
To put it simply, physics is relevant to most science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – fields, but the AP Physics C courses are most strongly correlated to fields like engineering.
Carefully consider your passions and career objectives as a first step in choosing an AP physics class or exam.
What Credits Am I Hoping to Earn?
Research how your top-choice colleges view AP credits, especially in the majors you are considering.
At Iowa State University, for example, a score of 5 on AP Physics 1 translates to five credits in Physics 111: General Physics, while a 5 in AP Physics 2 can earn you five credits in Physics 112: General Physics.
To earn five credits at the university for Physics 221: Introduction to Classical Physics I, you would need a 4 or 5 on the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam. Likewise, a 4 or 5 on AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism will earn you five credits for Physics 232 and 232L, the latter indicating a laboratory component.
Also review each college’s requirements for your potential major. A degree in biochemistry or biophysics at Iowa State, for instance, counts Physics 221 and 232/232L toward a degree, but not Physics 111 and 112. In contrast, a general biology degree calls for successful completion of Physics 111 and 112 or Physics 115 and 115L, which AP physics does not count for.
Doing well in the C series AP physics classes and scoring well on the exams can keep your college coursework options open.
How Prepared Am I for the Required Math?
Your high school classwork will heavily influence your course and exam choice. If you have not studied calculus yet, you likely will not do well on either AP Physics C test.
If you have ample lead time, will power and math skills, you may be able to self-study for an AP physics exam without taking an AP physics course, but this is not recommended for all students. Consult your science teacher for practice questions and general guidance if you choose this path. It is also wise to keep in mind that AP Physics 1 and 2 are based in algebra, not calculus.
How Do I Feel About the Test Formats?
Typically, all four AP physics exams include multiple-choice and free-response sections. This is not the case for AP Physics C series digital exams in 2021, which will not include free-response sections but will have double the number of multiple-choice questions as the paper exam. All four physics exams provide essential constants and equations and allow students to use graphing calculators.
The Physics 1 and 2 exams are three hours long and generally test your reasoning ability, though mastery of equations is still present. The C-series exams are 90 minutes each and assess your ability to apply equations to solve problems.
Additionally, the free-response sections on the AP Physics C series paper exams are more exacting and can cover a much wider range of material than the equivalent sections on the algebra-based tests.
Examine practice questions for each test and the topics that are covered before deciding which exam to take.
Should I Take More Than One Test?
The decision about whether to take more than one AP physics exam boils down to your needs and preparation. If you plan to pursue a degree in engineering or physics, be prepared to take both AP Physics C series exams. The fact that they are sometimes offered on the same day is an indication of how they are commonly paired.
If you are simply not ready for AP physics, do not give up hope – you can still learn this material in college. If you are excelling on mechanics problems in practice tests but less so on the electricity and magnetism questions, take just the mechanics exam.
The choice is perhaps more clear-cut with the Physics 1 and 2 exams. Many college degree programs require only one semester of algebra-based physics, and a high score on Physics 1 may satisfy that requirement.
Closely review your needs, study the challenges ahead and select the AP physics course that is best for you.