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7 Tips to Help You Win the Sir Isaac Newton Exam

Contests are a great way for a student to showcase their abilities in a time-based setting while in direct competition with their peers. Although they may be difficult to prepare for, they are an incredibly rewarding experience, especially if you are awarded any certificates or medals. Writing about these accomplishments can be a great boost for your profile when you apply to college, as admissions officers will acknowledge your skills and are more likely to accept you for your outstanding abilities.


One such competition to consider preparing for is the Sir Isaac Newton (SIN) exam, which tests on high school physics. Physics is often at the core of many STEM fields, including popular majors such as natural sciences or engineering, so exhibiting aptitude in this area by scoring high on the SIN exam may be a great opportunity for you.


Curious to learn more? Wondering what are some tips to help you excel on the exam? Read more to find out. 


What is the SIN exam? Is it prestigious?

The Sir Isaac Newton (SIN) exam is open to all high school students in the US and Canada. Hosted by the University of Waterloo, the exam attracts over 2,500 students from over 300 schools. If you're a high-school senior or junior, then you’re already in a great place for the exam, since the physics classes that you’re taking will prepare for the test material and help you study with your peers, teachers, and mentors. 


Given the high number of students who take the test every year and the challenging nature of its questions, the SIN exam is reasonably prestigious – although it is not as distinguished as more popular competitions like the International Physics Olympiad or the Physics Bowl.


Who is eligible for the SIN exam?

Students in any grade of a US or Canadian high school are eligible to partake in the SIN exam, but the contest must take place in a supervised environment, such as a teacher at your school administering the test. As long as you register properly by the deadline (assumed to be sometime in late April 2024), you would be able to take the exam in early May. 


The test is also completely free of charge, making it very accessible. 


How is the SIN exam structured?

The test will be administered online, and students will be allowed to bring their own computer or use one provided by their school. The test will last 2 hours, in which students are expected to tackle 12 questions. Each question is multiple choice, and is aimed to test on commonly-taught classical physics concepts such as calculating the force, energy, velocity, or momentum of objects. However, the tests will be more challenging than your typical high school physics exam, requiring you to read and answer the questions carefully.


How is the SIN exam scored?

The 12 questions in the SIN exam are worth 4 points each. Therefore, the maximum raw score you can gain on the exam is 48. There is no penalty for wrong answers.


What is the score I need to win awards or stand out in the SIN exam?

Because of the challenging nature of SIN’s questions, students often find it difficult to score highly on the exam. According to their website, “Few perfect papers are written and the ‘raw average score’ now ranges from 20-40%.” Therefore, it is expected that the average student will only answer a couple of questions correctly, so getting more than 50% can show aptitude in physics.


To the top 50 participants, book prizes, such as textbooks, will be given.


As for monetary rewards, several Sir Isaac Newton (SIN) Scholarships are offered annually to our incoming University of Waterloo’s Physics & Astronomy students proceeding towards an honors degree. 


These entrance scholarships pay the student up to $5,000 in year 1, and up to $1,000 in years 2 to 4. 


How do I study for the SIN exam?

Tip #1 - Build a physics framework through your schoolwork.

First, it is recommended that you prepare a firm foundation in physics in your school curriculum. Because the SIN tests students on high school physics material that you’re expected to learn in your classes, it is imperative that you pursue rigorous physics courses in your academics. While it’s possible to self-study, it may be better to learn physics concepts in the classroom with a teacher guiding you. If your school offers AP classes, consider taking AP Physics 1 and / or 2 (both algebra-based) and AP Physics C (which requires Calculus knowledge).


Tip #2 - Take the practice exams.

On the website, the SIN offers a small selection of questions that you may expect on the exam. You should definitely try the problems on your own before checking the answers. In fact, these problems may offer a diagnostic outlook on your current standing in physics – if you perform well (greater than the average 20% - 40%), then it signifies that you’re in a good place for the exam. If not, consider focusing on your classes and reviewing past physics material.


