I should preface this by saying that I am fully aware that my story is not everyone’s story. A 4-year-university, most likely out-of-state, was the only post-grad option for me. Not because of anything my parents said, but because of who I am, and maybe also how many times I watched First Daughter as a kid. I was lucky in my certainty. I realize that for others, this isn’t the case.
Okay. I’m 3,000 miles away and graduated Mount Si almost a year ago, so maybe something has drastically changed in these past 10 months. But am I really supposed to believe that all of a sudden the entire school is “crumbling under the pressure” of expectations? That kids are now being pressured to take higher level math classes in middle school and tons of AP classes and told that 4-year-universities are the only post-graduation option? Again, I’m gone. Things may have changed. But I went to SMS for three years and Mount Si for four years– and I would bet anything that this is not the case.
From the time I was in middle school, it was a challenge for those of us who wanted to push ourselves to be allowed the opportunity to do – so I had to pass a test to get on the higher level math track which allowed me to take Algebra in 8th grade. There was only one SMS Algebra class– only around 37% of kids in my grade were in it. I was luckily able to get onto this track, and I truly mean that I was lucky, because at the time I didn’t realize that if I hadn’t been in this class, I would not have been on track to take Calculus my senior year of high school. This is important because completing Calculus is an extremely important accomplishment that many colleges want to see of their applicants. A major component of my future college acceptance chances were determined by that one middle school math placement test – and I didn’t even know it.
I think they made it difficult to get into 8th grade algebra because they were convinced it was too much for kids to handle– despite the fact that what was then our “advanced math track” was the equivalent of the standard in neighboring districts. I had a notoriously strict Algebra teacher who assigned a lot of nightly homework, and at the beginning of the year I do remember finding it a bit more challenging than previous math classes. But it had nothing to do with the material, that was actually pretty enjoyable to me– back in middle school, math was my favorite subject. This particular class was difficult at first only because of the teacher I had, and even with her, after a couple of months I was used to it and found that 30 or 40 problems really wasn’t that much.
Then came high school and the expectations really weren’t that different. At the end of my Freshman year, as I was signing up for my sophomore year classes, I was told by multiple counselors and teachers that if I was going to take AP World History that I should not take Language Arts Honors. They were so worried about what the weight of one AP class would do to me – I can’t imagine there’s anyone on the Mount Si staff pushing students into taking multiple AP classes.
Granted, AP World was my first AP class – and they were right that it was an adjustment. I remember coming home the first night and feeling absolutely panicked at the amount of reading I had to do. I couldn’t imagine finishing that assignment, let alone anything else. I think this is the image that comes to mind for many concerned parents, students, and staff members when they think of AP classes: total distress and an inability to complete other tasks. It’s easy to imagine an AP class consuming your life. But to judge the entire experience by the stress you feel on your first day is a completely unfair and inaccurate assumption to make.
AP World was the hardest AP class I took at Mount Si. But I don’t think it was because the material was particularly more difficult than my future AP classes — there’s a strong argument to be made that Mr. Jackson’s 11th grade AP English class would win that fight. But the reason was because I had never been challenged that way before. Mr. Bopp kept us on our toes 24/7. No student would get out of class without answering questions on the spot and the lengthy Learning Targets were not to be turned in late. Reading was not something you could skim over, and definitely not something you could skip. There was no way to pass that class and certainly not the AP test if you weren’t working your *ss off.
But this is the point of these classes: to learn how to work your *ss off. They are college prep, and now that I’m nearly done with my first year of college, I have found that the rumors are true. College is not easy. And knowing how to work your *ss off is an important skill set– one that will come naturally when you use high school as a time to prepare yourself.
If you enter a class and on your first day don’t feel somewhat overwhelmed, then more often than not you aren’t going to learn much in that class. I wanted to cry after my first day of AP World, but after a couple of months, I had the hang of things and suddenly reading 20 pages from a textbook was a breeze, not a death sentence.
I tried to drop AP English my junior year because I was so scared of the rumored workload, but this was the class I credit, in a rather cringe-worthy manner, with changing my life. Seriously though, I was always going to be a business major, but by the end of 11th grade I’d stumbled upon screenwriting and this class, specifically the Romanticism unit, convinced me that maybe it could be more than just a hobby.
As I signed up for senior year classes and realized I was about to commit to four AP classes, the familiar wave of panic washed over me for a moment. I almost dropped AP Spanish from my schedule and went for an easier, filler class. But I decided to be a little braver, and I found myself in love with Spanish again and learning more in one year than I ever could have imagined. I looked forward to 6th period with Señora Foster every day. By the second semester, every time I left class I couldn’t stop thinking in Spanish.
My point, however drawn out, is this: some stress is a good thing, it’s the best way you learn and it’s what can make you a more capable and competent human being. It seems people are now taught that any amount of stress should send you running. They say you should be enjoying high school and not be constantly overwhelmed by classwork. And that’s true. But the thing is, you probably won’t be overwhelmed. Maybe you will be stressed before a big test or if there’s a lesson you’re not fully understanding, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Don’t let anyone fool you into believing it’s a constant, unrelenting, all-encompassing stress that you’re signing up for when you add that extra AP. Don’t let someone tell you it will ruin your high school experience. Senior year was by far the best year of high school for me, even though it’s when I took the most AP classes. The more of these classes you take, the more well-equipped you will be to handle your workload. Senior year will be fine– especially second semester once you’re accepted into colleges and embrace the ‘senioritis’ from time to time.
Challenging and/or AP classes will not ruin high school for you. Maybe you’ll have to work harder sometimes, but you’ll actually be learning something that will carry past high school– I have referenced things I learned in the Romanticism unit of my 11th grade AP English class in two of my final essays since getting to NYU. Yes, some of these classes will add a little stress here and there, but it will become easier and easier to deal with as you get more experienced. It’s certainly nothing that will destroy the entire high school experience.
And as great as the high school experience can be, I think it’s easy to forget that high school is just the jumping off point. When you’re there, you can’t remember not being there everyday, and the idea of actually being gone is something you dream about, but can’t truly picture. But you’ll be gone a lot sooner than you realize and the idea of being there everyday will seem intangible– even just one year out. Then you have college and all this introduction to the real world to worry about – and that’s honestly so much more important than anything you do in high school.
So please, don’t base all school decisions on what will make for the optimal high school experience. I’m not saying take all AP classes and lock yourself away doing homework Friday through Sunday. Just work a little bit harder when you can, even if it means making a small sacrifice or devoting more time to homework than you’d like to here and there. Allow yourself to take a class that might stress you out from time to time. It’ll be worth it when it comes time for college applications and you have so many options right there in front of you.
The world does not start and end with high school. It barely even starts. Try to enjoy your time in high school, but also use it to prepare for what’s to come, to learn how to reach for more and be successful.
And if none of this is convincing, I’d like to end with this: There are some AP classes that are easy to pass and will look great on college applications. Ask around.