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Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism Exam

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Advanced Placement (AP) courses and exams are administered each year under the oversight of the College Board. AP Physics is a popular choice among students, and its curricular offerings are vast, with four separate AP Physics courses available. In 2016, over 270,000 students took an AP Physics exam. Most of this popularity, though, is based in the introductory Physics 1 exam, as 75% of AP Physics students did not progress to take any of the more advanced AP Physics exams. AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism is the highest level AP Physics course available. It follows AP Physics C: Mechanics and is often offered as a second semester course for students who have completed AP Physics C: Mechanics in the first semester.

Because students must have completed significant work in physics before beginning in this course, enrollment numbers are low. Only 23,000 students took the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam in 2016, representing less than 1% of all AP test-takers. If you have advanced this far in your high school curriculum, it’s already clear that you’ve set your sights high. If you are interested in taking the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism 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

The AP Physics C curriculum consists of two separate courses: AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. Because its content is foundational for both, AP Physics C: Mechanics is taken first, followed by AP physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. Both of these courses are yearlong high school classes that are the equivalent of a single-semester college or university course. In schools with block scheduling, though, each may be taken over the course of a single semester.

If you are trying to choose a course of study to align with your intended college path, you will need to choose between the Physics 1 and 2 path and the Physics C path. Physics 1 and 2 are sufficient choices for most students who plan to pursue life sciences, pre-medicine, and some applied sciences, as well as other fields not directly related to science. If you are planning to pursue a major or career in the physical sciences or engineering, though, you should definitely pursue the Physics C course path. Equivalent to one semester of an introductory calculus-based university physics course, the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism class will put you on the path towards engineering success.

The AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism class covers electrostatics, conductors, capacitors, and dielectrics, electric circuits, magnetic fields, and electromagnetism while using differential and integral calculus throughout the course. The course also focuses heavily on science practices and as such, you will spend a minimum of 20% of instructional time engaged in hands-on laboratory work.

The College Board strongly recommends that AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism be taken as a second year physics course. If you plan to pursue advanced standing in college for your AP Physics C coursework, you should make sure that you are also enrolled in an AP course in calculus. This combination is usually a prerequisite for advancing to the next level of physics classes and if you have taken one but not the other, placement in the next-in-sequence physics course may be delayed or even denied.

Although this is most often the scenario you can expect, it is not a hard and fast rule since these policies vary from school to school. A passing score is sometimes not even enough to gain credit or advanced standing. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced levels at specific colleges and universities can be found here.

Because it is designed to be taken directly following the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam, the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam is exceptionally short, lasting only 90 minutes. The first section of the exam is a multiple-choice section in which you will complete 35 multiple-choice questions in 45 minutes, accounting for 50% of your score. The second section, referred to as the free-response section, also lasts for 45 minutes and makes up the other 50% of your total score. In this section, there are usually only three questions, but the College Board does note in the course description that this could change in the future.

While taking the exam, you will be expected to use a four-function, graphing, or scientific calculator, which you will need to bring yourself. You should also bring extra batteries for it, just in case it runs out during the exam.  Make sure to be familiar with your calculator and how to use it effectively on the exam. You can bring up to two calculators to the exam, and can find the complete calculator policy with list of acceptable models available here.

In 2016, the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam had an exceptionally high pass rate, probably in part due to its self-selective nature. Over 70% of all students taking the test in 2016 received a score of three or higher (typically considered passing). Over a third of students who took the exam received the top score of five while only about 11% received the lowest score of 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 can begin studying, you’ll need to have 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 article 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 the complete released 2012 exam. Some commercial study guides even include a diagnostic exam to be completed specifically for this purpose.

Step 2: Study the material

The AP Physics C curriculum is vast in nature, ranging from specific applications of equations to broad theory and physical principles. You will need to study and grasp everything in between. Specifically, you will study content related to electrostatics, conductors, capacitors and dielectrics, electric circuits, magnetic fields, and electromagnetism. You should be comfortable using integral and differential equations to make quantitative calculations related to the material.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at such a big undertaking, a great place to begin is the Content Outline for AP Physics C starting on page 14 of the course description. This will give you a visual for how the information is broken down and what curriculum is weighted most heavily on the exam. The outline of Learning Objectives beginning on page 26 of the course description is another helpful resource. It provides an overview of broad learning goals with specific ways that you will expected to show evidence of your learning. Keep in mind that while these extensive objectives are generally representative of the course’s cumulative content, it would be impossible to include each and every one on a single exam.

As you tackle the broad core content of your AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism course, you will do so in the context of hands-on laboratory investigations during at least 20% of your instructional time. These inquiry-based investigations provide you with a more engaging and rigorous experience, and give you real-world experience in applying your knowledge. During these labs, you will “establish lines of evidence and use them to develop and refine testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena.” Specifically, you should be able to:

  • design experiments
  • observe and measure real phenomena
  • organize, display and critically analyze data
  • analyze sources of error and determine uncertainties in measurement
  • draw inferences from observations and data
  • communicate results, including suggested ways to improve experiments and proposed questions for further study

Another great way to focus your studying efforts is to enlist the help of a commercial study guide. One that provides a comprehensive, though lengthy, summary of material is the Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Physics C Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 . At nearly 700 pages, it clear why some reviewers complain. Another great option is the Barron’s AP Physics C, 4th Edition, which is almost as long but also contains a diagnostic test and two complete practice tests with scoring 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 study guide is available here and a large database of study guides and practice tests is available here. There are also several free video lesson samples here, though you will need to subscribe to get access to the entire course review.

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, before test day, be sure to know the tools that will be distributed to you during the exam. Review the table of equations that will be available to you during the exam available here, and make sure that you know how to use your calculator efficiently and effectively.

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 is a set of free online multiple-choice questions available here.

You can also find a sampling of multiple-choice questions in the College Board Course Description, along with explanations of their answers. As you go through these one by one, you should track which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Try to think about what each question is asking specifically, and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

One great way to get ahead of the free-response section of your AP Physics C exams is to understand exactly what the College Board is asking you to do on each question. The task verbs used may initially seem vague, but these words give you important and precise clues as to what the exam readers are looking for, so you should be sure to understand each one. On the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam these most commonly include: justify, explain, calculate, what is, determine, derive, sketch, and plot. The definitions of these words can be found beginning on page 37 of the course description.

As you tackle the free-response qustion, underline each section of the prompt, circle the task verb, and check them off as you write. If you are asked to justify a numeric answer, make sure to include a verbal explanation of how you reached your solution. Many students lose points by simply forgetting to include one part of a multipart question.

When working on the free-response section, you should 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. Likewise, correct answers without supporting work may may not earn full credit. Be sure to show all your work in the space provided. If you need additional space, clearly indicate where the work is continued. Exam readers will not guess your intentions, so if they are not clear, you will not receive credit. Similarly, if you make a mistake, erase it or cross it out. You will lose credit for incorrect work, whether it is used towards your final solution or not.

Finally, 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. You can find those examples here.

Fore more tips, be sure to read the College Board’s list of strategies on the Exam Practice page.

Step 5: Take another practice test

Before exam day, be sure to take another practice test to assess your progress. You should 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 Monday, May 8 at 2 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)?

For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts


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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.