How Hard is AP Computer Science?

About the Author

Renee Whitmore

Renee Whitmore is an Associate Professor of English at Sandhills Community College in Pinehurst, North Carolina. Before starting at SCC in 2013, she taught English at the middle and high school levels for five years. She currently teaches a combination of traditional seated and online courses, including English Composition, Argument Research, and Creative Writing. Renee earned a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2006 and a Master of Arts in Teaching, with a specialization in English in 2011, both from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

If you’re in high school, you may be interested in taking AP classes to earn college credit and improve your transcripts.

You may have questions such as how hard will this AP class be? Will it adequately prepare me to pass the AP exam? What if I don’t pass the AP exam? Generally, AP courses and final exams are challenging because they are designed to be at the same level as an introductory college class, so asking these questions doesn’t make you crazy.

Then, there’s the AP class that boasts a hard reputation: AP Computer Science, also known as AP CS. Is it really as hard as people say?

Well, there are several questions to consider here. First, there are your academic strengths. Are you good at math and science courses? Are you detail-oriented? How are your critical thinking skills? Then, there’s your specific high school. How will the course be taught? What do you know about the teacher’s teaching style? What is the grading scale at your high school when it comes to AP courses?

The level of difficulty will vary depending on your academic strengths, the teaching methods of the teacher, and the rigor of the class. Some teachers may assign more work than others and design their courses to be more rigorous than other teachers. However, if you are a highly motivated student who is willing to put in the work for an AP Computer Science class, you are already set up for success.

What Are the AP Computer Science Classes Offered?

Currently, AP offers two computer science courses:

  • AP Computer Science A
  • AP Computer Science Principles

AP Computer Science A teaches computing problem solving, object-oriented programming in Java, and an overview of data structures. The newer AP course, Computer Science Principles, covers the broad ideas and foundational concepts of computer science, including programming.

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Can You Take AP Computer Science With No Experience?

The recommended prerequisites for both AP Computer Science courses are English and algebra. According to AP Central College Board, students should have a solid foundation for basic linear functions, the composition of functions, and problem-solving strategies.

While you can take AP Computer Science courses with no academic experience in the topic, you should still make sure you are somewhat familiar with the topic before enrolling. Keep in mind that AP Computer Science A is designed for students who want to pursue a computer science major or related fields such as engineering or software development. The AP Computer Science Principles course is designed for students who would like a broad view of computing. These students may not want to go into computer science as a major, but want to explore the topic and pursue other majors such as math, science, or economics.

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How Hard Is it to Pass the AP Computer Science Exam?

Earning a passing score of 3 or more on an AP CS exam proves that you have mastered the material and earns you credit for college. The average passing rate for both AP courses is 69-72%, based on the College Board’s 2019 data. Therefore, passing the exam may be difficult, but it is certainly doable.

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The AP Computer Science Principles exam consists of 70 multiple choice questions of single-select items (meaning that you choose one answer from four options), as well as multi-select options where you choose two answers from four options. On the other hand, the exam for AP Computer Science A contains two sections: multiple-choice and free-response, each worth 50% of the final score. You will have 90 minutes to answer 40 multiple-choice questions and 90 minutes to answer four questions from the free-response section.

How Hard Is it to Earn a 5 on the AP Computer Science Exam?

The odds of earning a 5, the highest score, are better for students in the AP Computer Science A course, according to the 2019 test data. Nearly 27% of students who took this exam scored a 5, while only 13.8 % of students who took AP Computer Science Principles earned a 5. According to the data and overview of the AP courses, Computer Science A is not as hard to earn the highest score, but it is certainly a challenging task either way.

How Can I Decide if I Should Take an AP Computer Class?

First, make sure that a computer science class will lead you to your future academic and career goals. Then, think about your educational background. The more background knowledge you have in computer science, the better off you will be.

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Next, ask questions about AP Computer Science course work at your school. See if you can find a copy of the AP Computer Science syllabus from a current teacher. A course’s syllabus contains everything you need to know about the course. It includes the teacher’s expectations, the grading scale, and sometimes even specific assignments. You can also talk to current and past students who have taken AP Computer Science to get a feel for the class.

For general information, you can research these courses from the College Board AP College website.