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How to Crush the AP Physics 1 FRQs: Detailed Strategies and Examples

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Jason Kuma

Writer | Coach | USC - Physics B.S & Business B.A. | Fremont, CA

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Are you a high school student preparing to take the AP Physics 1 exam? If so, you may be wondering how to ace the free-response questions (FRQs), which make up 50% of your score. Don’t worry, with our step-by-step guide, you can learn proven strategies and solve examples to boost your exam scores.

It’s not you – it’s actually difficult

According to the College Board, for AP Physics 1 FRQs, students struggle the most with questions that require

  • qualitative-quantitative translation
  • experimental design
  • data analysis

These three areas are in pretty much every single FRQ, making it quite difficult.

On the 2021 AP Physics 1 exam, the average score for these types of questions was only 2.06 out of 5.

On top of these challenges, a 2023 Nerd-notes survey of high school physics students found that 81% of students struggle with applying concepts to new situations.

We made this article, to help you avoid falling into these statistics. If you can apply everything in this article and partice the reccomended amount of FRQs, you chances of scoring in 90th percentile are within your reach. 

Other interesting stats

  • In 2021, the average score for the AP Physics 1 exam was 2.55 out of 5.
  • On the 2021 exam, the most commonly missed FRQ was question 3
  • According to a survey of high school physics students, 42% of students struggle with free-body diagrams. Learn how you can master FBD’s here.
  • After teaching students for the last 7 years, the most difficult topic for students is angular momentum. Read our angular momentum speed review for a better understanding.
  • Students also tend to struggle a bit with kinematics. Master kinematics with this guide.
  • Most student’s miss out on “easy points” as they are unclear on how to word their answers in the FRQs.

Practice, then practice more

FRQ strategies are useless if you don’t apply them. We recommend taking anywhere between 20-30 full length FRQ throughout the course of the year. 

Make sure you grade the FRQ thoroughly. Have a friend, teacher, or tutor grade it for you, so that you get an unbiased score. 

More importantly, make sure to obsess over your missed questions and why you got them wrong. If you can do this with a tutor or teacher, your score will dramatically increase with every FRQ you do. Nerd-notes coaches promises our students a score improvement of over 50% within the first 10 practice FRQs.  

Where can I find practice FRQs?

Look no further than the official FRQs and answer keys posted on College board’s site. Practice all of these, using the strategies below. Be sure to work with a teacher or tutor to quickly and fully understand points of confusion.

Click here to view all past FRQs and solutions

Note* College board updated the AP Physics curriculum in 2021. Electrostatics, waves, and circuits are no longer included. Skip those questions if you come across them.

Understand what college board looks for

Students often misunderstand what college board is looking for. Memorizing formula’s and concept simply isn’t enough. Here’s what they really want: 

  • Reasoning
  • Analysis

Reasoning

Reasoning is your ability to solve a problem by filtering through concepts and then putting them together.

College board wants you to first reason conceptually, then apply it mathematically. The end result is usually a uniquely derived formula.  

Example of reasoning to derive a formula

take a ramp of height, h, at an angle of 30º, that has a coefficient of static friction of 1, and coefficient of kinetic friction of .5. What mass must a block weigh, in order to start moving? What is the final velocity at the bottom of the ramp. 

Lets break this down. Directly for the problem we need to know about: 
– about inclined ramps/trig
– coefficients of static vs kinetic friction
– Velocity at end of the ramp

Even if you know what all these mean individually, can you still solve the problem? Perhaps not. This is where REASONING comes in.

Let’s reason it out the first question: Since we are trying to find mass required to set the object in motion we can try drawing an FBD and applying forces. This way we can show our frictional force and weight force on one diagram and make an equation.

We also have to reason that in order for an object to move it must first overcome static friction. Thus we must use the force of static friction in our digram and equation. 

Now that we’ve reasoned all of this, we need to put together an equation. Here’s an article on how to quickly put together force questions. 

The second part of the question asks: What is the final velocity at the bottom of the ramp? Can you use logic and reason to put together a formula?

Analysis

CollegeBoard loves asking you to analyze. 

What happens to velocity when you increase radius?
By what factor does mechanical energy change as you double work?
What happens to x when you change y.

