How to Answer AP® Physics 1 Free-Response Questions And Examples
If your goal is to get a high score on the free-response section of the AP® Physics 1 exam, then you’ve come to the right place! This article will discuss how to use key strategies to do well on AP Physics 1 free-response questions (FRQs).
Format of the AP Physics 1 FRQ section
You might be wondering “what is the format of the AP Physics 1 FRQ section?” But before we discuss the number and type of FRQs, let us understand the difference between MCQ and FRQ. Unlike the MCQ section, there are no answer options to choose from in the FRQ section, which is an extra challenge as students have to articulate their answers. Hence, the name “free-response” question, where you have to come up with the answer.
The FRQ is the second section of the AP Physics 1 exam, which consists of five free-response questions and is worth 50% of your final exam score - reason why the FRQ section is very important to focus on. To get full points in this section, you will be required to draw graphs, show your work for calculations, and provide concise but thorough responses.
While this section can be intimidating at first glance, if you are well-prepared for each type of FRQ, then you will have the skills needed to perform well. Below, you will find tips on how to tackle FRQs, as well as common task verbs used in FRQs and what they mean, and an overview of each type of FRQ you will see on the AP Physics 1 exam. Using these tips and skills, you will be confident in your ability to master the FRQ section of the AP Physics 1 exam.
General Tips for Writing FRQ Responses
Your ability to approach the questions logically and make efficient use of time will greatly impact your success in this section of the AP Physics 1 exam. In this section, you will learn strategies that will help you earn maximum points on the FRQs and achieve your goal on the AP Physics 1 exam!
Understand how the FRQs are scored
A group of AP Physics 1 teachers and college instructors are carefully trained to use specific scoring standards when assigning points for correct responses to grade the FRQs. Points are awarded by the reader when responses contain specific details, as described in the scoring standards. Therefore, the key to earning maximum points is to positively demonstrate your understanding of each part of the question. Below are a few tips that will come in handy:
- You should write your responses as if you are explaining the concepts to someone who doesn't know much about physics. This way, you’ll be sure that you explained your answer with the scientific laws and reasoning to support it.
- The readers are not allowed to award points unless they can positively determine that you have met the criteria as explained in the scoring standards. So, make sure you write legibly (using a pencil or a pen with dark blue or black ink) and only write in the space provided for the answer. Readers will ignore any responses you cross out with your pen. If you do not want something scored, or if you make a mistake, just mark a line through the designated part of the response. Don't waste time by scribbling everything out or trying to erase them completely.
- Make sure you complete your thoughts as you explain a concept. Do not leave out anything that is essential for demonstrating your understanding. For example, if you were asked to explain the result of an experiment, you would need to list all the relevant factors and the associated reasoning for why each factor affects the experiment. Simply writing the list may not be sufficient to earn points.
- Incorrect answers have no penalty on your overall score. Therefore, even if you are unsure about the correct answers, you should attempt to answer all questions as time permits. You will likely know something about the topics assessed, and there are multiple ways to earn a point for a particular part of a question. The only way to definitely earn zero points is by not attempting to answer the question! So, give it your best shot!
Budget your time wisely
You have 90 minutes to complete Section II of the AP Physics 1 exam. The key to making efficient use of time is to start by answering the questions you feel best equipped to handle. Doing this can earn you the most points in the shortest amount of time. You do not need to answer the questions in a particular order.
On the AP Physics 1 exam, there are two long FRQs and three short FRQs. Each of the long FRQs should take about 25 minutes to answer, and each of the short FRQs should take about 13 minutes. However, these questions may show up on the exam in any order, so don’t assume that the first two questions are the long FRQs.
- Keep in mind that only what is written in the designated space (i.e., within the box around the question) will be scored.
- If you get stuck writing an answer to part of a question, skip to the next part of the question or to the next question you plan to answer. Come back to the unfinished question if you have time at the end of the exam.
- If you finish answering all the questions with time to spare, go back and read your responses. Double check that you have answered all parts of each question and that you have done everything asked of you in each question.
