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3 Tips for the AP Computer Science A Free-Response Section

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Feb. 26, 2020
3 Tips for the AP Computer Science A Free-Response Section

Both AP exams and computer programming sound good on paper — they can help you get ahead in college or stand out from your peers. And AP Computer Science A, in particular, can help set you on the path to an in-demand career. Even if you know exactly what you like about the course, you're still going to want to know as much about the test as possible in order to score your best. One aspect of the exam that can mystify some students is the free-response section. Here are three tips to help you tackle this section on test day.

Only Write in AP-Approved Style

The AP graders will only grade Java code. That means that submitting pseudocode — notation that resembles programming language but is intended to be read by a person — will not earn you any points. You're being graded, after all, on your ability to write code, not to understand and solve a problem, and if you can't do that, you won't get credit. However, I do recommend using pseudocode as a starting point before crafting your Java response; think of this as similar to an outline you'd make before writing a regular essay. Use your test booklet to plan your code before you start writing in the answer booklet, and keep the code in your answer booklet clean and un-commented.

Additionally, you should only use AP-style variable, class and method names in your code, and you should always follow the indentation style you're taught in your AP course (or in review books). Your grader will always try to be fair and accurate, but they will still be scoring your response off of a sample solution given to them by the College Board. (And your grader will be a flesh-and-blood human unaided by a computer!) Do yourself a favor and keep your answer as close to what they'll see in that sample as possible by sticking to what you've seen thus far in your course.

Keep it Simple

You don't want to have to explain yourself (i.e., your free-response answer) on the AP Comp Sci Exam — your grader will not read any comments you write trying to describe what your code is intended to do. Furthermore, you don't get extra credit for particularly complicated or clever code — the rubric doesn't have room for the graders to give you "extra credit." Therefore, you should do whatever you can to keep your code simple.

Additionally, the problems you'll see on this section are designed to make the solutions relatively straightforward. So if you fear your solution is getting complicated, there's probably an easier or better way to solve it. Avoid going too far down a digital rabbit hole with complex code that you'll feel the need to explain later. Plan ahead in your test booklet (see above!), and if your outline starts getting complicated, step back and see if there's a better way.

Make Sure Your Answer is Clear

This rule goes for any type of free response on a standardized test, from essays to coding and everything in between. Your grader must be able to read your writing in order to score it. If they can't, you won't get any points. On this test in particular, if you make extensive changes to the code you're writing, it's better to put a big "X" through the bad code rather than to erase it. Not only does this make it easier for the graders to read your work, but it also saves you time.

Similarly, graders will only grade the first solution they see, so don't spend your (limited!) time trying to provide more than one solution for a single problem. If you do indeed feel the need to start over, make sure you cross out the solution you wrote first to avoid confusion and scoring errors.

In short, you may be planning to program a supercomputer, but that's not the sort of complexity the AP Computer Science A Exam is seeking. Instead, ground your expectations of what to expect on the test by knowing what the graders expect from you. If you do, you'll be able to sit down on test day feeling as confident as possible. For more help with that, check out our prep book for this exam and head over to our YouTube channel, where we share test-taking content regularly to help you with any other exams that may be on your schedule.

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Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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