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If you’re like many high school students hoping to attend a selective college, odds are that you’re considering Advanced Placement classes. These courses designed by the College Board deliver college-level curriculum in a high school classroom. If they’re offered at your school, you can enroll in them and take an AP exam at the end of the year, sometimes qualifying for college credit or placing you out of introductory level classes.

 

Currently, there are 38 AP class options, and counting. This means that there are plenty of choices for every interest, ranging from studio arts to foreign languages to science and engineering. Sometimes, though, the course options can seem a little confusing to someone who’s just beginning to explore them. This is most commonly the case when it comes to AP Physics classes.

 

Four different AP Physics classes are offered, and by name alone they are difficult to decipher. To learn more about the four AP Physics classes available, the differences between them, and which ones you should consider taking, don’t miss this post.

 

 

Why So Many AP Physics Classes?

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 time constraints.

 

The division of this curriculum into AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 came after an evaluation of the curriculum by the College Board, in response to a 2002 study by the National Response Council, titled Learning and Understanding: Improving Advanced Study of Mathematics and Science in U.S. High Schools.

 

This study formally recommended that “a two-year sequence of advanced physics study replace Physics B, enabling students to delve deeper into key physics concepts as they develop the reasoning and inquiry skills necessary to think like scientists.”

 

Re-designing the courses allows for deeper conceptual understanding and also aligns with a larger push in AP coursework to prioritize critical thinking and reasoning over memorization. Dividing the previous Physics B course allows more time to master foundational physics principles while engaging in science practices to earn credit or placement.

 

AP Physics C is also divided into two separate classes:  AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism. Though these can each individually be taken over the course of an entire school year, they are sometimes also offered as single semester classes. The exams are offered back-to-back but are scored separately, and you do not have to take both.

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AP Physics 1

The AP Physics 1 course is the equivalent of a first-semester, algebra-based college physics course. It is the most introductory of the AP Physics options and it covers Newtonian mechanics (including rotational motion), work, energy, power, mechanical waves and sound, and introductory, simple circuits.

 

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.

 

There are no formal prerequisites for AP Physics 1, but if you want to take it, 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.

 

 

What Does the AP Physics 1 Exam Look Like?

Length: 3 hours

Section 1: 50 multiple choice questions, 1.5 hrs, 50% of your total score

Section 2: 3 short-answer questions, 1 experimental design question, 1 quantitative/qualitative translation question, 1.5 hrs, 50% of your total score

 

 

AP Physics 2

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 AP Physics 1, students are 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.

 

 

What Does the AP Physics 2 Exam Look Like?

Length: 3 hours

Section 1: 50 multiple choice questions, 1.5 hrs, 50% of your total score

Section 2: 2 short-answer questions, 1 experimental design question, 1 quantitative/qualitative translation question, 1.5 hrs, 50% of your total score

 

 

AP Physics C: Mechanics

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. This 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, students spend a minimum of 20% of instructional time engaged in hands-on laboratory work.

 

There are no formal prerequisites for the class, but before taking AP Physics C: Mechanics, students should be prepared for college-level calculus-based work and must at minimum have taken or be concurrently taking calculus.

 

 

What Does the AP Physics C: Mechanics Exam Look Like?

Length: 1.5 hrs, offered directly before the AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism exam, though students are not required to take both

Section 1: 35 multiple choice questions, 45 minutes, 50% of your total score

Section 2: 3 short-answer questions, 45 minutes, 50% of your total score

 

 

AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism

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.

 

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, students 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. Students should be prepared for college-level calculus-based work and must at minimum have taken or be concurrently taking calculus.

 

 

What Does the AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism Exam Look Like?

Length: 1.5 hrs, offered directly after the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam, though students are not required to take both

Section 1: 35 multiple choice questions, 45 minutes, 50% of your total score

Section 2: 3 short-answer questions, 45 minutes, 50% of your total score

 

 

Which AP Physics Class Should You Take?

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. These classes are also better suited to general interest or undetermined majors who want to establish their abilities in science-based coursework.

 

Physics C, however, is the more advanced track and is appropriate for students planning to specialize or major in the physical sciences or pursue a career in engineering. The AP Physics C classes are each equivalent to one semester of introductory, calculus-based college physics courses and will put aspiring engineers or physicists on track towards their goals.

 

While it is possible to do so, taking all four AP Physics classes is not necessary to reach your long-term career or college goals. Students who intend to pursue life sciences, pre-medicine, or general interest studies are best off taking AP Physics 1, and AP Physics 2 if they enjoy it or are especially successful in this area.

 

Students who are interested in careers or majors in the field are best off taking the AP Physics C classes, especially if they can manage to take both within a single school year, thereby streamlining the process.

 

To learn more about selecting the right classes for you, from AP courses to electives and everything in between, consider the benefits of the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students.

 

For more about the AP Physics and other science offerings, check out these posts:

 

Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics 1 Exam

Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics 2 Exam

Ultimate Guide to the AP Physics C: Mechanics Exam

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

The Ultimate Guide to the New AP Computer Science Principles Exam & Performance Tasks

Ultimate Guide to the Chemistry AP Exam

Ultimate Guide to the Biology AP Exam

Ultimate Guide to the AP Psychology Exam

Ultimate Guide to the Environmental Science AP Exam

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Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
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.
Kate Sundquist