Kate Sundquist 8 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics 1 Exam

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By this point in your high school career, you probably already know that Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams are administered each year under the oversight of the College Board. Although most students enroll in an actual course to prepare for their AP exams, many others will self-study for the exams without enrolling in the actual AP class.


The AP Physics 1 exam is one of the more popular AP exams among students. In 2016, nearly 170,000 students took the exam, making it by far the most popular of the four AP Physics offerings. If you are interested in taking the exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.


About the Exam

In 2014, the AP Physics B course was divided into the new AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 courses in order to accommodate deeper conceptual understanding and student-centered, inquiry-based instruction. This redesign is aligned with a larger push in AP coursework to emphasize critical thinking and reasoning, as well as learning through inquiry. Dividing the previous Physics B course into two new courses allows for more time to master foundational physics principles while engaging in science practices to earn credit or placement.


Keep in mind that credit and advanced standing based on AP scores vary widely from school to school. Though a score of three is typically considered passing, it is not always enough to receive credit. There is an online resource for regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced levels at specific colleges and universities.


The AP Physics 1 course is the equivalent of a first-semester, algebra-based college physics course. It covers Newtonian mechanics (including rotational motion); work, energy, and power; mechanical waves and sound; and introductory, simple circuits. All of these topics are covered within the frameworks of seven big ideas and seven science practices. Due to its heavy emphasis on inquiry-based learning, 25% of class time is devoted to hands-on laboratory work wherein students ask questions, make observations and predictions, design experiments, analyze data, and construct arguments in a collaborative setting.


Although there are no formal prerequisites for AP Physics 1, you will need to have completed geometry and be concurrently taking Algebra II or an equivalent course to grasp the calculations required for the coursework. This understanding should extend to the basic use of trigonometric functions, though the knowledge can also be gained either in the concurrent math course or in the AP Physics 1 course itself.


The AP Physics 1 exam is one of the longer AP exams, clocking in at three hours. It is comprised of two sections. The first section contains 50 multiple-choice questions, spans one hour and 30 minutes, and accounts for 50% of your total score. The second section is the free-response section, which lasts for one hour and 30 minutes and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score. This section is divided into five questions, with three being short-answer questions, one being an experimental design question, and one being a quantitative/qualitative translation question.


You are expected to bring and use a four-function, graphing, or scientific calculator on the exam. You should be familiar with your calculator, and it is a good idea to bring extra batteries, in case its batteries run out during the exam. You may not share calculators during the exam, and you may bring up to two calculators. The complete calculator policy and a list of acceptable models is available for viewing


In 2016, the AP Physics 1 exam held the distinction of having both the lowest pass rate and the lowest high-score rate of any other AP exam. Only 39.8% of students taking the exam passed it (by receiving a score of three or above), and a scant 4.6% received the highest score of five. Nearly a third of all test-takers received the lowest score possible, a one. For this reason, you will need to make sure that you study the material thoroughly, using all possible means to master your skills and grasp the big ideas before exam day.     


A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the exam can be found in the College Board course description.


Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.


Step 1: Assess Your Skills

It’s important to start your studying off with a good understanding of your existing knowledge. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine’s What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?


You can find sample questions with scoring explanations included in the course description and more available in a separate Sample Questions AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 Exams booklet. You may also find practice or diagnostic exams in many of the commercial study guides.


Step 2: Study the Material

The theory that you will need to know for AP Physics 1 ranges in depth from very broad topics to the application of specific equations. To focus your studying, you should begin with the big ideas and narrow in on each one individually. The following are the big ideas for the AP Physics 1 exam:


  • Objects and systems have properties such as mass and charge. Systems may have internal structure.
  • Fields existing in space can be used to explain interactions.
  • The interactions of an object with other objects can be described by forces.
  • Interactions between systems can result in changes in those systems.
  • Changes that occur as a result of interactions are constrained by conservation laws.
  • Waves can transfer energy and momentum from one location to another without the permanent transfer of mass and serve as a mathematical model for the description of other phenomena.
  • The mathematics of probability can be used to describe the behavior of complex systems and to interpret the behavior of quantum mechanical systems


You will use these big ideas in conjunction with the seven science practices. Teachers use these practices and inquiry-based learning to promote a more engaging and rigorous experience for AP Physics students. Using the science practices, you will establish lines of evidence and use them to develop and refine testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena. The seven science practices challenge you to:


