Through the Labyrinth: Navigating AP Course Selections

Discussing the stressful process of AP course selections and how students navigate it.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Each May, the release of Advanced Placement (AP) course selections on Talos for the fall semester sends students into a frenzy. The following week is a flurry of scouring e-mails for eligibility requirements, stalking Facebook pages for advice regarding teachers, and messaging friends about their decisions before ranking their own choices. For many Stuyvesant students, the process of ranking their most coveted AP classes can be full of stress and uncertainty.

Much of this stress stems from the sheer number of AP classes available to students; though the diversity and extent of AP classes Stuyvesant offers is an immense privilege, deciding between the myriad of options can be difficult. Junior Hui Wen Weng recalled feeling bombarded with choices during the course selection process. “Being able to look at all the selections, with the options that you do have, it’s almost like you’re shopping,” Weng said. In fact, with so many students scrambling to nab one of the limited class spots by using elaborate ranking strategies of their own invention, the selection process can seem like an auction. 

Even though basic eligibility requirements are released before the Talos selection form opens, it can be difficult for students to gauge which AP courses they have a realistic chance of being granted. Freshman Lauren Zagarov described how this uncertainty made the process of ranking possible courses more challenging. “The biggest struggle [lies in] trying to figure out which [classes] to prioritize because there is not a guarantee that you’re going to get any of them,” Zagarov explained. AP class placement relies on a variety of factors, such as grades and teacher recommendations.

The uncertainty around how exactly grades are factored into the selection process can lend itself to student anxiety. “My grades haven’t been bad this year, but they haven’t been exceptional, so that puts me in kind of that gray area where I don’t really know which way one or the other is going to go,” sophomore Mark Ionis said. Since the grade requirements provided by the program office do not guarantee placement in an AP course, many feel that their future schedules are left up to chance. 

The unpredictability of AP placement is especially significant due to the emphasis the Stuyvesant community places on these advanced classes. The supposed importance of AP classes—particularly, the weight they hold in the college admissions process—can make any AP class sound appealing simply because it is an AP course. Still, there are many other factors that students consider when narrowing down their choices. 

Sophomore Maegan Diep explained that stories from older students about particular teachers have influenced her preferences. “Even if the course is interesting, if I have a bad teacher, I feel like I won’t enjoy it as much,” Diep said. “If I don’t get a good teacher, then my grades [might suffer].” However, in most cases, students have no control over their future teachers when they rank courses with many different sections, such as AP United States History or AP Calculus AB or BC. The desire to know exactly who they will have in the fall can lead students to choose AP courses simply because they are guaranteed to be taught by a specific teacher. 

There is a wealth of information surrounding certain teachers and courses since upperclassmen are often eager to share their experiences. “I usually look on the Facebook [advice] page[s], because I know a lot of upperclassmen share their personal experiences or feedback on the overall class,” Diep noted. Though individual experiences may vary, Diep specified that she eliminates courses whose teachers receive overwhelmingly negative reviews. “If they consistently have a really bad reputation among students, I probably would not prioritize that course,” Diep explained. Many students adopt a similar philosophy when ranking courses even though the program office strives to stifle this partiality. In the fall, for example, students are not able to transfer out of APs to avoid certain teachers, adding extra weight to their decisions during course selections. 

Even when they don’t hear positive feedback about a class, students can feel obligated to take an AP course solely for the sake of taking one. AP classes are typically considered to “look better” for colleges, as they are often more rigorous than “regular” courses. At certain colleges, AP classes fulfill core credits, allowing students to be placed directly into higher-level courses. Junior Arshia Mazumder acknowledged the benefits of taking college-level classes in high school. “[By taking an AP course,] you have that college prestige,” Mazumder said. “But you don’t take an AP because you want a nice grade. You take an AP [...] so you can have a greater understanding of whatever you’re [interested in].” The academic opportunities that AP classes offer, as well as the prestige they are perceived to hold in the eyes of admissions officers, motivate students to apply for as many of these courses as they can.

Unfortunately, the pull of these high-caliber classes can detract from students’ pursuit of their true academic passions. Weng recounted feeling stuck between prioritizing her interests and focusing on being ready for college during the selection process. “There are certain electives that one might want to take because they’re genuinely interested in [them],” Weng said. “And then there’s just a few courses that you want to take because you know that it’s a great course to prepare you for college.” Many students, when faced with the same challenge as Weng, may prioritize a College Board-accredited core class over a more unique elective that fits their interests. 