Be concise, but write in complete sentences
If you want to score well on the FRQ section of the exam, you need to make sure that you focus on answering the main question as clearly as possible. Don’t worry about writing an answer that would make your English teacher proud; instead focus on demonstrating to the reader that you understand the concept being tested. However, for questions requiring paragraph-length responses, you do need to write in complete sentences, although outlines or bulleted lists are not acceptable. You must demonstrate a conceptual understanding of the topic if you wish to score all of the points available. Therefore, resist the urge to use a lot of words in the hope of mentioning that one word that will earn you a point. It does not work this way, and could hurt your overall argument.
- Address the question directly! You don't want to write anything that is not directly related to the question. Do not restate the question or write an introduction, just specifically answer what is being asked.
- After you have answered the question, stop writing. Writing redundant information could run the risk of contradicting something you said that would have otherwise earned a point.
- If you don’t know how to spell a word you want to use, just do your best. You earn points by demonstrating your conceptual understanding. If you cannot recall a particular term, just try to explain the idea as best you can.
- If the question asks you to “briefly” explain something, keep your answer short and to the point.
Common Task Verbs and Their Meanings
There are several task verbs that are commonly used in AP Physics 1 FRQs. In order to write an effective answer, you need to know the expectations associated with the wording of each question. Some task verbs are not terms that are commonly used, and some of the task verbs used in FRQs overlap somewhat with one another. Understanding this terminology will help you earn the maximum number of points for each question. Let’s look at the most common task verbs used in FRQs:
To calculate means to apply mathematical steps (basic algebra, formulas from the provided AP Physics 1 formula and equation sheet) to arrive at a final calculated answer (including correct units and significant figures). This may also be phrased as “What is?”
Example: Using Figure 1, calculate the average rate of change in growth in the control group.
- Remember to double-check all the calculations you make, either in your head or on your calculator
- Make sure your final answer is easy for your reader to pick out; you can achieve this by boxing your answer.
You will describe or explain aspects that are similar and/or different between the things being compared.
Example: Compare the change in potential energy of the ball-Earth system to the change in kinetic energy of the ball-only system while the ball is in the air.
- Find relationships between the two things that are being compared
- Use physical laws to reinforce your claims regarding the relationship between them
This involves using equations or laws and carrying out mathematical steps in a proper sequence to produce a final answer.
Example: Derive an equation that represents the position x of the car as a function of time t.
- Be sure to include all initial equations and/or data that are used to derive the final equation
- Show each step of the derivation and be sure to identify variables as needed
You will provide relevant information about a particular topic.
Example: Describe the immediate motion of the electron after it is released.
- Be sure to focus on simply describing the topic provided first
- Reasoning that supports your description may not be needed but should only be added after your basic description is written.
Here, you will come to a decision or conclusion after evaluating the given information in the question. These types of questions test your critical thinking skills.
Example: Using the experimental data, determine the net force acting on the cart.
- You should provide reasoning or evidence to show how you arrived at your determination.
This involves roughly calculating numerical answers, signs (positive or negative), or comparing values (equal to, less than, greater than).
Example: Evaluate the displacement of the spacecraft while its burner was turned on.
- You do not need to show steps in calculations when estimating.
Here, you will need to provide information about why or how a particular thing happened, using evidence (eg, data) and reasoning to support what you say.
Example: Explain how the period of the pendulum changes when the bob is replaced.
- To explain “why,” you usually need to analyze the motivations or reasons behind what occurred
- To explain “how,” you generally need to focus on the occurrence itself.
When you encounter this term, you will need to provide evidence to show that a claim is true.
Example: Justify the equation derived by the students.
- You may also need to provide reasoning to explain how your evidence supports, defends, or modifies the claim.
- This typically requires the use of data provided in the question.
For this task, you will need to add labels to a visual representation to indicate units, scale, or various other components.
Example: On the diagram, label the center of mass.
