What is the Difference Between AP Physics 1, 2, and C?

July 27, 2023

For high school students, course planning can feel like assembling a tough jigsaw puzzle. While weighing your interests, you must also balance your high school’s graduation requirements and scheduling constraints. You may also be trying to squeeze in more rigorous honors and AP-level classes to boost your college admissions prospects. It can be hard to imagine how these pieces fit together or even what the final “picture” will be. One group of classes that can make this process more difficult are AP Physics courses. College Board currently offers four AP Physics courses: AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, and AP Physics C: Mechanics. With such deceptively similar titles, it’s no wonder that students are often unsure about which AP Physics courses to take.

If that sounds familiar, this post is for you! Below, we discuss some of the core differences between each AP Physics course to help you decide which course(s) you should take and what sequence may be most appropriate for your needs.

Check out where AP Physics places on our list of the 10 Hardest AP Classes.

AP Physics Basics

Before we discuss AP Physics course selection, it’s important to establish what content each class covers. Below, you’ll find a brief description of each AP Physics class and its exam. Bear in mind that some schools teach the AP Physics C courses as one class. However, for the purposes of this post, we will distinguish between AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, and AP Physics C: Mechanics.

AP Physics 1: Algebra-Based

Similar to an introductory physics course at a four-year college, AP Physics 1 teaches students foundational physics principles. These topics include Newtonian mechanics, mechanical waves, and simple circuits. Through these concepts, students learn how to use algebra-based math to solve physics problems, interpret models, analyze data, formulate a hypothesis, and design an experiment. AP Physics 1 also provides students with hands-on experience through laboratory work. While this class is appropriate for true physics beginners, students need to have completed a geometry course to be successful. They will also need to have taken (or be taking) Algebra II.

The AP Physics 1 exam tests students on these introductory physics concepts over the course of three hours. Half of the exam is allocated for 50 multiple-choice questions. Students will spend the remaining half of the exam on five free-response questions. This section includes questions on experimental design, qualitative and quantitative translation, and assorted short answer questions. Students may use a graphing calculator during the exam, and they will have access to common physics equations and formulas.

AP Physics 2: Algebra-Based

As its title suggests, AP Physics 2 expands and builds upon students’ understanding of concepts explored in AP Physics 1. Students will study more advanced topics including, thermodynamics, fluids, and magnetism, as well as atomic and nuclear physics. Through AP Physics 2, students continue practicing their skills in interpreting models and developing hypotheses through hands-on lab work. Since AP Physics 2 is intended to serve as a second-year physics class, students who wish to take it will first need to complete AP Physics 1 or another introductory physics class. They should also have taken or be taking a precalculus course to ensure they have the necessary math skills to complete their coursework.

The AP Physics 2 exam is similar in duration and composition to the AP Physics 1 exam. It is also three hours and includes a fifty-question, multiple choice section, as well as a four-question free-response section. Like the AP Physics 1 exam, students can use a graphing calculator.

While AP Physics 1 and 2 vary in subject matter, the practical difference between them is their mathematical requirements. While both are algebra-based, students only need to be proficient in geometry and Algebra II to take AP Physics 1. In comparison, students in AP Physics 2 need to have completed or be taking precalculus to be successful.

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

Students who elect to take AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism can expect to study electrostatics, magnetic field, and conductors. Like AP Physics 1 and 2, students will engage in laboratory work. Through hands-on exploration, they will practice analyzing data, defining relationships between physical qualities, and supporting claims with evidence. AP Physics C also requires students to have a more advanced mathematical background. Students should have taken or be actively enrolled in a calculus course to succeed in AP Physics C.

In comparison to the exams for AP Physics 1 and 2, the AP Physics C exam is much shorter. Students will have an hour and a half to work through two sections: a 35-question multiple-choice section, as well as a three-question free-response section. Free-response questions may ask students to justify their answers using a scientific explanation composed of a claim, supporting evidence, and rationale.