These are all questions you will frequently encounter in both FRQs and MCQs. Be prepared. 

To answer these correctly you must be able to derive a custom equation (as we did above using reasoning) or use a given formula.

Once you have the formula, figure our the relationship between two variables. Are they directly proportional or inversely proportional? Is it a linear, quadratic, or cubic relationship. Determining this will make you a master of reasoning and analysis. This is what college board is looking for. 

If you are having trouble with reasoning or analysis, consider working with our professional AP Physics 1 tutors. We’ll share with you simple techniques that has helped over 500 of our students score 5’s.

Keep it short, keep it sweet

Always remember that humans will be grading your FRQ. They might have already graded a 100 FRQs by the time they get to yours. Do you really want them to read through a dense paragraph, potentially missing something you wrote.

Many points are lost on the FRQs, due to over explaining. Nerd notes tutors shows students if you TRULY understand the concepts, you can answer ALL questions in ONE sentence or less. 

If you look at answer keys of the FRQs you’ll notice that most answers are only a sentence or two long. Sometimes just a formula is given for the answer. 

That said, make it easy for your graders. Use a few short sentences and focus on the main idea. In fact, most our students here on nerd-notes, are trained to use formula’s to answer 90% of the questions! More on this below. 

7 Key strategies to ace the FRQs

To help you prepare for the AP Physics 1 FRQs, here are some key strategies you can follow:

(1) Read the Question Carefully

Make sure you understand what the question is asking. Mass, velocity, momentum of object X, Y or both?

College board LOVES to throw in unnecessary jargon to confuse students. Avoid this by skim-reading. Underline only the key information in the question, such specific conditions or constraints. Is friction negligible, is the system open or closed?…etc.

(2) Start Immediately

A common mistake is re-reading the entire problem. It is not worth the time. Read what they are asking you to find, identify which concept to use, and start making equations.

(3) Use a Clear and Organized Method

When solving the problem, use a clear and organized method to show your work. This will make it easier for the grader to follow your thought process and give you partial credit if you make a mistake.

(4) Timing is key

There’s no point in understanding how to solve a problem if you can’t solve it quick enough.

There are 5 FRQs and, on average, a total of 20 parts altogether. Given you only get 90 minutes. A general rule of thumb is to take no longer than 3 minutes to solve each part.

The ONLY way to achieve this speed is to have practiced many questions. And (2) practice timing yourself, to get the feel for time. Before taking the exam, you should know what 3 minutes “feels like.” This will allow you to keep a steady pace during the exam.

(5) Equations — your best friend

Imagine a lawyer presenting their case with no evidence. No one would believe them.

Now imagine making claims on your FRQs without evidence. No grader would be persuaded to give you points.

Your evidence is your equations. Be good at deriving questions that you can use to make claims with. Here’s an example: the velocity of a block sliding down a friction of a ramp is proportional to the square root of the height it’s released from, according to {your derived formula} v = (2gh)1/2.

(6) Check Your Units

This should be obvious. If you have extra time, quickly preform unit analysis to make sure you didn’t miss a square root or an entire number.

Have your calculator set to degrees. Make sure you

(7) Use Common Sense

If something is “missing,” it’s likely that it is right in front of you. In other words it is implied in the problem. College board loves to do this to test how well you know relationships between variables.

For example, a car moving at constant speed implies, no acceleration OR a centripetal acceleration. It could also mean that there’s no net force. And it could also mean that there is no change in momentum, and thus no impulse.

These are hints staring right at you. Get good at looking for these and you will solve problems with much more ease.

The AP Physics 1 FRQs can be challenging, but with the right strategies and practice, you can ace them and boost your exam score. Remember to read the question carefully, use a clear and organized method, and check for implied variables. Also, consider the statistics and focus on areas where other students tend to struggle. By doing so, you’ll be well on your way to crushing the AP Physics 1 FRQs. Good luck!

Picture of Jason Kuma
Jason Kuma

Writer | Coach | Builder | Fremont, CA

Programs

Units in AP Physics 1

Unit 1 – Linear Kinematics

Unit 2 – Linear Forces

Unit 3 – Circular Motion

Unit 4 – Energy 

Unit 5 – Momentum 

Unit 6 – Torque 

Unit 7 – Oscillations 

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