Opinion | Social pressure to take AP classes harms prospective students

Linnea Mayo, Assistant Opinion Editor

During my final course selection process at ETHS, I found myself very conflicted over AP (Advanced Placement) classes for the upcoming 2022 school year and the implications of taking or not taking a certain number of these courses. As with many other students, my mind was full of speculations that I wouldn’t get into college if I didn’t take a certain number of AP classes or that that decision would make or break my success. What became clear was just another example of our flawed educational system integrating harmful ideas into students’ minds and feeding information that fosters negative effects on these students. Specifically, within this system, there is often a great amount of social pressure to fill your class schedule with AP classes in order to prove your success, intelligence or ambition and contributes to the ultra-competitive elitist social culture of it all. 

Consequently, this causes students to quickly take the burden of enrolling in a large number of AP classes with the idea that it will automatically take them to a desired and prestigious university. This feeling of obligation and witnessing peers fill their schedules with AP classes, as well as colleges and universities wanting to see you “challenge yourself” are what often create a daunting pressure where taking numerous AP classes is the presumed sole path to success. 

With the wide variety of AP courses offered at a school, it’s easy to feed into this idea. As a Chicago Tribune report indicated, at “top-performing schools, students and experts describe an atmosphere of intense, sometimes disabling, pressure connected with test scores, college admissions and AP course loads.” 

This also leaves students not in AP classes to feel left out or self conscious about their schedules because their intelligence is being measured purely from the classes they chose to take interest in. 

“It’s a standard thing. Like, if you are doing well in non-AP classes, the next step is trying to take an AP class. And if other people around you are doing it, you kind of feel pressured to do that as well. Your intelligence or your rigor is based on how many AP classes you’re taking,” says junior Ruby Winer. 

When everyone begins to build this mentality, a social influence that we have to take AP classes becomes ingrained in our minds and shapes our choices. 

“That pressure is really coming from a social standpoint rather than the school sending that message. Nowhere at ETHS can you find out you have to take a certain number of AP classes to get into a certain class; that’s not a message that’s being sent anywhere,” says AP Chemistry teacher and teacher sponsor of TeamASAP Tina Lulla. 

This damaging social influence often begins with a student hearing they must take a certain number of classes to get into a good college. Then, other students begin to believe that and the message continues to be repeated, people now building on this narrative. This even carries into parents, as they too become influenced by other students and parents. 

Additionally, a key component of AP classes is the opportunity to earn college credit. Through the college-level AP work, students are able to save time and energy by completing classes ahead of time. And the reality is, enrollment in these classes are on the rise. In fact, in May 2017, 2.7 million high school students took nearly 5 million AP tests, according to the College Board. Considering the final goal of taking an AP class is to pass the AP exam at the end of the year, feeling pressured to take more than you can handle could prove to have negative consequences at the end of the year. After all, it’s better to get two 4’s than four 2’s on your AP exam. So, while taking these advanced classes do help prepare you for college, the increase and expansion of these tests are not having effective outcomes for many students. Also, there is not a guarantee that these prestigious universities will accept AP credit considering many want you at their schools longer. 

When it comes time for student course selection, ETHS teachers also provide students with recommendations for the upcoming school year. However, unintentionally, this becomes a component of the social pressure.

“Teachers do a great job at recognising our strength and abilities that we do not see because and because they see things we do not always see, they unknowingly pressure us into taking these classes. They see our potential, and we don’t always see that, because we are our own worst critics,” explains junior Shania Wright. 

In order to combat this, it’s important teachers have conversations when recommending their students’ AP classes and consistently follow up so students make informed decisions.

It’s evident students are overloading themselves as they believe taking more AP classes is the only ticket to a selective school. The implication of this is burnout, stress accumulating in our students and less free time as they attempt to overload themselves and their schedules. And this constant overworking and pushing oneself to excessive amounts can eventually impact every aspect of a students’ lives, including emotional and physical well-being, and even future college and career paths. 

“I think that is the thing I try to discourage students from the most. If you’re not genuinely interested in that subject area, taking an AP class can be really detrimental to you because you end up having to do a lot of work in an area you’re not interested in,” explains Lulla. 

Being in these AP classes can also lead to a sense of isolation or impostor syndrome as you begin to realize you’re taking the class for the wrong reasons. This feeling of not belonging in the space becomes very frustrating as you put your self-worth and energy into something purely due to the social pressure or having it on your transcript. You can begin to question if you’re good enough to be in space or that you would never be as “smart” as those around you. This furthers the competitive social influence because students begin to believe everyone around them is better than them and can find themselves constantly comparing themselves to others.

“I wouldn’t have to try to fit in the environment that AP classes usually create, I would not have to code-switch and deny parts of myself to feel like an AP student in the classroom,” says Wright. 

While it’s important to challenge yourself, this should never be at the expense of your mental health and well-being, which some still need to wrap their head around. As a student, it’s imperative you reflect upon your personal limits and abilities when it comes to choosing these classes. Consider what you can actually handle, while also showing colleges you’re challenging yourself. Don’t make sacrifices of taking courses you’re passionate about just for the sake of taking a more difficult class and make sure you’re not letting others push you too far out of your comfort zone. At the end of the day, it’s your high school experience and schedule, you are able to navigate that the way you feel best works. 

These emotions will also be eased if teachers, counselors and even parents limit the amount of pressure they place on their students. Of course, you want them to be successful, but to prevent that pressure we have to be honest and nonjudgmental of whether or not others are taking an AP class, how many you’re taking, or what their overall schedule looks like in order to stop building upon the narrative that more AP classes equals automatic success. There is no doubt AP classes are highly encouraged and do provide students with college-level classes, and ETHS does provide a plethora for students to find what suits them, but it’s time we acknowledge it is not and will never be for every student, no matter how much we glamorize the class or pressure them into them.