AP Computer Science A Exam

August 17, 2020
By AdmissionSight

AP Computer Science A Exam: Your Questions Answered

Many students opt to take the AP Computer Science A Exam despite not having taken the related AP course. This makes the exam one of the most common self-study tests taken out of all the related AP exams. Given the ubiquity of computers and the relative ease with which students can become familiar with related concepts and practical functions, it’s easy to see why some students feel comfortable studying for the AP Computer Science A Exam on their own. However, some students still enroll in the course to get a better understanding of some of the key concepts covered in the exam such as specific theories and coding. Those students who typically perform well on their own and harbor a natural interest in coding normally find great success in self-studying for this exam. Whether you’ve already taken the related course or are preparing to self-study, the experts at AdmissionSight has put together this guide to answer any questions that you may have about the AP Computer Science A Exam. You’ll learn what you can expect to find on the exam, how long it should take you, effective methods for preparation, and much more. Let’s dive in!

When is the AP Computer Science A Exam?

Unlike the SAT Subject Tests that are offered on multiple different days, all of the AP exams are only administered on one specific day of the calendar year. The exact date tends to fluctuate each year, although it generally falls within the first two weeks of the month of May. The next AP Computer Science A Exam will take place on Thursday, May 6th, 2021 at 12:00 pm. For a full list of the 2021 AP Exam dates and related fees, you can visit this link. Be sure to give yourself ample time to make it to the exam and always scout out your route beforehand to limit the possibilities of getting lost or showing up late. With only one day dedicated to the exam each year, there’s no room for errors.

What does the AP Computer Science A Exam contain?

The AP Computer Science A Exam touches on algorithms, hardware, problem-solving skills, and the ways people leverage the abilities of computers to effectively address real-world problems that are faced. In order to be able to handle the concepts covered on the exam, students should be comfortable with the concepts covered in basic algebra as these will be required to answer some of the questions. Some of the primary concepts covered in the exam include design methodologies and strategies, problem-solving, data structures, data processing strategies, and the social and ethical implications of using computing power. Since science is an ever-changing field, it’s advisable that students are up-to-date on some of the most recent trends.

Student submits her AP Computer Science A code

What is the format of the AP Computer Science A Exam?

Despite being one of the more popular AP exams, the AP Computer Science A Exam clocks in at a total of three hours – making it one of the longest of the exams. It’s broken down into two sections. The first section eats up half of the exam with one hour and 30 minutes. There are 40 multiple-choice questions on this section of the AP Computer Science A Exam, and it accounts for exactly half of the overall score. The other 50% of your final score will be derived from the second portion that contains just four free-response essay questions. As you can most likely guess, this portion also takes up an hour and a half of the overall time.

While other AP exams have undergone some minor changes in recent years, the AP Computer Science A Exam has remained roughly unchanged. It still consists of the same number and types of questions. The weighting also remains intact, and the scoring guidelines are the same as in previous years. This makes it easier for teachers to prepare their students during the AP courses. Let’s take a deeper dive into the two different sections on this exam and what you can expect from each.

Section 1: Multiple Choice

All of the 40 questions in this section are multiple-choice in format. The vast majority of the multiple-choice questions on the AP Computer Science A Exam will be individual in format, meaning they’re unrelated to the preceding and succeeding questions. However, there are a few questions that will fall into related sets. There are only one or two sets and each typically contains two to three questions. Computational thinking practices are also assessed within this multiple-choice section. Preparing for this section is fairly simple due to the basic nature of the questions and the ability to check for correct answers objectively.

Section 2: Free Response

The free-response section of the AP Computer Science A Exam consists of four open-ended questions. All of the free-response questions will assess Code Implementation of the Computational Thinking Practice 3. Here are the primary focuses of each question:

  • Question 1: Methods and Control Structures – You’ll be asked to provide program code in order to create objects within a class and different call methods. Students will also have to use iterative statements, conditional statements, and expressions in order to satisfy the specifications of a method.
  • Question 2: Classes – This question will require you to define a new type by writing program code. You’ll have to create a class and satisfy various method specifications by using iterative statements, conditional statements, and expressions.
  • Question 3: Array/ArrayList – This free-response question requires students to provide program code that can satisfy method specifications through the use of iterative statements, conditional statements, and expressions. You’ll also need to manipulate, traverse, and even create Array List objects or elements within a 1D array
  • Question 4: 2D Array – The final free-response question will require you to write code in order to satisfy method specifications through the use of iterative statements, conditional statements, and expressions and manipulate, traverse, and create elements within a 2D array of objects.

a computer scientist reporting in front of his colleagues

What are the passing rates of the AP Computer Science A Exam?