Interestingly, due to Stuyvesant’s AP course load restrictions, the opposite scenario can also occur: a student might genuinely be interested in an AP course yet be unable to take it because his or her subject average doesn’t meet the qualifications. While individual courses have their own grade requirements, Stuyvesant also has a school-wide policy restricting the number of APs a student can take at a time: a minimum GPA of an 88 is needed for two APs, a 93 is needed for three APs, and a 95 is needed for four APs. If a student wishes to take more than four APs, he or she must contact their guidance counselor.

Still, some classes do not count toward this total number of APs. Certain courses, such as AP foreign language classes, AP Statistics, and AP Calculus AB, are each one of only a few options available to fulfill certain Stuyvesant graduation requirements. AP Precalculus, for instance, a new addition for the 2023-2024 school year, is the default math class for current Algebra 2 students. 

To some students, these grade and GPA requirements feel unfair. Those whose schedules are already full of accelerated courses can be at a disadvantage. “The problem with grade requirements is that they are universal across all classes,” Ionis noted. “Say [AP Psychology Biology] has a grade requirement of 92. That applies to both honors and AP Chemistry, so AP Chemistry kids, even though they have harder course content and are predisposed to be better at [AP Psychology Biology] are almost disadvantaged at getting it because their grades might be lower.” Stuyvesant’s lack of a weighted GPA system means that AP grade requirements do not account for the existing course rigor in a student’s schedule.

Additionally, the cumulative average and class average requirements considered during course selections can put unnecessary pressure on students the moment they set foot in the Stuyvesant building. If a student struggles during freshman year, her GPA and individual class grades may prevent her from taking APs in the future. This creates a burden on students to constantly excel, feeding into an environment where students are encouraged to obsess over their grades because they are taught that every score affects their future.  

The pressures and requirements surrounding the AP selection process can be overwhelming for many students. Fortunately, there is a plethora of resources available to them as they consider their rankings. The Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior Caucuses release annual course selection guides, with each one tailored to the needs of that grade. These guides combine course descriptions with student reviews of specific classes and teachers in order to give each grade a comprehensive overview of the AP courses available to them. 

Another strong source of advice about course selections is Stuyvesant’s team of guidance counselors. “A lot of students [...] will make appointments with us to discuss which AP they should apply for and what the eligibility requirements are, so I do think we play a very important role [in the AP selection process],” guidance counselor Paul Goldsman said. Counselors can provide a more personalized perspective on AP classes, drawing on each student’s unique academic background and interests to help them make an informed decision. 

Goldsman believes that the GPA requirement for APs helps support student mental health in the long run. “From a counselor’s perspective, it’s not healthy to overburden a student with too much. [Using] GPA [as a benchmark number] gives us one indication as to whether a student could handle such a rigorous course load,” Goldsman explained. 

Still, Goldsman realizes that this requirement can be a shock for students who overestimate the number of AP courses available to them. “I think a lot of students come into Stuyvesant thinking they’re going to be able to take a lot of AP courses, and they don’t realize that we just can’t offer APs to everybody,” Goldsman said. “It’s just not physically possible due to a limited number of seats.” 

However, Goldsman encouraged students not to feel disheartened if they are not programmed for many AP classes, as they are far from the sole determinant of one’s college admissions results. “We have seen students that have not taken that many APs still get into really, really elite schools, versus those students that have taken a robust number of APs [who] get rejected from certain schools,” Goldsman said. Students should also keep in mind that, when viewing their academic profiles, colleges can see the restrictions on the number of APs students can take. Admissions officers are aware that Stuyvesant students cannot sign up for as many classes as they would like, and consider each application with this in mind. 

 Of course, a rigorous course load is one of many factors that influence college admissions decisions. It is vital for students to be well-rounded, devoting time not only to academics, but also to extracurricular activities. These activities, which encompass everything from sports teams to publications, can allow students to explore their interests outside of class, meet new people, and become part of one of Stuyvesant’s many student communities.

Ultimately, students should keep in mind that the number of AP courses they take will not make or break them. As important as it is to challenge oneself academically, it’s equally critical to pursue one’s true interests. Learning should not be a chore or boil down to a list of credits, so the next time AP course selections roll around, think about what you care about rather than what Ivy Leagues want or what your friends are taking. Perhaps this will relieve some of the stress caused by course selections.