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10 Insanely Useful Hacks to Score a 5 on the AP Physics Exam!

This is a jump start to studying for the AP Physics 1 Test every May. Statistically, it is the hardest AP test to take, with just under 7 percent of students scoring a 5. The following run-down will aim to get you the highest possible score. Skip Barrons and Princeton review. Here's everything you need to know.

(1) Who, me?

First of all, who am I, and why should you listen to me? My name is Jason, and I’ve studied Physics for over six years. Over the last three years, I’ve worked with over 130 students and learned many valuable lessons that helped them score 4s and 5s.

My goal is to spill all the tips and tricks to help you get the best score possible. So if it helps you out, share this with your friends and help them out too!

(2) Should you take it?

Just because you are in an AP Physics 1 class doesn’t mean you should take the test. Frankly, most students don’t understand physics well enough to sit for the test.

The only two reasons you should take the test:

  1. You enjoy Physics, and it’s easy to grasp concepts after a few attempts.
  2. You need to take it for college credits, recognition, etc. Therefore, you need to score a four or higher on the test to qualify for credits.

If you don’t fit into these categories, paying 130+ dollars for the test might not be worth it.

(3) This makes the test hard

The test will be much more difficult than your average textbook problems or in-class midterms. But it’s important to understand what makes these problems challenging to begin with.

Allow me to elaborate on this with a question from the 2016 AP Physics 1 practice exam:

Two identical blocks, 5 kg each, are connected to the opposite ends of a compressed spring. The blocks initially slide together on a frictionless surface with a velocity of 2 m/s to the right. The spring is then released. At some later instant, the left block is moving at 1 m/s to the left, and the other block is moving to the right. What is the speed of the center of mass of the system at that instant?

You should know this is a law of conservation of momentum problem right off the bat. So let’s assume you’ve correctly figured out the speed of the block to the right.

BUT the questions ask for the speed of the center of mass. Students generally get tripped up on this simple concept.

A student that has practiced this concept beforehand will know the velocity of the center of mass is simply the sum of the momentum of both blocks divided by the sum of their masses.

(3.1) The main challenge of AP Physics 1 MC questions:

To make it clear, the MC questions are difficult because they test for TWO concepts at once. This is what I like to call “concept pairing.”

A common pair is a momentum and kinetic energy. Another one is forces and kinematics. And the one we just covered is momentum and center of mass.

If you can apply both concepts correctly, you will fly through the multiple choice. But if you don’t, you’ll find yourself getting stuck on 70% of the questions.

The test isn’t hard; students just don’t prepare for it correctly. That’s where you might find nerd-notes useful.

(4) Test Structure + Maximizing Points

You probably already know that the test is split 50-50 between multiple choice (MC) and free response questions (FRQ). What student’s don’t understand is how to manage their time.

You will get 90 minutes to solve 40 multiple choice questions. That’s ≈ 2.25 minutes per question. This will give you around 30 seconds to read a problem, another 30 seconds to figure out what to do with the information, and about 60 seconds to crunch the numbers.

This is time crunch at its finest. The best part is having to restart after calculating a number that’s not one of the choices. So how do we avoid this?

  1. First, realize that you don’t need all the points. To get a 5, you must get 70/100 points. If you only got half the MC questions right but got all 50 points on the FRQ, you will still get a 5. You can mess around with this AP Physics 1 Score calculator to play with the number.
  2. For the reasons above, you should NOT start to panic if you have more than 8-12 unanswered questions.
  3. Now the best way to avoid time crunch is to study practice.

(5) Studying vs. Practice

The number one mistake students make when preparing for a test is overstudying concepts. As paradoxical as it might sound, it’s true. Instead of reading through endless pages of Barrons/Princeton review, do some practice problems. We know what forces kinematics are, so why read a crash course on them? Practice 100 AP Physics 1 questions and understand them completely. Judging from the many students I have taught, I’m willing to bet you will get a 5.

(6) How can I practice for Physics?

This all comes down to the resources you can get your hands on. Generally, your teacher is your best bet. Ask them for materials and practice exams that haven’t already been given. Better yet, ask them for materials given by the College Board. They have access to much more than you think.

Another place for practice is online! The problem with online resources, however, is that there are too many and too few that are useful. We built nerd notes – to give students the absolute best materials to practice from. We have real students who have proven the integrity of our materials and strategies with 4s and 5s! If you are interested, you can join our Elite Physics Mastermind program here.

(6.1) More resources

If you can’t join, that’s okay! There’s still plenty of material out there. After scouring the dozens of sites, we found a few that provide useful practice:

  1. College Board released FRQs (do as many of these as you can)
  2. Crack AP 30 Physics 1 Multiple Choice tests (note: these are relatively easy questions compared to the actual exam, but still worth doing)
  3. More practice tests with answers and explanations (note: fairly easy)
  4. Varsity Tutors AP Physics 1 practice tests

(7) Pro Tip #1: There’s ALWAYS an equation

Find yourself doing a conceptual problem? 90% of the time, there will be an equation to help you solve the question. The catch? Many students completely forget to do this!

The assumption is that “if there are no numbers, there must be no equation. So let’s just re-read this 10 times until something clicks.”

WRONG! Please don’t do that. You will not only waste time, but you’ll throw yourself in a circle of confusion as you read through each option and decide that either none of them make sense or all of them do.

Instead, do this:

  1. Read the problem once
  2. Figure out the law it’s demonstrating
  3. Write down the equation for that law
  4. Manipulate the variables

(7.1) Example:

Let’s take a look at this question from the 2016 Practice exam:

A solid metal bar is at rest on a horizontal frictionless surface. It is free to rotate about a vertical axis at the left end. The figures below show forces of different magnitudes that are exerted on the bar at different locations. In which case does the bar’s angular speed about the axis increase at the fastest rate? (Images not shown)

Notice: In section 3 above, we discussed that the MC problems usually “pair” concepts. In this question, the concept pair is Torque and rotational motion.

We can answer this question without even looking at the given options.

Firstly, the question touches upon the concept of torque. There are a few equations for torque, so let’s list them all: τ = Fr and τ = I⍺ ; from this, we can conclude: Fr = I⍺.

Immediately, we see that the F and r are directly proportional to . Therefore, we need to select the image with the greatest force (F) and biggest lever arm (r).

While this question might have been simple for many of you, you would be surprised at how many students would panic guess at this.

If given a much harder problem, could you apply this strategy?

(7.2) Example 2:

A person exerts an upward force on a box, as shown above. The box may be moving upward, downward, or not at all while the person exerts the upward force. For which of the following motions of the box is the work done by the person on the box correctly indicated?

The motion of the box Work done by the person on the box
(a) No motionPositive
(b) Upward with decreasing speedNegative
(c) Downward with constant speedZero
(d) Downward with increasing speedNegative
Answer at the end of part 8

(8) More coming soon!

Please check back in a few days while we work on updating this article. There will be 12 more helpful study tips added + a 1000-question bank to help you get more practice! In the meantime, if you need personalized, pro help on physics, please be sure to check out the Physics Mastermind Program. Thank you for your support!(d)

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Jason Kuma
Jason Kuma

Founder, Writer, Physic B.S, Business B.A USC, Fremont CA

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