A Reflection on AP Culture at Stuyvesant

A look at AP culture in Stuyvesant.

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For many Stuyvesant students, May means one thing: AP season. Whether one is taking an AP class or self-studying the course, the month is a highly stressful time for all. Students cram last-minute study sessions into their packed schedules, pull all-nighters, and trade review materials. At the same time, the “Dear Incoming” Facebook groups are inundated with posts asking for advice on which AP courses to take in the upcoming year. Even with the stress of upcoming AP tests, students can’t keep their minds off of which APs they want to take next.

For all the stress surrounding them, there are various benefits to taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses. “The benefit for students is you're taking classes that are seen as college level, getting you ready for college, which is good by admissions officers,” Director of College Counseling Jeffrey Makris said. Being immersed in a college-like environment can help students know what to expect when they pursue a higher education. Additionally, students who score well on AP exams can gain college credit. 

The exams also serve as an important benchmark for comparing students from different schools. “I think [the exams are] very useful, [they are] standardized exam[s] that everyone takes in the United States and around the world so it can be measured against others,” AP coordinator Gary Haber said. The ability APs have to strengthen transcripts is one of the main reasons why students choose to enroll in them. 

Furthermore, some students use APs as an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of subjects they are passionate about. “I think APs ultimately [...] allow kids to explore more in depth the things that they find interesting,” senior Sofia Hernandez said. Since AP curriculums are more challenging and thorough, they provide students with a unique opportunity to learn more about specific topics. 

However, Stuyvesant’s high level of academic pressure and demanding environment motivates students to take as many APs as possible, regardless of their passion for the course. Many students focus on competing with peers and appealing to college admissions officers, as taking an AP course seemingly proves one’s academic prowess. Unfortunately, this mentality can be detrimental: “I think in general our students and families sacrifice their health in order to try to impress colleges that may be very difficult to get into in the first place,” Makris noted. 

Freshman Kevin Lin expanded on this idea, sharing that many students feel pressured to have a rigorous class schedule just for colleges, even if they are not passionate about their AP courses. “When applying to AP courses, it is important to ask yourself ‘why?’” Lin said in an email interview. “In the case of APs, most of the time people don't have a reason why (or the main reason is to take a seemingly impressive rigorous course to 'stand out' more in college applications).”

This fixation on APs can result in students self-studying AP courses; they learn the content on their own and take the exam in May. Programming issues, grade restrictions, and GPA requirements can also cause students to opt to self-study for AP exams. Stuyvesant allows students to self-study one AP course a year, making it an interesting prospect for many. 

However, many teachers feel that taking an AP exam isn’t as important as taking an AP course itself. “If they want to [self-study], it's up to them. But obviously for me, history courses would support exams,” history teacher David Hanna said. “For me [the exams are] only a part of it, you know, and not nearly the most important part.” 

Still, many students focus on their AP exam scores above all. At Stuyvesant, a “five or nothing” mentality is prevalent: students strive for nothing less than perfection, even though some teachers feel that the exams are not an accurate representation of students’ knowledge. “You know, the multiple choice […] there's no place for that in the college level history course,” Hanna said. “It would be better if we had these high level history courses without a standardized exam. [...] I think it takes away, to a certain degree, from the joy of learning history, teaching history.” 

Furthermore, some argue that one exam is not representative of students’ overall knowledge and dedication. Thus, the grade earned in the course itself can be more important than an AP exam score. “Your grade says a lot more about a student. They show you not only did you master the content for an exam, but you come [...] to class, do you do homework, right? Do you do well with your group project? Do you participate?” Makris said. This can also make self-studying less effective.

Thus, students are encouraged to pursue classes they are interested in, rather than focus on beefing up their resumes. “I feel like you should only take AP only if you're really, really motivated and you know you can enjoy [it], even with the workload and stress,” sophomore Eileen Lee said. Genuine enthusiasm for a subject makes the stress of APs much easier to handle. 

Ultimately, while the rigorous AP courses offered at Stuy allow students to explore their interests while earning college credit, they also create immense pressure to perform. Yet, for all the differing opinions on the importance of APs, many teachers find the college-style structure and pace of the courses—and the grades earned in them—representative of a student’s ability, more so than their grade on the AP exam. Thus, there is no definite number of AP courses that guarantee admission into a top university. Instead, students can set themselves up for success by pursuing their interests in more depth, whether in an AP course or not.