How Hard Is College Physics? (Everything To Know)

There’s no such thing as MIRACLE, Richard Feynman advice to students | self-improvement video
There’s no such thing as MIRACLE, Richard Feynman advice to students | self-improvement video

Asking a qualitative question like how hard college physics is can be a non-starter.

Suffice it to say, however, that college physics is, in most cases, going to be a challenging endeavor.

While there are always the extraordinary few who seem to absorb new information without any effort, that’s certainly not the norm.

People like Albert Einstein are few and far between.

For the average person, and even for an individual of above-average intelligence, college physics will be difficult.

Succeeding in a college physics course is not impossible, but you’ll have to work hard at it.

At times, it might be frustrating and feel like you’ve been tasked with the impossible.

Fortunately, the professors are there to help guide you through the course.

How Hard Is College Physics?

In general, coursework at the college level is designed to be challenging.

Physics is certainly no exception.

In fact, physics is considered by most people to be among the most challenging courses you can take.

One of the reasons physics is so hard is that it involves a lot of math.

You probably recall your middle school math teacher telling you that algebra builds on itself.

You learn one step at a time.

Then, you apply all the steps together to get the answer to a more complex equation.

Well, physics is like that, to some degree.

Unfortunately, instead of combining simple steps, you’ll be combining different mathematical approaches.

For instance, you might use calculus and algebra in a single physics course.

If calculus and algebra were challenging courses for you, then physics may be a problem.

You’ll have to master a number of difficult concepts before taking physics.

That alone can be enough to dissuade most students from ever signing up for a physics class.

Physics Has Both Classroom And Lab Work

Like any other academic discipline, college physics requires a traditional classroom education.

You’ll have lectures, textbooks, homework assignments, and other work typically associated with your ordinary college course.

You’ll also have lab work consisting of experiments.

Like chemistry, physics requires you to put your work into practice.

You have to go beyond the theoretical and get into actually putting your studies to work.

Some people love the idea of a hands-on approach.

They appreciate being able to use the principles they’ve learned to conduct actual experiments and simulate what would happen in a more realistic environment.

Others, however, will be intimidated by physics lab work, and prefer to bury their heads in the books.

In order to succeed in a college physics course, you’ll need to be prepared to thrive in both environments.

You’ll have to be able to attend lectures and absorb the information shared by professors.

You’ll also need to be able to work independently, completing the assigned reading and homework exercises.

Finally, when it comes to lab work, memorization isn’t good enough.

You’ll have to really understand what you’ve learned and successfully conduct experiments.

This means you’ll be dealing with more than reading and putting pen to paper.

You’ll have to hypothesize, plan, execute that plan, and then gather the information that supports or disproves your hypothesis.

Then, you’ll need to analyze all the data and come to a conclusion.

While college physics shares many similarities to other university classes, it’s far from ordinary.

You’ll have to be prepared for anything, and you can all but guarantee that if you enroll in college physics, it’ll be far from a walk in the park.

Those seeking easy A’s should not go anywhere near the physics department.

Though challenging, those who do opt for physics seem to find it interesting and fulfilling.

The combination of classroom work and lab work keeps things interesting and varied.

Physics Can Often Transcend Reality

One of the other reasons many people find physics difficult is it’s often at odds with reality.

You probably associate physics with concepts that we often don’t really understand, like time, space, speed, gravity, and astronomy.

These concepts are far from simple.

While there are some real-world applications, these concepts are often well outside the realm of what we can perceive.

In many instances, that’s the point of physics.

While we can’t necessarily make an object move 10,000 miles per hour, physics can predict the outcomes of experiments we don’t have the means of conducting.

Physics allows us to scale ideas to proportions that far exceed what we see in normal circumstances on Earth.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that physics is difficult.

In some ways, physics is the most basic building block of science.

That might sound simple, but many people actually find the microscopic view much more difficult to grasp.

Most people are pretty intimidated by chemistry, which is understandable.

Chemistry is all about experimentation with chemicals, the periodic table, and atomic weights.

However, what is chemistry ultimately?

Chemistry doesn’t exist without physics.

What makes chemicals react and form heat?

That happens through movement, which is driven by physics.

While you can see the result of an experiment in a chemistry lab, that might not be so easy with physics.

You might understand the concept, but it could be very difficult to visualize something that isn’t right in front of you.

If you’re a visual learner, physics might be a real challenge for you.

If you’re comfortable with math and have a strong understanding of chemistry, physics might be a great fit.

Just remember that physics isn’t always what it seems.

Sure, you can picture how gravity works by dropping a ball.

You can even enjoy watching a video of a rocket ship taking off and bursting into space.

However, sometimes, you have to operate in a world that doesn’t really exist.

We’re talking about ideas like quantum physics and astrophysics.

This involves exploring the unknown or things so small we have to use our imagination and think of the smallest thing we can and aggressively divide it in half a few million times.

Physics isn’t like biology, where we can see the composite cells at work.

It’s not like chemistry where you can mix the contents of various beakers together to achieve your desired result.

Physics will ask you to go macro—bigger than anything you can conceive.

Then, it will push you to do the opposite.

You have to be prepared to not only be imaginative but also an absolute math whiz.

How Hard Is College Physics Compared To High School Physics?

In general, a college course will be more rigorous than a class on the same or a similar subject at the high school level.

Right off the bat, you can expect a college physics course to be pretty challenging.

College professors expect a lot of their students.

While a majority of people in the United States graduate from high school, the same cannot be said of college.