Despite being one of the more popular exams, the passing rate for the  AP Computer Science A Exam is average when compared to the passing rates for all other AP exams. While the highest passing rate is around 90% and the lowest is around 45%, the passing rate for the AP Computer Science A Exam was 69.6% in 2019. Only 26.7% of participants received the highly-coveted perfect score of 5. The national average, in terms of score, was 3.26 in 2019. 3 is considered the passing grade. Understandably, the majority of students perform much better on multiple-choice questions than on free-responses. It’s important to bear in mind that the advanced standing and credit based on these AP scores can vary greatly between universities. You can find out more about the regulations surrounding which AP s end up qualifying for advanced placement or course credit at universities and colleges here.

What are the best ways to prepare for the AP Computer Science A Exam?

Take inventory of what you know – Before you can begin studying effectively, you have to first get a better understanding of what you already know. After all, you don’t want to waste time by overstudying topics you know backward and forwards while spending less time than you need on more confusing concepts. One of the best ways to accomplish this goal is by taking practice tests to gain a better understanding of your initial knowledge regarding the subject matter. You can get a rough idea about the types of questions you’ll find on the AP Computer Science A Exam by reviewing sample questions online. However, the most accurate way to study would be by completing a practice test. These tests can be found online or in some official study guides.

Student reading a book in a library

Master related theories – When it comes to preparing for the AP Computer Science A Exam, you’ll need to have an excellent grasp on the fundamentals of computer science and the various applications it can have in STEM-related and computing tasks. This would cover some specific subject areas, including computing in context, standard algorithms and operations, standard data structures, program analysis, program implementation, and object-oriented program design.

One of the most critical things you can remember when preparing for the AP Computer Science A Exam is that all of the code that’s written and used on the exam is consistent with Java AP  subset. You can find more details on that under Appendix A of this course description. It’s also important to note that the exam content relies on labs quite heavily. Students will need to be able to draw upon a conceptual understanding of algorithms, abstract data structures, formal logic, and theory in order to answer many of the questions on the exam. You should ensure you have practice applying theories to practical problem-solving.

You’ll most likely need some helpful study resources to gain a better understanding of this content. The aptly-named Be Prepared for the AP Computer Science Exam in Java book is perhaps one of the best sources you can use to prepare for the exam, especially if you’re a self-studier without access to course materials provided by your high school. This textbook was designed specifically for the AP class. If you find that the material provided within this book is too general and isn’t concise enough for it to be worthwhile, you might consider getting Barron’s AP Computer Science A. This study guide is typically regarded as being more succinct.

If these books don’t pique your interest due to their price or sheer density, there are loads of helpful study resources online. Many AP teachers actually post study guides, tips, and outlines for their students, but that shouldn’t keep you from accessing these resources if they’re open to the public. While these resources are great to use, it’s important to make sure the information provided within is up-to-date and accurate. You’d hate to spend hours upon hours studying something that’s not representative of what you’ll find on the actually test, so be careful when choosing your primary studying tools.

Practice answering MC questions – The minute you feel as though your understanding of the underlying theory of the AP Computer Science A Exam is firm, it’s time to start practicing related multiple-choice questions. Considering these questions comprise a good portion of the test and make up a majority of the questions asked, there’s no question as to why it’s important to practice answering them. You should be able to find sample questions in a majority of study guides or through searching online.

To win the International Math Olympiad, the US team trained with its rivals

Practice free response answers – TheAP Computer Science A Exam’s free-response portion isn’t really comparable to the same section on other AP exams. In a nutshell, this part of the test requires you to leverage your knowledge of various course content and of the AP Java subset in order to write a new code that must meet certain particulars and solve given problems while being able to explain how it’s notated and how to use it. You should also keep in mind when writing your code that the AP Computer Science A Exam wants a program that is generally applicable and not one that’s specific to the questions’ numbers.

Since each of the free-response prompts contains multiple parts, it’s helpful to underline the various sections of your answers so you can ensure you’re thoroughly addressing the question. Many students lose points unnecessarily by simply forgetting to answer a part of the question. Even if you’re unsure about how to answer a particular portion of the question, AdmissionSight still strongly advises students to try their best in answering. Even earning partial points for a question can drastically boost your final score. In other words, it can’t hurt to try. However, don’t let a difficult question burn up the time you could put towards other questions that you can answer more easily. You can always leave the hardest questions for the end when you have ample time to revisit.

Mimic the test settings – Taking the AP Computer Science A Exam isn’t just about knowing what concepts will be on the test and studying them thoroughly until you understand them in-depth. In order to ace this exam and any AP exam for that matter, you have to be able to perform under the test conditions. When you’re studying at home, you have distractions, you take normal breaks, and you might even listen to some music. All of these might facilitate your workflow when at home, but they won’t be available to you when you take the real exam. In order to get an accurate idea of how you’ll perform on the AP Computer Science A Exam, you should mimic the test conditions as accurately as possible and take an official sample test that’s the same length as the real exam. Don’t forget to set a timer to see how you perform under the pressure of time.

a student reporting in the front of the class

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