So many Physics courses! Which one prepares you for the SAT Physics Subject Test™?

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Update March 22, 2020: While SAT Subject TestsTM 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.

One of the problems in determining whether to take the Physics SAT Subject test is the now vast number of physics courses offered in high school, each one described as “physics” in one form or another. There are so many of them! There used to be seven different varieties, which was complicated enough. But since the College Board® changed AP® Physics B to AP Physics 1 and AP Physics 2, with each of them a one year course by themselves, and AP Physics C to a similar two year sequence, there are now nine separate high school physics classes. Nine physics classes! If you want to take the SAT Physics Subject Test, which of these courses should you have taken?

Many high schools now follow the “physics first” model, in which physics is given in freshman year and followed by chemistry and then biology in the tenth and eleventh grades. This makes a ton of sense because you get a much greater appreciation for chemistry if you have taken a year of physics, and a greater appreciation yet for biology following a year of chemistry. The catch is that the math sequence typically begun in the ninth grade does not include trigonometry, and to get the real deal physics course (at the non calculus based level) you have to have had trigonometry. As such, almost no ninth grade physics classes offer sufficient preparation for the SAT Subject test in Physics.

Looking then at the physics courses offered in tenth grade or later there are 6 different “non calculus based” physics courses typically offered. Not every school offers all of them, and “Honors Physics” at School A will cover two thirds of “Basic Physics” at School B. But generally, the courses divide into the following: the first is a physics course practically in name only, where the overall rigor is below that of even some ninth grade classes. It satisfies a requirement, but might get to material such as momentum in May that a more thorough course will have covered by Thanksgiving, and kids who finish them with an A will barely know what a vector is. Assume this is out as suitable prep as well. The level above this class covers the curriculum in more depth but leaves out many of the topics covered by the more thorough and easily identifiable classes we will now discuss.

As mentioned, The College Board changed AP Physics B into AP Physics 1 and 2, but not every school changed their curriculum as a result. At numerous high schools, the old AP Physics B was NOT separated by the school into two one year long courses because doing so would disrupt the course sequence for too many students. Instead, they kept it as a year long course and renamed it as, for example, “Honors Physics”. Such a course preps students for the AP Physics 1 AND AP Physics 2 tests at the end of the year. It is also more than sufficient prep for the SAT Physics test. Students enrolled in this class, and those enrolled in the course a level immediately below, are well prepared for the Physics SAT. How will you know which courses these are? The topics covered are exactly the same as the old AP Physics B, and are subjects the course will need to have covered, in addition to the standard subjects such as kinematics and vectors, Newton’s Laws and momentum. They include torque and rotational motion, simple harmonic motion, fluid statics and dynamics; thermodynamics with kinetic theory; PV diagrams and probability; electricity and magnetism to include magnetic flux, Lenz’s Law and Faraday’s Law, and quantum, atomic, and nuclear physics. These are topics that only the more thorough courses include. Look specifically for these topics. If the course includes these topics, students are well prepared for the Physics SAT. The slightly lower level (also year long) physics course, which covers the same subjects but in a bit less depth, also serves as more than sufficient preparation. In fact, in NYC there is at least one high school that offers the less caffeinated version as a 6 week intensive summer course (which, actually, is plenty caffeinated when taught over 6 weeks). We have worked with students who took this course and they do quite well (typically over 750 and a couple of 800s every year), on the August and October test dates.

What if a school offers only the two year AP Physics 1/AP Physics 2 sequence? Since the Physics SAT would require students to recall knowledge from the beginning of the previous year, it probably is not a terrific option for them. The former year long calculus based AP Physics course, previously known as AP Physics C and itself subsequently divided into a two year sequence by the College Board®, also proves risky as preparation for the same reason. However, as with AP Physics B, many schools chose to keep AP Physics C as a single year course, except they called it something else. This extremely rigorous year long course undoubtedly prepares students for the Physics Subject Test, but generally it is a course taken by seniors. Clearly though if an eleventh grade student takes the single year calculus based physics course that starts with mechanics and concludes with electricity and magnetism, that student should take the Physics SAT.

It is a bit confusing, isn’t it? Be sure to give us a shout if you have any questions – We will discuss your specific situation, and if the Physics SAT is right for you!

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