Students entering high school are excited to finally have the opportunity to choose their courses. Sometimes, these are informed decisions, but other times, they just ask what their best friend is taking.
With all the buzz around computer science these days, you may wonder if you should take a CS class. And if so, CS 1 or AP? If you are pondering if Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science is the right choice for you, I can provide some useful insights.
A Bit of Background: When I Took The AP CS Exam To Today
When I took Computer Science A in 2010, only 20,120 students took the exam, and only a tiny portion were women. Since then, a lot has changed. The most obvious: there are two AP Computer Science Exams.
AP Computer Science Principles was offered for the first time in 2017. Specifically, they created it to encourage a more diverse population to be interested in computer science, and it seems to be working.
Last year 134,651 students took Computer Science Principles, including 44,811 women. Meanwhile, 71,1011 students took Computer Science A. That means ten times as many people are taking computer science today!
I went on to study Mathematics and Computer Science at UC Berkeley, before returning to high school, this time as a teacher! I have taught hundreds of high school students computer science and I answer many of the same questions over and over. I have even helped grade the AP exams! Rest assured, I can help you navigate everything you need to know about AP Computer Science to make an informed decision.
Prerequisites for AP Computer Science
What do you need to know before signing up for the class? As you heard, there are two different courses, but surprisingly the prerequisites are pretty much the same. The prerequisites are basic enough that most students are prepared to take both these courses even as Freshmen or Sophomores.
1. Math Proficiency: Students should feel comfortable with algebra including concepts such as variables, equations, and functions.
2. Computer Skills: Familiarity with basic computer operations and software usage is beneficial. However, students can enter AP Computer Science with no prior coding experience and excel.
If the prerequisites are the same, which one should you take? Let’s dig deeper in the next section.
AP Computer Science A vs. AP Computer Science Principles
Wait, there are two AP CS courses? Which one should I take first? You can actually take them in either order. Some people will want to take both, and others may only decide to take one. Here’s a breakdown of the key differences between the two:
AP Computer Science Principles
AP Computer Science Principles is a broader, more concept-focused course. It introduces students to various aspects of computer science, including computational thinking, data analysis, and the societal impact of computing.
No Specific Programming Language
While the basics of programming is a component of the course, it allows you to pick any programming language. You can check with your school to see what language they use or decide to complete the course independently in literally any language.
Suitable for a Variety of Interests
AP Computer Science Principles is an excellent option for students interested in technology, but not necessarily programming. It explores the broader concepts of computer science, making it suitable for a diverse range of career interests.
Sample Individual Question
There are 70 multiple-choice questions like these as part of the AP CS P exam.
AP Computer Science A
AP Computer Science A is a Java language-based course that emphasizes object-oriented programming and problem-solving. Students learn to write and analyze code, design algorithms, and work with data structures.
This course incorporates mathematical concepts in the context of programming. Students deal with topics like recursion and computational complexity.
Suitable for Aspiring Software Developers
If you have a strong interest in programming and aspire to become a software developer or even engineering, AP Computer Science A is a great choice.
Sample Individual Questions
There are 40 multiple-choice questions like these as part of the AP CS A exam.
The Value of AP Computer Science
Why is it worth taking AP computer science? One of the appealing aspects of taking AP CS courses is the potential to earn college credit. The intent behind all the APs is that it is a college-level course. So many colleges and universities offer credit or advanced placement for high scores on both AP exams. Some schools, including Drexel and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, even give more credit for AP CS Principles even though most students think AP CS A is harder!
Moreover, if you are thinking about studying computer science or engineering in college, taking AP Computer Science A is a great way to explore the subject and get a good idea of if you really want to study that in college as the course can be very similar to an intro college course.
AP Computer Science Exam Independent Study
Should I take the class or just the exam? What do I do if my school doesn’t offer them? It may take some research to find a school that will allow you to take the exam without taking the class, but it is possible. If your school doesn’t offer the course, you can still study independently. If you already have computer science experience, you may be able to fill in the blanks with not too much additional studying.
Specifically, AP Computer Science Principles is an exam that students often take without taking a class at school. If students already know how to code, are bright and tech literate there are plenty of free resources available. Khan Academy and Microsoft Make Code both offer free resources. If you have a little budget to spend, you might also want to consider many other organizations offering paid resources like CodeHS and Harvard’s CS50.
Something to Consider
While I can’t make the decision for you and I know there are a lot of great classes, I constantly push my family, friends, and random people I meet on the ski slope to take at least one computer science course. It really is sad that many people don’t discover that they love computer science simply because they never give it a chance. One of the hardest parts of these courses can be having difficult teachers, but there are great mentors and resources to help. You will not regret learning the content of this course!
If you want to talk about your specific situation, please contact us for a phone call. We support a limited number of students preparing to enter an AP CS course, as well as tutoring throughout the school year and studying for the AP exams. Plus, we have even helped several students self-study, so we’d be able to help you decide if that is the right path for your child. We believe once you have the information to make an informed decision, you’ll decide AP Computer Science is worth it!