Taking AP Computer Science is a great accomplishment, it’s the next level in your computer science coursework and gives you exposure to college-level classes.
AP Computer Science is a great stepping stone towards a degree in computer science or an academic way to explore your interest in technology and coding. This article summarizes the benefits of taking and passing the AP Computer Science exams, provides a brief overview of each exam and some helpful, free resources to practice and study for the exams and tips for the best way to utilize resources to reap the most benefits.
Comparing the Two AP Computer Science Courses
There are two AP Exams students can consider in Computer Science – the AP Computer Science exam A (APCSA), and the AP Computer Science Principles exam (APCSP). The AP Computer Science A exam utilizes the programming language Java. The AP Computer Science Principles exam is not language-specific.
Earning college credit by passing the AP Computer Science (APCSA) exam or AP Computer Science Principles Exam isn’t easy – and even if you do pass the exam, there’s no guarantee you’ll be given college credit for your efforts if you score less than a five on the test. According to figures published by the AP College Board, less than one third of students who took the APCS exams in 2019 scored a five on the test. Possible scores range from one (the lowest) to five (the highest).
Although a score of three on the exam is considered “passing”, many colleges and universities won’t grant credit for anything under a five. So, what are the advantages of taking an AP class and passing with a five? Even if your college or university doesn’t grant credit for your AP scores, your GPA can be raised enough by taking an AP course to get you accepted into a university you might otherwise not qualify for. Successfully passing an AP course with a high exam score looks impressive on any university application and is taken into account during course placement. Although credit may not be granted, you may be able to skip some lower-level classes due to your coursework and exam scores.
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2021 Score Distributions: Math & Computer Science
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AP Computer Science A is ideal for individuals who wish to pursue a career in areas like engineering, software development and web design. It is a great choice for students who plan to pursue a college major in computer science.
AP Computer Science Principles is ideal for students who are less interested in Java or who would like a big picture view of computing. It can be an excellent choice for various careers and majors, including economics, library and information science, and physics.
Both computer science classes have a great deal to offer high school students. Since they vary in several important ways, students should research each course before enrolling. Even if your high school does not offer the class you decide on, remember that you may be able to take it online.
To find out more about the new AP Computer Science Principles course, for example, browse this detailed PDF provided by the College Board. Knowing the changes to the course can help you decide if it will be a suitable choice for you.
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Know What’s On the AP Computer Science Exam
Knowing the information and having the skills to pass the test won’t get you to the finish line unless you are adept at answering the questions correctly. Knowing the format of both the APCSA and APCSP exams is a critical piece of information so you won’t be surprised by the format of the test. The AP Central website has excellent resources, including video walk-throughs, that go over the format, big ideas, topics and unit-by-unit breakdowns of the course work. The video walk-through also points out the weighting for each unit on the exam.
Some useful sites explaining the format and content of the exams are provided in the Exam Format section of this article.
Concepts Covered in APCS-A Exam
This course framework provides a description of the course requirements necessary for student success, with a focus on big ideas that encompass core principles, theories, and processes of the discipline. The framework also encourages instruction that prepares students for advanced computer science coursework and its integration into a wide array of STEM-related fields. APCS-A teaches coding for kids using Java programming language.
The AP Computer Science A framework is organized into 10 commonly taught units of study that provide one possible sequence for the course. As always, you have the flexibility to organize the course content as the teacher or student prefers.
More detailed information can be found in this PDF provided by the AP College Board.
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AP Computer Science Exam Format
The AP college board has changed the format of both exams, based on feedback from computer science teachers. Beginning with the 2020 exams, students can expect the following for the exam formats:
APCS-A Exam Format and Weighting:
Section I: Multiple Choice
The AP Computer Science A Exam multiple-choice includes mainly individual questions. There are 1 or 2 sets of multiple questions, typically 2-3 questions per set.
Computational Thinking Practices 1, 2, 4, and 5 are included in the multiple choice, while Computational Thinking Practice 3 is not.
Section II: Free-Response
The second section of the AP Computer Science A Exam includes four free-response questions, all of which assess Computational Thinking Practice 3: Code Implementation. All five skills are assessed within these four types of free-response questions:
Free-response question 1: Methods and Control Structures
Free-response question 2: Class
Free-response question 4: Array/ArrayList
Free-response question 5: 2D Array
APCS-P Exam Format and Weighting:
The AP Computer Science Principles computational thinking practices are assessed on the AP Exam as detailed below.
Section I: Multiple Choice
The AP Computer Science Principles Exam multiple-choice section has 70 total questions, including 65 individual questions and one set of five questions that uses a reading passage about a computing innovation as a stimulus. All computational thinking practices except Computational Thinking Practice 6 are assessed in the multiple-choice section, with the following exam weighting:
Section II: Create Performance Task
The second section of the AP Computer Science Principles Exam is done throughout the course. The performance task assesses Computational Thinking Practices 1, 2, 3, and 4 across six rubric rows.
