4 Questions to Ask Before Choosing AP Physics 1, 2, C

Students considering an Advanced Placement course in physics have four options to choose from: AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism and AP Physics C: Mechanics.

Each end-of-year exam -- and potential college credit -- corresponds to an AP class, but students may not know how to select the appropriate course and test. AP Physics 1, which is algebra-based, covers Newtonian mechanics, as well as the basics of circuits and mechanical waves.

AP Physics 2, which is also algebra-based, continues with electricity and magnetism, fluids, optics and thermodynamics. Both classes and exams emphasize logic and reasoning with an overall goal of students understanding the core concepts of physics, although doing well requires basic algebra.

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism explores electricity and magnetism in detail. AP Physics C: Mechanics also discusses certain Newtonian concepts, as well as kinematics, oscillations and a few other content areas. While conceptual understanding absolutely matters, the C series options follow more mathematically rigorous paths.

Before you settle on a specific AP physics course -- whether one that your high school offers or one you are self-studying for -- ask yourself these questions:

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-- What are my academic and career plans? Before you decide which AP physics course or tests to register for, consider your potential college major, as well as your career goals. The College Board's Find Your Future tool, for instance, can help you explore the applications of each physics exams.

There is overlap in the college majors and careers that the College Board suggests. To put it simply, physics is relevant to most science, technology, engineering and math -- or STEM -- fields, but both AP Physics C courses are critical only for fields like architecture and engineering.

Be sure to also research how your top-choice schools view AP credits, especially in the majors you are considering. At Iowa State University, for example, a score of 5 on AP Physics 1 translates to five credits in Physics 111: General Physics, while a 5 in AP Physics 2 can earn you five credits in Physics 112: General Physics.

To earn credit at ISU forPhysics 221: Introduction to Classical Physics I or 222: Introduction to Classical Physics II, you would need a 4 or 5 on either AP Physics C exam.

Also review each college's requirements for your potential major. A degree in biochemistry at ISU, for instance, counts Physics 221 and 222 toward a degree but not Physics 111 and 112. In contrast, a general biology degree includes Physics 111 and 112.

Completing the AP Physics C series can keep your coursework options open, so to speak, but only if you do well. If you are struggling with calculus-based physics -- and if the credits will apply to your planned degree -- consider the algebra-based AP physics exams instead.

Note that every institution has its own criteria. Harvard University, for example, college-level credit for AP scores. However, the school does use the scores for placement purposes and in some cases allows students to bypass introductory courses without credit.

-- How prepared am I? Your classwork will heavily influence your exam choice. If you haven't studied calculus-based physics in high school, you likely will not do well on either AP Physics C test.

If you have ample lead time, willpower and math skills, you may be able to self-study, but this isn't recommended for all students. Consult with your science teacher for practice questions and general guidance if you choose this path.

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-- Do I know what to expect? All four AP exams include multiple-choice and free-response sections. The Physics 1 and 2 tests are three hours in length and are offered on subsequent days.

The C series exams are 90 minutes each but they are administered on the same day, with a short break between them. All four tests provide essential constants and equations and allow students to use graphing calculators.

The free-response sections on the C series exams are more exacting and can cover a much wider range of material than the equivalent sections on the algebra-based tests. Generally speaking, Physics 1 and 2 will look for your reasoning ability, though mastery of equations is still present. The C series will assess your ability to apply equations to solve problems. Examine the practice questions for each test, as well as the topics that are covered, before deciding which exam to take.

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-- Should I take more than one test? This question boils down to your needs and preparation. If you are planning to pursue a degree in engineering or physics, be prepared to take both C series exams. The fact that they are offered on the same day is an indication of how they are commonly paired.

If you are simply not ready, do not give up hope -- you can still learn this material in college. If you are excelling on mechanics problems in practice tests but less so on the electricity and magnetism questions, take just one portion. Some is generally better than none.

The choice is perhaps more clear-cut with the Physics 1 and 2 exams. Many college programs require only one semester of algebra-based physics, and a high score on Physics 1 may satisfy that requirement. Closely review your needs, study the challenges ahead and do what is best for you.

Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

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