AP Physics 1 is known for being a tough test. In fact, in 2021 it had the lowest passing rate of all the AP exams. Only 42% of students who took the AP Physics 1 exam passed it, and only 7% got a 5, the highest score. And the section students struggle the most with is the free-response section.
But you've come to the right place! This guide will go over everything you need to know about the AP Physics 1 free-response section and how to ace it. We cover the format of the AP Physics 1 section, what example questions look like, what graders are looking for, and how you can come into exam day confident and well prepared.
What's the Format of the AP Physics 1 Free Response Section?
The AP Physics 1 exam has two sections: multiple choice and free response. The free response-section comes second and contains five questions:
- Experimental Design (1 question)
- Assesses student ability to design and describe a scientific investigation, analyze authentic laboratory data, and identify patterns or explain phenomena.
- Qualitative/Quantitative Translation (1 question)
- Assesses student ability to translate between quantitative and qualitative justification and reasoning.
- Short Answer: Paragraph Argument (1 question)
- Assesses student ability to create a paragraph-length response that contains a coherent argument about a physics phenomenon that uses the information presented in the question and proceeds in a logical, expository fashion to arrive at a conclusion.
- Short Answer (2 questions)
- Focus on practices and learning objectives not covered by the other question types.
These questions can appear in any order in the free-response section.
In terms of scoring, the experimental design question and the qualitative/quantitative design questions are each worth 12 points, while the three short answer questions are each worth 7 points. The free-response section for AP Physics 1 lasts 90 minutes and is worth 50% of your total exam score. You're allowed a graphing calculator and the Physics 1 equation sheet for the entire section.
AP Physics 1 Sample Free Response Questions
Now we'll go through two AP Physics 1 free response example questions: one long question and one short question. These questions both were used for the 2021 AP Physics 1 exam. You can see answers and scoring for each of the 2021 AP Physics 1 FRQs here.
Short Answer Question (Paragraph Argument)
First let's look at a short answer question. There will be three of them on the AP Physics 1 free response section, including one paragraph argument question (which this is an example of). This entire question is worth 7 points, and you're recommended to spend 13 minutes on it.
Part A (2 points)For Part A, your graph should look similar to the one below:
You earn one point for a straight line with a positive slope beginning at the origin and reaching a maximum value when the distance traveled is L0 and one point for a nonzero horizontal line between L0 and 2L0.
Part B (5 points)
Part B is where you'll write your paragraph-length response. Remember to write in full sentences that flow together, just like a paragraph in an essay would. Here's an example the College Board gives of a response that would have earned the full five points:
Both objects start with the same gravitational potential energy in the object-Earth system. The block-Earth system’s mechanical energy is converted into kinetic energy, and some of it is dissipated by friction as the block slides down the ramp. The cylinder-Earth system’s mechanical energy is transformed into translational kinetic energy and some is transformed into rotational kinetic energy. The cylinder’s final rotational kinetic energy is equal to the amount of the block-Earth system’s initial mechanical energy that is dissipated by friction.Your own response needs to include five things (listed below) to earn the total points. Each of them is worth one point.
- Indicating that both objects start with the same gravitational potential energy in the object-Earth system.
- Stating that the energy transformations that occur to the cylinder as it travels down the ramp.
- Stating that the energy transformations that occur to the block as it travels down the ramp.
- Indicating that the cylinder’s final rotational kinetic energy is equal to the amount of the block-Earth system’s initial mechanical energy that is dissipated by friction.
- Having a logical, relevant, and internally consistent argument that addresses the required argument or question asked, and follows the guidelines described in the published requirements for the paragraph-length response.
Long Free-Response Question
There are two long questions for AP Physics 1 free response. One is an experimental design question, and one is a qualitative/quantitative translation question. This is an example of an experimental design question. It's worth 12 points, and it's recommended you spend 25 minutes on it.
Part A (4 points)
Here's an example of a response the College Board states would earn you the full four points for Part A:
- Measure the diameter D of each rod with a ruler.
- Students should pull on the rod with the force probe until the rod breaks.
- Record the force Fmax just before breaking.
- Repeat each trial several times to reduce error.
- Then trade for a new set of rods with different radii.
- Repeat this experiment for several different radii rods.
Part B (4 points)
For Part B, the graphs you make should look like the example below.
You earn one point for For a straight-line graph marked “A” with a slope of F0/r0, one point for a graph marked “B” that is concave up, one point for a graph marked “B” that shows a quadratic relationship at the correct points, and one point for two graphs that both contain the point (r0,F0).
