Due to the importance of education (and high grades), students often seek over-simplified answers to questions like: “Is physics harder than chemistry?”
And, we should tell you from the outset that there is no easy, universally-true answer to this question. Instead, it depends on individual differences, as well as differences between one course and the next.
If you are mathematically inclined and capable of grasping challenging concepts, physics may actually be easier than chemistry. But if you prefer rote memorization rather than calculations, chemistry will probably be easier to learn.
Additionally, the level (high school or college) makes a tremendous difference.
Even at the college level, there is a massive discrepancy in course difficulty based on whether you are taking a 100-level course or a 700-level course.
It also matters whether the course is intended for general audiences (like humanities majors that need a physical science credit) or specialists (like senior physics majors that are applying for Ph.D. programs in Physics).
Quick Definition of Each
Physics, in over-simplified terms, is “the science of matter, motion, and energy.” This is an abridged definition according to Britannica.
Chemistry, in over-simplified terms, is “the science that deals with the properties, composition, and structure of substances, the transformations they undergo, and the energy that is released or absorbed.” This is an abridged definition according to Britannica.
Quick Answer: Is Physics Harder than Chemistry?
It is impossible to say whether physics is “harder” than chemistry.
Because physics generally requires more math and complex reasoning, many students consider it harder.
However, chemistry also requires complex thinking, in addition to a tremendous amount of rote memorization.
Generally speaking, physics will be easier for a student that is mathematically inclined but struggles with rote memorization. Chemistry will be easier for a student that struggles with math but excels at memorizing information efficiently.
In high school, it depends whether the class is AP, Honors, or a regular course offering.
In college, the relative difficulty depends on the level of course you are taking.
For example, taking a physics class that is designed for engineering majors will be more challenging than taking a beginner chemistry class that is designed for social science majors.
Alternatively, taking a Physical Chemistry course that is full of senior chem majors will be significantly tougher than taking an Intro to Physics course that is full of elementary education majors.
Lastly, “chemistry” and “physics” are not particular courses, but instead are fields of study that include foundational courses all the way up to graduate-level courses. So taking a freshman introductory course in General Physics or General Chemistry is going to be much different than an upper level Quantum Physics or Organic Chemistry course.
Argument that Physics is Harder
For anyone that finds mathematics particularly challenging, physics is likely to be “harder.” While chemistry incorporates mathematics as well, calculations are entirely inescapable in physics.
A tough physics test question is essentially a combination of calculus plus a word problem.
For anyone that is prone to miscalculations and “dumb mistakes,” physics will be similarly challenging. Many of the formulas are complex, and the calculations are challenging to memorize. Therefore, committing any tiny error is likely to result in your answer being incorrect.
Because concepts are so important in physics, it is much more challenging to obtain a “passable” level of knowledge.
There will always be a lot of students that ace a physics exam, and a lot of students that fail it, because it is hard to “kinda” understand physics — either you know it or you don’t.
Chemistry and the life sciences, on the other hand, require more rote memorization and therefore are easier to achieve an adequate level of proficiency. In other words, if you “mostly” know the material on a chemistry test review, you can approach a test with confidence.
Argument that Chemistry is Harder
For anyone that excels in grasping mathematical concepts but struggles with the minutiae of memorizing small details, chemistry is likely to be “harder.”
Intelligent students, particularly engineering students and the mathematically inclined, are often able to conceptualize and memorize a few key concepts and formulas and achieve success in a physics course. There are many brilliant slackers that can grasp physics rapidly.
Alternatively, these students may struggle with the tremendous amount of memorization of details that is needed to succeed in chemistry.
At its toughest, chemistry combines challenging concepts of mathematics with difficult concepts of biology and life sciences. Like physics, there are also a number of challenging sub-fields of the larger study of chemistry.
Lastly, many students can attest to the difficulty of chemistry labs. Often there is a hands-on component that is tedious, challenging, and time consuming.
At many colleges, organic chemistry lab sessions can exceed 4 hours. And that doesn’t even mention the many hours of pre-lab and post-lab work required.
Other Considerations: AP, Honors, Engineering Physics, Pre-Med Chemistry
Ultimately, there is just too much variation in individual courses to be able to declare that physics is “easier” or “harder” than chemistry.
In high school, it is mathematically “easier” to score highly on the AP test for physics than it is for chemistry.
But this is likely a function of either: (A) the difficulty of the exam itself, rather than the course, or (B) the type of students that tend to take the exam.
In college, both physics and chemistry become wildly challenging, particularly at the upper levels.
Some students, particularly engineering majors, will tell you that a 100-level physics course is so easy that it may be boring. But at the same time, these students would likely struggle with an Organic Chemistry course that is designed for future medical doctors or chemists.
The rigor of a course is usually relative to the “level” of students that are enrolled. So, this is one area where it may actually be wise to compare yourself to your peers.
I wouldn’t want to sit next to a bunch of math geniuses in an Engineering Physics course, but a 700-level Physical Chemistry exam won’t be a picnic, either.
It is truly impossible to say that physics is “harder” or “easier” than chemistry.
Upper-level courses like Quantum Physics and Physical Chemistry are challenging for even the best and brightest students. The study of physics and chemistry can truly be as “hard” as you make it.
Generally, students that are gifted at mathematics will find physics to be “easier” than chemistry, while students that are conscientious and skilled at rote memorization will have an “easier” time with chemistry.
Rather than focusing on which class is harder, you should think about which subject you need to learn, which subject you want to learn, and why you are studying either or both.