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Should You Take AP Physics C? Mechanics or Electricity and Magnetism?

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Posted by Ashley Robinson | Feb 23, 2022 2:00:00 PM

Advanced Placement (AP)

 

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The AP Physics C courses are both challenging and rewarding. If you choose to take either AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism or AP Physics C: Mechanics (or both!), you’ll get the chance to learn college-level material and potentially earn college credit! 

But is AP Physics C hard? Can you take AP Physics C without Physics 1? If you’re asking yourself, “Should I take AP Physics C?,” keep reading–we’ll answer these questions and more in this complete guide to the AP Physics C courses and exams

Our article covers all of the following info about AP Physics C: 

  • What’s on the AP Physics C exams and how they’re formatted
  • A quiz to help you decide if you should take AP Physics C
  • A guide to AP Physics C practice tests
  • Five tips for prepping for the AP Physics C exams

We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get started!

 

The AP Physics C Exams

There are two AP Physics C courses and exams: AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism and AP Physics C: Mechanics (we’ll also refer to them as “E&M” and “Mechanics,” respectively). 

Both of these courses are college-level, calculus-based, and last one semester. This means you could take both AP Physics C courses in one school year!

E&M and Mechanics are two of the four total AP Physics courses that are offered by the College Board. The four AP Physics courses are: 

  • AP Physics 1: Algebra-based
  • AP Physics 2: Algebra-based
  • AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism
  • AP Physics C: Mechanics

While the AP Physics courses appear to function as a sequence, you don’t actually have to take AP Physics 1 and 2 before taking either of the AP Physics C courses. Likewise, you aren’t required to take E&M before taking Mechanics, and vice versa.

 Essentially, you can pick and choose which AP Physics courses you want to take, and you can take either AP Physics C course without first taking AP Physics 1 and 2. 

However, keep in mind that AP Physics 1 and 2 are algebra-based courses, whereas both AP Physics C courses are calculus-based. AP Physics 1 and 2 introduce fundamental physics concepts and are meant to be taken after you’ve already taken geometry and while you’re taking Algebra 2. The AP Physics C courses, on the other hand, cover more advanced physics topics and will call upon your understanding of more advanced math. If you haven’t taken and aren’t planning to take calculus while you’re enrolled in AP Physics C, it’s unlikely that you’ll be prepared for the difficulty level of either AP Physics C course. 

This means that the AP Physics C courses will be much more difficult than AP Physics 1 and 2 for most students. Taking AP Physics 1 or 2 (or both!) prior to taking either AP Physics C course will give you the introduction you need to succeed in AP Physics C. You can learn more about the differences between AP Physics 1,  AP Physics 2, and AP Physics C here

If you aren’t sure which AP Physics course you should take, talk to your science teacher or school guidance counselor. They can help you look at your past math and science grades and your high school degree plan to determine which AP Physics course is the best fit for you! They’ll also let you know about any prerequisites you have to meet before enrolling in AP courses. 

NOTE: The College Board announced new changes to both AP Physics C courses, effective for the 2023-2024 school year and spring 2024 AP exams. The information in this article covers the current course framework for both AP Physics C courses but will be updated to reflect the new course design when those changes officially go into effect. For a preview of the new course design for AP Physics C: Mechanics and AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism, check out this guide from the College Board

 

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To master the AP Physics C exam...you'll need to know how all the different pieces fit together. Like, uh, Legos.

 

What’s the Format of the Advanced Placement Physics C Exam?

Because there are two AP Physics C courses, there are two AP Physics C exams: the AP E&M exam, and the AP Mechanics exam. The good news is that both the E&M and the Mechanics AP exams have the same format, structure, and length. If you decide to take both exams, you can expect them to feel pretty similar!

The E&M and Mechanics exams both last for a total of 90 minutes and consist of two sections. On both exams, Section I is multiple choice, and Section II is free-response. 

Section I is made up of 35 multiple choice questions that appear in a stand-alone format or as a set. On question sets, students may be provided with a stimulus or set of data that each question will address. Section I lasts for a total of 45 minutes and counts for 50% of your exam score. 

Section II consists of three free-response questions. These questions will assess all of the seven science practices, and one of the three free-response questions includes a lab or experiment-based component. Section II lasts for 45 minutes and is 50% of your exam score. 

