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Is AP Physics Hard? Tips for Success from an AP Physics Tutor

Is Ap Physics hard? Only half of the students who take AP Physics exam pass it. And just 8 out of 100 students get the top score of 5. When you compare this to the average pass rate of 70% for all AP tests, it's clear that AP Physics is one of the hardest out there. However, to really understand how hard AP Physics is, we’ll need to peel back the layers and examine where the challenge actually lies, what skill sets it requires, and if it really is meant for the academic elite. 


To understand this, let's first delve into an overview of AP Physics.


What is AP Physics: An Overview


AP Physics is a series of Advanced Placement courses and exams offered by the College Board. These courses are designed to provide high school students with a college-level foundation in physics, allowing them to earn college credit while still in high school. The AP Physics curriculum is divided into several courses, each focusing on different areas of physics.


AP Physics 1: Algebra-based


This is an introductory course that lays the foundation for college-level physics. It covers the basics like:


  • Motion (how things move)
  • Forces and energy (why things move)
  • Waves and sound
  • Simple electrical circuits


AP Physics 2: Algebra-based


Think of this as a continuation of AP Physics 1. It goes deeper into some topics and introduces new ones like:


  • Thermodynamics (study of heat and energy)
  • Fluids (how liquids and gases behave)
  • Electricity and magnetism in more detail
  • Optics (study of light)
  • Modern physics (things like quantum mechanics)


AP Physics C Mechanics: Calculus-based


This course dives into the nitty-gritty details of motion, forces, and energy. It's more in-depth than AP Physics 1 and uses calculus to explain concepts. Topics include:


  • Motion in one and two dimensions
  • Newton's laws of motion
  • Work, energy, and power
  • Systems of particles and linear momentum
  • Rotation, oscillations, and gravitation


AP Physics C Electricity and Magnetism: Calculus-based


As the name suggests, this course is all about the world of electric and magnetic fields. It's a deep dive, using calculus to explore topics like:


  • Electrostatics (electric charge and electric force)
  • Conductors, capacitors, and dielectrics
  • Electric circuits
  • Magnetic fields
  • Electromagnetism (how electricity and magnetism are connected)


Now that we have taken a closer look at the different subjects in AP Physics, let’s examine the prerequisites and skills required for successfully passing the exam. 


Why is AP Physics So Hard? 


There is a good reason why AP Physics stands out as one of the most complex courses out there. Its complexity stems from a blend of deep conceptual understanding and rigorous mathematical application. Let's explore the factors that contribute to its difficulty.


Interconnection Between Math and Physics


AP Physics, while a standalone subject in its own right, is deeply rooted in the principles of various mathematical disciplines. This interconnectedness is both its strength and its challenge, especially for students who venture into AP Physics before fully grasping its mathematical counterparts.




Many concepts in AP Physics, especially in the AP Physics C courses, are expressed using the language of calculus. Whether it's understanding the rate of change in motion (derivatives) or calculating the area under force-time graphs (integrals), calculus is indispensable.


Jumping into AP Physics C without a firm grasp of calculus can be likened to reading a novel without knowing the alphabet. The narrative might be compelling, but the details remain elusive.




Algebra is the backbone of problem-solving in physics. Equations that describe physical phenomena, from Newton's laws to electrical circuits, are algebraic in nature.


Without a solid foundation in algebra, students might find themselves lost in a maze of equations, struggling to isolate variables or simplify expressions, making even basic problems seem insurmountable.




Concepts like vectors, angles, and trigonometric functions, which are foundational in understanding motion, forces, and waves, are rooted in geometry.


A student unfamiliar with geometric principles might struggle with spatial reasoning, making it difficult to visualize and solve problems related to optics, waves, or projectile motion.


The sequential nature of learning means that knowledge in one area often builds upon understanding in another. Taking AP Physics without the foundational knowledge of calculus, algebra, and geometry is akin to building a house without laying the proper groundwork first. While it's not impossible, it demands extra effort, often leading to gaps in understanding and making the subject seem disproportionately challenging.


In essence, the concepts in AP Physics are best understood when equipped with the right mathematical toolkit. Without it, it becomes an uphill battle, not because of the inherent difficulty of physics itself, but due to the missing links in their mathematical understanding.


