Preparing for college in advance by taking challenging courses in high school and developing a strong work ethic is beneficial for students – in theory.
Over the years, the balance between preparing for college and focusing on high school has shifted. Pressure pushes students to try to get ahead for their college careers earlier and with harder and more specialized classes.
According to psychologists, stress in moderation can be helpful to students, giving them motivation to study and perform better. However, too much stress can cause anxiety, a degradation of the immune system, heart problems, and depression.
The stress becomes part of school culture: even students who do not feel the need to push themselves can internalize pressure from parents, teachers, and peers.
A reasonable solution would appear to have students only sign up for an intense workload if they are sure they are ready to commit the time and effort; however, a greater societal pressure prevents that.
Pressure urging students to get ahead before college to avoid wasting time and falling behind has been increasing, and what are teenagers going to do when faced with that pressure? They are going to try to get as far ahead as possible.
With colleges admissions becoming more competitive, students have to put together the best possible application which consists of challenging Advanced Placement (AP) classes, numerous extracurriculars, volunteer work, and high scores on the ACT, SAT, and SAT Subject Tests.
Consequently, the number of students feeling overwhelmed during their senior year of high school has been steadily increasing since 1985, which a research scientist at New York University believes can cause students to burn out by the time they reach college.
A significant factor to the rise in academic pressure can possibly be traced to the increased participation in the AP program.
According to College Board, the “non-profit” organization which earns over half of its revenue from the AP Program, the number of public high school students taking at least one AP exam has almost doubled in 10 years, from 645,000 for the class of 2006 to 1.1 million students in the class of 2016.
Support for AP comes from the fact that high performance in AP courses correlates with better college grades and higher graduation rates. However, students who perform well in high school are already more likely to graduate and do well in college.
Students no longer take AP courses for a personal challenge.
In a study conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, only 32% of teachers that teach AP courses related the growth in the program to students who want to be challenged at higher levels while 90% attribute it to students wanting their college applications to look better.
Many of these teachers also believe that not enough of the students in their AP classes have the capabilities to excel in these classes and are being pushed by external factors, such as colleges, high schools, peers and parents, to take harder classes and AP subjects that would not appeared interesting otherwise.
Pressure pushes students to challenge themselves more and get further ahead, so more AP classes are being taken and more stress arises. Students are pushing their limits to prepare for college by learning how to take a test.
Worse, opting out can produce a greater stress due to fear of not being competitive enough in the college admissions process or wasting time in college they can take in high school.
Over time, society has created this negative feedback loop that an individual student cannot break: college admissions push students to take more AP classes than they can handle, grades decrease while stress increases, and the students are burned out by the time their end goal finally approaches.