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AP Exam Prep

Thursday, April 2018



(thanks to Dolores Gende)

Physics is not a spectator sport. You cannot expect to acquire the understanding you need to do well on an AP Exam by merely attending class and listening to the teacher. It requires your active participation in the learning process. You should ask questions such as "Why do we think this?" and "What would happen if we did this?" and if you can't answer them, seek the help of your physics teacher or other students.

Having the opportunity to answer these questions by exploring phenomena and conducting experiments in the laboratory can often help you internalize the concepts and make them more concrete. Some computer simulations that allow you to set up hypothetical physical situations and observe the results of changing various quantities in the situations can also be helpful in developing conceptual understanding.

When studying physics from a textbook, it is a good idea to have paper and pencil with you.  You could review by working  the details of solutions to example problems on your own. If you have completed the problems assigned by your teacher for homework and are still not sure of your understanding of the material, try some of the unassigned problems in the book on the same topic.

Many students have the impression that physics is merely a list of formulas to be memorized and recalled at the proper time. Of course, formulas and equations are important in physics, but that is because physics is a science that deals with principles that can be expressed quantitatively. The equations are merely a way of expressing these principles. A feel for the physical reality behind the equations will help you remember them better than just trying to memorize a list.

You must study regularly. In a physics course, many topics are based on preceding ones.  Students who study regularly have the added advantage of being able to reinforce and enlarge on what they already know while tackling something new.

The study of physics requires a high degree of concentration. Solutions to physics problems must be carried out carefully and in a precise, orderly manner. Be sure to draw a sketch of the problem in order to clarify what is being asked.

If an error is made in a mathematical expression, it may be carried over to the following parts of the problem. Solve your problems in pencil, neatly and methodically. At every step of the analysis, be sure that you know your reason for taking the step. Write your answers with the appropriate units.


Preparation for an exam is normally a cooperative venture between students and teachers, you should assume total responsibility for studying and learning the material presented in the course.

Preparation for an AP Exam through independent study is also possible. If you exercise this option, the most important ingredient for success is strong self-motivation, although it would be extremely useful to have access to a teacher or tutor who can answer your questions and help you if you get stuck.

The AP Physics examinations are given in May. To provide the most information about differences in students' achievement in physics, the examinations are designed so that students earn average scores of about 50% of the maximum possible score; this applies to both the multiple-choice section and the free-response section. Therefore, you may find AP Examinations more difficult than most classroom tests. However, it is possible for students who have studied most but not all of the topics in the outline to obtain acceptable test scores.

Most AP students are accustomed to taking tests, both those prepared and graded by their teachers and standardized exams. Virtually everyone knows that regular study plus reviews of major elements in the course constitute the best preparation for tests. Effective study for examinations will vary somewhat among students. For example, many students find it helpful to study in a group with other students,  while for others, group preparation may not work well. Some students can "cram" for a test, memorizing large amounts of material in a brief period of time just before the test. For others, cramming causes cognitive overload and exam-day confusion.

If you want to master the skills and knowledge in your AP course, remember that material that is reviewed periodically and skills that are reinforced by practice are far more likely to remain with you than are those that are hastily acquired and partially digested over a brief interval of time.



It's natural to be anxious when you are about to do something on which others will judge your performance. The greatest anxiety moderator for most people is knowledge; the more you know in advance about a course or an exam, the better you can moderate your fears. Knowing about an exam means understanding what kinds of questions you will be asked, how the exam will be graded, how much time you'll have to respond, and so on. Knowing that you are prepared in terms of the exam's content is probably the most calming knowledge of all. Consistent study and review throughout the course is a powerful reliever of excessive tension both for daily classroom learning and for tests.


Be aware that not paying enough attention to directions on tests can adversely affect your grade. On the AP Exams, phrases in the multiple-choice sections like "All the following are . . . EXCEPT" or "Which of the following does NOT . . ." contain critical words. If you don't pay attention to them, you will not respond correctly to the questions.

There are also special directions in parts of the free-response questions. For example, there may be directions that specify for you to explain what principles to use in deriving an expression or directions that ask you to express an answer using specific variables. 

Time Limits

Make a quick estimate of the amount of time the various questions or sections of a test will require, stay aware of the time available throughout the test, and concentrate on questions they can respond to best. Move on to the next question if you can't figure out the answer to the one you are working on.

In the free-response questions, the number of points for the question is specified after the question number. The number of points indicate the weighting of the questions in the grading and are approximately equal to the time that should be spent answering them for those who want to pace themselves to finish in the given time limit.

Use all the time available to complete the exam. If you finish the exam with time to spare, go back to questions you skipped or answers that you can supplement. Check the directions again to be sure you've responded properly.



Answer Sheets

One of the common mistakes while filling the answers of the multiple-choice section is getting responses out of sequence; for instance, marking an answer for question 5 when the answer was intended for question 6. This can happen easily when you skip a question, put a mark in your test book (not on your answer sheet) when you do this.

Frequently check to be sure that the number of the question on your answer sheet corresponds to the number of the question in your exam booklet.

