Is AP Computer Science A Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide

AP Computer Science A is a popular AP course for those interested in STEM. See if you might like to take it.

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by Ellery Weil

Published April 20, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps
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Is AP Computer Science A Hard? A Complete 2022 Guide
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Students with an interest in STEM and computer science — and who want to earn college credit during high school — might be interested in taking AP Computer Science A. However, before registering for an AP course, many students want to know how hard the class will be.

Different factors determine how difficult you might find AP Computer Science A. These include the AP exam, the course material, and your own interest and aptitude in the subject.

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Ready to start your journey?

Read on to find out more to help you decide if AP Computer Science A makes sense in your course schedule.

What Does AP Computer Science A Cover?

AP Computer Science A is described as a course that "introduces students to computer science through programming."

Students in AP Computer Science A will not only learn the foundations of programming through study, but they will also have the opportunity to engage in hands-on programming projects and activities.

The course is divided into 10 units. When taken together, they are designed to teach students to make connections and work between four core concepts: modularity, variables, control, and the impact of computing. The 10 units are:

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

As you try to figure out how hard AP Computer Science A will be, there are several different things to consider. These include the AP exam and its pass rate, the content of the course, and your own personal knowledge base and course schedule.

The Pass Rate

Given how important the AP exam is, it's a good idea to check out the pass rate before you decide whether or not to take the course. Since AP exams are scored 1-5, it can also be useful to find out how many students were able to make a perfect score of 5.

In the case of AP Computer Science A, the pass rate of 3 or higher is 65.1%. This is slightly higher than the average pass rate across all AP exams of 64.2%. However, the perfect score of 5 rate is 23.9%, which is significantly higher than the average of 16.8% for all AP exams.

This shows that many students find AP Computer Science A an easier-than-average AP course.

AP Class/Exam Pass Rate (3 or Higher) Perfect Score (5)
AP Computer Science A 65.1% 23.9%
All AP Exams 64.2% 16.8%

Source: College Board

The pass rate and perfect score rate are good places to start when you're trying to figure out how hard an AP class is. However, there are many other factors to consider. Some, like the quality of the teacher you'll have for the class, are specific to your school.

The Course Material

The amount and type of material covered in a course can be an important part of how difficult you will find it. Given that AP Computer Science A covers 10 different units, students will need to be prepared to move quickly through the course material.

AP Computer Science A also requires hands-on learning and the completion of projects as part of its 20-hour lab requirement. Students who "learn by doing" may find this easier than more traditional AP courses.

Your Subject Skills

One more factor that impacts how difficult you'll find AP Computer Science A is a personal one: your subject skills.

If you have a strong STEM background and an interest in computer science generally and programming in particular, you will likely find AP Computer Science A easier than if your background trends more toward the humanities.

For students who already know some Java, AP Computer Science A is likely to be particularly intuitive and may be an especially good course to take.

When Should You Take AP Computer Science A?

Students typically take AP Computer Science A during their sophomore year or later. While a background in computer science isn't required, it's recommended that students have completed at least one year of high school algebra before taking the AP Computer Science A course.

When you're deciding which year to take AP Computer Science A, you should also consider your overall course schedule. You may prefer to take this course during your sophomore year, when you will likely be taking relatively few other AP courses, to minimize stress on your schedule.

AP Computer Science A Exam: What You Need to Know

The AP Computer Science A exam is divided into two sections, each worth 50% of your total score. The table below shows the score distribution on the May 2021 AP Computer Science A exam, with the two most common scores being 5 and 1.

AP Computer Science A
Exam Score Number of Students Percentage of Students
5 17,845 23.9%
4 16,348 21.9%
3 14,392 19.3%
2 9,047 12.1%
1 17,044 22.8%

Source: College Board

How Is the AP Computer Science A Exam Structured?

Section 1 and Section 2 are both 90 minutes long, and they are each worth 50% of your total score. Section 1 is multiple-choice, while Section 2 is free response.

There are 40 multiple-choice questions in Section 1, while Section 2 has four free-response questions, with one question each in Methods and Control Structures, Classes, Array/ArrayList, and 2D Array.

How Is the AP Computer Science A Exam Scored?

Like all AP exams, the AP Computer Science A exam is scored on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest possible score. The test is broken down into two sections, each worth 50% of your total score. Section 1 is multiple choice, while Section 2 is a series of four short-answer questions.

Each question in Section 2 is worth 12.5% of your score. Make sure you have thoroughly reviewed each of the topics covered in the short-answer portion before the test.

Section 1 50%
Multiple-Choice Questions 50%
Section 2 50%
Methods and Control Structures Question 12.5%
Classes Question 12.5%
Array/ArrayList Question 12.5%
2D Array Question 12.5%

Source: College Board

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

The minimum score to receive college credit for AP Computer Science A is a 3. However, many colleges have their own policies regarding the necessary score to receive credit. For example, some schools accept only a 4 or higher, and others award more credit for higher scores.

Check online to see what your college's policy is regarding AP Computer Science A and college credit.

Should I Take AP Computer Science A?

Whether or not you take AP Computer Science A is ultimately a decision only you can make. While the exam pass rates and perfect score rate suggest AP Computer Science A is one of the easier AP classes, that does not necessarily mean it will be easy or enjoyable for you.

Before making your decision, consider your STEM background and personal interest in programming and computer science. Also, consider asking students at your school who have taken the course about their experiences, what the teacher is like, etc. This can give you a more accurate picture of the course.

Frequently Asked Questions About AP Computer Science A

Is AP Computer Science A worth it?

Deciding whether the AP Computer Science A class is worth it is a personal question. For students who are interested in programming and have strong math skills, AP Computer Science A is likely to be worth it, especially given the high pass rate on the AP exam.

However, students who do not have an interest in or aptitude for computer science in general and programming in particular may not consider AP Computer Science A worth it. This is especially true if they are already taking several other AP classes at the same time.

Is AP Computer Science A harder than AP Computer Science Principles?

Looking at the AP exam pass rates and rates of a perfect score side by side, AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles are similarly difficult for the average student. However, whether you will find AP Computer Science A or AP Computer Science Principles more difficult is personal.

In addition to factors like teacher quality, students with an aptitude for programming are more likely to find AP Computer Science A easier, while students interested in a broader look at computer science may have an easier time with AP Computer Science Principles.

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

AP Computer Science A is somewhat different from AP Computer Science Principles. For students with a strong interest in programming, particularly Java, who want to do hands-on programming work in class, AP Computer Science A will likely be more what they had in mind.

For students with less of an interest in programming, or with less of a background in STEM and computer science, AP Computer Science Principles will likely be better suited to them. Which of these options is better for you is a personal decision only you can make.

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