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AP Physics vs. Physics: How To Choose What’s Best for You

Heading into your final years of high school, you likely have many questions about which courses you should be taking and what it will mean for your academic career down the road. Choosing whether or not to take an AP version of a course requires careful consideration.

When choosing between AP Physics and Physics, consider what your goals are for college and your career. If you’re looking to study and work in a STEM field, there’s a good chance that AP Physics is right for you. But you also need to take into account the increased workload of an AP class.

Read on to learn more about how to make the difficult choice between taking AP Physics and Physics.

Can You Take AP Physics Without Taking Physics First?

There are four AP Physics exams offered today: AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, and AP Physics C: Mechanics. Usually, instructors will break these into three separate courses, combining both AP Physics C classes into one year.

AP Physics 1 is the most introductory AP Physics class offered, and you don’t need to take an introductory physics class to prepare for AP Physics 1. This course is considered the equivalent of a first-semester introductory college course, and it does not require prior knowledge of physics.

However, there are prerequisite courses in mathematics.

How to choose between physics and AP physics course.

AP Physics 1 requires that students have an understanding of algebra and geometry. Ideally, the student will have taken algebra up to Algebra II. You can expect that AP Physics 1 will utilize trigonometric functions and algebraic principles, so be sure that you’re prepared by taking these required courses before you enroll.  

AP Physics 2 builds on AP Physics 1, so the latter is a prerequisite for the former. Although AP Physics C teaches more advanced topics in physics, AP Physics 1 and 2 are generally not prerequisites for AP Physics C. Some students do choose to take these classes concurrently, however, as each course covers useful concepts.

AP Physics 1 and 2 focus on algebra-based physics, where AP Physics C focuses on electricity, magnetism, and mechanics. To take AP Physics C, you’ll need to have prior study in more advanced forms of mathematics, like calculus.

If you do choose to take Physics or Honors Physics, you can likely skip AP Physics 1 and move on to AP Physics 2. Many of the same course concepts are covered, and if you have advanced knowledge of mathematics, you should be able to complete the necessary work to do well in AP Physics 2. You can also skip AP Physics 2 if you plan to take AP Physics C. 

In sum, the following are recommended pathways in physics:

  • AP Physics 1 and then AP Physics 2
  • (Honors) Physics and then AP Physics 2
  • AP Physics 1 and then AP Physics C

Source: CollegeBoard

Should You Take AP Physics or Regular Physics?

One thing to consider when deciding between regular physics and AP Physics is your prior experience with science and math courses. If you’ve done well in biology, chemistry, and algebra classes, the chances are that you’ll do well in physics, too, and you might appreciate the challenge of an AP class. 

You should also consider what your goals are for college and your career. If you’re considering a career in the STEM fields, taking AP Physics would be a good idea. AP Physics will prepare you for college-level science courses and give you the foundational understanding that you need to move on to advanced scientific and mathematical courses.

Additionally, consider the rest of your course load; are you already taking several AP courses? If so, it may be prudent to seriously consider how much time you have to give to the class. Taking too many AP courses at once can result in poor exam scores and defeat the purpose of taking an AP course.

Experts recommend taking at least five AP courses throughout your college career to prepare for college, but note that you can take them over two to three years. You should focus your curriculum on areas you want to study further at the college level rather than taking the maximum number of AP classes possible. 

How Big of a Time Commitment Is AP Physics?

AP Physics typically takes about 5-10 hours of outside-of-class work per week, a time commitment similar to AP Biology or AP Chemistry. AP courses like AP Psychology and AP American Government take slightly fewer hours, about 4-7 hours.

So be aware of the hours if you’re comparing courses when making your decision.

What Makes AP Physics Harder Than Regular Physics?

What makes AP Physics harder than regular physics is the level of detail and inquiry-based investigation involved. While regular physics covers most of the same core concepts, it covers them in much less depth, covering many major topics in AP Physics 1, 2, and C in a basic way.

AP Physics also involves more complex mathematical concepts than regular physics. In fact, prerequisite courses in math aren’t typically required for a regular physics class, but several years of mathematics are required for AP Physics. To start a regular physics course, you simply need a course in physical science, as well as biology and chemistry.

What Does AP Physics Cover?

The following chart details what you’ll learn in AP Physics class. Note that AP Physics C is separated into two courses, although they’re often taught in one year. This is because the course technically covers the same work as two college courses and has two separate exams.

