What You Need to Know About the AP Physics Exam

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 14, 2011

Background Information

The AP Physics exam that you will take was first offered by the College Board in 1954. Since then, the number of students taking the test has grown rapidly. In 2009, more than 50,000 students took the AP Physics B exam, more than 25,000 students took at least one of the the AP Physics C exams, and those numbers go up every year.

Some Frequently Asked Questions About the AP Physics B & C Exams

Why Should I Take the AP Physics Exam?

Many of you take the AP Physics exam because you are seeking college credit. The majority of colleges and universities will award you some sort of credit for scoring a 4 or a 5. A small number of schools will even accept a 3 on the exam. This means you are one or two courses closer to graduation before you even start college!

Therefore, one compelling reason to take the AP exam is economic. How much does a college course cost, even at a relatively inexpensive school? You're talking several thousand dollars. If you can save those thousands of dollars by paying less than a hundred dollars now, why not do so?

Even if you do not score high enough to earn college credit, the fact that you elected to enroll in AP courses tells admission committees that you are a high achiever and serious about your education. In recent years, about 60% of students have scored a 3 or higher on their AP Physics B or C exam.

You'll hear a whole lot of misinformation about AP credit policies. Don't believe anything a friend (or even an adult) tells you; instead, find out for yourself. A good way to learn about the AP credit policy of the school you're interested in is to look it up on the College Board's official Web site, at index.jsp. Even better, contact the registrar's office or the physics department chairman at the college directly.

What's the Difference Between Physics B and Physics C?

There are two AP Physics courses that you can take—Physics B and Physics C—and they differ in both the range of topics covered and the level at which those topics are tested. Here's the rundown.

Physics B

As a survey course, Physics B covers a broad range of topics. This book's table of contents lists them all. This course is algebra-based—no calculus is necessary. In fact, the most difficult math you will encounter is solving two simultaneous algebraic equations, which is probably something you did in ninth grade.

The B course is ideal for ALL college-bound high school students. For those who intend to major in math or the heavy duty sciences, Physics B serves as a perfect introduction to college-level work. For those who want nothing to do with physics after high school, Physics B is a terrific terminal course—you get exposure to many facets of physics at a rigorous yet understandable level.

Most importantly, for those who aren't sure in which direction their college career may head, the B course can help you decide: "Do I like this stuff enough to keep studying it, or not?"

Although it is intended to be a second-year course, Physics B is often successfully taught as an intensive first-time introduction to physics.

Physics C

This course is ONLY for those who have already taken a solid introductory physics course and are considering a career in math or science. Some schools teach Physics C as a follow-up to Physics B, but as long as you've had a rigorous introduction to the subject, that introduction does not have to be at the AP level.

Physics C is a course in two parts: (1) Newtonian Mechanics, and (2) Electricity and Magnetism. Of course, the B course covers these topics as well. However, the C course goes into greater depth and detail. The problems are more involved, and they demand a higher level of conceptual understanding. You can take either or both 90-minute parts of the Physics C exam.

The C course requires some calculus. Although much of the material can be handled without it, you should be taking a good calculus course concurrently.

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