The AP Computer Science A exam is one of the APs most commonly taken as a self-study test. Although many students enroll in the class, this particular exam is also well-suited to self-studying due to its heavy emphasis on coding and highly specific theory. Students who are interested in writing code and generally perform well independently are often successful self-studiers on this exam. If you are interested in taking the AP Computer Science A exam, whether you have taken the class or are planning to self-study, read on for a breakdown of the test and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare for it.

About the Exam

The AP Computer Science A course explores problem solving, hardware, algorithms, and the ways in which people utilize computers effectively to address real-world problems. In order to understand the material, students should be comfortable with basic algebra before they take the class or commence self-studying. Successful students will become familiar with “problem solving, design strategies and methodologies, organization of data (data structures), approaches to processing data (algorithms), analysis of potential solutions, and the ethical and social implications of computing.” Because computer science is a rapidly changing field, students should ensure that they prepare for the test with the most current materials available.

The AP Computer Science A exam is one of the longer exams, clocking in at three hours and comprised of two sections. The first section takes one hour and 30 minutes, contains 40 multiple-choice questions, and accounts for 50% of your total score. The second section also takes one hour and 30 minutes, contains four free-response questions, and accounts for the remaining 50% of your score.

In 2016, 64.3% of students who took the AP Computer Science A exam received a score of 3 or higher. Only 20.7% of students received the top score of 5, while 23.1% scored a 1 on the exam. Most students did better on multiple-choice questions than they did on free-responses.

Keep in mind, credit and advanced standing based on AP scores varies widely from school to school. Regulations regarding which APs qualify for course credits or advanced placement at specific colleges and universities can be found here.

A full course description that can help to guide your studying and understanding of the knowledge required for the test can be found in the College Board course description.

Read on for tips for preparing for the exam.

Step 1: Assess Your Skills

Before you can make a solid study plan, you’ll need to get a good idea of your starting point. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying off on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine article What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?

Take a practice test to assess your initial knowledge of the material. Although the College Board AP Computer Science A website provides a number of sample test questions, it does not provide a complete sample test. There is, however, one complete practice test with scoring guide provided on the College Board AP Computer Science A teacher website. You can also find practice tests in many of the commercial study guides, and some even include a diagnostic test to act as your initial assessment.

Step 2: Study the Theory

In the case of the AP Computer Science A exam, you will need to master the basics of computer science and its application in a variety of computing and STEM-related tasks. This will include the following concept areas:

  • Object-oriented program design
  • Program implementation
  • Program analysis
  • Standard data structures
  • Standard operations and algorithms
  • Computing in context

One important thing to remember is that all code used and written on the test will be consistent with the Java AP subset. Details can be found in Appendix A of the course description.

The course content also relies heavily on labs. Lab requirements typically draw “heavily upon theory, formal logic, abstract data structures, and a conceptual understanding of algorithms.” You must gain significant experience applying the theory to practical problem-solving. As you design data structures and develop algorithms, you should use core course content to test hypotheses and explore alternative approaches. There are several example labs available on the College Board AP Computer Science A teacher website.

You will likely need some study resources to help you as you tackle this content. The Be Prepared for the AP Computer Science Exam in Java textbook is generally regarded as the most comprehensive guide, designed specifically for the AP class. Some criticize it for having too much information, but an actual AP exam reader who is also a consultant to the College Board wrote it, so you can be certain that it covers all of the material necessary for the exam. For information that is presented more concisely, you might consider the Barron’s AP Computer Science A, 7th Edition study guide. The College Board also offers some exam and practice tips.

In addition, there are tons of study resources available online, including many from AP teachers who have posted comprehensive outlines and study guides. As you cull through these, just be certain that you are choosing up-to-date information, since this exam changes frequently.

Another new, fun way to study is to use one of the recently developed apps for AP exams. These range in price from $0.99 to $4.99, but they provide a fun and easy way to quiz yourself. Make sure you read reviews before choosing one — their quality varies widely.

Step 3: Practice Multiple Choice Questions

Once you have your theory down, test it out by practicing multiple-choice questions. You can find these in most study guides or through online searches. You could also try taking the multiple-choice section of a practice exam. Many sample questions with answers and explanations can be found in the official course description. Others can be found in your study guides. Try to keep track of which concepts are still tripping you up, and go back over this material again.

Step 4: Practice Free Response Questions

The free-response portion of the AP Computer Science A Exam is different from most AP exams. It essentially asks you to use your knowledge of course content and the AP Java subset to write code that meets certain criteria, solves problems, or accomplishes a designated task. To do this, you will need to be very familiar with coding, how it is notated, and how to use it.

Also, remember when writing code that the exam wants you to produce a program that can be applied generally, not one that is specific to the numbers in the question. Leave specific numbers, strings, or dimensions of arrays out of your programs. 

All of the free-response prompts will have multiple parts to them. Underline each section of the question and check the sections off as you answer them. Students often lose points by forgetting to include one part of a multipart question. Also, be sure that each part is explicitly labeled in your answer. For example, write 1(a), 1(b), 1(c), etc. to denote each section of your answer.

In addition, at least attempt to answer each section of every question and to write at least some code for it. No points will be rewarded for sections that you did not attempt to answer, and even partial points can significantly boost your overall score. 

Finally, if you get stumped, remember that you are not being graded on the elegance of your code. You might know that something could be simpler or more efficient, but try not to stress about getting it there. What matters is that your code functions for the task assigned, not how efficient or elegant it is. There are no extra points for fancy answers, so keep things simple and functional instead.   

Step 5: Take Another Practice Test

As you did at the very beginning of your studying, take a practice test to evaluate your progress. You should see a steady progression of knowledge you’ve accumulated, and it’s likely that you will see patterns identifying which areas have improved the most and which areas still need improvement.

If you have time, repeat each of the steps above to incrementally increase your score.

Step 6: Exam Day Specifics

In 2017, the AP Computer Science A Exam will be administered on Tuesday, May 2 at 8 AM.   

For complete registration instructions, check out CollegeVine’s How to Register for AP Exams (Even If You Didn’t Take the Class).

For information about what to bring to the exam, see CollegeVine’s What Should I Bring to My AP Exam (And What Should I Definitely Leave at Home)?

Preparing for any AP exam can be a stressful process for enrolled AP students and self-studiers alike. Having a specific study plan and a firm grasp of the test’s format and content will help you to feel prepared and score well. Use this CollegeVine Ultimate Guide to the AP Computer Science A Exam to shape your understanding of the test and to study for it effectively. On test day, you should feel prepared and informed about the test in front of you!

If you feel like you still need more help or you are not sure that you can do it on your own, look no further. For personalized AP tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the exam can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

For more about APs, check out these CollegeVine posts:

Can AP Tests Actually Save You Thousands of Dollars?

Should I Take AP/IB/Honors Classes?

How to Choose Which AP Courses and Exams to Take

What If My School Doesn’t Offer AP or IB Courses?

Are All APs Created Equal in Admissions?

Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist