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Computer Science or Applied Computer Science: What’s the Difference?

UW Online Collaboratives November 27, 2017
Applied Computer Science vs. Computer Science

Because the IT field boasts high salaries, demand for talent, and potential for advancement, earning a computer science bachelor’s degree is a smart move for any IT professional. However, now there’s a new degree major, applied computer science.

These two degrees are similar, but there are differences. What are those differences? And, more importantly, which degree fits best with your career goals?

What Are the Main Differences Between Computer Science and Applied Computer Science?

The choice between computer science and applied computer science depends on the type of IT work you want or the role you hope to fill. There is no right or wrong choice—it simply depends on your professional goals.

Here are some considerations to help you decide.

Theory or Application?

Traditionally, a computer science curriculum digs deeper into specialty areas such as compilers, graphics, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing (NLP). Students learn the theory behind topics such as programming or algorithms, as well as the skills and tools needed to do technical tasks. An employer could expect to assign a project to a computer science graduate and the result would be a computer-based system designed and implemented exactly as asked.

An “applied” curriculum covers technical aspects of computer science but doesn’t go into as much depth with the theory behind algorithms, computer architecture, and specialty areas such as NLP, graphics, and compilers.

Applied computer science degrees are new, created in response to recent employer demand for a business-focused IT professional. This is an important difference for you to consider as you choose a program. The applied program emphasizes using computer science theories and skills in a work setting to drive business decisions and operations. For example, after being assigned a task, an applied computer science graduate will have the skill set to ask goal-oriented questions and think critically about business outcomes and how the project affects other teams and the organization as a whole. And then they’d execute the technical build.

IT Specialist or Well-Rounded IT Professional?

Because of the way the curriculum is designed, computer science students spend more credit hours studying computer science theories and technical skills. As described above, these students go into more depth in particular areas, such as computer architecture.

Applied computer science students, on the other hand, study IT more broadly. At the end of the program, they are likely not specialists in a specific area. They end up as well-rounded, business-focused IT professionals, able to pursue many roles including web development, software development, and cybersecurity.

Both computer science and applied computer science programs emphasize the importance of soft skills, especially communication and the ability to function effectively on teams. However, students in UW’s applied computer science program tend to be adults with some job experience, so courses also concentrate heavily on the continued development of specific professional skills, including project and stakeholder management and problem solving. 

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Inventor or Leader?

Computer science students begin college with different levels of professional experience. Those with less experience might prefer to start out in an entry-level job dedicated to backend tasks, such as programming or software development. For this reason, these students need a degree that gives them advanced knowledge about specialty areas such as developing compilers or working on graphics drivers, especially if your career aspirations include advancing the field of computer science.

An applied computer science curriculum includes coursework that prepares graduates for IT management roles focused on business strategy, communication, and decision-making in addition to technical IT skills. As a result, they might be better trained to fill the role of team lead, solve business problems, and manage budget and timeline effectively right after graduation.

Graduate Degree or No Graduate Degree?

Students who want to pursue a M.S. or Ph.D. degree in computer science are better suited for a bachelor’s degree in computer science since it provides more comprehensive coverage of the research fields in computer science.

Students pursuing an applied computer science degree tend to be adults with associate degrees in IT who want to advance to leadership or a business-focused position within their IT department.

Interested in learning more about the online UW Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing? Contact an enrollment adviser at 608-800-6762 or

Programs: Applied Computing