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College Corner: Advanced Placement or Advanced Pressure?

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Recently, high school students all over the country have been making their course selections for the 2023-2024 school year. Naturally, many of my clients ask me if their student should take Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and if so, how many and which ones.

As a college counselor (and mother,) I’ve thought often about the pressure put on our kids to perform and to do well. For some it feels like a hamster wheel.

Rigorous colleges look for academic rigor, and that metric is directly linked to what the class offerings are at their sending school. The message from top colleges is “challenge yourself as much as you can, in relation to the offerings available at your high school,” which plainly translates to: “if your school offers 20 AP courses, it’s in your best interest to take as many of these AP classes as is humanly possible”.

In the process, we end up with a lot of stressed out kids who feel an overwhelming pressure to produce, perform and achieve.

In a study published in early February 2023, the Centers for Disease Control found that, in 2021, 57% of high school girls reported experiencing “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the past year.” Worse, 30% of the girls surveyed reported seriously considering suicide and 13% did attempt suicide one or more times in 2021. This is more than a little concerning, and I worry about where this is all coming from. Obviously, academic pressure is not the sole driver here, but I do believe that for many, it is a significant contributing factor to their stress and anxiety.

Before we continue, it’s worth discussing the point of AP classes in general, noting that 1) not every high school offers them, 2) some high schools limit the number of AP classes a student can take, and 3) some high schools allow students to take a heavy load of AP courses.

Ostensibly, AP classes demonstrate that a high school student can handle college-level content. In the beginning, many parents pushed their kids to take these classes because they would receive a college credit if they scored a 3 or higher on the AP exam (without paying college tuition). That has since changed, where today some colleges and universities do not offer credit for AP course completion, or unless the student receives a higher score on the AP exam – and that varies by college.

Years ago, I worked at the Brimmer and May School in Chestnut Hill, and at the time, students there were limited to taking only 3 AP classes per year. Obviously, some parents were frustrated by this rule, but I believe it preserved balance and mental health for the students. This limitation had no bearing on college admission rates, because all college applications included a school profile indicating that this was the school’s policy: the students were, if they took 3 APs per year, challenging themselves to the fullest based on what the school offered. Consequently, students weren’t overwhelmed by a ridiculous number of APs and students were still getting into top colleges.

Course selection is a component of the complete college profile. The list below shows what I believe to be the relative importance of what an admissions office will place in each area. Depending on the college it may be different, but in broad terms:

  • 70% – Academics, Testing and Letters of Recommendation
  • 20% – Application, Essay, Interviews and supporting information
  • 10% – Activities: Sports, Music, Dance, Theater, Other Passions, Clubs, Volunteering, Leadership and Work outside the home

Clearly, it’s heavily weighted toward academics, but many colleges prefer to see a student who presents the multifaceted ways in which they’ve impacted their community.

My recommendation to parents is to take a look at the activities their child is pursuing, understand the “Why” behind them, and choose courses that support those. Students should pursue rigor in areas they feel strongly and passionately about. Students don’t need to take every AP class just because it exists. Parents should also consider the extracurriculurs – sports, clubs, work outside the home – all of those are ingredients in building a good profile. While it’s natural to want your student to do what other high-powered kids are doing, it isn’t right for everyone, nor is it necessary for them to pursue in order to gain admissions to a great school.

More broadly, I wonder whether it’s worth considering as a community whether it makes sense to limit the number of AP courses students are allowed to take at each grade level. In my experience, if done right, there would be no adverse effect, and could even potentially result in healthier and happier students.

Christine Chapman is the founder of Chapman Education, based in Hopkinton. Since 1995, she has guided more than 3,000 students and families through the private school and college admissions processes. She works closely with students and their families to help them secure the best educational fit.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Very well written and rightly said. I think the first step towards lessening the pressure on students or rather on the whole education system has to come from colleges. With such high tuition fees and highly competitive admission processes, it is no wonder that parents, students and schools have to structure and model learning around the demands set by colleges!! Until that happens, limiting the number of AP classes would of course be very helpful and a great step by schools towards lessening the pressure on students.

    As parents of an elementary schooler, we are very apprehensive of what is to come! The pressure of doing well in academics as well as participating in clubs, community work, and extracurricular activities is overwhelming for the students as well as the parents and takes a toll on every aspect, monetary, physical, mental as well as emotional! And this needs to change.

    • Thank you so much for this comment, Shonali. As a mom of a junior and a 7th grader, I am keenly aware of how much pressure our children put on themselves without our help, especially in a high performing district like Hopkinton. I think something does need to be done to help kids find ways to release some of the pressure and not take on too much. I believe that what’s important is that they learn, and love learning; that they find passions they want to continue pursuing. What’s important is that they feel happy and empowered, not overwhelmed and beaten down. This year’s admissions realities show, to me anyway, a system that needs to really be reconsidered and revamped. And yet I wish I knew how beyond what I’ve suggested. Maybe the value is in beginning this discussion to safeguard the mental health of our children. Food for thought, anyway. Christine

  2. Short and sweet Christine … well said. I’d vote in favor of limiting the # of AP classes a student is allowed to take each year. Thank you for putting this information out there.

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