If you are a high-achieving high school student, you might be considering taking AP Physics C. If it is a consideration of yours, then you have wondered how hard it is. After all, Physics is known to be one of the most challenging subjects to study and take an exam for. The AP curriculum is no exception.
Since AP exams are designed to provide college-level subjects, they might initially be intimidating. Hence, throughout this article, we will explore everything there is to know about the difficulty level of AP Physics C. By the end of this guide, you will have a clearer understanding of whether this subject is the right choice for you.
What Topics are Covered in AP Physics C Exam?
The AP Physics C exam is a calculus-based course that provides first-year college-level physics courses. As opposed to AP Physics 1 and 2, which are algebra-based introductory physics courses, AP Physics C is supposed to be a more challenging course. While it requires a more robust understanding of quantitative problem solving, it focuses more on principles’ applications than questions that need long answers.
So, what exactly is the AP Physics C exam? It covers two main areas of Physics: Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism. Each topic varies in its subjects. Mechanics is a science that deals with the motion and forces of different objects. On the other hand, Electricity & Magnetism covers the behavior of electric and magnetic components. That includes circuits and electromagnetic waves.
So, let us dive deeper into what each different exam covers. First, it is essential to establish that both those topics require you to sit for two other exams. Hence, each of those exams will cover various units.
AP Physics C: Mechanics
In AP Physics C: Mechanics, you will learn the fundamental laws of motion, including Newton’s laws of motion and the different types of movement. This includes understanding work, energy, and momentum. Below is a deeper analysis of the units you should study for AP Physics C: Mechanics.
- Kinematics: acceleration, position, velocity, and time – 14% to 20%
- Newton’s Laws of Motion: circular motion and the three laws of motion – 17% to 23%
- Work, Energy, and Power: forces, potential energy, power, and conservation of energy – 14% to 17%
- Systems of Particles and Linear Momentum: center of mass, conservation of linear momentum, and impulse – 14% to 17%
- Rotation: angular momentum, rotational dynamics, kinematics, and torque – 14% to 20%
- Oscillations: simple harmonic motion, pendulums, and springs – 6% to 14%
- Gravitation: orbits of planets, satellites, and gravitational forces – 6% to 14%
Throughout the Mechanics course, you will utilize calculus to derive and solve equations related to various mechanics concepts. The aim is for you to develop problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities. You can apply those skills to hands-on labs and real-world examples.
AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism
In AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism, you will dive into the concepts related to electricity and magnetism, which involves circuits, electric potential, and electromagnetic waves. The course is equivalent to the second semester of calculus-based college-level electricity and magnetism. Below is a deeper analysis of the units to study for your Electricity & Magnetism exam:
- Electrostatics: Coulomb’s Law, electric potential, Gauss’ Law, and charge distributions – 26% to 34%
- Conductors, Capacitors, and Dielectrics: electrostatics, capacitors, and dielectrics – 14% to 17%
- Electric Circuits: current, resistance, power, batteries, and direct currents – 17% to 23%
- Magnetic Fields: forces on charges, magnetic fields, and Ampere’s Law – 17% to 23%
- Electromagnetism: Maxwell’s equation, induction, and inductance – 14% to 20%
The course focuses on using calculus to derive equations and further understand how electricity and magnetism work around us. It dives into various concepts of waves, including refraction and interference.
Is AP Physics C the Hardest AP?
The nature of the AP Physics C exams makes them a tad bit easier for those sitting for them. Since you cannot sit for those exams without prior knowledge of calculus, the only people who take AP Physics C are those confident in their mathematics skills. Since not anyone can enroll in the course, those who take it will find it easier than someone without any prior knowledge of calculus.
So, the level of difficulty of any AP course is subjective. So, it is a pretty challenging course. However, is it the “hardest” AP course? This question is complicated to answer.
When we reflect on the student grade distribution of AP exams in 2009, we notice that the percentage of students scoring a grade of 3 or higher in Physics C is approximately 70%. The average for other courses is typically lower. However, that does not mean that it is more complicated. AP Physics C generally is a good exam for students with enough foundational knowledge of calculus and fundamental physics.
But what about Physics C compared to other physics courses? Is AP Physics C more complicated than 1? It is more challenging than Physics 1 or 2. Since AP Physics C covered mechanics, electricity, and magnetism at a college-level pace, it poses a more challenging curriculum.
AP Physics 1 covers the foundational concepts of physics, such as waves and thermodynamics. These are high school-level topics. It is also an algebra-based course as opposed to a calculus-based approach. It covers energy, momentum, dynamics, and kinematics.
