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Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics 2 Exam

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Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams are administered each year under the oversight of the College Board. There are four AP Physics exams offered, ranging from introductory algebra-based courses to an advanced calculus-based curriculum. Physics courses are very popular among AP students, with over 270,000 students taking AP Physics exams in 2016.

The AP Physics 2 exam, which covers the equivalent of a second-semester introductory college course, is much less popular than AP Physics 1, with only about 26,000 participants in 2016. However, its average scores are significantly higher than those from the AP Physics 1 exam, probably due at least in part to its self-selective nature. 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

Up until 2014, the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 courses were administered together under the title of AP Physics B. This original course covered all content from both courses, but could not delve deeply into subject matter due to the obvious time constraints of a single school year. The division into AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 allows for deeper conceptual understanding and more time-consuming, student-centered, inquiry-based instruction. It also aligns with a larger push in AP coursework to prioritize critical thinking and reasoning over memorization of rote curriculum. Dividing the previous Physics B course allows more time to master foundational physics principles while engaging in science practices to earn credit or placement.

Of course, such a division of curriculum also has ramifications on how course credit and advanced standing can be applied in colleges and universities. Even a passing score of three is not always enough to receive credit or advanced standing. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced levels at specific colleges and universities can be found here.

The AP Physics 2 course is the equivalent of a second-semester, algebra-based college physics course covering fluid statics and dynamics, thermodynamics with kinetic theory, PV diagrams and probability, electrostatics, electrical circuits with capacitors, magnetic fields, electromagnetism, physical and geometric optics, and quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics. As in the AP Physics 1 course, these topics are covered within the frameworks of seven Big Ideas and seven Science Practices. While pursuing mastery of the science practices, you will be expected to spend 25% of instructional time in inquiry-based lab explorations during which you will make observations and predictions, design experiments, analyze data, and construct arguments in a collaborative setting.

Before you begin AP Physics 2, you will need to have completed AP Physics 1 or a comparable introductory physics class. You should also have taken or be taking concurrently precalculus or the equivalent.

The AP Physics 2 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 four questions, with two short-answer questions, one experimental design question, and one quantitative/qualitative translation question.

The calculator policy on the AP Physics 2 exam is the same as it is on the AP Physics 1 exam. You will need to bring and use a four-function, graphing, or scientific calculator on the exam. Make sure you are familiar with your calculator before test day, and bring extra batteries just in case it runs out. 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 can be found here.

In 2016, the AP Physics 2 exam remained a difficult one to master, although Physics 1 had the lowest pass rate of any AP exam. 61.3% of students taking the AP Physics 2 exam passed (by receiving a score of three or above), but only 9.5% received the highest score of five. Over a third of test-takers scraped by with a three, while nearly another third received a two. Only 8.1% received the lowest score possible, a one.

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

Before you begin studying in earnest, it’s best to get a good idea of your starting point. 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 article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

If you need help finding appropriate materials to gauge your starting point, check out the questions with scoring explanations included in the course description. More are 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 2 ranges greatly in depth, especially since it builds on your existing knowledge from the AP Physics 1 course. As you did in AP Physics 1, you will need to grasp large theoretical concepts, called the Big Ideas, along with highly specific applications of physical principles and equations. The following are the Big Ideas for the AP Physics 2 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

Although the Big Ideas for the AP Physics 2 course are the same as those for the AP Physics 1 course, you will be required to apply them in greater depth in AP Physics 2. For example, the first Big Idea states that “systems may have internal structure.” For AP Physics 1, you must be able to “model verbally or visually the properties of a system based on its substructure,” while in AP Physics 2 you must be able to “construct representations of how the properties of a system are determined by the interactions of its constituent substructures.”

To understand how skills are broken down, be sure to thoroughly review the curriculum outline in the course description, starting on page 17. Knowledge and skills necessary for AP Physics 1 will be highlighted by a black bar along the left-hand margin, while knowledge and skills necessary for AP Physics 2 will be highlighted by a black bar along the right-hand margin.

