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Is AP Computer Science Principles Hard?

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Before deciding to take any AP class, it's helpful to get an idea of whether you'll be able to manage the coursework and the exam. AP Computer Science Principles is less known by many students than more popular AP exams like US History and Biology, and many don't know what to expect from it.

Is AP Computer Science Principles hard? What if you're already pretty good at coding? (Or what if you've never coded before?) In this guide, we'll go over the five factors to consider when judging the difficulty of any AP class and explain how you can use this information to predict how hard AP Comp Sci Principles will be for you.

 

What Determines the Difficulty of an AP Course? 5 Key Factors

There are five main factors to consider when deciding whether AP Computer Science Principles is difficult compared with other AP courses. We'll give you a quick rundown of these before answering our main question: is AP Computer Science Principles hard?

As you read through each of the factors, you'll see that none of them is black and white, and an initial data point may give false information if you don't understand the entire picture. Because of that, we'll do in-depth analysis in the next sections.

 

Factor 1: Pass Rate

AP exams are scored from 1 to 5, and any score that's a 3 or higher is considered passing. Lower pass rates for an exam might indicate a more difficult class; however, sometimes pass rates in the hardest subjects are unexpectedly high because only the most dedicated students take those classes. A smaller group of more serious students makes for a larger percentage of passing scores overall. 

 

Factor 2: Percentage of Students Who Earn a 5

The 5 rate is the percentage of students who earn 5s (the highest possible score) on the AP test. If the 5 rate is on the lower side, it could indicate that the material is more difficult to master.

Like with Factor 1, a low 5 rate can also sometimes happen with very popular classes. The proportion of students who are prepared for an AP test tends to decrease as the total number of students taking it increases.

 

Factor 3: Content Difficulty

This boils down to the amount of material the AP course covers and how advanced that material is. You'd expect easier classes to have higher pass and 5 rates. However, some AP courses have high 5 and pass rates because their content is extremely challenging and only very driven students will take them—not because they're easy.

 

Factor 4: How Students Perceive the Class

This is a more subjective factor, but if you ask enough classmates at your school whether a certain AP class is hard or not, some patterns should emerge. After all, everyone learns essentially the same curriculum and takes the same AP test. Also, typically each AP course is only taught by one or two teachers, and students can tell you if they think they make the class easier or harder to do well in. 

 

Factor 5: When Students Take the Class

The final factor to consider is when students typically take the AP class. Classes that students take later in high school will be more difficult overall, but some students actually have an easier time in them because they're used to taking AP courses and exams by then. Similarly, AP classes often taken by underclassmen can seem more difficult because there's the learning curve of taking your first AP class to get past. 



How Hard Is AP Computer Science Principles: What the Data Says

Here's how students scored on the AP Computer Science Principles AP exam in 2021:

Score
5
4
3
2
1
% of Students Earning that Score
12.4%
21.7%
32.5%
19.9%
13.6%

Source: College Board

By looking at the data, we can see that 12.4% of students earned a 5 on the Comp Sci Principles exam last year, and 66.6% passed the exam. The average score for the exam is a 2.99, or just barely under passing.

So, how hard is the AP Computer Science Principles exam? Out of 43 AP exams offered, 17 had a higher 5 rate than Computer Science Principles and 26 had a lower 5 rate. In terms of pass rate, 24 had a higher pass rate, and 19 had a lower pass rate. 

So far, based on the data, AP Computer Science Principles seems about average in terms of AP scores. Its 5 rate is slightly above average, and its pass rate is slightly below average.

As we mentioned above, the popularity of an AP exam can also affect 5 and pass rates. In 2021, 116,466 students took the AP Computer Science Principles exam. Sixteen tests were more popular, and 21 were less popular. This makes AP Computer Science Principles slightly more popular to take than the average AP exam, but still pretty close to the average.

What can we deduce from this data? It indicates that AP Computer Science Principles is about average in difficulty. Its 5 score and passing rate are around the middle of those for other AP exams. Additionally, the exam is about average in terms of the number of students who take it as well, which means we can't make assumptions we could for other exams with especially low or high popularity. So is AP Computer Science Principles about average in difficulty? We know that statistics only show one side of the story, so let's look at some more information.

 

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Is the AP Comp Sci Principles Content Difficult?

The AP Computer Science Principles course is designed to give students a broad overview of computing. In the class, students learn how to use computer science to create algorithms and programs that solve problems. The teacher chooses the programming language for the course. There are five main course topics:

  1. Computational Solution Design: Design and evaluate computational solutions for a purpose.
  2. Algorithms and Program Development: Develop and implement algorithms.
  3. Abstraction in Program Development: Develop programs that incorporate abstractions.
  4. Code Analysis: Evaluate and test algorithms and programs.
  5. Computing Innovations: Investigate computing innovations.

The content for AP Computer Science Principles is generally seen as average to easier than average in difficulty, depending on your coding abilities. The course gives a broad introduction to computer science, so even if you don't have a background in the subject (and many students don't), you won't be inundated with nitty gritty details. The class and exam also emphasize practical skills, so there's little memorization, which sets the Comp Sci Principles apart from many other AP courses. Many students find the course makes a lot of intuitive sense because you're working to complete different tasks, and you can create solutions that make the most sense to you. Students who already know some computer science often find the course even easier because it teaches principles they're already somewhat familiar with.

