What You Need to Know About the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

a student pointing at the math problem on the board

What You Need to Know About the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams

Amongst the most popular AP courses that high school students in the United States take each school year is the AP Physics 1 Exam. While the AP Physics 2 Exam is far less popular on its own, together the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams are taken by 270,000 students combined.

If you are interested in taking the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exam, there are some important things to know and keep in mind both as you prepare and once the day of the exam finally arrives. Let us at AdmissionSight break down everything you need to know to ace the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams!

Whether you are planning on taking the courses as part of your high school curriculum, or feel confident that you will be able to master the material through self-studying, getting a great idea of what kind of material you can expect to cover both through the coursework and on the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams as will undoubtedly set you up to maximize your chances at success.

When it comes to success, here are the statistical breakdowns of scores for both the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams. Interestingly, you will find that while the enrollment in AP Physics 1 is much higher, the percentage of students who earn a perfect 5 out of 5 on the AP Physics 2 Exam far outweighs the percentage of students who earn the same score in the intro course.

AP physics exam

About the AP Physics 1 and 2 courses

When it comes to the AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2 courses, it is useful to mention that up until the year 2014, both courses used to actually be part of one single course called AP Physics B. The reason for the chance was that the College Board wanted to create the AP Physics 2 course so that students could enjoy a deeper conceptual understanding through a curriculum that was more focused on the students through inquiry-based and more hands-on instruction.

This overhaul back in 2014 is ultimately more aligned with all AP courses’ increasing emphasis on critical thinking and reasoning on top of learning facts through in-class inquiry and coursework as well.

The choice to split up the former AP Physics B course into two unique courses now gives students the time necessary to truly master the foundational physics principles while also engaging in the practices they will need to be familiar with in order to earn credit or placement in the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams.

One thing to keep in mind for the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams, as well as all other AP exams, is that credit and placement that a student can receive is based on the college or university that they end up attending.

While a score of 3 is typically enough to pass in an AP Exam, it is not uncommon for undergraduate programs to require a score of 4 or 5 in order to students to be granted college credit. Despite that, college admissions officers at top schools around the country are not only impressed by but also specifically look for students who enrol in multiple AP courses throughout their high school career.

The reason why enrolling in AP courses and taking exams such as the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams is considered to value when it comes to getting into some of the top universities is because it shows that students are dedicated to advancing their education as far as possible and also proves that students are willing to find, and able to meet the challenges of an advanced course and exam.

AP Physics 1 course and AP Physics 2 course

When it comes to any prerequisites for this course, there are no official ones, but students will need to have completed geometry and Algebra II in order to fully grasp the calculations that are required in AP Physics 1.

When it comes to the AP Physics 1 course, it is considered to be the equivalent of a first-semester college physics course that covers both fluid statics and dynamics, thermodynamics with kinetic theory, PV diagrams and probability, physical and geomatic optics, electrostatics, electrical circuits with capacitors, magnetic fields, electromagnetics,  as well as quantum, atomic and nuclear physics.

The coursework for AP Physics 2 covers the same topics but is considered to be the equivalent of a second-semester college physics course. Of course, in order to take AP Physics 2, it is a prerequisite to taking the AP Physics 1 course.

In both courses, students cover and learn each topic within the framework of seven Big Ideas along with seven Science Practices.

Stressed college student looking at the laptop screen while surrounded by books.

Big ideas

Scientific Practice

When it comes to the actual units of the AP Physics 1 course, it is broken up into 10 taught units. With that being said, it is up to the teacher of the course to teach the units and organize them however they please. Of course, the College Board does recommend a sequence that will encourage the students to be able to master the topics as well as use lessons from previous units in order to better understand and master the units that follow it. Those 10 commonly taught units are given a range of weight that students will encounter on the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams. Those are as follows:

Length of the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams

When it comes to both the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams, they are two of the longest exams that students can take.

The AP Physics 1 Exam clocks in at three total hours and is made up of two different sections – a multiple-choice section of questions as well as a section of free-response questions and answers.

As for the AP Physics 2 Exam, it also clocks in at a total of three hours and is comprised of both a multiple-choice section and a free-response section as well.

Multiple Choice

The first section of both the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams contain 50 multiple-choice questions. Students are given one hour and 30 minutes to complete this portion of the exam. In all, this portion of the exam will make up 50 percent of the student’s total score.

