Polygence blog / Research Opportunities and Ideas

Essential Guide For the F=ma Exam

5 minute read

If you’re passionate about physics and have an aptitude for competitive exams, studying for and taking the F=ma exam is a valuable opportunity to strengthen your physics problem-solving. Plus, excelling at the F=ma exam will open the doors for you to participate in physics olympiads at the national and international levels.

What is the F=ma Exam?

The F=ma exam, organized by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), is the qualifying exam for the USA Physics Olympiad (USAPhO). Every year, 400 students qualify for the USAPhO, with 20 advancing to form the USA Physics Team. After a ten-day training camp at the University of Maryland, five exceptional students are selected to represent the USA at the International Physics Olympiad.

This guide provides a comprehensive overview of the exam, along with valuable tips and strategies to help you prepare effectively and perform your best on test day. Let’s dive into the essential components of the F=ma exam.

How to Prepare for and Take the F=ma Exam?

What is the Timeline and Eligibility?

Around 6,000 middle and high school students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents take the F=ma exam each year. The exam, which is administered locally, typically takes place in February, although this varies from year to year. Students must register for the exam through their school – the entrance fee for each school is $50, with an additional $10 per student taking the exam.

What is the Format of the F=MA Exam and How is It Scored?

The F=ma exam consists of 25 multiple-choice questions that assess your conceptual understanding of physics, problem-solving skills, and ability to apply fundamental principles to real-world scenarios. Students have 75 minutes to answer as many questions as they can. 

Correct answers earn 1 point, while incorrect answers or blanks receive no points – there is no penalty for incorrect answers. Thus, scores range from 0-25. Based on 2022 F=ma results, the median score was 8, while the minimum score required to qualify for the USAPhO was 15. 

Two versions of the test are administered each year, F=ma A and F=ma B. These cover the same topics and are designed to be equally difficult, but their questions and answers are completely different.

What Content is Covered?

The F=ma exam focuses on mechanics, including kinematics, statics, Newton’s laws, momentum and energy, oscillations, orbital mechanics, fluids, and elementary data analysis. Calculus is not required to solve any of the problems, although sometimes calculus will provide faster and more elegant solutions.

What Are Some Study Resources for the F=ma Exam?

The best way to prepare for the F=ma exam is to take practice exams and study their solutions. A database of past F=ma exams and solutions from 2007-2022 can be found on AATP’s website.

To build up your algebra-based physics skills, taking AP Physics 1/2 is a great place to start. Khan Academy’s physics library and Flipping Physics are two excellent free resources for studying algebra-based physics which will help prepare you for the AP exams and the F=ma exam alike. For free resources to begin studying calculus-based physics, Yale’s Fundamentals of Physics course and MIT’s Open Course video lecture series on classical mechanics are two options.

How to Practice Time Management?

Time management is crucial both during the F=me exam and in designing your study plan. Develop a study schedule that allocates sufficient time for each topic in mechanics, focusing on your weaknesses and gaps in knowledge. Then, take practice exams under accurate time constraints to improve your speed and accuracy in answering questions.

This importance of time management during exams article from Alpha Academy provides includes additional tips to help reduce test-taking anxiety.

What Are Some F=ma Exam Problem-Solving Strategies?

Having a robust toolbox of problem-solving strategies is vital for success on the F=ma exam. The exam emphasizes solid conceptual understanding rather than rote memorization of formulas. Developing a deep understanding of fundamental physics concepts will help you tackle unfamiliar problems and application-based questions effectively and efficiently.

Break down complex problems into smaller steps, identify relevant principles, and apply appropriate formulas. Draw diagrams, write equations, and label variables to visualize the problem better.

Is there Experimentation and Data Analysis?

Be prepared to analyze experimental setups, interpret data, and draw conclusions. It’s important to understand the methodology behind experimental setups and their significance in validating theoretical concepts. Familiarize yourself with famous experiments in physics and practice analyzing data sets, graphs, and experimental results to strengthen your skills in this area.

How Can Collaborative Learning Help?

If there is a group of students in your school or community who are also taking the F=ma exam, consider forming a study group or physics team. You can discuss concepts, solve problems, and share knowledge – doing this together will help you all fill in each other’s gaps. Plus, teaching others enhances and solidifies your own knowledge of the exam content.

Should You Take Time to Review and Reflect?

After the exam, make sure you take time to reflect on your performance and identify the gaps in your knowledge. By analyzing the questions you found challenging and reviewing corresponding concepts, you can refine your preparation for future exams. Even top physics students often take multiple years of exam attempts and preparation in order to meet their goals of qualifying for USAPhO or IPO.

Middle school is not too early to start preparing, although it is not too late if you begin preparation in high school – no matter your age or physics background, taking mock exams, studying and solving problems collaboratively, and reviewing fundamental concepts in classical mechanics will set you up for a great showing on exam day.


The F=ma exam presents an exciting opportunity to showcase your physics knowledge and problem-solving skills. By following this essential guide, utilizing available resources, and practicing diligently, you can enhance your chances of achieving success in the exam. Remember to stay calm, maintain a positive mindset, and approach each question with confidence. Best of luck!

Do Your Own Research Through Polygence

Your passion can be your college admissions edge! Polygence provides high schoolers a personalized, flexible research experience proven to boost your admission odds. Get matched to a mentor now!"