To recap, here are the core details you need to know about the E&M AP exam and the Mechanics AP exam format, structure, and length: 

  • Section I: Multiple choice
    • 35 questions
    • 45 minutes
    • 50% of exam score
  • Section II: Free-response
    • 3 questions
    • 45 minutes
    • 50% of exam score

Remember: while the E&M and Mechanics exams test you over different physics concepts and topics, they have the exact same length, structure, and format! But is AP Physics C hard really? We’ll give you a better idea of just how difficult the AP Physics C exams are by digging into the topics and concepts that each AP Physics C course covers next. 

 

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism Core Topics

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism is a calculus-based, college-level physics course that covers topics like change, force interactions, fields, and conservation. 

The topics you’ll be tested on during the E&M exam come straight from the five units of study that organize the E&M course. The five units of study are as follows: 

Unit
Topics Covered
Unit 1: Electrostatics
  • Charge and Coulomb’s Law
  • Electric field and electric potential
  • Electric potential due to point charges and uniform fields
  • Gauss’s Law
  • Fields and potentials of other charge distributions
Unit 2: Conductors, Capacitors, Dielectrics
  • Electrostatics with conductors
  • Capacitors
  • Dielectrics
Unit 3: Electric Circuits
  • Current and resistance
  • Power
  • Steady-state direct-current circuits with batteries and resistors only
  • Gauss’s Law
Unit 4: Magnetic Fields
  • Forces on moving charges in magnetic fields
  • Forces on current carrying wires in magnetic fields
  • Fields of long current carrying wires
  • Biot-Savart Law and Ampère’s Law
Unit 5: Electromagnetism
  • Electromagnetic induction (including Faraday’s Law and Lenz’s Law)
  • Inductance (including LR circuits)
  • Maxwell’s Equations



On the E&M exam, you’ll be asked to demonstrate your understanding of the topics and concepts covered in the units listed above by using different skills to solve both multiple choice and free-response problems. 

Check out the skills the AP E&M exam tests you on below. We’ve also added info explaining how those skills are weighted on the multiple choice and free-response sections: 

Skill
Description
Exam Weighting (Multiple Choice Section)
Exam Weighting (Free-Response Section)
Visual representations
Analyze and/or use representations of physical situations, excluding graphs.
14-23%
4-9%
Question and method
Determine scientific questions and methods.
3-6%
6-11%
Representing data and phenomenon
Create visual representations or models of physical situations.
Not assessed in the multiple choice section
13-20%
Data analysis
Analyze quantitative data represented in graphs.
14-17%
8-13%
Theoretical relationships
Determine the effects on a quantity when another quantity or the physical situation changes.
25-32%
20-24%
Mathematical routines
Solve problems of physical situations using mathematical relationships.
14-20%
20-24%
Argumentation
Develop an explanation or scientific argument.
14-20%
11-18%

 

As you can see, the multiple choice and free-response sections of the E&M AP exam assess you on different skills. Knowing which skills you’ll be expected to demonstrate on different parts of the exam can help you form an effective study plan for AP Physics C! 

Next, let’s take a look at what you’ll be tested on if you take the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam. 

 

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The physics principles you'll learn in AP Mechanics are the same ones that keep your car running.  

 

AP Physics C: Mechanics Core Topics

AP Physics C: Mechanics tests your ability to use calculus when solving problems related to kinematics, linear momentum, and other scientific concepts covered in the seven units of the AP Mechanics course. 

The units of study in AP Mechanics are: 

Unit
Topics Covered
Unit 1: Kinematics
  • Kinematics in one dimension
  • Kinematics in two dimensions
Unit 2: Newton’s Laws of Motion
  • Newton’s laws of motion: first law and second law
  • Circular motion
  • Newton’s laws of motion: third law
Unit 3: Work, Energy, and Power
  • Work-energy theorem
  • Forces and potential energy
  • Conservation of energy
  • Power
Unit 4: Systems of Particles and Linear Momentum
  • Center of mass
  • Impulse and momentum
  • Conservation of linear momentum, collisions
Unit 5: Rotation
  • Torque and rotational statics
  • Rotational kinematics
  • Rotational dynamics and energy
  • Angular momentum and its conservation
Unit 6: Oscillations
  • Simple harmonic motion, springs, and pendulums
Unit 7: Gravitation
  • Gravitational forces
  • Orbits of planets and satellites

 

When you take the AP Mechanics exam, you’ll be tested on the topics covered in the units listed above. You’ll also be responsible for demonstrating certain skills associated with your understanding of these course topics. 