Beyond that, it is useful to know that 45 of the multiple-choice questions are single-select (one answer), and some are stand-alone, while other questions come in groups using the same data set or stimulus.

The remaining five multiple-choice questions are multi-select (two answers are correct).

Here are a number of samples of multiple-choice questions that you may come across in the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams:

Free Response

Once students complete the multiple-choice section of the exam, they will then be tasked with completing the one hour and 30-minute free-response section. The section is divided into five separate questions:

  • Experimental design question: This question assesses a student’s ability to both design and describe a scientific investigation, analyze authentic laboratory data and identify patterns or explain phenomena.
  • Qualitative/quantitative translation: This question assesses a student’s ability to translate between quantitative and qualitative justification and reasoning.
  • Paragraph argument (short-answer question): This question assesses a student’s ability to craft a paragraph-length response, consisting of a clear and coherent argument regarding physics and physics-related phenomenon. This response will use the information presented in the question and proceeds in a logical, expository fashion to come to a logical conclusion.
  • Two short-answer questions: These two questions focus on practices and learning objectives that are not highlighted in the other question types.

One thing that students should keep in mind regarding the free-response section of the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams is that the questions carry different weight and are graded on a different scale. The first two questions are weighted heavier than the second half. Both the Experimental design and Qualitative/quantitative are 12-point questions, while the short-answer questions are graded on a seven-point scale.

Here are a number of examples regarding the free-response questions.

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The best ways to prepare for the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams

There are some great ways that you can prepare for the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams, and here at AdmissionSight, we have made it a point to pass that information onto you. While studying the material in the course is obviously the prime way to guarantee success on the exam, there are some very important studying tips and guidelines to keep in mind that will help you strengthen topics that you are already comfortable with as well as nail down aspects of the course that you are less clear about.

Over time, you will find that this studying format is the best way to approach AP exams and exams in general. These are skills that can allow you to succeed in high school, college and beyond!

Analyze your skills and knowledge

The first step that you should take when it comes to studying for the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams is to take a practice exam so that you can assess your knowledge and ability. You can easily find sample questions online or in study guides that you purchase in paperback.

You can also find examples of the actual tests that were administered in previous years.

From this sample exam, you will then learn what are areas of strength for you and what are areas of weakness. While you will likely want to commit much of your time to work on areas that you are less confident about, do not forgot to continue practising areas of strength as well.

The worst thing you can do for yourself while preparing for an AP exam of any kind is allowed an area of strength to turn into an area of weakness by simply not continuing to test yourself on it.

Dive deep into the scientific material

Once you have established the parts of the AP Physics 1 and 2 Exams that you are both strong and weak at, it is time to dive deep into the topics that you have learned either in your course or through self-studying.

As the exam date approaches, do not hesitate to start up a study group with some of your fellow students so that you can face and tackle problems together. This is not only a way to make studying more engaging and fun, but it is also a way to ensure that you are taking the time you need to study, as you and your fellow students will be able to hold one another accountable.

Practice the multiple-choice and short-answer questions

Once you feel as though you have started to really master all of the topics that you will be dealing with on the day of the exam, it is time to return to questions within the format that you will encounter in the exam itself.

Practice some multiple-choice questions so that you can put your knowledge to the test and improve your test-taking skills as well. One good thing to keep in mind is that as you approach the test date, it is not a bad idea to start timing yourself as you work through a set of 50 multiple-choice questions.

The same can be said about working on short-answer questions. Make sure that you are not spending too much time on one of the short-answer formats and sacrificing the necessary time on working the other formats.

With that being said, if you have to focus on some, it is always more worth your time to put special emphasis on the Experimental design and Qualitative/quantitative translation questions because these two types of questions are worth more when it comes to the final score of an exam.

a student waving while looking at her laptop

Take another practice exam

Once you have familiarized yourself with the material, and the actual exam date continues to near, it is now the time to return to a full practice exam. This time, you will want to make sure that you are giving yourself the same amount of time that you will have on the actual day of the exam. That way, you will be sure that you are accustomed to spending the amount of time on each question that you will be able to on the actual exam.

While there is nothing wrong with doing several practice exams as the day of the actual exam approaches, make sure that in the few days leading up to the exam day, that you are giving your body and your mind the break and rest it needs to perform at its best.

Good luck!


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