 

Do Students Think AP Computer Science Principles Is Hard?

Most students who take AP Computer Science Principles find both the class and the AP exam to be manageable, especially when they come into the course with some level of coding knowledge. 

The beginning of the class can be difficult and involve a lot of homework as you learn the basics of coding. A lot of coding involves trial and error until you're able to complete the task you want, and this can be challenging and time consuming for students. However, the course is designed to move at a steady, manageable pace, so as long as you keep up with the work and don't get too far behind, you should be OK. If you know how to do some coding already, you'll likely find the class even easier, but even students who have never coded before often do well on both the course and the exam (just be prepared for a busy first few weeks, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you're stuck on a task).

The Computer Science Principles AP exam is actually considered one of the easier tests, as long as you prepare for it. One major benefit is that the Create Task--which is worth a full 30% of your final AP test score--must be done ahead of the exam, either in class or on your own time. Most teachers give you multiple class periods to work on your Create Task, and you're allowed to collaborate with your classmates for every part of it except the actual program code. That means that, on exam day, you'll only complete a multiple-choice section. This is great for students who often feel rushed or anxious during exams, especially on free-response problems. You'll have as much time as you want to work on your Create Task.

As for the exam content itself, students state that the multiple-choice questions and Create Task are more straightforward than other AP questions and don't use as much vague/tricky wording. Generally, if your computer science skills are solid, you'll do well on the exam.

 

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Will AP Computer Science Principles Be Hard for You?

Looking at trends and reading the opinions of others can be helpful, but, when it comes down to it, every student is different and has their own strengths and weaknesses. If you're wondering "how hard is AP Computer Science Principles" for you, there are three things you should do to get a clearer picture of what your AP Comp Sci Principles experience will be like, and how difficult you'll find it. 

 

#1: Decide If AP Computer Science Principles Is Your Kind of Subject

More than most AP classes, the skills you have coming into AP Computer Science Principles can make a big difference on how difficult you find the class. If you really like coding already, AP Comp Sci Principles might be a fairly stress-free way for you to continue to grow those skills. If you don't have much experience with coding and/or don't feel comfortable with it, you may have a harder time with the class, especially in the beginning as you get past the learning curve. Remember, you don't need to come into the class as a coding expert or even someone who has done coding before, but your skills starting off will have a big impact on how challenging you find the course, at least initially.

 

#2: Ask Former Students, Guidance Counselors, and Teachers About the Class

One of the best ways to decide how hard an AP exam will be is to ask students and teachers at your school who are familiar with the class and the exam. If you know any older students who have similar academic records to you, ask them what they thought of AP Computer Science Principles and the overall workload. If you're already taking a computer-related class, you can also ask that teacher if they think you're ready for AP Computer Science Principles. 

Alternatively, you could ask your guidance counselor what their opinion is of the class based on the performance of past students. They'll have knowledge of pass rates and 5 rates for the exam for students at your school, and they will also have heard a lot of opinions from other students over the years.

 

#3: Consider Your Schedule

Any AP class can be time-consuming, so before you decide to take Comp Sci Principles, think about the other classes you're taking. You don't want to overload yourself by taking too many other difficult classes at the same time. If you're taking other challenging AP classes at the same time, be prepared for a daunting workload. Don't take on too much, or you'll end up sacrificing your GPA and/or sanity.



Conclusion: Is AP Computer Science Hard?

So, is AP Computer Science Principles easy, or is AP Computer Science hard? Overall, most students find both the course and the exam to be somewhat easier than most other APs. There's no memorizing long lists of dates or terminology, and test questions are pretty straightforward. Additionally, students work on the Create Task at their own pace before the exam, and they're allowed to collaborate with classmates for every part of the task except that actual program code. This means that, come test day, they only have multiple-choice questions to worry about.

Student scores show that AP scores for Computer Science Principles students are about average for both 5 rates and passing rates compared to other exams. Students generally find the work manageable, but note that it can be more time-consuming in the beginning of the year, when you're just learning how to code.

More than most other exams though, how challenging you find AP Computer Science Principles will depend a lot on the knowledge and skills you have coming into the class. If you already have a solid grasp on coding, you may find the class quite easy (in fact, some students with strong coding skills self-study for the AP exam). If you don't have any experience coding or it's not a skill that comes easily to you, you might struggle more. However, it's important to know that many complete coding beginners excel in AP Computer Science Principles by putting in the time, staying on top of the work, and asking for help when they're stuck. Follow those guidelines, and you'll put yourself in a great place for success.

 

What's Next?

Interested in learning more about AP Computer Science Principles? Our in-depth guide goes over everything you need to know about the AP Comp Sci Principles class and the AP exam!

Want to show off your computer science skills? Read our article on the 11 best computer science competitions for teens and get practicing!

Thinking about majoring in computer science? Learn what a computer science major will be like and if it's the right choice for you.

 

 

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Christine Sarikas
About the Author

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.



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