The skills you need to be prepared to demonstrate on the AP Mechanics exam include: 

Section I: Multiple Choice
Section II: Free-Response
Questions may test your ability to: 
  • Interpret and describe visual representations of physical situations
  • Formulate a testable scientific question or hypothesis and design an experiment to test it
  • Analyze data shown in a graph
  • Determine the relationship between physical qualities
  • Solve physics problems using mathematical relationships 
  • Develop and support scientific claims with evidence. 
Questions may test your ability to: 
  • Interpret and describe visual representations of physical situations
  • Formulate a testable scientific question or hypothesis and design an experiment to test it
  • Create graphs and diagrams to represent data and physical situations
  • Analyze data shown in a graph
  • Determine the relationship between physical qualities
  • Solve physics problems using mathematical relationships
  • Support scientific claims with evidence. 

 

As you can see, you’ll need to be ready to demonstrate a variety of analytic and argumentative skills when you take the AP Mechanics exam. If you pay close attention in class and put some effort toward AP exam prep, you’ll be ready to ace every skill tested on the exam! 

But how do you decide whether you should take the AP Physics C courses? Keep reading for a short, yes-or-no response quiz to help you decide if AP Physics C is a good fit for you!

 

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Quiz: Should You Take Advanced Placement Physics C? 

Now that you know what topics the AP Physics C exams cover, you might be asking yourself, “Is AP Physics C hard? Should I take AP Physics C? How can I decide?” Don’t worry–we’ve put together a short, yes-or-no response quiz to help you decide if you’d benefit from taking AP Physics C. 

Read through the five quiz questions below and think about you and your goals and experiences as a student. Respond to each question with “yes” or “no,” then tally your responses up at the end!

  1. Have you taken honors math or science courses and/or AP Physics 1 or 2 and done well in those classes? 
  2. Are you taking or planning to take a calculus course? 
  3. Do you enjoy complex mathematical reasoning and tackling tough problems? 
  4. Are you considering a career in a math, science, or engineering-related field? 
  5. Are you excited about doing hands-on laboratory work and applying scientific knowledge to real-world problems? 

If you answered “yes” to three or more of the questions above, you may benefit from taking AP Physics C: E&M or Mechanics…or both! 

Above all, it’s important to consider your skills and experience with math and science, your future goals, and the capacity you have for a demanding course before signing up for AP Physics C. 

 

Advanced Placement Physics C: Preparing With Practice Exams

If you’re still on the fence about AP Physics C, looking at some practice exams can help you get a better idea of what to expect. By looking at AP Physics C practice exams, you’ll get a clearer sense of what’s on the exams and how difficult they might be for you. Of course, if you do decide to take either AP Physics C course, looking at practice exams is just the beginning—you’ll need to actually take some practice tests as part of your exam prep (but more on that later). 

To help you get a better idea of what AP Physics C exams are like, we tracked down a few (free) official and unofficial AP Physics C practice tests that are available online. You can find links to practice exams for both E&M and Mechanics in the table below: 

AP Physics C: Electricity and Magnetism Practice Exams
AP Physics C: Mechanics Practice Exams
Official 2012 AP E&M exam from the College Board
Official 2012 AP Mechanics exam from the College Board

 

Taking both official and unofficial practice exams is a great way to work out your test-taking strategies before you take the real AP Physics C exam. However, keep in mind that official AP practice exams and questions are the best preparation you can get for the real deal. While you can also benefit from taking unofficial practice AP Physics C exams, they typically won’t be as accurate as the official AP practice exams released by the College Board. 

Fortunately, the practice AP exams provided by the College Board are free, so you can access them online and take them as you prepare for the AP Physics C exams. Next, we’ll get into a few more tips for preparing for both AP Physics C exams!

 

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5 Tips for Preparing for the AP Physics C Exams

Are you wondering how to study for the AP Physics C exams? Not to worry–our five best tips for prepping for the AP Physics C exams describe real steps you can take to ensure you bring your A-game to exam day. 

 

Tip 1: Take a Practice Exam

Our first tip for preparing for both AP Physics C exams is to–you guessed it!–take a practice exam. Taking a practice AP exam is a tried and true way to improve your test-taking strategies before your big exam day. 

