Kate Sundquist 8 min read AP Guides, Standardized Tests

The Ultimate Guide to the New AP Computer Science Principles Exam & Performance Tasks

Is your profile on track for college admissions?

Our free guidance platform determines your real college chances using your current profile and provides personalized recommendations for how to improve it.


The AP Computer Science Principles course is a new AP class, introduced in fall 2016. The 2017 exam administration will be its first. This course signals a change in direction for AP courses, as its primary emphasis builds on the students’ own backgrounds and strengths and emphasizes the importance of collaboration. Many who are used to a more rigidly structured AP course will be surprised by this class’s innovative, flexible curriculum that uses the experiences, interests, and strengths of students to shape its path.


Curious if this is the right course for you? Interested in learning more about this fun new approach to learning? Check out CollegeVine’s Introduction to the New AP Computer Science Principles Course


For more about how your work will be assessed in this course, read on for a breakdown of the assessments and CollegeVine’s advice for how you can prepare.


Looking for more personal assistance navigating the ins and outs of being a high school student and preparing for college? Check out the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program! Our trained mentors are current students at top-tier colleges who have recently been through the same experience and have valuable insight to offer as you figure out the path you’d like to pursue.


About the AP Computer Science Principles Course

The course develops computational thinking skills in the context of creative problem solving. The primary goal of the course is to “introduce students to the foundational concepts of computer science and challenge them to explore how computing and technology can impact the world.” The course seeks to broaden participation in computer science by attracting a diverse student body.


In this course, you will learn about ways to analyze and study data, work with large data sets, and draw conclusions from trends. Though the skill set you develop in this class is prescribed by the course’s core curriculum, the exact ways in which you apply your knowledge will be up to you. The College Board encourages teachers to foster student creativity in problem solving and to allow students to select the specific, real-world applications for their work.


Self-studying for this exam is logistically very difficult, though not entirely impossible. Due to the exam format, which relies on prolonged in-class, collaborative work to produce 40% of its score, you will need a teacher to facilitate the submission of your work. Your teacher will need to create an AP CSP class in the AP Digital Portfolio so that your work can be submitted for evaluation. If the class is not offered at your school and the AP coordinator is not willing to facilitate the work for you, you may enroll in an online course, or seek to enroll in the class at a nearby high school.


The evaluation format for AP Computer Science Principles reflects its commitment to individual student interests and strengths. There are two components. One component is the end-of-course exam. This exam is administered like a traditional AP exam and lasts two hours, accounting for 60% of your total score. It is a multiple-choice test consisting of 74 questions, some of which have single-select answers (only one correct answer) and others which have multiple-select answers.


The other component of the evaluation is a through-course assessment in which students use classroom time to complete two prolonged performance tasks. This portion of the evaluation is innovative in that it signals the College Board’s acknowledgement that such performance tasks “assess student achievement in more robust ways than are available on a timed exam” and there are learning objectives that are “more effectively measured in an authentic, real-world performance task.”


This is the first AP course outside of the studio arts and research/seminar programs in which through-course assessments are included in the evaluation and final AP score. One task asks you to explore the impact of computer innovations during eight hours of classroom time, accounting for 16% of your total exam score. The other task is the creation of a computational artifact through programming during 12 hours of classroom time, accounting for 24% of your total score.   


Keep in mind that 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 are available.


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


Read on for tips for preparing for the exam and performance tasks.


Step 1: Start with Assessing Your Skills

It’s a good idea to start your studying by taking a formative assessment to get an idea of strong and weak areas for you in the curriculum. To learn more about the importance of formative assessments and how you can use one to get your studying on the right foot, check out the CollegeVine’s What Is a Formative Assessment and Why Should I Use One to Study?


Because the AP Computer Science Principles course is new this year, practice and assessment materials are limited. You can start to assess your skills by using some of the practice questions available in the course description. You can also assess your skills by reviewing a sample course syllabus or the course outline given in the course description. Go through each content area and check off areas in which you know your knowledge is strong. Highlight areas in which you know you will need additional practice so that you can review them.


Once you have a rough idea of your existing skills and knowledge, make a list of content areas for review. It can be helpful to meet with your teacher or a friend at this point to discuss each big idea from the course as a way of ensuring that your assessment is accurate. An accurate formative assessment will allow you to get a better idea of where to focus your studying efforts.

CollegeVine Mentorship

Step 2: Study the Theory

In order to understand the material in the AP Computer Science Principles course, you’ll need to understand the structure of the course outline, available in the course description. The outline organizes key concepts into seven “big ideas” that you will need to master. You should know each of the “enduring understandings” (falling under each big idea) and have examples of essential knowledge to support them. To get a better idea of the curriculum frameworks, review the College Board’s video series of Overview Modules for AP Computer Science Principles Teachers.


