Today we'll help you prepare for the AP CSA Exam! Computer Science education is as fundamental a part of comprehensive education today as a primary language, Math, Science, Arts, and Physical Education. In the future, jobs requiring coding and programming skills are expected to be among the highest areas of growth in the labor force. They are also some of the highest paying jobs, with excellent growth potential, and higher benefits than the average, non-STEM worker.
For these reasons, high school students with an interest in STEM are encouraged to take AP Computer Science A if their school offers it. This course, typically offered to high school juniors and seniors, is a coding class that teaches students object-oriented programming, data structures and algorithms, and how to code in Java. It is one of two Computer Science Advanced Placement courses offered by the US College Board, the other one being CSP, which focuses more on theory and principles. In CSA, students will be expected to learn how to code.
Advanced Placement courses are offered to US high school students in a range of subjects, including US History, Chemistry, Biology, and Calculus, to name a few. They are intended to serve as equivalents to introductory undergraduate courses, and upon satisfactory completion of the requisite exams, students can use AP courses to skip the equivalent courses during their freshman year of university. Aside from introducing promising students to the rigor and breadth of university courses, they can give students a leg up in higher education by opening intermediate classes earlier in one’s academic career.
The AP Computer Science A exam typically takes three hours to complete and consists of equally weighted multiple choice and free-response questions. The first section contains 40 multiple choice questions and the second has four free-response questions. The grading rubric goes from 1 to 5. According to CollegeVine, “In 2016, 64.3% of students who took the AP Computer Science A exam received a score of 3 or higher. Only 20.7% of students received the top score of 5, while 23.1% scored a 1.” If you are a parent or teacher who wants to help your child or students to get a 5, then we have outlined some of the key steps for how to prepare for the AP CSA exam.
Learn how to prepare for the AP CSA exam
Good studying practices, such as organized note-taking, attendance, getting enough sleep, and starting early, can help any student improve their exam preparation. Unlike other AP exams, the CSA exam is unique in that it requires not only knowledge of the subject, but also the demonstration of coding ability and analytical skills.
1. Learn coding fundamentals before starting to study
Begin your studying process by doing an honest inventory of your skills. If you are taking AP Computer Science A and you expect to thrive, you should have strong skills in English, Algebra and coding in Java, the primary programming language used in AP CSA. Successful students should understand how data is organized (data structures) and how it is processed (algorithms), as well as the basic structures of computers and how they function together. Finally students should be able to speak to the social, economic, and political implications of computers in our daily lives.
Since Java is more complex than a three hour exam can test for, students of AP CSA learn a subset of Java called, Java AP. Students need to be able to analyze code for the multiple choice half of the exam, but for the Free Response Questions, students must write their own code to solve the question problems as well as be able to explain their choices. For this reason, before you begin to actively prepare for the test, ensure that your English, algebra, and Java skills are strong.
You do not need to take the course to be eligible to take the AP CSA exam. Taking AP Computer Science A in high school is the equivalent of a semester-long undergraduate course. While a free course like Harvard’s CS 50 is sure to be a helpful supplement, the test requires a functional understanding of programming in Java, and we strongly recommend that you do not use self-study alone to prepare if you intend to get a top score. I suggest a more maximalist approach: do everything within your means to get the best score possible. Buy study guides, take online classes, do multiple practice tests, or get a tutor. All of these will bring you closer to a perfect score. After that it is a matter of practice.
2. Understand the test
Often, the best way to start studying for the AP CSA exam is to take a practice test. This will help you orient your study path around the test itself, rather than Comp Sci as a vast whole. If you are a student who plans to take AP Computer Science A, then first understand the content of the course, which can be accessed on the official College Board website.
A typical AP Computer Science A course is broken up into six main areas of study:
- Object Oriented Program Design
- Program Implementation
- Program Analysis
- Standard Data Structures
- Standard Operations and Algorithms
- Computing in Context
Whether you are a prospective or a current student, make the time to take a practice test as your first step. The College Board website has practice questions, though buying a test guide book will include multiple practice tests. This method of taking a test before you begin studying might seem counterproductive, but so-called formative assessments are proven to be an effective means of improving one’s study habits. This will show you where your strengths and weaknesses are, which can then be used to guide you toward the appropriate book, online class, or mentor.