Part C (3 points)
For Part C, your graph should look similar to this:
You earn one point for proper units and labels on each graph axis AND for a graph where the plotted points cover at least half of the grid's height and width, one point for plotting the points correctly, and one point for drawing a reasonable best-fit curve.
Part D (1 point)
For Part D, you earn the point by identifying Model B and for indicating that Fmax increases as the square of the radius increases. Here's an example of a correct response:
In this graph, Fmax seems to be proportional to R2, so that if we graph Fmax on the vertical axis and R2 on the horizontal axis, it should show a linear graph.
Where to Find AP Physics 1 FRQs
Practice tests and practice questions are some of the best study resources for any AP exam, including AP Physics 1. Fortunately, the College Board, who creates and administers AP courses and exams, has made several years' worth of old AP Physics 1 FRQ available for free online.
Because there are so many official FRQ available, we recommend only using them instead of looking online for unofficial questions (those not created by the College Board) because these unofficial websites can be hit or miss in terms of quality.
Here are links to the AP Physics FRQ:
3 Tips for AP Physics 1 FRQs
When you're studying for AP Physics 1 FRQs and taking the test, there are a lot of things to remember to ensure you do your absolute best. Keep these three tips in mind throughout the year and on exam day.
#1: Review Each of Your Mistakes
One of the most common reasons people don't make the improvements they want to despite studying a lot is that they don't review their mistakes carefully enough. After you complete a set of AP Physics 1 free-response questions, you're probably tired and not in the mood to spend even more time on questions you got wrong. However, working through each of your mistakes is the only way to really learn what you did wrong and understand how to stop repeating the mistake.
Take a break if you need to, even waiting until the following day, but be sure to look over where you lost points. This is true for both practice AP questions and exams you take in class (even homework questions!). For each incorrectly answered problem, review it and try to understand exactly what you did wrong. If you're having trouble, ask a classmate or your teacher for help. If you notice patterns, like you're getting a lot of a certain type of question wrong or struggle with a specific subject, then you know to focus on that area more during your studying.
#2: Become an Expert Grapher
You're going to be dealing with graphs a lot during the free-response section, both interpreting them and creating your own. You can see in the long question example above, you need to draw multiple graphs just for that question alone. So you need to get really good at it!
For FRQs, graders are always going to be checking that your axes are labeled correctly, your points are plotted correctly, the slope is correct, the point of intersection (if there is one) is where it should be, etc. You should have each of these skills down pat by the time the AP exam rolls around. One way to check your progress is by reviewing your homework and tests you take in class. If you're losing points on your graphs in class, make sure you fully understand why because you can be certain you'll be graphing on the AP exam.
#3: Watch the Clock
Time is always tight on AP exams, including AP Physics 1. For the free response section, you'll get 90 minutes to answer five questions. It can be easy to get caught up trying to answer one question and suddenly realize you're nearly out of time but haven't had a chance to look at some of the other questions. Don't let this happen to you! We recommend spending 25 minutes on each of the two long questions and 13 minutes on each of the three short questions. You don't need to keep perfectly to that plan, but don't get too far off it, either.
At the very least, make note of where you are halfway through the free-response section (that's 45 minutes in). If you're roughly halfway finished with the section (nearly finished with both long questions or one long question and two short questions, etc.), you're doing well. If you're significantly behind that, you know you need to pick up the pace.
Also, don't feel you need to answer the AP Physics FRQ in the order they're listed. We recommend skimming through each of the questions at the start of the section, then tackling the questions that seem easiest first so you can spend more time on trickier questions.
Summary: Acing the AP Physics 1 Free Response Section
The AP Physics 1 free-response section can be tough, but if you prepare well for it, you can go into exam day confident and knowing what to expect. The section consists of two long questions and three short questions, lasts 90 minutes, and is worth half of your total score. Old exam questions are a great study resource and, when you're preparing for AP Physics FRQ, keep these three tips in mind:
- Review each of your mistakes
- Become an expert grapher
- Keep track of time
You may be wondering how hard AP Physics 1 really is. To get the answer, check out this article that will help you figure out what the hardest AP classes are for you.
How many AP courses total should you take? What if you want to get into an Ivy League school? Read our advice on AP course load here.
Looking for help studying for your AP exam?
Our one-on-one online AP tutoring services can help you prepare for your AP exams. Get matched with a top tutor who got a high score on the exam you're studying for!
Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.