The Complexity of Juggling Multiple Formulas in AP Physics


AP Physics, with its vast array of formulas, presents a unique challenge to students. It's not just about understanding individual formulas, but also about understanding how a problem involves using not one but multiple different formulas. 


For example, a question might involve both kinematics and energy conservation, requiring students to use formulas from both areas simultaneously. This blending of concepts demands a higher level of understanding and the ability to see the bigger picture.

This especially becomes harder In exam scenarios where time is of the essence. Students must quickly decide which formulas are relevant, how they interrelate, and how to apply them correctly. This rapid decision-making, combined with the pressure of the exam setting, can be daunting.

That’s why it's not enough to have a surface-level understanding of each formula. Students need to delve deep into the nuances of each equation, understanding its derivations, limitations, and applications. This depth of knowledge is essential when multiple formulas come into play in a single problem.


High Standards of Assessment


AP Physics is often perceived as challenging due to the rigorous standards set by the College Board for assessments. The content is comprehensive, and the exam tests not only factual knowledge but also the application of concepts in various scenarios. 


This requires a deep understanding of the material and the ability to think critically. Some students and educators have expressed concerns about the wording or structure of certain exam questions, feeling they might be ambiguous or not clearly aligned with the course content. 


However, it's essential to note that the College Board continually reviews and revises AP exams to ensure fairness and alignment with college-level standards. 


While the difficulty of the exam can be subjective and varies from student to student, preparation and familiarity with the exam format can significantly aid in navigating any perceived challenges.


Tips for Success from an AP Physics Tutor


As an AP Physics tutor, here are some tips that I give to my students to ensure success in this exam. 


Understand the WHY Behind Concepts


Physics revolves around concepts. While the terms might sound complex, they all relate to our everyday world. However, if students only scratch the surface of these concepts, AP Physics becomes even more challenging for them. 


Merely knowing a fact without grasping the 'why' and 'how' behind it can set them up for struggles, especially when faced with questions that weave multiple concepts together. These questions can be presented in intricate ways, adding to the confusion. 


If a student hasn't fully understood the 'what', 'how', and 'why' of each concept, combining them to solve a problem becomes daunting.


To truly grasp these concepts, it's crucial to relate each one to real-world situations. This connection between physics and our daily lives helps solidify the 'what'. Once that's clear, students should delve into the 'why' and 'how', nurturing their curiosity until they find answers. By doing so, they not only understand the concept but also see its relevance and application in the world around them.


Use a Systematic Approach to Solve Problems in AP Physics


In the realm of AP Physics, students often encounter complex problems that may initially seem insurmountable. However, the key to navigating these challenges lies in adopting a systematic approach to problem-solving. Here's how:


Start with What You Know


When faced with a problem, begin by listing down all the given information. Even if some details appear unrelated to the question at hand, they can provide valuable insights as you delve deeper into the problem.


Break Down the Problem


If a direct equation or solution isn't immediately apparent, don't be discouraged. Instead, look for equations where you have almost all the variables. For instance, in kinematics, if you're tasked with finding a distance but lack a straightforward formula, use the known values to deduce missing variables. A classic example is employing the F=ma equation to determine acceleration when you know the force and mass.


Apply New Information


Once you've derived new data, like acceleration in the previous example, incorporate it into other relevant equations. This step-by-step approach will gradually lead you to the solution, even if the path isn't immediately clear.


Recognize Patterns


As you tackle more problems and gain experience, you'll start to see recurring patterns and methods. Over time, these patterns will serve as shortcuts, enabling you to identify and apply the right equations more swiftly.


Learn from Mistakes


Every error is a learning opportunity. By analyzing where you went wrong and understanding the reason behind each mistake, you'll be better equipped to avoid similar pitfalls in the future. Remember, with consistent practice and a systematic approach, the number of errors will diminish, and your problem-solving efficiency will soar.


Take the Required Courses Before AP Physics


The intertwining of physics concepts with mathematical reasoning is what makes this subject both challenging and rewarding. To ensure you're adequately prepared, here are the recommended math courses to consider:


Before AP Physics 1 & 2


Algebra I & II: These courses lay the groundwork for understanding linear, quadratic, and polynomial functions, which are frequently encountered in physics problems.