3. Buy a study guide or three
Purchasing at least one textbook style test preparation book is a good idea for any major exam from the SATs to the GRE to the LSAT. These exams can be frustrating and difficult, but they also function as gate-keepers to higher education and higher paying jobs. Investing in multiple guides is not a bad idea, as all of them have different strengths, which you can read about in this recent blog review The 4 Best AP Computer Science A Review Books [2021-2022]. If you want to do the research, here are the three books with the highest reviews that we could find:
- Be Prepared for the AP Computer Science Exam in Java
- Good for its focus on improving your coding skills in Java AP
- Technical and comprehensive, but also quite long and detailed
- 5 Steps to a 5: AP Computer Science A 2022
- The best recommendation for those taking the AP CSA course
- Fewer practice tests than other options
- AP Computer Science A: With 6 Practice Tests (Barron's Test Prep) Ninth Edition
- A more concise instruction guide
- More practice tests
If it’s within your means, we suggest buying two or three of these guides. They are all within the $20-30 range. There are also plenty of free resources online created by AP teachers, as well as several test prep apps on Android and IOS. We suggest carefully reading reviews before making a purchase as some are better than others.
4. Take live online AP CSA coding classes
If your student is interested in coding and plans to take AP CSA, then we suggest supplementing their education with live online classes. Create & Learn has a huge curriculum of classes to help students at any stage of their coding education. Younger students (grade 4-7) can benefit from our Accelerated Scratch, Arduino, and Mobile Coding for Apps and Games courses.
Older students and those taking the CSA or CSP exam will be programming in Java for the exam, but professional developers need to become proficient in multiple programming languages. Learning more about other languages can strengthen your CS principles and theory, making you better at your first language.
We offer a specific learning path to prepare for both AP CSA and AP CSP exams, which includes instruction from live, professional developers in Cloud Computing, Machine Learning, Computer Science Principles, Java, Python, and HTML. These programs include many courses, delivered over a period of 3 to 6 months, where students can grow with the support of industry experts and compassionate teachers. Many of our courses include free trials, so there’s no reason to delay.
5. Pre-test practice day
We know we told you to take a practice test, but now it’s time to take another one. Once you have seriously studied for a period of time and completed your AP CSA course, it’s time to test your knowledge. Ideally, we recommend testing at the beginning, middle, and end of the study period. At the very least, you should try to do a preliminary test and at least one practice test in the last run up to the real deal. When you approach the actual exam, we advise you to take the exam in the closest conditions to the actual exam: take it at the time of morning you will actually begin, set a timer, wear a suit… whatever you need to do to get yourself in gear. This will give you greater confidence in your ability to get a high score by showing you how much you have learned while also highlighting any remaining areas in which you can improve at the last minute. Don’t wait until the day before the test or you might get a rude awakening if you have major gaps between your practice and desired test scores.
AP CSA exam study tips to get a 5
Breaking down your study plans to incorporate learning theory, depth analysis, and practical coding is the key to getting a 5 on the AP CSA exam.
- Study for multiple choice questions: To succeed in the multiple choice section, students need a solid understanding of data types: strings, integers, loops, variables, etc. Students need to know how algorithms work and how data can be stored and processed.
- Study for free-response questions: In this section, students need to code in Java while also demonstrating the ability to contextualize their decisions for others. This is the hardest part of the exam, so special care should be taken to prepare for it.
- Practice, practice, practice: This is not a test you can expect to do well on if you wait until the last minute. Begin learning fundamentals by coding as you go. There are many resources available, but you need to dedicate a set time to studying each week, ideally for a period of time every day.
How hard is the AP CSA exam?
The AP CSA exam is likely to be one of the hardest academic challenges a young student will face, but with prior planning and dedication, any competent student can expect to get a passing grade. Like the SATs and other major standardized exams, students struggle to understand the “why” of being motivated to complete something like this. As parents and educators, it is our job to give kids the right information and the best tools to help them succeed in ways that they might otherwise not try and may only appreciate later in life. Remember that with hard work and a comprehensive study plan, you can expect to get a 4 or 5 on your AP CSA exam.
Prepare for the AP CSA exam
We hope you have enjoyed our guide to getting a high score on the AP CSA exam. Supplement your study plans today with one of Create & Learn coding classes for high school students, or follow this link to our guide to the other AP CS exam, AP Computer Science Principles (CSP).
Written by Bryan Gordon, a Create & Learn instructor. After ten years of working as an English teacher, Bryan began studying Math and Computer Science over the past few years. Aside from writing and teaching, he likes cooking, gardening, playing guitar, and hanging out with his cats, Baguette and Wally.