Beginner's Guide to CONTEST PHYSICS

Posted On: Sep 2, 2021


So, you want to get into contest physics but don't know where to start? Well, you've come to the right place! Below is a comprehensive guide for beginners on how to commence learning contest physics and excel at physics contests in Canada. Use the table of contents below to quickly navigate the sections of this guide.

Table of Contents

Before You Start...

If you have no experience in physics whatsoever, you should probably take a few elementary physics courses before delving into the world of physics olympiad. Unlike subjects like math olympiad, where contest topics are largely different from curriculum topics, contest physics is largely based on fundamental concepts and topics taught in school courses. However, this does not mean you should wait until your grade 11th year to start contest physics - START EARLY! There is simply not enough time to cover the amount of material required to do well in contests. A good time to start would be in grade 9.

If you haven't taken any physics courses at school or elsewhere, grade 11 and grade 12 physics is an absolute requirement. Many contest physics problems test your fundamental knowledge and understanding of basic topics, so ensure you fully understand the material taught in your grade 11&12 physics classes. These topics include kinematics, dynamics, E&M, and optics. Although you may not go into too much depth material-wise during these courses, you will begin to develop the "physics mindset", a crucial aspect to understanding harder concepts.

Furthermore, a vital requirement for physics contest is AP Physics 1&2. If you've taken these exams (and scored a 5), you should be comfortable solving elementary contest physics questions and excel at grade 11 physics competitions (such as the OAPT). The material taught in AP Physics 1&2 is simply an extension of grade 12 physics, and should take only 1-3 months to master. Particular areas of focus include optics and thermodynamics, topics that are only skimmed through in school.

However, to answer higher-level problems (such as the CAP), you should attain a basic understanding of calculus-based physics*. A good starting point should be learning the material from AP Physics C (Mechanics and Electricity & Magnetism). The AP Physics C courses are usually the first major hurdles for those wanting to learn contest physics, as the content is much more in-depth than any school course (or AP course). Moreover, much of the course revolves around the usage of calculus, so ensure you have a strong conceptual understanding of limits, derivatives, and integrals - after all, physics is effectively applied calculus!

Although you may not need to master everything in the Physics C syllabus to earn a 5, everything in the syllabus is crucial for learning contest physics. Rotational motion, magnetism, complex circuit analysis and relativity are all new concepts that are introduced in Physics C, and you'll find contest questions commonly test these topics. If you're struggling to understand these foreign concepts, don't worry - continue to practice until you've developed a framework for your understanding. This framework will come in handy when you start contests!

If you've learned AP Physics 1, 2, and C, as well as AP Calculus BC, you're all set! You should be able to fully understand solutions to contest physics problems, and you'll be on your way to achieving success in competition. Check out the next section to see how you can start improving!

*The more you learn physics, the more you will realize the importance and prevalence of calculus in solving problems, perceiving certain concepts, and simplifying conditions. Quickly computing derivatives, integrals, and solving differential equations are common tools utilized in numerous problems, so ensure your mathematical knowledge is not dragging you down. A good foundation would be AP Calculus BC.

How to Improve

The best way to improve is to first learn the concepts using textbooks and then doing problems. Check out the resources section below for recommended textbooks at each level. Check out the collection of past papers for the contest you're preparing for, and pretend like you're doing the real thing. However, it's important to ensure you're doing problems at the right difficulty. If you're having trouble understanding the solutions, you should probably do questions of an easier contest, and work your way up.

Make sure you fully understand a problem and its solution before moving on - if you're confused by a certain phrase or equation, it's probably because your understanding of a concept is flawed, there's a gap in your knowledge, or you don't understand the math. If this is the case, go back to your notes, research the topic, and make sure you know the reason why you couldn't understand the solution previously.

If you cannot solve a problem, do not immediately read through the entire solution. Read the first few lines to see if you get a "eureka" moment, and then try to solve the problem. This way, you're actually solving the problem and learning, instead of just trying to understand the solution.

For easier contests, such as the Physics Bowl and OAPT, you might be able to get away with some gaps in your knowledge and just remembering some formulas. However, for national contests, such as the CAP, you must fully understand every concept in order to do well.

If you're looking for a more expansive and comprehensive approach to learning physics, you can check out some physics textbooks listed in the resource section below. These textbooks often have sections explaining fundamental concepts, followed by exercises for you to practice and test your knowledge.

