AP Classes: Pressure to Impress

As the bell rings at 11:30am, the AP biology students are settling in their seats, ready to take on the next forty-five minutes of intensive learning. With their giant backpacks tucked under their desks, the girls sit quietly for a moment with their notebooks open and colored pens at the ready. The class begins with a schedule update from their teacher, Dr. Doll. He explains to the class that their test may have to be pushed back because “we’re very busy, and I’m a little nervous about our schedule this week.” Like all AP classes, they have a lot of material to cover in a very short amount of time. As the lecture goes on, the whiteboard slowly fills with terminology, definitions, and color-coded diagrams. “As AP students, you need to know all the specific details about these,” Dr. Doll explains and adds a couple of extra notes. The girls’ heads bop up and down, transferring the information from the whiteboard to their paper, writing hastily so that they don’t get behind. As they all know, Advanced Placement (AP) courses do not allow them to waste time. With the AP exam in mind, every class must be used as efficiently as possible.

AP courses are college level classes offered to high school students in order to make their transcripts more competitive when it comes time for the college application process. However, AP courses did not use to be as popular as they are today. They were originally created in 1955 by a small group of colleges and elite high schools in order to provide students with a more challenging curriculum and an opportunity to skip an introductory level class once they reached college. The only requirement that they made was for every student to take a standardized test at the end of the year to prove they had learned the information and skills of the class. The first school year that APs were offered, between 1955 and 1956, 1,229 students took an AP course around the country. 55 years later, approximately 2 million students, about one third of all high schoolers, took at least one AP class. As this shows, APs are becoming increasing popular every year. With the number of people taking these courses rising, the number of people doing well on them is also going up. According to Trevor Packer, the College Board AP Vice President, in 1999, 454,059 students scored a three or above, whereas in 2009, just ten years later, over one million students achieved this grade. Looking at these statistics it’s obvious that it is becoming harder for students to distinguish themselves academically from peers in their class. And because that’s the goal in the college application game, countless students today are pushing themselves to take more and more AP classes, and pushing the standard to increasingly stressful heights, without the actual benefit of rising above the crowd.

AP courses expose students to college standards – a taste of what’s to come, but in a closer, more supportive community. They also help students to develop valuable skills that can be applied to all aspects of their life. “AP students are required to be more independent, and required to be more resourceful,” says interim Dean of Students, Mr. Mather, who teaches the AP US History class. “The standards are high… and it requires investment on the part of students,” he added. Adrianna Russell, a senior who took Mr. Mather’s AP US History class as a junior, said, “It was hard but totally worth it. But I love history so, even though we had a ton of reading. I really enjoyed it.”

The students who apply for AP classes are the most capable and passionate students. Dana Hall students must write a short paragraph about why the class would be a good fit for them. For English and History classes, they also have to take a timed essay to help the teachers determine which students are ready for the extra challenge. Although the application process helps to select the most eligible students for the AP level classes, it also denies some students the opportunity to experience a college level class.  “We want students to be challenged, to takes risks, to try something new,” Mr. Mather said, “but no one is served well in a course where they won’t be successful.” Emma Milford, a senior who is currently taking four APs, thinks, “The application process is good because it forces you to really consider whether you want to take on the challenge of such a hard class.” Both Mr. Mather and Dr. Doll agree that having a motivated class enables everyone to move at the same pace, which means the class can go more deeply and explore the more complex areas of the subject.

With the desire to show their full potential, many students choose to take multiple AP courses in one year so that by the time they graduate, they will have a whole collection of APs on their transcript. Some students even give up their genuine interests in order to take an extra AP. “I wanted to take African Studies with Ms. Panahi this year, but I didn’t so that I could take AP Literature,” Milford said. From a teacher’s perspective, it can be difficult if students are only enrolled in the class because they feel they should be. “I worry if students are taking the class just for the purpose of looking good for colleges,” Dr. Doll says.

Dana Hall holds its students to very high academic standards; most students take at least one AP before they graduate. Is this trend of escalating standards putting too much pressure on the students? A tremendous amount of stress comes with such a rigorous curriculum. Serena Mirchandani ’13, who is enrolled in Dr. Doll’s AP Biology class, hopes that one day she will major in Biology in college. “Taking this class now [ensures] I’ll be well prepared for when I take it in college,” she says.  “It requires a ton of effort, a ton of time, and the material is really challenging, but it’s been so rewarding because the class is fascinating and I’ve probably learned more in this class than in any other class at Dana.”

Ms. Hanig, one of Dana’s college counselors, thinks that APs are a great opportunity for students to prove their academic abilities. “Colleges look favorably at students who challenges themselves,” she said. From the perspective of a college counselor, it is important to get the balance just right between being realistic about which classes a student will be successful in and looking impressive to colleges. “It’s a tight rope,” she said, “we encourage APs where they’re appropriate… [but] for some students that’s not the appropriate level for them.” Ms. Hanig noted that “colleges know that Dana Hall is challenging. A ‘B’ here is not the same as a ‘B’ at some other schools.” She says that having Dana Hall on their transcript already gives students a boost when it comes to applying to college. Ultimately, two things have to be taken into consideration. “You have to take what you love, but also what colleges will like,” she said. This balance must be just right in order to keep the amount of pressure on students under control.

Dana Hall encourages all students to reach their highest potential, which many girls do by taking AP classes. While competition between students to impress colleges is rising, the real value of AP courses still holds true to the vision that the small group of colleges and high schools had originally made for them: academically challenged students get to experience college level classes. Some colleges still allow introductory courses to be skipped if a student does well on the end-of-year AP exam. If the right balance is found for students between being able to demonstrate the best of their abilities and being able to keep up with the work—and finding that remains confusing to all—AP classes serve as a starting point for Dana girls to deeply experience a subject that they are truly passionate about and may even pursue later in their life.

By Natasha Hampton

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