The SIN website also has available a book that covers past exams and solutions from 1969 to 1994, but comes at a cost of $20 (Canadian dollars). If you find that you need the extra help and can afford it, then it’s recommended to buy it. However, note that since book only reaches up until 1994, it may not reflect the nature of modern test questions as accurately.


There are also other resources available online that can give you the practice material you need, such as AngelFire and the Physics Teacher YouTube channel. The Physics Teacher is especially helpful since a person walking through the steps of how to solve the exam’s questions is what many students may find to be the most informative. 


Tip #3 - Retake the practice exams.

Taking the exams once is helpful, but in order for you to truly learn, retaking the exams will help you better understand the problems and enhance your memory. Studies have shown that repetition leads your brain to retain more information effectively, increase recall speed, and improve test results. 


Therefore, after going through the exams the first time, go back a second time and make note of any questions you repeatedly get wrong. Refresh yourself on past concepts you’ve learned and thoroughly study the solutions. Then, retake the exams as many times as you need – even until you get that full score!


Tip #4 - Read physics books.

If you have enough time to do so, check out physical resources that available. It can begin by perusing the physics textbook that you were assigned to read during your classes, or buying one online like the Physics Fundamentals, 2nd edition by Vincent Coletta.


There are also books on physics questions. These questions will not completely simulate the difficulty of the SIN, but will be great practice for you to solidify your understanding of certain topics. For example, Competitive Physics: Mechanics & Waves is a physics workbook published by a former Olympiad student and trainer, and is aimed to helping students excel in a competitive environment for physics. Consider picking this up if you’re looking to hone your skills in a test-based setting. 


Tip #5 - Check out formula lists and cheat sheets.

Online you can find many helpful resources on topics and formulas that are good to know during the exam. If you know the formula, you can sometimes skip the entire calculation process and find the answer directly. 


I recommend checking out University of Newcastle's Integrated Physics class cheat sheet. While you don’t need to know all of it and should not force yourself to memorize it, review the each section (especially related to classical mechanics) to remind yourself of what you know. It can also provide helpful tidbits that can come in handy during the exam.


Because of the overlap that physics olympiads can provide in helping you study for the SIN, there is also the IPhO cheat sheet that can also help guide you as well. 


Tip #6 - During the exam…

Finally, after months of extensive preparation, you are in the exam room and about to submit a real exam. What should you do?


First, you should relax and take a deep breath – no matter how ready or not ready you may feel, you’ve put in the work and effort to be there, so be confident no matter what. Being nervous or anxious won’t help your performance, so keep your head up high regardless of what score you think you’ll receive. 


Over the next 120 minutes, you should be aware of your pacing by keeping an eye on the clock or your watch. If you find yourself stuck on a problem, it’s more strategic for you to skip it and come back to it later – you’ll score more points on the problems that you know. Leave the last five to ten minutes to check your answers and most importantly, ensure that you bubbled in the right spots on your answer sheet


When checking your answers, be sure to avoid careless errors. While this may be hard to do in the heat of the moment, keep your work organized and slow down. Being messy and thinking too fast can cause logical jumps and errors. Annotating the questions, such as underlining keywords and making quick notes, can also help you from reading the problems too fast. In addition, read – and I mean read – the problems. Are you sure you interpreted the question properly? Did any questions feel suspiciously easy, like they’re hiding a tricky component? 


Tip #7 - Guessing

If you ultimately can’t find a solution to the problem, consider guessing, because there is no penalty for wrong answers. If you are able to eliminate at least one answer, then you have a higher probability of selecting the correct one. However, if you find yourself with very little time, then mark any answer down. Although the most ideal solution is to find the correct answer by working through the problem, if you’re pressed for time, consider guessing to the best of your abilities. 


Final Thoughts

With these tips in mind, you’re now ready to embark on your journey to excel in the SIN exam. No matter your score on the actual competition, you’re definitely going to improve your physics and problem-solving skills. Good luck!


One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research in STEM, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Lydia is currently a junior at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology and Economics. In high school, she was the captain of her high school’s Academic Decathlon team and attended the Governor's School of Engineering and Technology. In her spare time, she likes to create digital art while listening to music. 


Image Source: University of Waterloo logo


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