Academic Group 4 Subjects Tips

How to ace HL Physics Papers? (Part 1)

This is the first of 2 part series where I will go in-depth into how you can ace your IB HL Physics papers!

Exam format:

PaperTime allocationQuestion typeMarks
11 hourMultiple-choice 40
22 hours 15 minutesShort-answer90

A subject I loved, a paper I dreaded

I can vouch for any HL Physics students out there and say that the HL Physics papers are the hardest in the IB. Even leading up to my final IB exams, I still struggled to complete the past papers. In this article, I hope to share the strategies I used to maximise my score for these papers.

Before the papers

Grade boundaries

Grade boundaries are the lowest scores you need to get in order to attain that grade. For example, if the grade boundary for a 7 is 80:

If you score…The grade you get…

It is so important that before you go to take your paper that you know what the past year’s grade boundaries are. Unlike the other group 4 subjects, the grade boundaries for Physics tend to be very low (around 65-73 for a grade 7). This is testament to the difficulty of the paper!

Knowing that the paper is a tough one, you don’t need to worry about trying to score full marks in order to get a grade 7. Although you should still try to finish the paper, don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to be perfect. 

During my prelim exams, I was unable to finish some questions, only doing certain parts. However, I managed to get some marks from the portions I completed and it slowly added up. Ultimately, I was still able to get a good grade.

Data booklet

The data booklet contains all the formulas that you will need to use during the exam. It is essential that you use this during your practices so you know where to find the formulas you want to use during the exam.

The formulas in the data booklet only contain letters and numbers. You must remember what each of these variables represents so that you can use it during the exam. (This annotated data booklet might come in handy during your revision!)

Be careful of variables in different topics which use the same letter.

  • For example: ‘v’ in chapter 2 refers to Final Velocity, while ‘V’ in chapter 5 refers to Potential.

During the exam, questions may require you to use multiple equations. Learn how to work with formulas from different topics.

  • For example:
  1. You may use this formula in chapter 10 to calculate work done: W = qVe
  2. From this, you can calculate potential, using a formula in chapter 5: V = Wq

W in both equations refer to the same thing (work done) so the answer from step 1 will be the input for step 2.

Things to bring

  • Calculator: for paper 2
  • Long ruler: for drawing graphs and diagrams
  • Protractor: though rare, you may need to measure angles and use trigonometry for some questions

Paper 1

A 1-hour paper worth 40 marks with 40 multiple-choice questions.

Time crunch

60 minutes for 40 MCQs is really not a lot of time. If you get stuck on a question, skip the question. Circle it so that you know you need to get back to it later. The question booklet is not evaluated by the IB, so feel free to annotate and mark it during the paper!

Since all questions have the same weightage, easy or hard, they will still be worth 1 mark. Attempting all questions ensures that you can gain as many free marks from the easy questions as possible. (note: not all easy questions may appear within the first few questions of the paper!)

In order to eliminate answers, looking at the decimal places or power that a value has been raised to can give you hints as to which answers might be too far off. 

  • For example: these may be the options given:  0.001, 0.01, 1103, 1.

Use units to help you

Sometimes, looking at the units might help you, even if you do not fully understand the question. 

  • For example: the answers may be 7Nm-1, 5Nm-1, 3Nm-1, 4Nm-1 

From this, you can see that the units of the final answer are Nm-1. While thinking of a solution, think of ways to calculate the force (i.e. calculating N) and look for some distance to divide it by (i.e. to get m-1)

Write down the equation

Relational questions: questions that ask how changing X variable affects Y variable. Writing down the corresponding equation can help you easily solve such questions 

Using this formula as an example: V = W/q

The question may ask how increasing q will affect V (assume W is constant).

  1. I will draw an arrow next the variable that is changed: V = W/q (with an upward arrow next to ‘q‘)
  2. From there, I use simple math to find the answer: If q increases, according to the laws of inverse proportinality with W as a constant, V will decrease.

Thus V will go down as a result of increasing q.

Writing an answer down!

There may be situations where you are running out of time but still have some questions left undone. The best thing to do is just shade any of the 4 options. Having an answer down is better than none. Even if it was a complete guess, there is a 25% chance you were right!

To boost your chances, while going through the paper, always remember to eliminate answers you know are completely wrong. This will ensure that even if you have to guess at the last minute, it will just be deciding between 2 or 3 options, rather than 4.


I hope that this article can help all you Physics students who struggle with the IB HL Physics papers! In part 2, I will be going through the strategies specific to paper 2 so do go check it out!

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