But is AP Physics C harder than AP Chemistry? Considering the content, the Physics course covers a broader range of subjects that require a deeper understanding of calculus. However, achieving a 5 (highest AP grade) in Chemistry is much more challenging than it is in Physics. When you review the score distribution for 2022, you can notice that the percentage of students who achieved a score of 5 in the courses is:
- AP Chemistry – 12.5%
- AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism – 31.5%
- AP Physics C: Mechanics – 26.4%
How Hard is the AP Physics C?
The difficulty of the AP Physics C exam will vary, depending on your abilities and your passion for the topic. However, by exploring the statistics and numbers from previous years, we can generate an idea of the difficulty level to expect on the exam.
According to College Board’s 2022 statistics, 19,978 students sat for the Physics C E&M exam. 69.4% of these test-takers scored a grade of 3 or higher. As for the Physics C Mechanics exam, 46,301 students took the exam in 2022. Of these students, 73.4% scored a grade of 3 or higher. The mean score for the former was 3.44 and 3.41 for the latter.
Both mean scores are slightly higher than the scores of all other AP exams. However, the AP Physics E&M and Mechanics exams are generally skewed towards the lower end of the scale. That means that many people attain a score of 1 or 2.
So, how hard is AP Physics C? Well, while it is a challenging course that requires a strong foundation in calculus and physics concepts, it is not as difficult as many people make it out to be.
Why Do Students Find AP Physics C Hard?
Why is AP Physics C so hard? Well, while it is a subjective opinion, there are common factors that lead to multiple students struggling when sitting for the exam. Some of the reasons include:
- Strong math skills are required. As mentioned various times earlier, AP Physics C is heavily dependent on calculus. That means you should have a strong foundation in mathematical aspects to apply the physics concepts.
- Complex problem-solving. As Eugen Wigner said, “Physics is becoming so unbelievably complex.” Physics can be a humbling experience to many, even the brightest.
- Fast-paced nature. AP Physics C covers a large amount of material in a short time. Hence, the pace of the course can be overwhelming, especially if you plan on sitting for both E&M and Mechanics.
- Lack of preparation. Of course, many people might not have prepared enough before heading to the physics exam. The course builds on prior knowledge and assumes you have a solid understanding of fundamental topics.
- Lack of interest. Sometimes, a lack of interest leads to lower academic achievements. Many might not find the topic entertaining and struggle to stay motivated while engaging in the course material.
What is AP Physics C Passing Rate?
In any AP course, the passing score is considered to be three or higher out of 5. Hence, the AP Physics C passing rate will vary from year to year. However, below are the passing rates for the year 2022, as stated by College Board:
- AP Physics C: Electricity & Magnetism – the passing rate is 69.4%
- AP Physics C: Mechanics – the passing rate is 73.4%
How to Study for the AP Physics C: 5 Tips
Is AP Physics C worth it? Well, it depends on your personal goals and interests. If you want college credit, adequate preparation for a related college field, or advancement of your problem-solving skills, consider taking the exam. However, consider adequately utilizing the tips below to study and prepare for the AP Physics C exam.
Build a strong foundation in calculus
AP Physics is heavily concentrated on calculus. Hence, building a solid foundation in the field is essential. Review calculus concepts regularly and make sure you understand all their elements. Consider studying a guide such as the one offered by Rutherford Public Schools or McLean County.
Master the basic physics concepts
AP Physics C covers much material. So, find a way to grasp the fundamental concepts before moving on to the more complex issues. Ensure you understand mechanics, electricity, and magnetism principles, including forces, energy, and electric fields. You can check Berkeley’s Mechanics review as a start.
Practice every day and as often as possible
The best way to prepare for any AP exam is to practice solving problems. Use practice exams, and problem sets to get familiar with the type of questions you will encounter in the exam. Ensure you work through questions step-by-step, and do not check the solutions before attempting the question yourself. Some past exams are offered through the AP Central College Board portal.
Understand the exam’s format
Ensuring you understand the AP Physics C exam format allows you to understand the questions offered. You will encounter different types of questions with time limits. By practicing this and being aware of the structure, you will effectively prepare for the exam.
Being motivated for the exam can be challenging. However, finding ways to remain engaged is essential. Watch physics-related videos or attend real-life events. Consider setting goals for yourself to attain and track your progress.
Wrapping Things Up: How Hard is AP Physics C?
Whether or not AP Physics C is worth it depends on the individual student’s goals and interests. However, for those willing to take on the challenge, AP Physics C can provide valuable college credit, preparation for college-level physics courses, and intellectual growth.