Row 1: Program Purpose and Function assesses students’ ability to explain how a
code segment or program functions. (Skill 4.A)
Row 2: Data Abstraction assesses students’ ability to use abstraction to manage
complexity in a program. (Skill 3.B)
Row 3: Managing Complexity assesses students’ ability to explain how abstraction
manages complexity. (Skill 3.C)
Row 4: Procedural Abstraction assesses students’ ability to use abstraction to
manage complexity in a program. (Skill 3.B)
Row 5: Algorithm Implementation assesses students’ ability to implement and
apply an algorithm. (Skill 2.B)
Row 6: Testing assesses students’ ability to investigate the situation, context, or
task. (Skill 1.A)
A note of interest: the end-of-year multiple-choice exam APCSP. The 2021 end-of-year exam for AP Computer Science Principles will contain 70 multiple-choice questions rather than 74. The questions will continue to be single-select items, which involve choosing one answer from among four options, and multiple-select items, which involve picking two answers from four options. However, some will be more complex, requiring students to consider the data and the effects of certain computing innovations.
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Concepts Covered in APCS-P Exam
The AP Computer Science Principles Exam assesses student understanding of the computational thinking practices and learning objectives outlined in the course framework. The exam consists of the Create performance task and an end-of-course AP Exam. The Create performance task requires at least 12 hours of dedicated class time for students to complete. The end-of course exam is 2 hours long and includes 70 multiple-choice questions. The multiple-choice section will include three different types of questions (in the following order on the exam): single-select questions, single-select questions with a reading passage about a computing innovation, and multi-select questions. As part of the exam, students will be given the Exam Reference Sheet (see Appendix), which contains both block-based and text-based programming constructs and establishes a common way to communicate programming concepts for the purpose of the exam. The details of the exam, including weighting and timing, can be found below:
AP Computer Science Exam Study Tips:
Tips for Getting the Most out of Practice Exams
Practice tests really help you feel prepared and be prepared for your exams. The feeling of preparation and confidence as you start the exam shouldn’t be discounted. Students who prepare for an exam feel less stressed and more confident – which naturally leads to higher grades. There are several free practice test sites available for both AP Computer Science exams. The best way to utilize a practice exam (multiple-choice, or free-form) is to pay attention to your results as you go along. Frantically re-taking the practice test without a plan of how to improve your understanding of the questions does you no good.
For all kinds of practice exams, create a paper or online notebook with the questions you answered incorrectly, along with their correct answers. Evaluate why you got the answer incorrect and make a note to yourself about what skills you need to strengthen or what concepts you need to revisit. Take the time to build the skills and knowledge needed by researching and thinking about how to improve. After you feel you’ve revisited skills and concepts, try taking the practice test again. This is a time consuming process, but reaps the best rewards when it comes to taking the actual exams. This same process works really well for tests outside of the AP exams as well.
There are many paid test preparation sites which also include practice tests, but this article focuses on free resources. If you are enrolled in an AP class at school, your teacher may have additional resources for you.
Practice Multiple-Choice Questions
For the multiple choice questions you will be given a question and answers A-E to select from. Make sure you understand exactly what the question is asking. Evaluate the question to each answer and narrow down your responses. Eliminate the wrong answers and choose from the remaining answers for the one that best answers the question.
Practice Free-Response Questions
For the free-response questions, you will be given a prompt and be expected to write a short program. You will call methods of classes that you have not seen before, so practice identifying the proper parameters to use when calling methods of classes that are provided to you. Pay close attention to the method descriptions and use correct type and order of parameters when calling methods.
- AP College Board APCSA Past Exam Questions
- CodeHS practice problems
- Smore’s list of APCS resources and practice tests
AP Computer Science Study Resources
We’ve vetted these free APCS-A resources to assist students in practicing exams or reviewing the content and types of questions they’ll see on the exams themselves. The AP College Board continues to add valuable videos as resources every month to help students during these particularly challenging times of remote learning.
AP CSA Free Practice Exam Resources
APCSP Practice Exam Resources:
There are some resources available which are not practice exams or direct content, but can be useful to students taking the APCS-A course. Watching the videos on YouTube can give students insight into what areas they need to invest more time into studying. More videos are being posted each month, so it’s a good idea to check YouTube frequently for new additions.
APCSP NMSI Playlist on YouTube
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CodeWizardsHQ’s AP Computer Science Program Prepares Students for the AP Exam Course
The AP Computer Science A classes are challenging. CodeWizardsHQ courses provide students with the foundational coding and programming skills required to successfully complete these courses. Students who already have the foundational skills in coding and programming will have a much easier time making sense of the content of the AP Computer Science A course and the accompanying exams. Students who have completed CodeWizardsHQ courses have the foundational coding skills and knowledge needed, which allows them to concentrate on classwork and practice exams and strengthen weaker content areas.
See our AP Computer Science program.
Good luck in AP Computer Science
Whichever class you’re taking, it’s a step forward in your computer science education and we commend you for that. You’ll learn the problem-solving and logical thinking to succeed in whatever you do next. We wish you the best of luck in your class and on the final test.