Course

Topics Covered

Skills Learned

AP Physics 1

  • Newtonian mechanics
  • Work
  • Energy
  • Power
  • Mechanical waves
  • Sound
  • Electrical circuits
  • Interpreting and describing models
  • Using math to solve science problems
  • Forming hypotheses, scientific questions
  • Designing scientific experiments
  • Analyzing data, evaluating evidence
  • Understanding current scientific theories

AP Physics 2

  • Fluids
  • Thermodynamics
  • Electrical force, field, and potential
  • Magnetism
  • Electromagnetic induction
  • Optics (geometric and physical)
  • Quantum physics
  • Atomic physics
  • Nuclear physics
  • Continuation of skills learned in AP Physics 1

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

  • Electrostatics
  • Conductors
  • Capacitors
  • Dielectrics
  • Advanced electromagnetism (electrical circuits, magnetic fields)
  • Analyzing graphical data
  • Using advanced mathematical relationships to understand physics problems
  • Developing and supporting scientific claims with evidence

AP Physics C: Mechanics

  • Kinematics
  • Systems of particles
  • Linear momentum
  • Rotation
  • Oscillations
  • Gravitation
  • Continuation of skills learned in AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism

AP Physics Exams

Another major difference between AP Physics and Physics is the AP exams at the end of the course. These exams are rigorous endeavors. AP Physics 1 and 2 each involve a three-hour-long exam, and AP Physics C exams are 90 minutes each. Both sets of exams include a combination of free-response sections and multiple-choice questions.

You might consider looking at an AP Physics textbook or test prep book to gauge what the material will be like and whether or not it’s something you’re interested in learning. Here are some books from Amazon.com that you might want to consider (links to Amazon).

  • Physics, 10th Edition by David Young and Shane Stadler. This is a great introductory book often used in AP Physics 1 classes.
  • University Physics, 15th Edition by Hugh Young and Roger Freedman. This book is a great choice for understanding AP Physics C. 
  • AP Physics 1 Prep 2021 by The Princeton Review. This includes two full-length practice tests and a full content review for the AP Physics 1 exam.

Aside from these books, you can also find practice tests and exam content reviews through online resources, like the AP Physics – C Exam Prep package from Study.com.

Is AP Physics Worth It?

Whether or not AP Physics is worth it depends on your goals. The course will certainly be a challenge, but it could make you more insightful and curious about the world and prepare you well for numerous careers.

What Are the Advantages?

The advantages of AP Physics include building an inquisitive mindset towards the world, gathering a better understanding of how the world works, and preparing for both college classes and a career.

The more that you’re looking to focus on STEM degrees and careers, the more advantages there are to taking AP Physics.

Will AP Physics Help Me Get Into Schools?

If you can do well in AP courses like AP Physics, these will weigh heavily in considering your grades. But generally, the most important thing to an admissions counselor is a transcript with solid grades.

So you need to make sure that you don’t sabotage yourself by taking on more than you can handle. 

A good grade in a regular class is better than a very low grade in an AP class.

That said, there’s room for you to challenge yourself without worrying that your A will drop to a B. AP courses are weighed on a separate GPA scale, so an A in an AP class weighs into your GPA as a 5.0, whereas an A in a regular course weighs into your GPA as a 4.0.

AP Physics Course Equivalents

AP Physics 1 and 2 is the equivalent of two semesters of college physics, covering topics like work, energy, power, electrical circuits, thermodynamics, and more. Taking these courses is helpful whether you’re looking to major in a STEM field or fill a science requirement for an unrelated major.

AP Physics C is the equivalent of two semesters of advanced, 200-level college physics courses, including a laboratory component. This course covers electricity, magnetism, and mechanics in greater detail and with a more inquiry-based, investigative approach instead of the conceptual approach taken in AP Physics 1 and 2.

Earning college credits while you’re still in high school has many benefits. You’ll be able to start at a more advanced level once you reach college, which opens doors for you in terms of what you’ll have time to take. You could choose to double major or focus on multiple areas of specialty within a field. Alternatively, you could choose to graduate early and save money.

What Careers Does AP Physics Prepare You For?

AP Physics is useful for a wide range of careers, as it gives you a better understanding of how the world works and how to approach the world with an investigative mindset.

Several careers are heavily related to physics and require studying physics at the college level, including: 

  • Software and web development
  • Information technology
  • Engineering (aerospace, laser, optical, design, applications, etc.)
  • Systems analysis
  • Data analysis
  • Research 
  • Laboratory sciences
  • Medicine
  • Geology

Other AP courses you consider in preparation for these careers are AP Computer Science Principles, AP Chemistry, and AP Calculus (AB and BC).

Source: US News: Ask 5 Questions to Choose an AP Physics Class

Source: CollegeBoard: Planning for AP Physics 1 and 2 | AP Central 

Source: Ohio State University: Careers in Physics | Department of Physics 

Source: CollegeBoard: Connect AP to Careers and Majors 

Source: PrepScholar: What’s the Difference Between AP Physics 1, 2, and C? Which Should You Take? 

Source: EAchieveAcademy: How Do AP Courses Affect Your GPA 

Conclusion

AP Physics is more challenging than regular physics, but it’s also a better preparation choice for college-level STEM classes. By doing well in AP Physics, you’ll have mastered the core concepts necessary to move ahead in your degree while earning college credits and learning how to manage the rigors of a college-level course.