Geometry: A grasp of geometric principles is essential, especially when dealing with topics like vectors, forces, and motion.

Trigonometry: While not a strict requirement, a foundation in trigonometry can be immensely beneficial. It aids in understanding wave phenomena, oscillations, and other topics that involve periodic functions.


Before AP Physics C


Calculus: AP Physics C is calculus-intensive. Whether it's understanding rates of change, integrals, or differential equations, a background in calculus is indispensable. If you haven't completed a calculus course before enrolling in AP Physics C, it's highly recommended to be concurrently enrolled in one.


Don’t Waste Time in Memorizing Formulas, Focus on Derivatives Instead


In AP Physics, students are indeed introduced to a plethora of formulas that describe various physical phenomena. However, the emphasis of the course is not solely on rote memorization. Let's delve into this aspect:


Formula Sheets Provided


For the AP Physics exams, students are typically provided with a formula sheet that contains a list of essential equations. This means that, for the exam itself, memorizing every formula isn't necessary.


Understanding Over Memorization


While having formulas at one's fingertips can be helpful, the real challenge lies in understanding when and how to apply them. The AP Physics exam tests students' grasp of concepts and their ability to use formulas appropriately in different contexts. Simply knowing a formula doesn't guarantee success; understanding the underlying principles does.


Focus on Derivatives


A significant portion of the formulas in physics aren't standalone entities but are born from foundational principles. Take, for example, the myriad of equations associated with motion. These can be traced back and derived from the bedrock of Newton's laws. By internalizing these core principles, students equip themselves with the ability to derive specific formulas on the fly, rendering rote memorization obsolete.


By understanding how a formula was derived also allows students to develop a holistic understanding of the subject. This interconnected knowledge not only aids in problem-solving but also fosters a deeper appreciation of the elegance of physics.


Solve Past Papers to Prepare for AP Physics


One of the most tried-and-true strategies to ensure success is consistently solving past papers. Some experts suggest 70% of your studying time should be spent solving past papers while 30% on understanding concepts. 


Here's why this approach is invaluable and how to make the most of it.


Familiarity with Exam Format


By working through previous exam papers, students become acquainted with the structure and format of the AP Physics exam. This familiarity can significantly reduce anxiety on exam day, as there are no surprises in terms of question types or layout.


Time Management Mastery


One of the common challenges students face during exams is time pressure. Regularly practicing with past papers under timed conditions helps students gauge their pacing, allowing them to allocate appropriate time to each section and avoid last-minute rushes.


Identify Strengths and Weaknesses


Past papers serve as a diagnostic tool. By assessing performance on these papers, students can pinpoint areas where they excel and, more importantly, areas that require further attention. This targeted approach ensures efficient revision and reinforces understanding.

Application Over Theory


While understanding theoretical concepts is crucial, AP Physics places a significant emphasis on the application of knowledge. Past papers provide a plethora of real-world scenarios and problems, enabling students to practice applying their theoretical understanding in practical contexts.


Feedback Loop


After solving a past paper, it's essential to review the answers thoroughly, preferably with a marking scheme or solution set. This feedback process helps students understand their mistakes, grasp the correct methodologies, and internalize key concepts.


Boosts Confidence


There's a certain confidence that comes from knowing you've tackled and conquered challenges similar to what you'll face on the actual exam day. Each past-paper solved adds to this reservoir of self-assurance.


Stay Updated


It's beneficial to start with older papers and progress to the most recent ones. This progression ensures that students are up-to-date with any changes in the syllabus or exam format.


In essence, while textbooks, lectures, and tutorials lay the foundation of knowledge, past papers are the scaffolding that transforms this knowledge into exam success. They offer a realistic snapshot of what to expect and provide a platform for continuous improvement. As you prepare for AP Physics, make past papers an integral part of your revision strategy, and you'll be well-equipped to tackle the challenges of the exam head-on.


The Shortcut to Making AP Physics Easier


AP Physics can be tough, but having a tutor can make a big difference. Tutors help break down hard topics, give practice with past papers, and boost your confidence. They know the subject well and can guide you through tricky parts. So, if you're finding AP Physics challenging, consider getting an AP Physics tutor. They can be the extra support you need to do well.

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