How do you prepare for AP Physics I?

By Rajkamal Rao



The month of May is the time to ring in the Advanced Placement (AP) exams. Of all the 34 exams offered by the College Board, the AP Physics 1 exam is among the most challenging. It is consistently the exam where the fewest exam-takers score a 5, the highest possible score on an AP test.

The exam is three hours long and has two sections — multiple-choice and free-response. You're permitted to use an advanced scientific calculator. Click here to learn more about the format of the exam.

Why is this a challenging exam?

As someone who has taught a student who went on to get a 5 on the test, I know that what makes it challenging is the wide variety of topics that are included: Kinematics, Newton's Laws, Work, Power, Energy, Rotational Motion, Sound, Simple Harmonic Motion, Friction, Collision, Moment of Inertia, Gravitation, Electricity - the list seems never ending! The course approximates to a first-semester introductory college course in algebra-based physics.

Most students feel fairly comfortable when answering end-of-chapter exercises when each chapter is taught in school. This is because students are able to apply the formulas to content that they know belongs to the chapter at hand. What makes it hard is that as they learn new chapters, their familiarity with older chapters begins to wane.

On the exam, it may not be immediately apparent to identify the chapter from which a problem may be sourced. Additionally, the same problem can be typically solved multiple ways - for example, using Newton's Laws or the Laws of Conservation of Energy.

So, how does one prepare?

The best way to prepare is to practice solving math-based problems. Examine the worked-examples in your textbook and try doing them on your own - this will give you the confidence to tackle similar problems. Chapters at the end of the textbook generally contain answers only to odd-numbered problems, but try and solve as many problems as you can. The Khan Academy is also a great resource.

An unlikely resource is YouTube. Prof. Michel van Biezen's channel is outstanding. He has over 650K subscribers, and nearly 125 million views. His problem-solving skills - and ability to teach them - are genuinely world-class, the advantage of being a full professor at a college (Loyola Marymount). Every Physics topic is covered in great detail, and for Mechanics problems - especially ones involving pulleys, blocks, and tension, there is no better source. Another teacher, who goes by JG, is outstanding at solving DC circuit problems, especially complicated ones.

As the date of the exam draws near, these official Free Response Questions from the College Board from past tests will provide excellent additional practice.

Our takeaway

AP Physics is all about practice. If you've been practicing diligently for at least two hours each week going back to the first day of school, you should be feeling reasonably confident now. If not, there's still time to step up practice using the methods described above.

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