AP Classes: an extreme balancing act of benefits and stress

Teachers urge students to follow their passions, not the quest for GPA points


Katia Nicholson

According to a Harbinger survey of 160 students conducted through Google Forms from Dec. 12 to Dec. 15, 90% of respondents say they will take at least one of College Board’s AP courses during high school, with 32% of respondents planning to take six or more AP classes.

Jasmine Yee and Lili Torres

Tempted by the ability to earn a higher GPA and potentially earn college credits, the majority of ARHS students take at least one Advanced Placement (AP) class before they graduate. However, the heavy workload and sometimes overwhelming schedules lead to increased stress levels for many students. 

According to a Harbinger survey of 160 students conducted through Google Forms from Dec. 12 to Dec. 15, 90% of respondents say they will take at least one of College Board’s AP courses during high school, with 32% of respondents planning to take six or more AP classes. According to the 2022-2023 School Profile, ARHS currently offers 23 AP courses; in 2022, 447 students took a combined 926 AP exams, with 86% of students earning a score of 3 or higher.

With the cost of receiving a college education on the rise, 88% of survey respondents said they take AP classes to potentially earn college credit. According to AP Calculus teacher Sean McGrath, some students take AP Calculus hoping to bypass a math course in college. 

“The side benefit [of taking AP Calculus] is that students that don’t go into science and engineering can take the AP exam and do well, so there’s a chance their college will offer them credit,” McGrath said. “They have the luxury of not taking a math class.”

In addition to earning college credit, AP students can also benefit from AP classes by experiencing advanced, college-level rigor and material. Twenty-six percent of survey respondents identified the ability to take a more rigorous course as a reason for taking AP classes. 

According to AP Biology teacher Elisa Drake, her class provides a much more in-depth understanding of biology along with practice in the self-discipline needed to succeed in college.

“While it is not a true college course, I do believe that [AP Biology] is really good preparation for college-level work,” Drake said. “You have to be really good with time management and study techniques, especially when going into science in college.”

According to Drake, taking rigorous courses like AP Biology can help students prepare for the transition to college, after taking the time to practice the necessary skills with their high school teachers

“When you get to college, you don’t necessarily get a professor who teaches you how to study,” Drake said. 

Senior Cameron Jackson will have completed eight AP courses (AP U.S History, AP World History, AP Language and Composition, AP Biology, AP Computer Science A, AP Literature, AP Physics C and AP Calculus BC) in total by the time he graduates. He takes all these courses to challenge himself, but also because of his interests and his plans to become an engineer in the future. 

You have to be really good with time management and study techniques,

— AP Biology teacher Elisa Drake

“[Taking AP classes] is a good experience for college,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s good to prepare myself.”

Even though taking AP classes has many benefits, they come with the expectation of a significant workload. According to the Harbinger survey, 91% of students say their AP classes have “somewhat more work” or “significantly more work” than their honors or CP level classes.

For some students, especially those who choose to take multiple AP classes, the extra work can come with additional stress.

“People tend to be much more stressed in their junior and senior years, but they also understand the consequences associated with their actions and they take more responsibility with all the work,” Drake said.

AP French teacher Lauren Osepchuk witnesses the hard-work and stress of her students in her own class. She believes students work hard in and outside of their classes, but tries to ensure that AP French is still enjoyable. She also emphasizes that students should take the level course that is the right challenge for them.

“From my perspective, I’m able to see some of my students do [AP courses], but I don’t think it’s for everybody,” Osepchuk said. 

In addition to opportunities for more advanced classes, many students take AP classes to improve their GPA, even if they are not especially interested in the subject matter. According to the Harbinger survey, 59% of AP students say they take AP classes because they are passionate about the subject matter, and over 90% of AP students say they take AP classes to increase their GPA. 

“It would be nice if everybody who was in AP Calculus actually liked it,” McGrath said. “Most students do, but students who end up in AP Calculus are very good at math whether they like it or not.”

Many AP teachers are aware of their students’ stress levels and try to enforce balance in their class rigor. In her AP Biology class, Dr. Christine Thompson tries to prevent students from having school-related stress on vacations by avoiding long-weekend homework and tests on Mondays. 

“I feel [vacations] are a time to refresh, reset and spend time with family,” Thompson said. “The school year is when students can do the work.”

Head of Guidance Lisa Connery and the other guidance counselors also play a supportive role when it comes to individual students.

“That’s really what [the academic role of guidance is] all about, it’s helping students to strike a balance in their courses,” Connery said. “One, identify where their interests lie and their passions lie, and then look at what are our strengths, and how can we take all that information and balance it with areas we maybe have to work a little harder.”

McGrath tries to help his students feel prepared for college not only by taking his tests, but also taking the upcoming AP exam so they earn college credit. 

“It’s important to not ‘trick’ students during tests,” McGrath said. “It’s important for students to know what’s going to be on the test so they can prepare for the right things…so I try to be as upfront as I can.”

With so many other stresses that may be influencing students’ lives, it is important that students enroll in AP classes primarily because they enjoy learning about that subject, according to Thompson. 

 “I don’t want students to be anxious and afraid of things in my class,” Thompson said. “I think that students need to take AP classes that they are passionate about and have a realistic course load.”