Should my teen take AP Computer Science? Here’s what you need to know:

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Analyze, compute, code, create: AP Computer Science offers high school students a rigorous introduction to STEM in higher education. Here’s everything you need to know about this exciting learning opportunity for teens.

As more and more schools across the country embrace STEM and start to offer coding clubs and more classes, the opportunities to take AP computer science are growing! 

In fact, the number of AP Computer Science Principles test-takers more than doubled in 2020 from its first year run in 2016. Still more exciting, 2020 marked a significant uptick in the number of high schools recognized for encouraging young women and other underrepresented groups to take the course! 

Basically, one might anticipate that AP Computer Science is on its way to becoming more commonplace for grades 9-12. That’s all the more reason to know about the unique benefits, format, and worlds of possibilities that await students who take the course and its accompanying test. 

Why Take AP Computer Science 

There’s no doubt about it: an Advanced Placement course is a major undertaking, and with that comes major reward potential! Here are just a few of the benefits to rocking AP Computer Science and their examinations. 

Real-world applications & exciting careers

A leg up in computer science opens the door to 48 college majors and 130+ careers, making this subject one of the most versatile out there. Plus, of all the STEM fields out there, computer science is proving to be the most lucrative and fast-growing

If your teen is excited about innovation and eager to learn about the potential of their tech skills, AP Computer Science is an excellent way to bridge their high school and college learning experiences. 

Impress college admissions offices

Yes, colleges would like to see more than just good grades.

According to college admissions expert Jeffrey Selingo. "Advanced Placement is considered more rigorous than standard or even honors courses in most high schools. As college admissions officers review applications, their biggest question is always whether the student can do the work at this particular campus.” 

A great final grade or test score speaks volumes to admissions officers! Plus, AP and honors-level courses are weighted differently in students’ final GPA’s and can give that key piece of information a noticeable boost. 

Combine academics with extracurricular activities

Maybe your teen is part of a robotics team or loves dabbling with programming or engineering in their spare time. AP Computer Science offers a unique opportunity to bring those interests into their school routine.  

Learn in a supportive community

An online tutorial does not make a community! By enrolling in a high school course, teens will have the opportunity to collaborate with peers, iterate as part of a team, and practice their new skills with like-minded people.

Explore STEM in depth (and in context)

Both AP Computer Science courses are project and skill- oriented, something that will be music to the ears of teens who wonder, “And I’ll need to know this ... When?” These courses are meticulously designed to put STEM into a real-world context, and allow students to create with the latest technology, and solve real dilemmas our world is facing. 

Earn college credit

By earning a high score on an AP Computer Science exam, students can receive college credit! An estimated 950 colleges and universities will recognize qualifying scores as equivalent to taking an introductory level computer science course. 

While taking the exam is not necessarily required of all AP students, there’s no doubt that lighter course loads, accelerated paths to higher level courses, or even early graduation are powerful motivators! 

A guide to the AP Computer Science Exams

With those benefits to hook students, let’s take a closer look at what AP computer science looks like. 

The college board offers two Advanced Placement computer science courses and accompanying tests: AP Computer Science A and AP Computer Science Principles

What’s the difference between the two? That’s exactly the right question to ask when deciding which course would be best to take first, or which of the two is a better fit for your teen.

AP Computer Science A focuses on technical Java coding skills and object-oriented programming fundamentals. It’s a college-level computer science course that emphasizes practical applications of coding and computational thinking.

By contrast, the AP Computer Science Principles course offers a more big-picture (though no less rigorous and challenging) examination of technology applications across various industries. Students will explore concepts like algorithms, but there’s no set coding language requirement.

Via the College Board

What’s on the AP computer science exams?

Naturally, the two exams will differ just as the courses do. With college credit on the line, it’s no surprise that both AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A are very difficult, likely more so than what teens might see in lower level math or science courses. 

It might make sense to get a feel for both tests as part of making a course selection. Check out the College Board’s detailed outlines for Computer Science A and Computer Science Principles and past years’ exams

Which course should my teen take first?

So though their titles sound similar, the two AP computer science courses are significantly different learning experiences. When determining which is right for your teen, ask yourself: does my child thrive most in hands-on coding, or do they enjoy a wider conceptual lens in exploring tech?

If they have some Java experience or practice in another coding language, they might have an excellent leg up for AP Computer Science A! The course could be a natural, project portfolio-boosting next step for them. If your student is interested in computer science but might not be so enthused about a coding-heavy course (yet), AP Computer Science Principles is probably the right choice. 

As your student evaluates their options to take either or both courses, it’s important to note: like all Advanced Placement courses, these are designed with a college level of academic rigor. 

If your teen isn’t sure if they’re ready to take the plunge into such a challenge, a coding course or Online Teen Academy would be a wise first stop! Once they’re ready to dive in, there’s no telling where their STEM journey will take them next! 

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains. 

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