On May 6, a fair share of American high school students will show up to the AP Computer Science Test Exam. If you are planning to take the test as well, it’s a good idea to put in the final effort into making sure you have the solid groundwork for the exam.
If you are planning on tackling Computer Science AP exams next year, getting to know the test and the curriculum in advance is also a good idea. In this post, we will share helpful tips on how to build a smart study plan and ace every question.
When, Where, and How: The Structure of AP CS A Exam?
When Can I Take AP CS A?
In 2021, there will be three administrations of the AP Computer Science A exam — one paper-and-pencil and two online sessions.
- May 6, 12 PM (local) — a paper-and-pencil test.
- May 18, 4 PM EDT — an online test.
- June 1, 4 PM EDT — an online test.
Should I take AP CS A online or in-person?
Although there isn’t much difference between the two ways to take the test, an important consideration is that, in the case of a digital exam, you can not skip questions to answer only those you know.
With that in mind, you should either adjust your study method or sign up for a pen-and-paper mode instead.
How is AP CS A Structured?
At the exam, you will have three hours to answer the questions (1 h 30 m per section). There are 44 questions in total divided into two sections:
- 40 multiple-choice questions that assess a test-taker’s ability to detect code errors, predict the output of the program based on the input, or, on the contrary, figure out which input leads to a given output.
- 4 free questions that check your knowledge of Java Syntax — control structures and methods, classes, one- and two-dimensional arrays.
The grade of each section is worth 50% of the final grade.
Acing AP CS A: Step-by-Step Study Guide
Given the impact of the pandemic on school education, being stressed about passing the AP test is understandable. Chances are, you feel like your course teachers are not doing their best to present the material in an engaging way and it looks like you’ll never ace the test!
The good news is, self-education can help you become and confident programmer and compensate for the shortcomings of the course at your high school. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to organize learning and face the test confidently ( it was largely inspired by this rundown on AP Computer Science prep).
Step #1. Know what the test covers
Since programming is a fascinating field, as you are studying on your own, it’s easy to drift away from the basics and get caught up in concepts that won’t be a part of the AP test.
To make sure you spend your learning time efficiently and study exactly the things that will show up in questions, take a look at the list of arguments the exam covers:
- Primitive types — manipulating variables and data types.
- Using objects and methods.
- Using wrapper classes and the math class.
- Boolean expressions and if statements.
- Iteration: while, for loops, as well as nested iteration.
- Class structure and keywords.
- Arrays, ArrayLists, and 2D arrays.
- Inheritance (subclasses and superclasses)
- Recursion — introduction to entropy, absolute entropy, and entropy change.
If you are planning to take the test next year, it’s a good idea to create a timeline for each of these arguments to make sure no concept is out of the loop. If you are taking a test sooner, have a review timeline for each part of the course to make sure you are confident in your skills.
Step #2. Know where you are at
Taking the official AP CS A mockup exam or similar tests online will give you a better understanding of what your strong and weak points are To make sure the way you train at home resembles the environment of the test, use the following tips:
- Time your practice sessions. A lot of test-takers dismiss the sense of urgency they will feel during the exam. Make no mistake — stress and anxiety will play their part and you are likely to find yourself short on time even if you never did during practice sessions. That’s why it’s better to mindful of constraints and set timers for each section.
- Complete the practice test top-to-bottom in one sitting. Answering questions for three hours straight is not easy and requires a ton of focus and consideration. That’s why you should make it a habit to not take breaks between sections and train endurance.
- Reflect on your mistakes. Failing is part of the journey as long as you learn from it — rather than being discouraged by questions you got wrong, take your time to analyze what didn’t work out (e.g. do you have knowledge gaps or did you fail because you were not paying enough attention?). Collaborate with your teachers by asking them to comment and solve past paper questions.
Side note: you can download the questions from previous exams on the CollegeBoard website.
Step #3. Code for fun
It’s common for AP CS students to be too focused on the test – so much so they forget why they learn Java to begin with. To not get sidetracked from your main goal – building amazing apps and websites using programming, make it a point to build projects for fun every once in a while.
When it comes to Java games and projects, Codegym is a great resource to use. It’s a practice-based Java course that helps review key syntax concepts in a methodical but coding-oriented way.
The platform comes with:
- Over 1,200 practical tasks to help programmers hone their skills.
- An intuitive IDE where you can write and see your code come to life.
- A bustling community of developers ready to answer both basic and intricate questions.
- Easy-to-grasp lectures on Java Core, multithreading, and other key concepts of the language.
- A mobile app that makes sure being away from the PC doesn’t keep you from practicing.
Note for teachers:
It’s never too early to introduce students to programming – even if you are working with younger kids who are not planning on taking AP CS anytime soon, it’s a great idea to show how engaging programming can be.
There’s an awesome platform for this as well – Code Monkey! It doesn’t dabble too much in complex abstract ideas – instead, it educates beginners through intuitive, action-based games that take students all the way through the K8 curriculum.
Step #4. Gather study resources
You’ll find preparing for the AP CS test much easier and more entertaining if you don’t limit your education to the textbook your high school teacher uses. Instead, keep an open mind and use the resources that resonate with you.
Remember that people learn differently — where some prefer textbooks, others choose videos, and yet others learn best through practice problems.
Since AP CS A test uses Java, here are the resource deck you’ll find useful in learning and practicing the key consents of the language:
- AP Computer Science A: Course and Exam Description (published by College Board)
- Barron’s AP Computer Science A Review
- 5 Steps to 5: AP Computer Science A.
- Head First Java — although not directly
related to AP CS, the book is a succinct and beginner-friendly summary of key
Java syntax points.
Youtube Channels and Videos:
- Advanced Placement playlist on AP CS A.
- Review and commentary of past exam papers.
- Quick review of main Java concepts (a two-parter).
Step #5. Join study groups
With distant education, it’s easy to feel lonely and disconnected from classmates — it’s no wonder you might find studying more challenging.
To make sure you stay on track, join Reddit threads and Discord communities where you can chat with like-minded AP CS A test-takers, exchange resources, and (to a healthy extent) compete.
Here are the study groups that are a good place to start:
Discord: there’s a study group/resource channel where you can find study partners and rent about preparation worries.
4 Quick AP CS A Exam-Day Tips
Fast-forward to the night before the test, when you might be consumed by anxiety and (hopefully) excitement. To make sure you are at your best during the exam, follow these quick tips:
- Get a full night of sleep. There are numerous studies that show a correlation between lack of sleep and GPA decrease. That’s why even if cramming the last bit of knowledge into your brain is tempting, you do your cognitive skills a better service by going to bed early and allowing the brain to build neuronal pathways as you rest.
- Organize windows and tabs if you take the test online. It’s a good idea to keep a separate browser with exam instructions and make a separate tab for answering questions. This way, you will not have to close tabs and won’t accidentally close something you need.
- Have a quick glance at the reference list of methods you might need to use during the exam.
- Prioritize reading questions carefully and stick to guidelines in your answers — only use classes you are given and watch out for missing brackets in free questions (people lose quite a few points on that).
Regardless of how the AP CS A test goes for you, showing interest in CS is already something to be proud of. If you are not a senior and can retake the exam in the future, let this idea calm you down.
The key point in preparing for the test is hard work pays off. Don’t think that studying is useless and you’ll get different questions on the test anyway — in fact, every hour you put into coding improves your intuition as a programmer and increases the odds of nailing the test!