- It will be really important to read through the given information and quickly analyze the type of visual representation in front of you, this will help you to write the proper labels.
You will need to add data points to a graph that already shows the scale or add data points along with the scale/units as needed to a graph.
Example: Plot the data points on the grid.
- Make sure that there is consistency between data representations of different types (eg, data table and graph you may be asked to plot using the table’s information).
This type of task requires you to create a visual representation (which may or may not require labels) for the purpose of illustration or explanation.
Example: Sketch a graph that represents the speed of the ball.
- Ensure your sketch is clear and easy to read and has all the information necessary to answer the question. If asked for the sketch of a graph of some kind, remember to label your axes properly.
Here, you will provide information related to the question without explaining or elaborating on it. This task may also be communicated through the use of questions such as “What…?” or “Would… ?”.
Example: Indicate the direction of movement.
- Point out or state what you need to explain in a cohesive manner. Avoid writing an extensive amount of words and try to be as concise and accurate as possible.
For this type of question, you will confirm that necessary conditions are met in order to explain why a particular scientific idea (eg, law) applies in a given circumstance. This term can also be used when you are asked to use data, tests, or other details/information to confirm a hypothesis.
Example: Verify that the linear momentum was conserved during the collision.
- You may need to provide a list of information or state key details that allow your explanation to be the correct answer.
FRQ Types on the AP Physics 1 Exam
The five FRQs in Section II of the AP Physics 1 exam follow a particular format. Two of these questions are long (with 3-5 question parts) and are worth 12 points each. One of these long questions is on experimental design, and the other deals with qualitative/quantitative translation.
The other three FRQs are worth 7 points each and consist of 1-3 parts per question. One of these three questions requires students to write a paragraph-length answer, and the other two are short-answer questions. Below is a description of each question you will encounter. While the specifics of each question (eg, type of experiment performed, physics concept tested) will vary, the general outline will remain the same. Knowledge of what each question is testing will help you prepare thoroughly and score well on the FRQ section of the AP Physics 1 exam.
Experimental Design question
This 12-point question will ask you to design and describe a physics experiment. You will also be asked to analyze data, including identifying and explaining patterns in the data.
This type of question often involves graphing. Remember good practices when creating a graph:
- Make sure your axes are labeled
- Give units where appropriate
- Make sure that the scale used for an axis is appropriate and remains consistent along the entire axis
- Accurately plot the given data
- If asked to draw a line of best fit, make sure the line falls such that the number of points above the line is approximately equal to the number of points below the line.
Qualitative/Quantitative Translation question
This 12-point question will assess your ability to apply qualitative and quantitative reasoning in relation to physics concepts and your ability to translate from one to the other.
Paragraph Argument Short Answer question
This 7-point question will require you to write a paragraph-length response that is in the form of a coherent argument about a physics concept. Your response will need to use information that is given in the question and proceed logically to a well-supported conclusion.
Short Answer questions
The two remaining questions are worth 7 points each and deal with skills and concepts that were not emphasized in the other FRQs.
You’ve done a great job reading through all the question types above! Now that you know more about the FRQ section of the AP Physics 1 exam, you will gain the specific skills necessary to tackle each of the six FRQs you encounter on the real exam. If you practice these skills using high-quality, AP-level practice questions and apply the tips provided here, you will ace this exam section!
Frequently Asked Questions
The AP Physics 1 exam includes five free response questions that account for 50% of the exam score.
AP Physics 1 exam FRQs are graded by hand by ‘AP readers’. The AP readers are the high school AP Physics teachers and college physics professors. The College Board provides scoring guidelines to inform readers what to look for, and these scoring guidelines tend to be consistent from year to year. If there is a grading difference between two graders, a dedicated head reader makes the final decision.
The AP Physics 1 exam lasts three hours, with a 90-minute free-response section accounting for half of your total exam score. Each FRQ takes an average of 18 minutes to complete.
You can access released questions from AP Physics 1 past exams on the AP Central website.