Whether it's studying from textbooks, doing past papers, or a mixture of both, you should begin to realize which studying techniques are more efficient and accustomed to your learning style.


Listed below are some resources (from introductory to olympiad level) that will help guide you throughout your learning journey. As everybody's learning styles are unique, make sure to check out a variety of resources before committing to one sole textbook or guide. However, remember that doing problems is the most efficient way of improving, no matter the source.

What Is Covered in This Section?

1) Comprehensive Textbooks

2) Subject-Specific Textbooks

3) Problem Sets and Problem Textbooks

4) Websites, Forums, and Other Resources

There are a lot of great textbooks out there, so the choices are not limited to the ones below. However, these textbooks are the most popular and widely used.

Comprehensive Textbooks

  1. Physics: Principles with Applications by Giancoli

  • Algebra-based

  • Comprehensive textbook for people who haven't learned calculus yet

  • Can be used to prepare AP Physics 1 and 2 and gain a more in-depth understanding of physics topics

  • Good starting point after you have completed grade 11 and 12 physics

  • Another alternative is Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt

    • However, Giancoli is more comprehensive, rigorous and shows the derivations of many fundamental laws/formulas (Hewitt doesn't)

    • Hewitt is easier than Giancoli

  1. Physics by Halliday, Resnick, and Krane (HRK)

    • Calculus-based

    • Very popular and widely used (even recommended by past IPhO contestants and coaches)

    • Broad textbook that covers a majority of the concepts and topics needed for contest physics

      • e.g. Mechanics, EM, Thermodynamics, Optics, Fluids, Sound and Waves and Modern Physics

    • Can be used to study for AP Physics C as well

    • If you complete this textbook + its problems thoroughly, you will have a very solid foundation for contest physics

    • There is an easier version of this book called Fundamentals of Physics by Halliday, Resnick, and Walker (HRW)

      • It is very similar to HRK, but with the hardest 1/3 material from HRK removed

      • These harder concepts covered in HRK are necessary for contest physics, so it is recommended to just use HRK

Subject Specific Textbooks

Preface: These textbooks focus specifically on one area of physics and go much more in-depth than any general physics textbook such as HRK, which makes them more difficult. However, if you truly want to do well on intermediate-level contests and even make the IPhO team in Canada, you need to put in the extra effort. You should only approach the following textbooks after you have finished HRK or an equivalent calculus-based physics textbook. You need an excellent understanding/foundation in calculus because these textbooks can be quite math-heavy. Otherwise, you might spend more time trying to understand the math than the physics. These textbooks all have an explanation/concepts section followed by problems.

  1. An Introduction to Classical Mechanics by David Morin

  • Focuses on Mechanics

  • USAPhO level (slightly harder than CAP)

  • Quite math intensive: need to know calculus very well

  • Has many classic Mechanics Problems

  • Includes great relativity chapters as well

  1. An Introduction to Mechanics by Kleppner and Kolenkow

  • Focuses on Mechanics

  • USAPhO level

  • Similar in difficulty and topics covered to Morin

  • Not as well-presented as Morin

  • You should look through Morin and K&K and decide on which one you like better. There is no point in doing both textbooks.

  1. Electricity and Magnetism (E&M) by Purcell and Morin

  • Focuses on Electricity and Magnetism

  • USAPhO-IPhO level

  • covers everything that is needed to do well on the CAP

  1. Optics by Eugene Hecht

  • Focuses on Optics

  • USAPhO-IPhO level (leaning more towards IPhO)

  • Not really needed for the CAP

    • HRK covers all the necessary Optics knowledge for the CAP and USAPhO

For topics like Thermodynamics, Relativity, Fluids, and Waves, subject-specific textbooks are way too difficult and in-depth for the CAP or even IPhO. For these topics, HRK covers 90% of the knowledge that you need. The other 10% can be gained by doing problems and past papers, and searching the concept online when you don't understand it.

Problem Sets and Problem Textbooks

For introductory contests/problem sets, no calculus-based physics is needed. For the intermediate-level contests, calculus-based physics is required.

