Are you considering taking AP Computer Science A, but feeling a bit overwhelmed or unsure if you can handle it on your own? If so, you’re not alone. AP Computer Science A is challenging but rewarding and can open doors to exciting career opportunities. However, it’s a class that can greatly benefit from some guidance.
It has been over a decade since I took the test myself, but I still remember the nap I took during the free response section since I really didn’t want to check my work again, and I had already written a funny story for the graders. Times have changed. Now test booklets are scanned so you can’t entertain graders as easily and there’s a pretty extensive list of things I had to worry about that you don’t anymore.
Tips for the AP Computer Science A Exam
The AP exam is in May each year and includes two 90-minute sections. Section 1 is 40 multiple choice questions, and Section 2 is 4 free-response coding questions (usually with a total of 7 parts). Here are some other things you need to know.
Tip #1: Prepare For the Multiple Choice Section
The Multiple Choice section is tricky. Right now, a lot of the problems test a very specific fact about how Java works. While it’s not always the case, it is commonly true that if you haven’t recognized the trick, then you aren’t getting the problem right. Here are some things to remember throughout the test:
- Integer Division
- Order of Operations
- Passed by Value
- DeMorgan’s Law
Tip #2: Practice Tracing Code
While you know you need to review all of the concepts, it is sometimes easy to forget the importance of practicing tracing code. Even though they will test you on a lot of different concepts, the vast majority of questions will require you to trace code to prove you understand the concept. Here are some tips:
- Remember that you can use the booklet as scratch paper
- Record the current value of each variable on paper so you don’t have to remember everything
- Cross out lines as you complete them.
- Cross out the else when you start tracing the if.
- Even if it asks you to “write” code you can just trace each of the answer choices to see which response is correct.
Tip #3: Know What’s Included In The Multiple Choice and Free Response Sections
While most of the topics you learn will be on the multiple choice and the free response sections, recursion will only be tested on the multiple-choice section. Don’t worry if you still struggle writing recursive code because you won’t have to do it on the test!
On the other hand, The Free Response section can be a little intimidating. But don’t worry, there are loads of great ways to prepare.
- All of the past Free Response questions are posted online: https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/courses/ap-computer-science-a/exam/past-exam-questions
- You can see examples of how other people have answered the questions.
- You can see how they will be graded. It is obvious for fully correct answers, but there are many opportunities for partial credit, so write everything you know, even if it’s an empty loop or if statement.
- Be careful there are things on older tests that you don’t need to know. Older tests were also written in a different order. Here are some things you don’t need to know, so just skip them if they come up as you study:
- Case Studies including fishing, bugs, etc.
- Practice coding on paper. It’s weird!
- If they give you a method, then the easiest way to answer includes using that method. Make sure to read the comments to better understand what different methods do.
Tip #4: Take Advantage of The Labs
Use the Labs published by the AP College Board. While you will not be tested specifically on the content of the labs they purposely cover some of the concepts that students most miss on the AP exam.
Tip #5: Don’t Overthink Java
You don’t need to know all of the Java programming language. I don’t even know all of Java. You only need to know the AP Java subset, particularly when it comes to object-oriented programming keywords. You are even given a reference sheet on the test that lists the classes, primitive types, and methods you need to know:
Tip #6: Practicing Time Management is Key
Practice managing your time. While you have plenty of time to finish, you will most likely need to speed up in order to finish, so practice timing yourself.
Tip #7: Know The Scoring Metrics
You don’t have to get a 90% in order to get a 5. The College Board uses cut points (not a curve) to determine how the number of points you earn will convert into an overall score.
General AP Exam Preparation
If you have already taken AP tests before, then this section might be less useful, but here are some general tips as well:
- Create a study schedule so you can balance this and any other APs you are taking.
- Take practice tests but then don’t just look at your score. Look at the problems you missed and figure out why you have the wrong answer. Here are two great sources of practice problems/tests:
AP Computer Science A is a challenging course that will provide an excellent foundation for CS and engineering fields. Whether you’re studying it independently or in a school setting, you should seek out guidance to perform your best with an efficient use of time. That’s really where experts provide the most benefit: it is something you could probably do on your own in twice the time, but you want the certainty that you are going about it the right way.
Hopefully this article is a great start, but if you still have questions, feel free to reach out to us. We work with a limited number of students, both during the summer to be ready to enter AP CS A, as well as to prepare for the exam. However, there is good news: 67% of students pass the exam, including 27% scoring a 5 and 22% scoring a 4. You can do well on this exam if you take the time to learn Java and understand the tricks that the writers are going to throw at you. Good luck!