Specializing in a Specialized High School
Issue 8, Volume 113
Being a “jack of all trades, master of none” is a significant fear for many Stuyvesant students. In the context of recent early-round college decisions and Spring course selections, the pressure to appeal to colleges by having at least one shining example of our merit becomes overwhelming. Though students may have a natural inclination toward one field or another, we are pushed by the structure of high school, extracurriculars, and the nature of the college application process to try to focus exclusively on, or specialize in, one field.
Most Stuyvesant students have heard the advice to develop a “spike,” a specific area to specialize and excel in through both coursework and extracurriculars. Many believe that it’s no longer enough to simply be proficient in a broad range of fields. Mastery in one department supposedly garners the most attention from admissions officers. Even if students don’t focus their efforts and hopes on college admissions, the presence of such expectations makes it increasingly difficult to escape the pressure to specialize, discouraging many from exploring new and interdisciplinary fields.
Course selections play a huge role in the ability to specialize. AP and honors classes taken freshman year can end up determining the kind of courses taken in all the later years. To get certain AP classes, the grade cutoff for students differs depending on whether they have previously taken a related AP class. The same applies for honors math classes, where students previously in honors have a much higher chance of getting into a high-difficulty math class the next year. This can end up discouraging students from pursuing subjects of interest at a much higher level, as a pipeline exists favoring students with prior experience.
At the same time, students within the AP and honors pipeline can get discouraged from exploration as the pressure to take classes that will impress colleges looms over their heads. They wouldn’t want to lose the status of being an honors or AP student—specializing makes one feel special. The demanding nature of these classes can also take a toll on students, but many have built a culture of enduring them for the sake of bulking up a college résumé. Oftentimes, students will take an AP class they’re uninterested in over a compelling elective due to the limited room in their schedules. There’s a reason why course programming stirs up so much frustration every year; the AP and honors pipeline contributes to students finding themselves cheated out of obtaining a course that they might desperately want.
Specialization is not only rooted in our culture as Stuyvesant students but also in our school system. Take Brooklyn Technical High School, for example, where juniors and seniors are bound to a major and limited to courses in said major. With little flexibility to change majors, many students are stuck with a path that may not suit their interests. It’s difficult to be set in one’s ways at 16—after all, many students have seen so little of the world. But when it’s expected of them, the forced commitment often leads to a disconnect between students and their true interests. Administrations should commit to offering a diverse range of opportunities and courses to meet potential interests of students. In a matter like this, administrative interference only exacerbates the problem. Even specialized middle schools perpetuate this problem, with schools like Mark Twain Intermediate School for the Gifted and Talented expecting 11-year-old students to choose a “talent” to focus on over their three years.
As high school students, we should not be afraid to fall out of and back in love with certain subjects and interests. We should not be expected to know what we want to do with the rest of our lives yet. Even college students continue to explore various different fields and majors before eventually deciding on one in particular. In fact, tunnel vision toward specialization can be dangerous, considering that the jobs that exist today may be outdated by the time we get to the workforce. It may be better to explore various interests in high school than to lock ourselves into a singular path.
Specialization may seem like a necessary step for high school students in order to ensure a successful future in college and our careers. However, it’s important to note that during our teenage years, it’s very unlikely that we already know what we want to do in our future. Rather than worry about developing a specific skill that distinguishes us from other students, we should instead take the opportunity of course selections and electives that Stuyvesant offers to discover different fields and to try out new things. At this point in time, we’re still young, and our future isn’t set in stone.