AP Physics C: Mechanics

Beyond their titles, there are many similarities between AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, and AP Physics C: Mechanics. Both AP Physics courses require students to have taken or be taking calculus, making the coursework more advanced. Their exams are also similarly structured, with the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam lasting an hour and a half, encompassing both multiple choice and free response sections. However, they differ in subject matter. Students in AP Physics C: Mechanics can expect to learn about kinematics; Newton’s laws of motion, work, energy, and power; oscillations; and gravitation.

Bear in mind that both AP Physics C courses are equivalent to a semester of college-level, calculus-based physics. In other words, they are more advanced than AP Physics 1 and 2. Technically, AP Physics C does not have prerequisites, meaning students don’t have to take AP Physics 1 or 2 first. However, it is recommended that students take some form of introductory physics class prior to AP Physics C. Doing so will ensure they have the foundational skills and knowledge necessary to successfully complete the class.

Which AP Physics class should I take?

Now that we’ve established the differences between the AP Physics courses, you’re probably wondering which course(s) you should take. The good news is that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to AP Physics. Your ideal course selection and sequence will depend on two main factors. These include course offerings at your high school and your prospective college major. Below, we discuss how you can weigh these factors in determining your AP Physics course selection.

Course Availability

Perhaps no variable will impact course planning more than the availability of AP classes at your high school. If your school offers AP Physics 1, then that may be a natural starting place for you. However, if your school doesn’t offer AP Physics 1 or you don’t want your first physics class to be quite so rigorous, you could take a regular or honors-level physics course before enrolling in AP Physics 2. Students who already have a background in introductory physics through honor-level or dual enrollment physics classes could also start with an AP Physics C course if they have already taken or are in the midst of taking calculus.

Prospective Major

Another important factor to consider when choosing which AP Physics course(s) to take is your prospective college major. For example, students who wish to study medicine or life sciences would benefit from taking AP Physics 1. These students may also enroll in AP Physics 2 if they are successful in AP Physics 1 or just enjoy the coursework. Generally speaking, students on this pathway do not need to continue on to the AP Physics C courses. This course sequence is also a great option for students interested in non-science majors or who are undecided. AP Physics 1 and 2 will provide these students with a sound foundation and fulfill general education science requirements at many colleges.

Students planning to study engineering or a physical science should consider taking one or both AP Physics C courses. While these students could take both AP Physics 1 and 2 to prepare for AP Physics C, that may not be a realistic approach. Fundamentally, this may not be logistically possible, as many schools do not offer all AP Physics courses. Moreover, devoting so much time to AP Physics coursework will make it harder for students to pursue other science classes. As a result, students’ coursework may not be as diverse and well-rounded as colleges often like. Therefore, students who wish to take either or both AP Physics C courses should start an introductory physics class. This intro-level class could be an honors class or AP Physics 1. However, these students can likely skip AP Physics 2 to make room in their schedules for other subjects.

Final Thoughts

As we have discussed, the four AP Physics courses cover a variety of topics, ranging in both difficulty and in the mathematical concepts they engage with. AP Physics 1 is an introductory physics class that requires students be proficient in geometry and Algebra II. In comparison, AP Physics 2 builds upon pre-calculus concepts. Both AP Physics C courses are more advanced and, fittingly, require students to have a more specialized background in calculus.

In deciding which AP Physics classes to take, students should weigh their school’s course offerings in conjunction with their interests and prospective major. Students who wish to study engineering or a physical science will benefit from taking AP Physics C. Comparatively, students in other disciplines should consider taking AP Physics 1 and possibly 2 to develop a foundation in physics and fulfill many universities’ science requirements.

Now that you understand the differences between AP Physics classes, it’s time to investigate your school’s course offerings. Talk with your guidance counselor to find out which AP Physics classes are available to you. Your counselor can offer personalized guidance to ensure you end up in the best classes for your goals and interests. Once enrolled, request a copy of the syllabus for your AP Physics class to help you prepare. From there, you know what to do: it’s time to hit the books!

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