As outlined in Introduction to the New AP Computer Science Principles, the big ideas of the AP Computer Science Principles course are:


  • Creativity
  • Abstraction
  • Data and Information
  • Algorithms
  • Programming
  • The Internet
  • Global Impact


You will also need to master six computational thinking practices. These are the practical skills used by computer scientists on a daily basis. They include:


  • Connecting Computing 
  • Creating Computational Artifacts
  • Abstracting
  • Analyzing Problems and Artifacts
  • Communicating
  • Collaborating


Due to its recent introduction, few outside study sources exist for the AP Computer Science Principles course. However, there is a free online course available at edX that will be useful for reviewing course material. There is also a list of recommended textbooks available as well. Finally, you should familiarize yourself with the student reference sheets available in the course description starting on page 114       


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 the course description, or, if your teacher has registered with the AP Computer Science Principles AP Course Audit, he or she will be able to provide you with multiple-choice questions from the secure practice exam.


The multiple-choice exam questions assess both the application of the computational thinking practices and understanding of the big ideas. They may be accompanied by non-textual material such as diagrams, charts, or other graphical illustrations. This portion of the exam is heavy on programming so make sure you understand the basics of how and when to apply specific programming skills.


As you go through these questions, try to keep track of which areas are still tripping you up, and go back over this theory again. Focus on understanding what each question is asking and keep a running list of any vocabulary that is still unfamiliar.


Step 4: Refine Your Performance Tasks

There are two performance tasks required for the AP Computer Science Principles course. Before undertaking either of them, you will need to master the content knowledge and skills necessary for success, complete practice performance tasks with feedback from your teacher, and review the scoring rubrics for your task. You can also review sample responses with examples of high, medium, and low scoring performance tasks. These will help you to understand the level of detail expected in your response.


Finally, make sure that you understand when and how to cite a source. You will receive no points for tasks in which appropriate citations are not used. College Board does not dictate a specific citation format, so you may choose from MLA, APA, or IEEE styles, as long as you remain consistent throughout your work.    


The first performance task is the “Explore – Impact of Computing Innovations” performance task, which takes place over the course of eight classroom hours and accounts for 16% of your final AP score. You can find complete instructions for this task beginning on page 108 of the course description.


For this exercise, you will be expected to conduct investigations on a computing innovation that has the potential to have significant beneficial and harmful effects on society, economy, or culture. You should choose an innovation that consumes, transforms, or produces data and that raises at least one concern in terms of its security, privacy, or storage. You will need to research the innovation, evaluating sources along the way for their relevance, credibility, and accessibility. You should also take care to avoid plagiarism by appropriately citing all sources used. 


Your investigation should not simply collect facts; instead, it should delve deeply into the computing innovation by asking questions, proposing solutions, and drawing thoughtful conclusions. This deep reflection will lead to your creation of a computational artifact that illustrates, represents, or explains the computing innovation’s intended purpose, function, or effects.


You should strive for a creative and engaging artifact that shows your ability to think outside traditional avenues for communicating ideas. This could be an animated video, an infographic, a song, or anything else that highlights both the task and your creativity. You will submit your final Explore performance task as two parts: the computational artifact and the written response. See page 109 in the course description for exact submission requirements.


The second performance task is the “Create – Applications from Ideas” performance task, which takes place over the course of 12 classroom hours and accounts for 24% of your final AP score. You can find complete instructions for this task beginning on page 111 of the course description.


This task challenges you to create a program of your choice that solves a problem or expresses a personal interest. You are strongly encouraged to collaborate with another student in your class during the development of your program, but your program development must also involve a significant amount of independent work in the planning and designing parts of the process. 


Your completed program must demonstrate your programming skills. It should use several effectively integrated mathematical and logical concepts, implement an algorithm that integrates other algorithms and mathematical or logical concepts, and develop and use abstractions to manage its complexity.


You will compose a written response describing your program, its development process, and its code. Your final submission will include a video of the program running, a copy of your code, and your written response. Full submission requirements are available on page 112 of the course description       


Step 5: Repeat Your Practice

If you have access to another practice test through your teacher, take it to evaluate your progress on multiple-choice questions. Review your performance tasks and make sure that you have successfully completed at least one of each with minimal guidance from your teacher. Remember, on the final performance tasks, you may not submit work that has been at all revised or corrected by your teacher, and you may not seek any assistance or feedback on answers to prompts.   


Step 6: Exam Day Specifics

In 2017, the end-of-course Computer Science Principles AP Exam will be administered on Friday (May 5) at 12 PM.   


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)?


For more about information 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?


For more guidance on everything from college preparation to career aspirations, don’t forget to check out the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program! This program will pair you with a student from a top-tier college who will offer you advice and guidance over the course of two years, helping you develop the skills necessary to successfully navigate the admissions process.


Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
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.