I am taking AP® Physics 1 & doing well. Should I take the SAT Physics Subject Test™?

Update March 22, 2020: While SAT Subject tests are getting phased out by many colleges and universities (see recent announcements from Cornell and MIT), there is some speculation that the SAT Subject tests will have greater weight this year because so many schools are going pass fail for the balance of the year. We suggest discussing with your individual college counselors.

We are available for private and group tutoring for the SAT Physics Subject Test.

In response to our last blog So many Physics courses! Which one prepares you for the SAT Physics Subject Test? we’ve had several parents inquire about the wisdom of their child taking the SAT Subject Test™ in physics after the first year of the two year AP® Physics 1/AP Physics 2 sequence. Since the AP Physics B course was split into a two year sequence beginning with the 2014 – 2015 school year, the already muddy question of what physics class prepares you for this test turned cloudier yet. Let‘s begin by comparing the material tested by SAT Subject Test (according to the College Board’s own published materials) vs the subjects offered in AP Physics 1.

First, in case you had the inclination, forget calling the College Board and asking them. Their answer is “we offer guidelines as to what is in the course but the subject matter is up to the specific high school”. This does makes some sense but one would have thought that when they split up the course, they would have considered whether the first of those courses prepares you for a test that they also designed and administer, for a class that had previously covered all of the material in one year. So let us look at the guidelines posted on the College Board website for AP Physics 1, and compare that to the material emphasized on SAT Physics test, also from the College Board’s published materials.

Below we have the “Topics Covered” section, taken from an actual SAT Physics Subject Test, published by The College Board:

Topic                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      % of test

I Mechanics                                                                                                                                                                                                                      36-42%
A) Kinematics, such as velocity, acceleration, motion in one dimension, projectiles
B) Dynamics, ie forces, Newton’s Laws & statics
C) Energy & Momentum potential & kinetic energy, work, power, impulse and conservation laws.
D) Circular Motion ie uniform circular motion, centripetal force, torque and angular momentum).
E) Simple harmonic motion, ie mass on a spring, & simple pendulum
F) Gravity such as the law of gravitation, orbits & Kepler’s Laws

II Electricity and Magnetism                                                                                                                                                                                 18-24%
A) Electric Fields, Forces, and Potentials (such as Coulomb’s Law,induced charge, field and potential
of groups of point charges, and charged particles in electric fields)
B) Capacitance, such as parallel plate capacitors
C) Circuit Elements and DC Circuits such as resistors, light bulbs, series and parallel circuits, & Ohm’s law
D) Magnetism such as permanent magnets, fields caused by currents, and particles in
magnetic fields, Faraday’s Law, and Lenz’s law

III Waves and Optics                                                                                                                                                                                                   15-19%
A) General Wave Properties, such as wave speed, frequency, wavelength, superposition, standing
waves, Doppler effect
B) Reflection and Refraction such as Snell’s Law, changes in wavelength, and speed
C) Ray Optics, such as image formation using pinholes, mirrors and lenses
D) Physical optics, such as single slit diffraction, double slit interference, polarization, color

IV Heat and Thermodynamics                                                                                                                                                                               6-11%
A) Thermal Properties, such as temperature, heat transfer, specific and latent heats, thermal expansion.
B) Laws of Thermodynamics, such as 1st & 2nd Laws, internal energy, entropy, heat engine efficiency

V Modern Physics                                                                                                                                                                                                          6-11%
A) Quantum Phenomena, photons, photoelectric effect
B) Atomic, the Rutherford and Bohr models, atomic energy levels, atomic spectra
C) Nuclear and Particle Physics such as radioactivity, nuclear reactions, fundamental particles
D) Relativity such as time dilation, length contraction, mass energy equivalence

VI Miscellaneous                                                                                                                                                                                                            4-9%
A) General such as history of physics and general q’s that overlap several major topics
B) Analytical Skills ie graphical analysis, measurement and math skills
C) Contemporary Physics, ie astrophysics, superconductivity and chaos theory

Now, looking at About the AP Physics 1 course and exam descriptionfrom the College Board’s website, where the following topics are listed on page 18:

    •     •Kinematics 10 – 16 %
          •Dynamics 12 – 18 %
          •Circular Motion and Gravitation 4-6%
          •Energy 16-24%
          •Momentum 10 -16%
          •Simple harmonic motion 2-4%
          •Torque and rotational motion 10-16%
          •Electric charge and electric force 4-6%
          •DC Circuits 6-8%
          •Mechanical waves and sound 12-16%

You will note in the link that the College Board page lists the approximate percentages typically devoted to each of the above topics, so we can compare the emphasis that AP Physics 1 places on these topics, vs the emphasis the subject test places on them, and what topics are missing from AP Physics 1 vs what the subject test typically requires.

So, let’s consider an example where the school teaches AP Physics 1 exactly as recommended by The College Board (and keep in mind, many schools will not). We see that relative to the SAT Physics Subject test certain content is missing. In particular, going forward from (on the AP 1 course description) “Mechanical waves and sound”, the AP Physics 1 course seems to omit much of what the SAT Physics Subject test covers. So if we look back at the topics for the SAT Subject test, we see topics from items IV and V are not covered by AP 1. The course omits all of heat and thermodynamics, and also modern physics. That accounts for (using percentage by topic estimates published with the test), 12 – 22 % of the test questions. Again based on their course description, we can also safely assume that quite a bit from topics II (electricity and magnetism, 18-24%) and III (waves and optics, 15-19%) are not covered in sufficient depth in AP Physics 1. If we assume, say, half of that material is omitted from the course, that is an additional ~ 16-22% of the questions a Physics SAT test may ask. This works out as follows:

If you take the Physics SAT Subject Test after taking AP Physics 1, taught using the College Board guidelines, the AP 1 Physics course will omit material on 31-51% of the SAT Physics questions.

But take heart, because all is not lost! First, the curve on the Physics SAT allows a lot of leeway. You do not need to answer all of the questions to score north of 700, in fact you can leave quite a few blank. Also, the course generally ends around the first week of May, and that gives students a whole month to read up on a number of subjects on their own. It is safe to assume that a student enrolled in AP Physics is probably ambitious to begin with, so while this certainly imposes an additional burden it won’t be more than what they have seen all year – it is essentially the equivalent of continuing their class an extra month, except on their own.

Finally, a terrific option is for students to take the test in the late summer or, assuming they enroll in AP Physics 2, the October or November administration. We have tutored a bunch of students for summer and fall SAT Subject tests, and assuming they put in some work over the summer (practice tests, a few hours a week of reviewing notes), the drop off of what they remember is minimal. So if they intend to enroll in AP Physics 2, then by the time the October or November administration of the SAT Physics Subject test rolls around their class will have covered a whole lot more physics. This might be a terrific option for a lot of kids.

Also, there are a number of really good textbooks available for review, and you can pick one up 2nd hand pretty inexpensively. They vary in the level of depth but you do not need anything more than a fundamental level textbook; any edition of “Giancoli: Physics” will probably suffice.

Be sure to give us a shout if you have any questions!

AP® is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, Warp Drive Tutors.

SAT Subject TestsTM is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, Warp Drive Tutors.

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