The College Board’s Advanced Placement (AP) program allows college-bound high school students to get a head start on their higher education by offering them the opportunity to take adjusted college-level courses. A student who takes AP classes is more attractive to colleges and could gain valuable credits towards their degree before even beginning college. However, selecting the appropriate AP courses is essential and can be challenging.
While it is not required that you take Physics 1 or 2 before starting AP Physics C, it is highly recommended that at least one introductory Physics course be taken before jumping into AP Physics C. AP Physics 1 introduces fundamental concepts critical to understanding AP Physics C content.
To best decide which AP course is right for you, it is essential to understand the similarities and differences between the three courses. Read on to find out what topics are covered in AP Physics 1, 2, and C and which classes you should take to maximize the effectiveness of each course.
Comparing AP Physics 1 and 2 With AP Physics C
AP Physics 1, 2, and AP Physics C cover many of the same concepts but at varying levels of complexity. They can all be seen as introductory Physics courses, but since physics is an all-encompassing topic, they each cover slightly different aspects of the same subject.
AP Physics 1 and 2 are more surface-level classes and are less advanced than AP Physics C. If you understand how C is organized, it will help shed some light on whether AP Physics 1 or 2 will be more valuable to you.
AP Physics C is split up into two sections:
- Mechanics and Electricity
Typically, a school offers both sections under the same year-long AP Physics C course.
However, some schools teach one or the other: Mechanics or Electricity and Magnetism. When only one is taught, Mechanics is most often selected because it is slightly more foundational than Electricity and Magnetism.
AP Physics 1 and 2, then, can be seen as the fundamental versions of these AP Physics C topics.
AP Physics 1 covers the following topics:
- Introductory Mechanics: Kinematics
- The laws of motion
- Circular motion
Conversely, AP Physics 2 covers the following topics:
- Introductory Electricity and Magnetism
- Electric circuits
- Magnetic fields
If you skip Physics 1, you might miss out on the foundational topics you need for Physics C and beyond.
Topics you can expect to be covered in all three AP physics courses include:
- Newtonian mechanics
- Fluid statics and dynamics
- Kinetic theory
- Physical optics
- Geometric optics
- Quantum, Atomic, and Nuclear physics
If these topics seem challenging to you, you may want to start with the foundational courses and take AP Physics 1.
Related Article: AP Physics vs. Physics: How To Choose What’s Best for You
Choosing the Right AP Physics Course
As with enrolling in any course, there is no “right” choice, as the selection will depend on students and their ultimate goals.
It is always recommended that you discuss your options with your academic advisor or guidance counselor to determine the best course of action depending on your future plans and the school’s program.
However, here are some things to keep in mind when choosing which AP Physics course is right for you. Let’s take a closer look at these factors.
Taking All Three Courses Is Overkill
There is little benefit to taking AP Physics 1, 2, and C at once. This will only increase your workload and take up time that you could be using to attend other classes as you work to diversify your high school transcript.
AP Physics 1 and 2 are general introductory courses with a lighter workload. While AP Physics 2 is designed to be taken after AP Physics 1, they are both easy courses for newcomers.
If you aren’t planning on going into a STEM field such as Engineering or aren’t applying to a prestigious university, taking AP Physics 1 followed by AP Physics 2 is highly recommended for a solid background in physics without delving into more advanced concepts.
Take One Introductory Course Followed by an Advanced Course
Depending on what your school offers and the workload you’re willing to take on, you should choose between taking either a standard Physics course or AP Physics 1, followed by either AP Physics 2 or AP Physics C.
Students planning on going into a STEM field or a prestigious university will get the most out of AP Physics C.
Additionally, there are a few more things to keep in mind when choosing between AP Physics 2 and C.
Both AP Physics 1 and 2 are algebra-based, so you’ll only need to be familiar with geometry and have knowledge up to Algebra 2 to excel in AP Physics 2.
Conversely, AP Physics C incorporates calculus into the subject, so you may be required to have taken or already be enrolled in Calculus 1. If not, working knowledge of calculus will be helpful.
The College Board offers high school students three AP Physics courses:
- AP Physics 1
- AP Physics 2
- AP Physics C
All are similar, but AP Physics 1 covers basic Mechanics, and AP Physics 2 covers basic Electricity and Magnetism.
Students not interested in a STEM-related career field are best served by taking AP Physics 2 after taking either a standard Physics course or AP Physics 1 because these courses provide a basic overview. (See Is Studying Physics Worth It?)
STEM-focused students or students looking at competitive universities will benefit from AP Physics C. In either case, AP Physics 1 provides a necessary foundation to succeed (source).