  • Use representations and models to communicate scientific phenomena and solve scientific problems
  • Use mathematics appropriately
  • Engage in scientific questioning to extend thinking or to guide investigations within the context of the AP course
  • Plan and implement data collection strategies in relation to a particular scientific question
  • Perform data analysis and evaluation of evidence
  • Work with scientific explanations and theories
  • Connect and relate knowledge across various scales, concepts, and representations in and across domains


For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you may consider using an updated commercial study guide. Because the AP Physics 1 course was redesigned in 2014, you will need to use material produced since then to get the most accurate idea of course curriculum and design. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Physics 1 Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 provides a fairly comprehensive guide to the exam content, though at over 400 pages, it is sometimes criticized for its length. Another solid choice is the Sterling Test Prep AP Physics 1 Practice Questions: High Yield AP Physics 1 Questions with Detailed Explanations, which does not summarize curriculum but does provide over 600 practice questions with answers and explanations.


Additionally, there are a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. One complete final review study guide is available, as well as a free online course. There are also video tutorials for each unit and free response explanations available for free from Khan Academy.


Another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one — their quality varies widely. One that does receive good reviews is the McGraw Hill 5, which also saves you some money by covering 14 different AP subjects.


Finally, make sure to familiarize yourself with the tools that will be available to you during the exam. Make sure that you know how to use your calculator effectively. Also, review the table of equations that will be furnished to you during the exam.

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Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice Questions

Practice some multiple-choice questions to put your knowledge to the test and to fine-tune your test-taking skills. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple-choice section of another practice exam. There are several practice multiple-choice tests available, including AP Physics 1 Supplemental Problem Sets.


The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple-choice questions along with explanations of their answers. As you go through these, try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Focus on understanding what each question is asking, and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.


Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

There are three different types of questions in the AP Physics 1 free-response section. The first type consists of short-answer questions, one of which will demand a paragraph-length response. This is a specific clue from the College Board about the type of response you will need to produce for full credit. A handout from the College Board explains that paragraph-length responses ask you to demonstrate an ability to communicate your understanding of a physical situation in a reasoned, expository analysis.


Readers look for responses that offer a “coherent, organized, and sequential description of the analysis” using strong evidence from the course curriculum such as specific physical principles. In AP Physics 1, the argument may include diagrams, graphs, equations, and perhaps calculations to support the line of reasoning, but it should be based primarily on strongly written analysis without extraneous detail. The College Board summarizes that a successful response will “analyze a situation and construct a coherent, sequenced, well-reasoned exposition that cites evidence and principles of physics.”


Another portion of the free-response section tasks you with evaluating an experimental design. You will need to be familiar with your own lab investigations and draw upon your real world experience in inquiry-based instruction to design an experiment, justify your design, describe your measurements, and critique the value of your hypothetical results. 


The remaining portion of the free-response section asks you to perform a quantitative/qualitative translation. In this section, you will make a qualitative judgment about which physical principles apply to a given situation, and then use these principles quantitatively to solve an equation. Often, you will take your thinking one step further and infer how the equation might apply to other, similar situations.       


Exam readers will expect that you pay close attention to the task verbs used in the free-response prompts. On the AP Physics 1 exam these most commonly include: describe, explain, justify, calculate, derive, determine, sketch, plot, draw, label, design, or outline. Know precisely what each one of these words is asking you to do.  The definitions of these words can be found beginning on page 149 of the course description. Underline each section of the question, circle the task verb, and check them off as you write. Many students lose points by simply forgetting to include one part of a multi-part question. Remember that credit for the answers depends on the quality of the solutions and the explanations given; partial solutions may receive partial credit, so you should show all your work. Correct answers without supporting work may not earn full credit.


Last but not least, make sure to review the examples of scored free-responses so that you can understand exactly what to expect in this section and how you will be evaluated. The College Board provides many examples of actual prompts from the past years and includes authentic student responses with scores and an explanation on why they were scored that way.


Step 5: Take Another Practice Test

After you’ve completed an initial review of the material and the test, take another practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge, and be able to identify which areas have improved the most and which areas still need improvement.


If you have time, repeat each of the steps above to incrementally increase your score.


Step 6: Exam Day Specifics

In 2017, the AP Exam will be administered on Tuesday (May 2) at 8 AM.   


For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).


For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?


If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     


For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:


Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.