  1. OAPT: Introductory

  • Problems can be found here

  1. Physics Bowl: Introductory

  • Problems can be found here

  1. F=ma: Introductory - Intermediate

  • Problems can be found here

  • Focused on mechanics

  • Great practice for the CAP multiple-choice section

  1. BPhO: Intermediate

  • Similar to CAP long response questions

  • Problems can be found here

  1. CAP: Intermediate

  • Problems can be found here

  • Most important contest in Canada, so these problems sets are crucial

  • You should do every single past exam and try to solve every problem

  1. USAPhO: Intermediate

  • Problems can be found here

  • Only long answer questions (no multiple-choice)

  • Slightly harder than the CAP difficulty, but it is very similar in format and style to the CAP, so it is very good practice

  • In general, the questions you use to practice should be harder than the level of the actual contest in order for you to perform well

  1. IPhO: Advanced

  • Problems can be found here

  • Much more difficult than the CAP and USAPhO

  • Style of question is different (not as straight-forward) and scope is much wider

  1. 1000 Solved Physics Problems by Kamal: Intermediate

  • Includes very classic problems

  • Covers every topic except for Relativity

  1. Problems in General Physics by I.E Irodov: Intermediate

  • Another great problem textbook

  • Includes many classic problems

  • Covers every topic needed for physics contests

  1. Jaan Kalda's Handouts by Jaan Kalda

  • F=ma to IPhO Level Problems

  • Handouts found here

  • Solutions found here

Websites, Forums, and Other Resources

If you want to learn a topic in a more comprehensive way, you should use textbooks. However, these websites and forums are great for clarifying concepts and furthering your understanding. If you don’t understand a concept, a problem, or a solution and the textbook doesn’t cover it, search online. Google is your best friend!

  1. Hyperphysics by Georgia State University

      • Wiki for numerous physics concepts and formulae

      • Discover connections between concepts/topics

      • Great for surface-level knowledge

  1. Physics StackExchange

  • Great for posting your own questions or finding solutions

  1. PhysOly Discord Server

      • Community of students interested in contest physics

      • Compilations, resources, past papers, etc.

      • Great for discussing problems and sharing advice

  1. AoPS Resource Forum

      • Comprehensive list of resources, textbooks, and guides

Contests and Opportunities

Primary Contests

The main physics contests in Canada are the Canadian Association of Physicists Prize Exam (CAP), Sir Issac Newton Exam (SIN), and the Ontario Association of Physics Teachers Contest (OAPT). The CAP is considered to be the most important one, as it is used to select members for the IPhO team. All three of these contests should be offered within your school, and registration is usually managed by your school's department of physics. For a more comprehensive list of contests and olympiads, check out our contest timeline here.

Regardless of your skill level/knowledge in physics, you should always participate in contests - it's one of the fastest ways to improve! Moreover, writing contests will improve your test-taking and time management skills, so you'll automatically do better as you become more experienced with the style of questions and how to write solutions.

Contest Difficulty

Before you register and take any contests, you should have a good idea of the scope and difficulty of the problems. We've categorized these contests based on difficulty and material.

Introductory Contests (AP Physics 1&2 Required)

  • *OAPT

  • Sir Issac Newton Contest (SIN)

  • PhysicsBowl Division I

  • F=ma

Intermediate Contests (AP Physics C and Calculus Required)

  • PhysicsBowl Division II

  • BPhO

  • CAP

  • USAPhO

Advanced Contests (University-level Physics Required)

  • IPhO

  • PhysicsCup

Again, don't let difficulty discourage you - register and take as many contests as you can!

*Although the OAPT tests only grade 11 physics knowledge, AP-level physics is recommended to do well.

Team Selection Tests

If you're looking to compete at the international level, there are 3 competitions that take place within Canada to select members for a national team.

  1. CAP

    • Used to select members of Canada's IPhO team

    • Top 5 competitors are given the opportunity to attend the International Physics Olympiad

    • In some years, around the top 15 competitors from the CAP are invited to a national training camp, where the 5 team members are selected based on their performance throughout the camp

    • However, it has been canceled numerous times in recent years due to lack of funding, so the CAP served as the team selection test in recent years

    • Must score highly on the multiple-choice ( around 20/25 or more) for your long answer questions to be marked

    • In order to have a high chance of making the team, you should get near-perfect on the Multiple-Choice and solve 2 - 2.5 long answer questions out of 3

  1. CAO

    • Used to select members of Canada's IOAA team

    • Top 5 members are given the opportunity to attend the International Olympiad in Astronomy and Astrophysics. For more information, see here

  1. CaYPT

    • Used to select members of Canada's IYPT team

    • Experimental-based problems, very different from contest physics

    • Top 5 members are given the opportunity to attend the International Young Physicists Tournament

For more information on competing at international competitions, we will be releasing a resource soon - stay tuned!