Is AP Computer Science Principles Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide

If you are considering taking AP Computer Science Principles, check out our guide to find out if the course and exam are right for you.

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by Ellery Weil

Published on February 24, 2022 · Updated on July 6, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is AP Computer Science Principles Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide


AP Computer Science Principles is one of two computer science classes offered by the AP program, along with AP Computer Science A. AP Computer Science Principles is considered the broader course of the two, with students learning the foundations of computer science and focusing on teamwork.

Computer science is a useful field of study, but is the exam difficult to pass? Luckily for aspiring AP Computer Science Principles students, the course is not considered one of the 10 hardest AP courses. However, that doesn't mean it's not challenging. Check out our guide to AP Computer Science Principles.

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What Does AP Computer Science Principles Cover?

AP Computer Science Principles can help students understand computer science and allow them to work on computer science projects together. The course builds on foundational skills in math — especially algebra — and applies them in the context of computer science.

The major areas of study covered in AP Computer Science Principles include:

What Determines the Difficulty of AP Computer Science Principles? 3 Key Factors

The difficulty of any class often depends on your academic strengths and weaknesses. A few other factors can be used to determine how hard AP Computer Science Principles — or any other AP class — is likely to be for you. These factors include the pass rate of the AP exam, the course material, your skills, and more.

The Pass Rate

When determining the difficulty of an AP course, students should first look at the AP exam pass rate. By assessing that metric and the percentage of learners that receive a perfect score of 5 on the test, you can start to compare the difficulty of AP Computer Science Principles with the difficulty of other AP exams.

In 2021, the AP Computer Science Principles exam had an above-average pass rate of 66.5% and a below-average perfect score rate of 12.4%. Most students find this AP test challenging but can pass comfortably.

AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
AP Computer Science Principles 66.5% 12.4%
All AP Classes 64.2% 16.8%

Source: College Board, May 2021

While pass rates and scores of 5 are a good place to start when figuring out if a course is difficult, they are not the only factors.

How a student experiences an AP course also depends on personal factors. These include their school's resources, the strength of their teacher, and a student's learning style.

The Course Material

The amount of material a given course covers is an important factor in determining its difficulty. A course that covers a broad range of material and requires you to master many topics is often harder than a course that covers a narrow range of ideas.

In the case of AP Computer Science Principles, students may find the wide range of material challenging. The course aims to give learners a broad understanding of many aspects of computer science, meaning students must learn a wide variety of related topics.

Your Subject Skills

An AP class's difficulty also depends on each student's subject skills. Students with strong backgrounds in a given field will likely find a related AP class easier.

You should consider your math background when deciding whether to take AP Computer Science Principles. Students with strong math skills and a natural aptitude for algebra are more likely to find the class easy than students who struggle with math classes.

When Should You Take AP Computer Science Principles?

If you're interested in taking AP Computer Science Principles, the next question is, when? While many schools structure their AP classes to encourage students to take them at specific points in their high school careers, there is often some flexibility.

Students typically take AP Computer Science Principles during their sophomore year or later to ensure they have the appropriate math background. If you're considering taking AP Computer Science Principles in your first year of high school, check with your school to see if you have the prerequisites necessary to understand the coursework.

Consider what your AP course load will look like as you get further along in your high school career. If you can take AP Computer Science Principles in your sophomore year instead of your junior year, you most likely will not be taking many other AP classes at the same time. This may allow you to devote more time to the higher workload of AP Computer Science Principles.

AP Computer Science Principles Exam: What You Need to Know

The following table lists the AP Computer Science Principles exam scores for May 2021. More than 116,000 students took this AP test in 2021, and over 65% passed with a score of 3 or higher.

AP Computer Science Principles
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 14,432 12.4%
4 25,223 21.7%
3 37,797 32.5%
2 23,151 19.9%
1 15,863 13.6%

Source: College Board, May 2021

How Is the AP Computer Science Principles Exam Structured?

Unlike many AP exams, the AP Computer Science Principles exam is not taken in a single exam block. It consists of a multiple-choice section and a performance task question, which will take at least 12 hours of class to complete.

The multiple-choice section is a traditional timed exam. For the performance task, each student must design and implement their own computer program, which will solve a specific problem or explore a personal interest. Students may choose what they want their program to do for the performance task.

How Is the AP Computer Science Principles Exam Scored?

As with all AP exams, the AP Computer Science Principles exam is scored 1-5, with 5 being a perfect score. The multiple-choice section is worth 70% of your overall grade and is scored by machine. The performance task is worth 30% and scored by a College Board employee.

Students who struggle with timed, multiple-choice exams should take practice exams before they take the test.

Section 1 70%
Multiple-Choice Questions 70%
Section 2 30%
Performance Task Question 30%

Source: College Board, 2021

AP Computer Science Principles: What Score Do I Need for College Credit?

While a score of 3 or higher on an AP exam is considered a passing grade, many schools only award college credit for scores of 4 and 5. However, some colleges will award credit for a score of 3 or higher.

Check online which score your college, or potential colleges, require for credit before you register for the AP Computer Science Principles exam.

Should I Take AP Computer Science Principles?

Whether or not you should take AP Computer Science Principles is a personal decision. Before you register, ask yourself if you are interested in the topic, the necessary math background, and space in your schedule to devote to an AP course.

If you're curious about what AP Computer Science Principles is like at your particular school, reach out to students who have taken it in past years. They can provide you with valuable and specific information about the teacher, the workload, and how difficult they found the course.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP Computer Science Principles

Is AP Computer Science Principles worth it?

Like all AP classes, AP Computer Science Principles can help build your resume for college and potentially earn you college credit. In the class, you can also learn useful knowledge. If you find the topic interesting and are ready to work hard, AP Computer Science Principles is worth it.

Do you need coding experience to take AP Computer Science Principles?

You do not need coding experience to take AP Computer Science Principles. Students only need a high school algebra background. However, coding is a useful skill, both for this class and in life. If you're interested in programming, you may consider building a coding portfolio during your high school career.

Should I take AP Computer Science Principles or AP Computer Science A?

Whether you should take AP Computer Science Principles or AP Computer Science A depends on what you're hoping to learn. Students who are very interested in programming and are already comfortable with Java would likely prefer AP Computer Science A. Students who want a more general overview and understanding of computer science and work well in group settings should probably take AP Computer Science Principles.

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