The AP Stress Mess


By Ian Duncanson

When Tam High Junior Kaylie Keim transferred from Marin Catholic this year, she was bent on pursuing her dream in the science business. Because of this, she chose her classes wisely, including her AP and Honors.

“I really want to do a lot of science in college, my dream school is UCSD, I’ve been doubling up on sciences since freshman year. I’m really going at it, and that’s why I decided to take [both] Marine Biology and Honors Chemistry. Next year, I’m taking AP Environmental and BioMed. When it comes to colleges, I definitely want to go into the science route,” said Keim. Keim is additionally taking APUSH (US History), AP Language/Composition and AP Spanish, which stray a bit from her goal, even though she still takes an interest in them.

“I think that, going into junior year and scheduling your classes, AP classes do stand out to you in a way like ‘Oh, my GPA will be boosted so much’, and I think that’s not the only reason why I chose to take AP and Honors classes, but that’s also a really big plus, and it does make you want to take them more,” said Keim.

Like Kaylie, many students have played the “child pressed to the window” when it comes to the revelling notion of AP and Honors classes, as well as the overarching shadow of perceived college expectations. In many cases, the race for students to reach a level of notoriety so that they can stand out to universities is what some believe to be the pinnacle of the high school objective. For the majority of students, this is believed to be accomplished through the enrollment of AP and Honors classes. During Sophomore, Junior and Senior year, students are scrambling in order to take as many of these classes as they can to put them on their ever-growing schedules. The worrisome part, despite countless advice from counselors and wellness advisors, is that overloading schedules with AP and Honors classes could actually hurt their chances of college acceptance, as well as harm them mentally.

“Where the pressure is coming from to take more predominantly comes from the students themselves,” said Alex Hunt, a counselor at Tam.  “It becomes a little bit of a toxic vortex, and that they all talk to each other… for some reason, they’re not listening to the people who have the experience, they’re listening to each other, which is really working against them.” Without knowing it, most students are walking into these college level classes without the proper knowledge. Although most may retain the basic idea of AP and Honors classes, counselors say that a lot of them simply aren’t prepared.

“There are a few things that AP classes will say about a student.” said Melanie Voorsanger, Tam’s college and career counselor.  “It will tell the college admissions representative about their interests & about their abilities, but having a ton of AP classes doesn’t actually do as much as a lot of students think, because what a transcript does is it tells a story about the students themselves. It tells the admissions director what that student has been interested in in the past, and the rigor level of their classes, but I think a lot of students think it’s [just] a GPA-boost and they’re not really looking at that as much as they’re looking at the rigor of the class itself. It’s more than just a local opinion. The same idea is spread throughout colleges around the country, whether it’s state schools or ivy leagues.”

Catherine Norman, a Harvard Admissions Interviewer adds, “In the interview process, the interviewer is looking for is what is literally your passion. They don’t want you to game the system, because everyone’s gaming the system. Everyone’s got some community service, but it’s only because they know they need community service; it’s really not a passion for whatever it is–but there are people where [for them] it is a passion. You can tell so much more about a student when you know their passion, and why they chose to do things. If they chose it just for the grades or the look, it comes across in the way they talk about the courses or the way they talk about the teachers.”

When it’s not the counselors warning students about AP overload, it’s the stats. According to a study in 2013, made by the American Psychological Association (ASA) where 1,950 adults and 1,018 teens in the U.S. were interviewed, teens reported that their stress level during the school year far exceeded what they [ASA] believed to be healthy (5.8 versus the healthy 3.9 on a 10-point scale).  These stats topped those of adults, which were reported in the 5.1 range. The ASA also found that many teens also reported feeling overwhelmed (31 percent) and depressed or sad (30 percent) as a result of stress. More than one-third of teens reported fatigue or feeling tired (36 percent) and nearly one-quarter of teens (23 percent) reported skipping a meal due to stress.

“I’ve seen so many students be overloaded and over stressed because they’ve just taken too many AP classes and they’ve not been able to pursue the things they really want to pursue” said Voorsanger. “I think the bottom line is if you’re doing the things you want to be doing and you’re enjoying—if you’re taking an AP science class, but not an AP English class because you’re not as excited about English, then you’re doing the right thing and you’re actually showing the colleges who you really are, rather than taking as many difficult classes as possible and feeling really burnt out by the end of it.”

AP classes were originally made in the 1950’s to provide students with college level classes in courses that interests them. Instead, students have obtained the notion that AP’s is all that colleges look for. That, by taking AP’s in every subject, it boosts their chances of being in the “cream of the crop.” It’s a simple misunderstanding of what colleges really want.

“Colleges want to see what you’re passionate about on your transcript. If you take AP and honors classes in everything, they have no idea who you are, and they end up confused and they also might think that you as a student don’t know who you are, so they might not want to take the risk on you.” said Hunt, “We’re hoping to put a cap on honors and AP classes in our district–were talking about this at the district department level. Because if we can put a cap on AP and honors classes, and restrict how many each kid takes, and then tell the colleges that, then the colleges can’t count it against the student. So, that would relieve a lot of stress and anxiety and allow kids to really focus on what they love, in terms of their advanced classes, as opposed to what they think they have to take, that looks good to colleges…[because] if you go to a school that offers no AP or Honors classes and you have good grades, that’s going to make you just as competitive as a student that went to Tam, took every single AP and Honors class, got a 4.67 GPA, and had no other life and did nothing else.” What students don’t realize is the totality of everything they’re doing, which ultimately ends up being unhealthy.