You will use the Big Ideas in conjunction with the seven Science Practices, just as you did in AP Physics 1. It is these practices that enable you to use the principles of scientific inquiry, and facilitate a more engaging and rigorous core curriculum in your course. 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

You might consider using an updated commercial study guide to help with your studying. You will need to use material produced since the course redesign in 2014 to get the most accurate idea of course curriculum and structure. One solid choice is Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Physics 2 Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 , which provides a fairly comprehensive, though quite lengthy, guide to the exam content. Another great option is the 5 Steps to a 5: AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based 2017, which contains chapter summaries, two full-length practice exams, and access to an AP Planner app for smartphones.

Additionally, there are a number of free study resources available online. Many AP teachers have posted complete study guides, review sheets, and test questions. Sparknotes has a complete set of online summaries organized by concept, and there is also a series of video tutorials for each unit 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, because their quality varies widely. One that does receive good reviews is the McGraw Hill 5, which also saves you some money if you are taking other AP exams by covering 14 different AP subjects.

Finally, don’t forget to familiarize yourself with the important resources that will be available to your during the exam. Make sure to review the table of equations that will be distributed to you during the exam, available here, and ensure that you are comfortable using your calculator for all possible equations.

Step 3: Practice Multiple-Choice Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice questions. 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 many practice multiple-choice questions available here and there is a video series of multiple-choice tutorials available here.

The College Board Course Description includes many practice multiple choice questions along with explanations of their answers. Keep a running list as you go through these to highlight areas of strength and areas that need more practice. Try to focus on what each question is asking you to do, and keep a running list of any vocabulary or concept areas that are still unfamiliar.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

There are three different types of questions in the AP Physics 2 free response section. The first type consists of short-answer questions, one of which will demand a paragraph-length response. The use of the term “paragraph-length response” may seem vague, but it is actually a very specific designation from the College Board about the type of response expected from you. A handout from the College Board outlines that such a response should demonstrate your ability to communicate understanding of a physical situation in a reasoned, expository analysis. The readers who score your exam will look for responses that offer “coherent, organized, and sequential description[s] of the analysis” using strong evidence from the course curriculum such as specific physical principles. Your argument should not include diagrams, graphs, equations, or calculations to support the line of reasoning unless specifically indicated, but instead should be based entirely on your strongly written analysis without unnecessary 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 will ask you to evaluate an experimental design. To do so effectively, you should remember your own lab investigations, drawing 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. You will need to make a judgment about which physical principles apply to a given situation, and then apply these principles quantitatively to solve an equation. In most cases, you will also be asked to extend your thinking one step further, predicting how the equation might apply to other, similar scenarios.

Another important detail to pay attention to on the AP Physics 2 exam is the specific task verb used on each free-response prompt. The College Board specifies that these are most often: describe, explain, justify, calculate, derive, determine, sketch, plot, draw, label, design or outline. You will be expected to understand precisely the implications for each of these words in your responses.  Their definitions can be found beginning on page 149 of the course description and you should review them thoroughly.

As you dissect each prompt, be sure to underline each section, circling the task verb, and checking them off as you write. Many points are lost by students who simply forget to include one part of a multipart question. Credit for the answers will depend on the quality of your solutions and the explanations you give. You should be sure to show all of your work as partial solutions may receive partial credit. Similarly, correct answers without supporting work will not earn full credit. Review the College Board’s Exam Tips for more ideas about how to organize your answers.

Last but not least, take advantage of the many examples of scored free-responses available online so that you can understand exactly what to expect in this section and how your responses will be assessed. College Board provides many examples of real prompts from previous exams, along with authentic student responses with scores and an explanation on why they were scored that way. You can find those examples here.

Step 5: Take another practice test

Once you’ve completed the steps above, you will need to take another assessment to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge, and it’s likely that you will see patterns identifying 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 Wednesday, May 3 at 12 PM.


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)?


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For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

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.