In fact, only around 32 percent of the population of the United States holds a college degree.

Colleges know that.

Those diplomas aren’t free, and professors at the college level will be serious about their work.

While some professors work closely with students to help them succeed, others will flunk those who fail to perform.

Many professors in physics, chemistry, and mathematics are known for being tough.

It’s not uncommon for 50% of a class to drop an introductory chemistry or physics course.

In high school, teachers will likely have lower expectations regarding student performance.

Also, since public high schools strive for higher graduation rates, the teachers are generally more concerned with every student succeeding.

Many students in college physics will often find themselves in a weed-out or weeder class.

An informal term, the weeder class refers to those courses specifically designed to drive away the faint of heart.

Most often, these classes are extremely difficult, and only the sharpest, hardest-working students survive.

Don’t be surprised if there’s an introductory weed-out physics course at your college.

The dynamic in the college classroom is simply different than that of a high school classroom or lab.

In high school, physics is generally a mandatory course.

In college, students will choose to enroll in physics.

Additionally, students in a college physics class will likely all have succeeded in high school physics.

As a result, the standards of a collegiate physics course are raised, and with that comes the expectation that the students will rise to the occasion.

Finally, one more major difference between high school and college physics is the course length.

In high school, you might have physics for several months.

You’ll take your time and go over each topic in digestible chunks.

In college, the semesters are shorter and the classes less frequent.

You’ll be expected to cover more topics on your own, and in less time.

If you did well in high school physics, you’ve probably got the brains to succeed in college.

The only questions remaining are how badly you want it, and how hard you’re willing to work for it.

It Depends On The Course You Take…

No two courses are alike in college.

Therefore, answering the question of how hard college physics is can be a real challenge.

If you’re taking introductory physics, you may find it completely manageable.

Take a 200- or 300-level physics course and you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed.

If you find yourself in a quantum physics or astrophysics class, you could be transported to a different world.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to provide a simple answer to the question of how hard college physics is.

The particular course you choose will determine (in part) how challenging a time you’ll have.

Some courses may be more general in nature, and thus more manageable.

Other courses will be highly specific and require prerequisites and special permission just to enroll.

It should also go without saying that every professor is different.

There are a number of different teaching styles, and each professor will have his or her own unique approach to teaching physics.

You might find that the same Physics 101 class can completely change based on who’s teaching it.

Some professors will have a reputation for allowing students to coast through with a perfunctory effort.

Fair warning: you’re not likely to find many (or any) of these in the physics department.

Some professors will be wonderful teachers, leaders, and mentors, and will seamlessly impart information to their students.

Other professors seem to take pride in watching students suffer, seldom awarding anything higher than a B+.

The same course doesn’t always mean the same degree of difficulty.

Conduct your research and determine which professor is the best fit for you.

Speaking to fellow students on campus will go a long way in learning more about a professor’s coursework, style, and reputation.

… And the School You Attend

Lastly, the institution at which the course is taught will be an important determinant of how hard a course is.

It goes without saying that a school like the California Institute of Technology is going to be hard.

Some schools specialize in physics or have a reputation for academic rigor.

They got those reputations for a reason, and they likely intend to keep them.

These schools will go to great lengths to make their physics courses challenging.

Of course, a class that is designed to be hard will most likely be hard.

You can also expect that if you’re taking a physics course at a school that is known for the subject, they’ll have professors who have high expectations and will push students to make sure everyone is adequately challenged.

It Depends How Much You Enjoy it

Everyone’s different and has different strengths and weaknesses.

We also all have different preferences—things we like to do and things we don’t like to do.

For someone who despises physics, a physics course will likely be very difficult.

This is for the same reason that anyone anywhere doing anything he or she doesn’t like will suffer.

As humans, we’re designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Sure, we can do things we don’t like, and most of us do just that every day, but it’s hard.

People who don’t like to run will almost always find running difficult.

People who don’t like physics will likely feel the same way about physics.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart or able to succeed.

For someone who enjoys physics, even if they aren’t the best at it, it may not be all that hard.

How much you like physics may be the best way to determine how hard it will be for you.

Even if you struggle to succeed in physics, you might not find it hard.

Alternatively, you might find it very difficult even if you’re doing well and able to complete assignments in record time.

Relativity makes it difficult to gauge how hard physics really is.

If you love the subject, it may not feel like much work at all, despite your devotion of many hours to overcome its obstacles and challenges.

If you’re a natural-born genius but hate physics, you might find it the exact opposite.

Really, it depends on how you measure how difficult college physics is.

If you’re comparing it to other classes, it’s likely to be rated as very difficult.

If you ask students on any college campus, they’ll probably tell you it’s an incredibly hard class.

If you ask someone who loves physics and is majoring in it, you might hear a different answer.

Every student will have a different opinion on how hard college physics is.

Conclusion

Perception is the only truly reliable way to assess how difficult college physics is.

Of course, there are other factors, like those mentioned earlier.

No two opinions will ever be alike.

What one person thinks is easy may be the most challenging thing in the world to another.

Each of us has a different perspective, and can only really understand things we experience for ourselves.

A firsthand account of students who have taken physics courses in college is a great place to start, but by no means will it determine the experience you have.

If you value the law of large numbers and popular opinion, you can say college physics is hard.

However, it all depends on what your measure of hard is going to be.

Will difficulty be determined by the amount of time you put in?

Will it be measured by how many people fail the course?

You’ll have to figure out the answer to that question for yourself.

However, if you’re looking for the easy answer, college physics will likely be considered among the hardest courses available at any college.

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