Educated Guessing

For questions with five answer choices, one-fourth of a point is subtracted for each wrong answer. This means that for answer sheets that are marked completely at random, the average score would be expected to be zero. Therefore, if you know absolutely nothing that helps you eliminate even one of the multiple-choice options, you probably won't come out ahead by guessing at an answer. But if you are fairly sure that even one of the options is wrong, it may be worthwhile to answer the question. Of course, if you can eliminate two or three options as probably incorrect, your chances of gaining credit become even greater.

Eliminating Incorrect Responses

Multiple-choice questions are often very short problems with a choice of answers that require a short calculation or derivation. However, you can use the following tips to determine the answer more quickly or to eliminate choices that are incorrect:

In some questions with numerical answers, the choices may differ by several orders of magnitude so that the questions can be answered by estimation rather than by exact calculation. You are encouraged to develop your skills in making order-of-magnitude calculations to estimate such answers more rapidly.

Recognizing that some choices are physically unreasonable or unlikely is often a good way to narrow the possibilities for the correct answer. For example, if you are asked to calculate the time it takes for a ball to fall from the top of a house, you could immediately eliminate answers of 0.01 second or 100 seconds, since they are outside the range of physically likely possibilities.

Some questions may ask you to derive an expression in symbolic form rather than to calculate a numerical value. If you have trouble determining the correct expression, you might try checking the units of each choice. Those that do not have the units expected of the answer can be eliminated. For example, if you are to determine an expression for a distance, then an answer such as 2v/t, where v is speed and t is time, would have the units of distance divided by time squared, and would therefore be dimensionally incorrect.

For questions that give expressions in algebraic form, you might also look at limiting cases; that is, at what would happen to the expressions if one of the variables were very large or very small. If an expression predicts a result that could not be reasonably expected or that is physically impossible, then that choice can be eliminated as the correct answer. For example, the expression 6 + 2t could not be correct for the speed of a ball released from rest at time t equal to zero, since it does not go to zero as t goes to zero.



Before beginning to solve the free-response questions consider reading all the questions to determine which ones you feel best prepared to answer. Then you can   solve the questions in the order that will allow you to perform your best.

You should show your work for each part of a question in the space provided after that part, and if you need more space you should clearly indicate where you are continuing your work. You will NOT receive credit if the grader cannot tell which part of the question you are answering.

Show all your work. Partial credit is given for partial solutions to problems. If you do not show your work, you may receive full credit for an answer if it is correct, but you take a big risk because credit is often based not just on the presence of the right answer but    on the correct use of appropriate steps leading to the right answer. If the answer is not correct, you are not likely to receive credit for correct thinking if the person scoring your examination does not see evidence of this process on paper. If you do work that you think is incorrect, you should simply put an "X" through it, instead of spending time erasing it completely. Crossed-out work will not be graded, and credit may be lost for incorrect work that is not crossed out.

Organize your answers as clearly and neatly as possible. Credit for your answers depends on your demonstrating that you know which physical principles can be applied in solving a particular problem, and an organized answer in the appropriate answer space will better allow the grader to determine whether you have demonstrated such knowledge. Also, show the steps in your solution. If the grader cannot easily follow     your reasoning, you are less likely to receive credit for it.

The free-response questions on an AP Physics examination are usually divided into parts such as (a), (b), (c), and (d), with each part calling for a different response. Credit for each part is awarded independently, so you should attempt to solve each part. For example, you may receive no credit for your answer to part (a), but still receive full credit for parts (b), (c), or (d). If the answer to a later part of a question depends on the answer to an earlier part, you may still be able to receive full credit for the later part, even if that earlier answer is wrong. The grade will depend on your method of approach to the later part and on the consistency of your answer with that of the earlier part.

You will sometimes be asked to justify your answer to a free-response question. This indicates that the person scoring your answer is looking for some analysis that will show how you derived your answer and prove that your answer must be correct.

It is not necessary to simplify all numerical expressions or carry out all numerical calculations. Pay attention to units for quantities that have them. Keeping track of units as you do calculations can help you make sure that your answers are expressed in terms of the proper units. You can lose points if the units are wrong or are missing from your answers.

Do NOT write down a bunch of equations with the hope that the correct one will be among them so you can get some partial credit. With the equation sheets available, this approach is not likely to reward you with partial credit, and you might lose points for giving extraneous or incorrect information.



The Physics examination is three hours long and is divided equally in time between a 70-question multiple-choice section and a free-response section.

The two sections are weighted equally, and a single grade is reported for the exam.

The free-response section will normally contain six to seven questions. Typical examples of its format are six questions, each taking about 15 minutes, or four questions of about 15 minutes each and three shorter questions of about 10 minutes each.

Content of the Examinations:

The exam topics that are devoted to each major category are:

Thermodynamics: laws of thermodynamics, ideal gases, and kinetic theory

Fluid statics and dynamics

Electrostatics: electric force, electric field and electric potential

DC circuits and RC circuits (steady-state only)

Magnetism and electromagnetic induction

Geometric and physical optics


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