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Articles / Preparing for College / Decoding the AP Computer Science A Exam

Decoding the AP Computer Science A Exam

Rob Franek
Written by Rob Franek | Feb. 19, 2020
Decoding the AP Computer Science A Exam

There are a variety of reasons to take the AP Computer Science A Exam. It can add an extra edge to your college application or give you the chance to earn some college credit before you graduate high school. You might just take it because you're curious about the subject, or you already have a love of computer science. Whether you're trying to be the world's next billionaire coder or you're just looking to stand out in a competitive market, the last thing you want is to go into the test blind. Here's a look at what you can expect on the AP Computer Science A Exam.

Overall Structure

The AP Computer Science A Exam tests five categories, which it calls Computational Thinking Practices:

  1. Program Design and Algorithm Development
  2. Code Logic
  3. Code Implementation
  4. Code Testing
  5. Documentation

These concepts will be tested over two sections — on the same day, don't worry! You'll first face one multiple-choice section and then one free-response section. Each section will be worth exactly 50 percent of your overall AP score.

Multiple-Choice Selection

In the multiple-choice section, you'll be given 90 minutes to answer a total of 40 questions. Most of these questions stand on their own, but don't be surprised if you come across related questions that share some code or data.

Across this entire section, you'll be tested on Thinking Practices 1, 2, 4 and 5 with the following weighted presence for each:

  • Program Design and Algorithm Development (30–35 percent)
  • Code Logic (40–45 percent)
  • Code Testing (12–18 percent)
  • Documentation (12–18 percent)

When approaching this section, remember that every question is worth the same amount, even though some questions will require significantly more work than others. Additionally, Process of Elimination (POE) will be a powerful tool in tackling this section. As with every multiple-choice test, the answer is on the page. Furthermore, computer science is heavily logic-based, which means wrong answers can often be eliminated using the same sort of logic.

Free Response Section

The second half of the test will be a 90-minute free-response section. It will include four questions that all pertain to the third Thinking Practice: Code Implementation. To test your knowledge here, the College Board will look for your proficiency using Java to relay expressions, conditional statements and iterative statements in each of the four questions. On top of that, each will also have its own additional focus. Here's a breakdown:

  • Question 1 – Methods and Control Structures – code to create objects of a class and call methods
  • Question 2 – Class ­– code to define a new type by creating a class
  • Question 3 – Array/ArrayList – code to create, traverse and manipulate elements in a 1D array or ArrayList objects
  • Question 4 – 2D Array – code to create, traverse and manipulate elements in 2D array of objects
The graders will only consider the code you write, and you'll be expected to follow standard formatting conventions. For help writing this section, check out our tips for free-response questions on the AP Computer Science A Exam.

A Helpful Reference Guide

If any of this seems overwhelming, I have one last piece of information to share that may help alleviate some of that concern: You're not expected to remember all the different classes available in Java. That's why on test day, you'll be given something called the Java Quick Reference guide to help streamline certain aspects of the code that may otherwise be open for interpretation.

If you've kept up with your AP Computer Science A course and feel comfortable with the content, the next step to scoring well on the exam is to, well, study up on the exam. Knowing what you'll face come test day is one of your greatest strategies if you're aiming for that 5. 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.

Written by

Rob Franek

Rob Franek

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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