AP Classes: Worth the Effort?
If you attend Woodside High School – or indeed, just about any high school – you probably know a thing or two about Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Whether you take them yourself or simply witness others, you’re aware of how they can help or hurt us: they require a huge amount of work in school, at home, and eventually on the AP test, but they grant passing students an extra grade point, college credit, and deeper knowledge of the subject they choose to take.
One would expect the decision to be fairly simple: most students take whichever classes they want and work as hard as they’re willing, which results in anywhere from zero to four or five AP classes, usually in the subjects they like best or can easily pass. However, there are more factors at work. AP students may try to live up to their parents’ expectations by taking high-level classes, or please their future college choices rather than please themselves. Depending on the circumstances, students might even think that they “belong” in AP- or general-level classes, regardless of how they actually feel about the subject. In short: when we really look at AP classes, we find that they’re a mess. And through all the clutter, despite the clear, yes-or-no decision to be in them, doubt sings a haunting song: why do we take these things? Are they really worth it now, and will they be worth it later on?
I brought these questions to you, AP students. In an anonymous survey of twenty-four juniors taking an AP English class, three main reasons for taking the class appeared over and over again. Two might be boiled down into one reason: Well, the alternative is even worse. Almost two-thirds of those surveyed said that they preferred the challenge of AP classes to the slower-moving general classes, and one-fourth mentioned problems with the general classes’ culture. “I didn’t like my normal classes because people didn’t take anything seriously.” “The other ones are too easy…” “Mainstream is too ridiculously slow.” From this, it begins to seem that students are simply choosing the lesser of two evils, running away from general classes and ending up in the APs. Junior Alexandra Balbirez noted in a personal interview that Woodside students have no ‘middle ground’: they must choose either slow-moving mainstream classes or lightning-fast APs, when most of them would prefer to be somewhere in the middle. Similarly, a survey student who answered that yes, AP classes are worth the effort, said that this was only true “because mainstream classes are so incredibly ridiculous. I believe they shouldn’t be, though. I believe there should be a ‘half-way.’ “
The top reason, which fully two-thirds of the class listed on their survey sheets, was college credit. “It looks good on college apps.” “It looks good on transcripts!” “It looks good on my resume and I get into college.” “To raise my GPA in order to get into college.” Many students expect that the AP classes they take now will help them later in life – perhaps by saving them time and money on early college classes, or by letting them get an ‘early start’ on their majors.
That’s certainly ambitious, but is it the right answer? Is it good to work hard and sacrifice parts of our lives now so we can live them better later on? And then, perhaps the most doubtful question of all: If we’re in high school – if we’re as young as fourteen, no older than eighteen – how are we going to know if we have the right idea? Where can we possibly stand to make this decision? We need perspective, so I sought out the teachers.
AP teachers know that they offer hard courses and demand a lot from their students, but they wouldn’t do it if there were no advantages. Some of these are, indeed, the ‘college and future’ benefits that the students listed. Multiple teachers say that exposure to the rigor of college level classes is a good experience, and that completing the AP test is a good short-term goal. Ann Akey, who teaches AP Environmental Sciences, believes it is a “pretty good test,” containing the types of knowledge and understanding we should have anyway; it’s a tool by which we can measure ourselves.
However, there’s another reason our AP teachers do what they do: in general, the subject they teach is something they personally enjoy. Teaching it to others, exploring it further themselves, engaging with it and their students on a higher level – these are key things in a teacher’s life. Akey acknowledges the benefits of the AP exam, but she’s also quick to say that she and her colleagues “teach for the course, not the test.” In order to teach an officially recognized AP class, they do have to adhere somewhat to a College Board outline – but in the circumstances, our teachers do the best they can. What matters to most teachers at the end of the day is not credit, but knowledge. “You learn a lot more in AP classes,” says Forrest Donnellan, teacher of AP U.S. History. “There’s better understanding and better engagement in the class; it kind of pushes you to push yourself.” Mark Reibstein, who teaches AP English to juniors, remarks on the “collective energy” of AP classes. “You put in more, you get out more,” he says. “Everyone benefits when everyone works to a raised standard.”
In your teachers’ eyes, this sort of passion and drive is the probably the best reason there is to take an AP class. They acknowledge that the basic AP structure – hard work, college-level information and expectations, the AP exam – can be beneficial, but that’s usually not the only reason they teach. And they’re hoping that’s not the only reason you’re there. Does this mean that, if the college credit is your only motivation, you should stop taking AP classes?
The responses begin to vary here, depending on each teacher’s class and how much passion it really needs. Lisa Camera, the seniors’ AP English teacher, says that “some reasons [for taking an AP class] are better than others.” It’s not as impressive to her if a student only wants the inflated grade, but she still believes that, if students are “capable, and not overwhelmed” by the course, they’ll gain a lot from it. On the other hand, Donnellan believes it is not worth it to take AP U.S. History just for college credit. He prefers it when students actually want to study history and consider what they personally gain from it. “Maybe you’ll graduate from college a little earlier, maybe skip the first semester of history. But if that’s your only reason, the class can be a burden on your life balance.”
That – your “life balance,” as Donnellan calls it – is always the most important thing to consider when you want to work at an advanced level. According to Dana Ayers, another teacher of AP US History, “Three APs is a college workload, and then [you] have regular work on top of that.” “You can’t take on every challenge,” Reibstein cautions. “You’ll burn out because you don’t know why you’re there.” So while teachers won’t usually discourage students from taking this challenge, they are quick to add: if you can. “For some people, it’s a big stretch,” Camera says. “If it puts a burden on your other classes, it’s a bad idea.” And even Woodside students will agree if they consider it. Unanimous among Balbirez and many others is that a good grade in a general class trumps a bad grade in the AP.
Laid out here, it all seems so simple that I still sometimes wonder how we can go wrong. Surely, somewhere among reasons for taking the class (usually college or personal passion), the requirements of the class itself (some, in fact, are easier than others), and the amount or type of work we’re able to do without burdening ourselves – somewhere, we ought to have our answer. Even so, there are students who find themselves overwhelmed, uninterested, or regretful when they take certain classes. Why? Is it so hard to practice what we tell each other in interviews, to relax, ease off and choose more carefully which AP classes we want to take?
Woodside students, I am daring you to take your own advice. If you have no interest in a class, don’t even bother with the AP. If you don’t like the work you’d have to do, find something else. If you’d be struggling to keep up with it, if you’d ever be panicked, sleepless or stressed, then don’t. You owe it to yourself to make the right decision, to never look back and regret your choice because of what it did to you.
Of all my ambitious peers, of everyone who wants to ‘put themselves through the wringer’ of AP classes and hopes to pop out better prepared for life, I ask this: if it is your goal to live well, to be successful and enjoy your life, then what are you doing right now? How is it that you’re going to improve your life by sacrificing this part of it? It might be admirable that you look to the future, but it means nothing if you can’t enjoy the moment.
So I’ll say to everyone: live your lives for what they mean to you. If that means taking an AP class, pursuing your passion as far as it will go and preparing for the future, do it. But if it doesn’t – if you find that a class is just an obstacle to your real interests, something you have to live around rather than for – then I, your teachers, and your peers will all tell you, let yourself go. So listen. Find whatever it is you actually want, and if it has nothing to do with AP classes, then set yourself free of these expectations and go do it. I will applaud you.
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