Is AP Physics 1 Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide

AP Physics is one of the most rigorous AP courses. BestColleges explores AP Physics 1 to see if this challenging course is right for you.

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by James Mielke

Published on March 14, 2022 · Updated on April 7, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is AP Physics 1 Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide


While all advanced placement classes provide high school students a taste of college-level coursework while offering the chance to earn college credit, AP classes offer a broad spectrum of potential difficulty. Year after year, AP Physics 1 consistently ranks as one of the most challenging AP classes available.

Below, we highlight vital information to help you figure out if tackling AP Physics 1 is the right choice for you. Keep reading to see if taking AP Physics 1 makes sense for your schedule and college goals.

What Does AP Physics 1 Cover?

Students enrolled in an AP Physics 1 course encounter university-level introductory physics content rooted in algebra. Learners typically complete geometry and algebra II courses before beginning their AP Physics 1 coursework.

Students will learn about essential scientific practices applicable to physics and other scientific disciplines. These scientific practices include modeling, scientific questioning, experimental methods, and data analysis. During this course, 25% of classroom time is dedicated to experiential laboratory work. Topics typically covered in an AP Physics 1 course include:

What Determines the Difficulty of AP Physics 1? 3 Key Factors

One of the top questions students ask before taking an AP class is how difficult the course is. Various factors determine the level of difficulty of AP Physics 1. Keep reading to review three key factors that help gauge the potential challenge of an AP course.

The Pass Rate

When determining how difficult AP Physics 1 really is, pass rates are typically the first place to look. Objective test data offers a clear indicator of how many students pass and receive perfect scores. When compared to the pass rates of other AP classes, students can get a clear idea about how these courses stack up.

The data in the table below makes one thing clear: AP Physics 1 is considerably more difficult when compared to the average across all AP classes. AP Physics 1 students receive passing and perfect scores at a significantly lower rate than average.

AP Physics Exam Pass Rates
AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
AP Physics 51.6% 8.8%
All AP Classes 71.13% 19.57%

Source: College Board

Remember that other factors can significantly impact student performance. Data indicates that AP Physics 1 is challenging, but elements like teacher efficacy and student support can also impact pass rates.

The Course Material

The course content for AP Physics 1 comprises seven units logically sequenced so future topics build upon earlier content. Beginning with kinematics and ending with torque and rotational motion, teachers break down units into more digestible topics.

In addition to the sequence of units, students also tackle broader foundational topics such as systems, force interactions, and fields. Before completing the class, students gain familiarity with scientific practices like argumentation, scientific questioning, and experimental methods.

Your Subject Skills

Not every student brings the same set of skills to the academic table. As a result, one student might excel in an AP History class while struggling in a course like AP Physics 1. Top performing AP Physics 1 students are typically comfortable in math and science classes. Solid grades in prerequisites like geometry and algebra II are a reliable predictor of AP Physics 1 readiness.

When Should You Take AP Physics 1?

Most students take AP Physics 1 during their junior or senior years, enrolling after the completion of standard prerequisites like geometry and algebra II. As a result, students in their first two years of high school may not have the necessary skills for success in this college-level class.

Considering that AP Physics 1 consistently ranks as the most difficult among AP classes, tackling additional AP coursework simultaneously could prove too much for some students. Students should evaluate their workload and build a schedule that is challenging while avoiding burnout.

AP Physics 1 Exam: What You Need to Know

Successful completion of the AP Physics 1 exam is a student's key to earning college credit. The following section reviews how the exam is structured, scored, and what score students need to achieve to earn college credit.

AP Physics 1 Score Distributions, May 2020
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 13,217 8.8%
4 26,823 17.9%
3 37,129 24.8%
2 39,581 26.5%
1 32,738 21.9%

Source: College Board

How Is the AP Physics 1 Exam Structured?

The AP Physics 1 exam is three hours long and students encounter two distinct sections: multiple-choice questions and a written, free-response section. The multiple-choice section is worth 50% of the total exam score and encompasses 50 questions. Students have 90 minutes to complete the multiple-choice section of the exam.

For the free-response portion of the AP Physics 1 exam, students must complete five written questions in 90 minutes. In this section, students demonstrate knowledge in experimental design and qualitative and quantitative translation.

How Is the AP Physics 1 Exam Scored?

Like all other AP exams, students completing the AP Physics 1 exam receive scores from 1-5. A score of 5 is a perfect score and fewer than 9% of students in May 2020 received this score. The two sections of this test — multiple choice and free response — each make up 50% of the exam score.

The two sections of the exam offer distinct challenges. While some students may thrive in the free-response section due to strong writing skills, others may find the written portion considerably more challenging. When preparing for the exam, test-takers should prioritize the test areas that they find most difficult.

How the AP Physics 1 Exam is Scored
Section 1 50%
Multiple-Choice Questions 50%
Section 2 50%
Free-Response Experimental Design Question 13.36%
Free-Response Qualitative/Quantitative Translation Question 13.36%
Free-Response Paragraph Argument Question 7.78%
Free-Response Short Answer Questions (2) 15.56%

Source: College Board

AP Physics 1: What Score Do I Need for College Credit?

The score students need to secure to earn college credit varies between schools, but they all require at least a minimum score of 3. The vast majority of schools accept scores of 3 or 4 for college credit, but a few schools may require a score of 5.

For students curious about what score they need to earn for prospective schools, College Board offers a handy search tool that aggregates a vast number of schools and their AP score requirements.

Should I Take AP Physics 1?

Because AP Physics 1 ranks as one of the most difficult AP courses, prospective students often consider whether taking the course is worth a potential hit to their GPA. Successful AP Physics 1 students traditionally excel in STEM classes and performed well in prerequisite coursework.

Students deciding which AP classes they should take can review AP exam pass rates and topics covered in the course. They can also reach out to the course instructor and students with AP Physics 1 experience to gather more information.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP Physics 1

true Is AP Physics 1 worth taking?

For students with an aptitude for math and science, and for those who see college-level physics in their future, tackling the especially rigorous AP Physics 1 is definitely worth the challenge. AP classes are worth it because they provide students experience with college-level coursework and allow them to earn college credit while still in high school.

Additionally, AP Physics 1 students gain hands-on lab experience and familiarize themselves with foundational scientific knowledge. Traditionally, students who earn a 3 or better on the AP Physics 1 exam can receive college credit.

true Is AP Chemistry harder than AP Physics 1?

Based on College Board pass rates, AP Physics 1 is more difficult than AP Chemistry. That said, AP Chemistry is not far behind — AP Physics 1 has a pass rate of about 52% while AP Chemistry has a pass rate of 56%.

When considering which AP course is the best option, students should consider pass rates, course content, and whether their skills align with course objectives.

true Do colleges care about AP Physics 1?

When reviewing an applicant's high school transcript, colleges and universities will certainly notice AP Physics 1. Because AP Physics 1 has a reputation as one of the most challenging AP classes, college admission officials see an applicant willing to tackle tough course content.

Additionally, students who complete AP Physics 1 with a solid grade and earn a passing score on the AP exam demonstrate that they are ready for college-level academics.

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Learn how to find the "easiest" AP classes, which have more flexible study requirements, and earn college credit through classes with high exam pass rates. Considering taking AP U.S. History? Learn how difficult this course and exam are and get tips on how you can earn the score you want. Learn about the AP U.S. Government and Politics course materials and exam as well as how this AP course could impact your college applications.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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