Taking official or unofficial practice exams (remember: we linked to several above!) is your best opportunity to identify your struggle areas in AP Physics C. After you’ve taken your first practice test, look back at the questions you got wrong. Reviewing your incorrect answers will help you pinpoint the concepts and topics you need to hit extra hard as you continue studying for the AP Physics C exam. By focusing on the areas you’re struggling with, you’ll give yourself the best chance of maximum score improvement when you take the real AP Physics C exam. 

Also, be sure to follow the real timing and format of the AP Physics C exam when you take practice tests–and don’t give yourself extra time to go back and answer questions you skipped. This will help you get an accurate idea of how prepared you are for the real exam! Even if you don’t ace your first practice test, mimicking the timing and format of the AP Physics C exams is the most effective way to prepare you for the real deal. 

 

Tip 2: Attend Study Sessions (If They’re Available) 

Some AP Physics teachers offer “tutoring” sessions for their students before or after school. These sessions give you the opportunity to ask for a little extra help understanding tough concepts. Your teacher may even give you extra guidance with your homework or test prep! 

If you have the option to review your homework and talk through questions with your AP Physics teacher outside of class, take advantage of it. Going in for optional tutorials can help you improve your physics skills and knowledge by leaps and bounds, and, best of all, it’s free. 

 

Tip 3: Practice Free-Response Questions

For many students, the free-response section of both AP Physics C exams is the most intimidating part. That’s why spending some extra time practicing free-response questions can help you feel more confident and prepared going into the exam!

Free-response AP Physics C questions are often multi-step questions that ask you to make calculations using your graphing calculator, show your work, and explain how you arrived at your conclusions. For even the most confident students, practicing these complex free-response questions before the exam is crucial to achieving a top score. 

The College Board provides free access to official free-response AP Physics C questions online, all the way back to 1999. This means that you have years of practice free-response questions to incorporate into your study plan! Free-response questions account for half of your total score on AP Physics C. The more time you dedicate to practicing free-response questions, the more likely you are to achieve the score you’re hoping for!

 

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Our expert AP Physics C formula sheet will help you on your journey to getting a perfect 5 on your AP test! 

 

Tip 4: Review the AP Physics C Formula Sheet

When you take both AP Physics C exams, you’ll be provided with an official equations sheet for reference during the exam. The equations sheet you’ll use during the exam contains common physics equations, constants, conversion factors, and unit symbols. This equations sheet will be a useful resource during the exam…but you need to familiarize yourself with it ahead of time!

Fortunately, the College Board provides open access to a digital formula sheet that is very similar to the one you’ll receive on exam day. You should spend some time familiarizing yourself with everything on this equation sheet as you prep for the AP Physics C exam! You don’t want to waste valuable time looking up every single symbol and equation during the real exam, so getting a handle on those equations and symbols before exam day is a must-do.  

If you really want to maximize your exam prep, you can also study with our PrepScholar AP Physics C equations sheet. In addition to providing all of the equations, constants, and conversion factors you’ll need for the exam, it also explains which course topic/concept each equation corresponds with. These extra details will help you connect the equations and symbols with course units and topics so you know when (and how!) to use them during the exam. 

 

Tip 5: Get Comfortable With Your Calculator

You’re allowed to use your graphing calculator for part of both AP Physics C exams, which means that you need to be really comfortable with your calculator’s functions and capabilities for solving challenging physics problems. 

Use your graphing calculator to practice free-response questions, and take at least a couple of practice AP Physics C exams to get a better idea of how you’ll be using your graphing calculator during the exam. Getting comfortable with using your graphing calculator on practice questions and tests will prepare you for solving problems quickly and correctly on test day. 

 

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Next Steps 

If you’re thinking about AP Physics C, you’re probably also thinking about taking other classes at the AP level. However, it’s also important for you to balance your AP course load so you’re not overwhelmed! Our guide to the easiest AP classes can help you create a schedule that works for you. 

If you’re currently taking AP Physics 2 to prepare for AP Physics C, you can use our handy-dandy equation sheet to help you learn the physics formulas you need to know. (We’ve also made an equation sheet for Physics 1, too!

Looking to take more AP science courses? You can read through our review guides on our blog, including ones for AP Biology, AP Chemistry, and AP Environmental Science.

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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