Kate Sundquist 8 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics C: Mechanics Exam

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The Advanced Placement (AP) curriculum is administered by the College Board and serves as a standardized set of year-long high school classes that are roughly equivalent to one semester of college-level coursework. 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 extensive popularity of AP physics courses is largely rooted in the introductory AP Physics 1 exam, with only about half as many students taking the other three tests combined. AP Physics C: Mechanics is one of the highest levels of AP Physics, with only AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism following it in the course sequence.


AP Physics C: Mechanics is the equivalent of a calculus-based, first-semester college physics course. It is most often taken over the course of an entire school year but, in high schools that offer block scheduling, can sometimes be taken during a single semester. For many students, it is the culmination of their high school work in the physical sciences. In 2016, over 50,000 students took the AP Physics C: Mechanics course, though less than half went on to take the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. 


There’s no doubt that if you can advance so far as to tackle this subject, you have already set your sights high, which is often the first step in setting yourself apart on college applications. 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 AP Physics C: Mechanics Exam

The AP Physics C curriculum is divided into two separate courses and exams. AP Physics C: Mechanics is most often taken first, while AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism is usually taken afterwards, since a significant amount of its content builds on the material from the Mechanics course.


When considering which AP Physics track you should pursue, be sure to consider your classes in the context of your intended college path. Physics 1 and 2 are suited for students intending to pursue life sciences, pre-medicine, and some applied sciences, as well as other fields not directly related to science. Physics C, however, is especially appropriate for students planning to specialize or major in the physical sciences or pursue a career in engineering. The AP Physics C: Mechanics class is equivalent to one semester of an introductory, calculus-based college physics course and will put aspiring engineers or physicists on track towards their goals.


The AP Physics C: Mechanics class covers kinematics, Newton’s laws of motion, systems of particles and linear momentum; circular motion and rotation; oscillations and gravitation; and work, energy and power 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.


Though there are no prerequisites in terms of prior physics classes for the course, students should be prepared for college-level, calculus-based work and must, at minimum, have taken or be concurrently taking calculus. Because a previous or concurrent course in calculus is often required of students taking Physics C, students who expect advanced placement or credit in college for a Physics C exam should attempt an AP course in calculus as well; otherwise, placement in the next-in-sequence physics course may be delayed or even denied.


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. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced levels at specific colleges and universities are available. 


The AP Physics C: Mechanics exam is one of the shortest AP exams, clocking in at just one hour and 30 minutes. It is comprised of two sections. The first section contains 35 multiple-choice questions, spans 45 minutes, and accounts for 50% of your total score. The second section is the free-response section, which lasts for 45 minutes and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score. The usual format for each free-response section has been 3 questions, each taking about 15 minutes. However, the College Board’s course description notes that future exams might include a larger number of shorter questions.


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 for it. You may not share calculators during the exam, but you may bring up to two calculators to the exam. The complete calculator policy and a list of acceptable models is available.


In 2016, the exam had the highest pass rate of any of the AP Physics exams. Over 77% of all students taking the test in 2016 received a score of three or higher (typically considered passing). Of these, nearly a third of students who took the exam received the top score of five while only about 9.5% 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

You’ll need to start your prep work by taking a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. 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 many sample questions with scoring explanations included in the course description, and more are available in the complete released 2012 exam. Commercial study guides may also contain a number of practice or diagnostic tests to use as a formative assessment.


Step 2: Study the Material

The theory that you will need to know for AP Physics C: Mechanics ranges greatly in depth. You will need to grasp large theoretical concepts, highly specific applications of principles and equations, and everything in between. Specifically, you will study content related to kinematics; Newton’s laws of motion; systems of particles and linear momentum; circular motion and rotation; oscillations and gravitation; and work, energy and power. You should be comfortable using integral and differential equations to make quantitative calculations related to the material.


For more details about the curriculum covered on the exam, see the Content Outline for AP Physics C starting on page 13 of the course description. Another helpful resource is the outline of Learning Objectives beginning on page 16 of the course description. These objectives are generally representative of the cumulative content of recently administered exams, though the College Board notes that no single exam will be able to cover all of the content.        


As in earlier physics classes, you will apply your knowledge of the core content to hands-on laboratory investigations. These investigations allow teachers to provide a more engaging and rigorous experience for AP Physics students. In laboratory investigations, which should account for 20% of your class time, you will establish lines of evidence and use them to develop and refine testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena. 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


For a more specific idea of where to focus your studying, you may consider using a commercial study guide. The Princeton Review’s Cracking the AP Physics C Exam, 2017 Edition: Proven Techniques to Help You Score a 5 provides a fairly comprehensive guide to the exam content, though at nearly 700 pages, it is sometimes criticized for its length. Another solid choice is 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 and a comprehensive database of study guides by subtopic is available as well. There are also several free video tutorials.


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

When you feel confident that you’ve thoroughly studied the required material, test your knowledge 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 free online multiple-choice questions available and more


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

The AP Physics C exam contains very specific key words in the free-response prompts. These words give you clues as to what the exam readers are looking for in your response, so you should study them closely. Exam readers will expect that you pay close attention to the task verbs used. On the exam, these most commonly include: justify, explain, calculate, what is, determine, derive, sketch, and plot. Know precisely what each one of these words is asking you to do. The definitions of these words can be found beginning on page 37 of the course description.


As you tackle the free-response section, 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 multi-part 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 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 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.


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

As you did at the very beginning of your studying, take a practice test 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 Physics C: Mechanics exam will be administered on Monday (May 8) at 12 PM, with the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam following almost immediately after, for the convenience of students taking both.    


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.