The AP teachers are also noticing this in their own classes. With some, they’ve noticed that AP classes have come, especially in certain communities, with a lot of pressure to get into a brand-named university.

“It’s been like this race for how many AP’s can I take because that looks good on my application; and the more AP’s I have, the higher my weighted GPA is.” AP Spanish teacher Leah Ramsey said, “I think [because of] that sort of culture around AP classes, now you have students that are taking AP courses that aren’t necessarily their passion or their forte. So, they’re going to struggle in those courses a little bit, naturally, and it’s also that the workload is just too much.” This notion is shared between more than just one teacher.

“For me, what’s important, is [students] being excited and engaged with the material and really enjoying learning about history.” said AP European History teacher Dr. Claire Ernst. “To me, I don’t need everyone to get a 5 on the [AP] exam to feel like I’ve been a success. I don’t need everyone to have an A to feel like the class is successful. So, while there is that thing out there that is the AP exam, for me what’s more important is [whether this is] an interesting class; are you learning something? Is this exiting? Are you thinking about things in a way you haven’t before, or being exposed to things that you find fascinating? If the answer is ever yes to that, that’s my personal goal, and for that reason, I would never want a particular assignment or exam to derail anyone’s interest in the class. So, it’s a balance, especially since most students in an AP class are taking multiple APs, I think it’s important to, as a teacher, find ways to balance things out and be flexible, at the same time that all AP classes operate under certain constraints, and trying to negotiate that is one of the challenges of being an AP teacher.”

Another factor that students, nor the parents pushing their students, realize is that the workload, for some, is extremely heavy. They also are very uninformed when it comes to how AP credits are worth when put into proportion.

“The thing with college is [that] most courses are three units, if you’re on the semester system. That means that if it’s a three unit course, you meet for three hours a week. Here, even though each class might only actually meet when you add it up for three hours and 40 minutes a week, people are taking seven classes. That would be the equivalent of 21 semester units which would be utterly insane. I think a typical semester load is 12 to 15 units, and once in a blue moon, if there’s a really pressing reason why and a student is willing to give up almost everything else they do, maybe they take 18, but that doesn’t really allow them time to do anything else at a school. So, if you look at our population, if students are taking the equivalent of almost 21 semester units, plus their sport, plus their extra-curricular, plus having a life and being a kid in there somewhere, then I don’t think that it’s the healthiest option.” said Ramsey.

According to the college board, in 2013, 33.2% of public high school graduates in the class of 2013 took an AP Exam, including Tam. Considering that, on average, the majority of students that take AP’s are either in 11th & 12th grade, we can relate this to the following statistics made by the TUHSD Healthy Kids Survey. According to the survey, 24% of students reported missing school within a month because of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, stress or anger. 40% of students missed school because they didn’t get enough sleep, and 33% of students missed school because they were behind in schoolwork or weren’t prepared for a test or class assignment. It’s clear that overarching stress is bad for a student, and by overloading on AP and Honors classes, students can break down, physically and mentally. What many students also don’t understand is the importance of sleep, especially when they’re taking these high level classes.

“It’s a well known fact that teenagers need more sleep than pretty much anybody.” said Brian Napolitano, another counselor at Tam. “So, you throw 5 AP classes, soccer practice, Model UN, Mock Trial, Community service, job, family, friends–you put that all together, that doesn’t leave much time for sleep.” Teens need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to function best. Most teens do not get enough sleep, and according to one study conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, only 15% of teens reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights. Because of sleep deprivation, typically caused by stress and staying up late, many teens suffer from treatable sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy, insomnia, restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea.

The reality is that colleges today are looking for a more well rounded student, rather than a student who crams themselves with APs and Honors in every subject.  “More and more colleges are looking at student essays and the students extracurriculars. Not to say you have to load up on that stuff, but just to say that your class list doesn’t tell the whole story and they’re not looking at it as the whole story. That’s how it’s changed–there’s more of holistic view of the student than there has been in the past.” said Voorsanger.

“We say it all the time. We’re like broken records. We do it at parent nights, we do it in classroom presentations, we do it in one-on-one meetings, but we are continually battling students talking to each other and this community talking to each other and them all thinking they know the right answer and that they have the formula, when there is no formula.” said Hunt, “It’s more than just a numbers game, which is why it’s never good to just go off of a formula of how many AP or Honors classes to take in order to get into a certain college.”

“More is not always better.” said Napolitano, “Sometimes it’s better to think, ‘what’s going to make me happy?’ Sometimes it’s better to think, not just about yourself, but to think about others. Sometimes it’s better to think, ‘I don’t need everything, what do I just need?’. Those are the things that bring happiness, not more, more, more.”