The choice of two APs: Advanced Placement and additional pressures

Navigating through the rewards and drawbacks of rigorous AP classes

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Mina Jung / Talon

The engraving of ancient lead onto paper, the melodic clacking of the keys on a keyboard, the shuffling of papers in a scramble to locate vital information they’re the hallmarks of an atmosphere of stress, also known as high school.

The road through high school is pockmarked by bumps and potholes. But fear not, the Talon is prepared to help you navigate this path by dissecting one major challenge: AP classes.

Today, many students are fighting an uphill battle with unprecedented high standards, deteriorating mental health and the cherry on top: the additional pressures and alterations accompanying COVID-19. 

Why would any student want to add more to that load by taking AP classes?

In a study performed by Sarah E. Moore, an expert from the College at Brockport State University of New York, a coalition of her findings dive into the real mental expenses AP classes have on their participants.

“American high schools are offering more Advanced Placement (AP) courses than in the past. Furthermore, there has been an increase in student participation in AP courses,” Moore wrote. “However, there is concern that schools are pushing AP courses and that students are under pressure to perform to high standards. Due to the elevated levels of stress experienced by students enrolled in high-level courses, these students appear to be at risk for mental health issues.”

When selecting classes for the upcoming school year, most students are already aware of the copious weight their AP classes will carry. Yet, students persevere through the arduous curriculum in hopes of reaping its rewards.

“I take AP classes to challenge myself further than the standard curriculum may offer,” senior Lauren Nicholson wrote to the Talon. “AP classes, while more difficult, allow me to acquire college credits in high school and hopefully bypass certain college requirements once I’m there.”

Students taking AP courses find that the fruits of their labor come in many shapes and sizes, one of which is the bonus of a smoother transition from high school classes to college. Instead of being bombarded with the sudden weight and pressures of a higher level education, students who have previously taken AP classes may have a better understanding of the academics demanded of them in college. Many students find that relieving this pressure when adapting to a new academic environment is worth the extra rigor in high school. Plus, there is the added bonus of AP classes fulfilling college credits, thus lightening the college workload.

One article, written by The Princeton Review, delves into the perks of AP classes.

[AP classes] are fast-paced, cover more material than regular classes, and require independent work like research and analysis,” Editor-in-Chief of the Princeton Review Rob Franek wrote. “Getting a dose of a college-level curriculum early on could ease your transition from high school senior to first-year college student.”

AP classes are well known for their challenging workloads, and while many students endure this stress, some students choose to stray away from the headache of AP classes in order to avoid overloading their plates.

“I always have to weigh the pros and cons of certain courses when I select my classes. I need to keep in mind that I’m already trying to balance my extensive extracurricular schedule, including club and high school soccer, volunteer work and my part-time job,” junior Emily Rosenthal wrote. “I debated whether or not to take certain AP classes and decided that I’d rather excel in an honors class than force myself into an AP class.”

Whether one participates in a CP, Honors or AP class depends on the student and their knowledge of their abilities. Although there are benefits to go with taking AP classes, students should be aware of the intense curriculum and workload in order to best prepare for it.

“Students should take AP classes if they feel they are academically prepared to handle the class … Some of the more selective colleges do want to see students challenge themselves in the areas that interest them,” College and Career Technician Julie Prince wrote to the Talon. “It’s important that students do their research when they are applying to college to understand each college’s expectations. Pushing yourself into taking a class that you are not ready for may cause stress and anxiety and may not be worth it. Self-care is the most important!”

There is one more facet of AP classes that needs to be considered in light of distance learning the pressures applied by COVID-19. Virtual learning poses myriad problems and disadvantages for all students, not just those taking AP classes. For example, courses such as chemistry or biology advance and expand on material through hands-on labs. With COVID-19, those labs are now nonexistent and may leave a curriculum gap.

Additionally, in the 2019-2020 school year, AP exams went through a complete makeover in order to accommodate the new testing conditions of one’s home. Though the AP exams vary for each individual course, in general, previous AP exams were composed of multiple choice and a written portion. 

However, the College Board opted to institute several precautionary measures against cheating. With tighter time constraints, most exams became converted to only a written portion, completely scrapping the multiple-choice section. 

“I think it is very frustrating for a student to be evaluated on such a small percentage of the material that they have mastered,” Science Department Chair Winnie Sloan wrote to the Talon. “Statistically speaking, it seems likely that they could be assessed and evaluated inaccurately with such a small sample size of questions.”

Despite the unfortunate circumstances in the 2020 spring AP exams, this year is a blank slate; nobody knows how long COVID-19 will run its course, thus it is impossible to predict whether AP exams will return to normal or if COVID-19 is becoming the new “normal.” 

“The College Board has not, as of this early point in the school year, made any changes to the expectations or the exam format,” Sloan wrote. “I think other assessment and benchmark tests, like CAASPP, have not adjusted their expectations either. I believe many educational institutions and assessment platforms are hoping that we can return to the classroom at some point this year and the testing protocols would return as well.”

Students should also keep in mind that the preservation of their GPA trumps almost everything when selecting classes. Colleges are able to calculate one’s GPA, in two ways — unweighted or weighted. Essentially, for unweighted GPAs, each letter grade received in a class is assigned a different point on a scale of 1.0-4.0, and then those points are averaged together to create one’s unweighted GPA. However, what this system fails to account for is the additions of AP classes, thus the creation of the weighted GPA, which marks an A in an AP class as a 5.0. This additional boost in the weighted GPA definitely places some extra value in AP classes, but it also poses several problems for colleges when viewing applicants.

Nationwide, each high school varies slightly from the next in how they calculate their weighted GPA of students. For example, some high schools will weigh honors classes, giving their students an advantage over other students who lack that. Thus, it promotes issues for colleges when they look to compare students, for there is no sure way to keep everything level. Oak Park, in particular, gives students both their weighted and unweighted GPA. However, there are certain honors classes, such as English II Honors, that lack a GPA boost despite being labeled as honors. Instances like these cause discrepancies amongst other high schools, as most schools do provide honors credits for this class. One article written by Marie Schwartz from TeenLife discusses a solution to this dilemma.

“Many colleges have devised a method to standardize all of the GPAs they receive from students of different high schools. According to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, about two-thirds of high schools weigh their GPAs for students who take college preparatory courses. To account for different grading scales among high schools, more than half of colleges recalculate applicants’ GPAs to standardize them,” Schwartz wrote.

While GPA, which is heavily influenced by participation in AP classes, is one critical part of the college admissions process, there are many more pieces to the puzzle. Nonetheless, students should put special emphasis on their test scores (though numerous colleges have extracted this portion of the application in order to accommodate the newfound COVID-19 circumstances), extracurricular activities (which should typically revolve around a central interest to show commitment and passion), essays spiced with personal style and, of course, GPAs.

“Research consistently shows that AP students are better prepared for college than students who don’t take AP. They’re more likely to enroll and stay in college, do well in their classes, and graduate in four years,” an article from the College Board states.