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The Invisible Pressure: Creating a Culture of Competition Over Learning

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High school students are told we are the architects of our education. For the four formative years that precede our adulthood, we are made to believe that we’ll emerge from high school as adults ready for the next step in our lives. But does this sentiment match the reality of high school scheduling?

I go to a well-ranked public school — #5 in the state of Michigan — and have noticed from my interactions with friends that it can be tough to create a schedule that balances academic rigor and interests.

I sat down to have an honest conversation with two of my classmates — Natalie Hanby and Sarrah Ahmed, both high school seniors in the midst of the application process — a reflection on their experience with building their own education in high school.I had both Natalie and Sarrah share their personal experiences throughout high school in the hopes that it could add to the larger conversation on flexibility in scheduling.

Not All Schedules Are Created Equal

From my discussion, a common theme emerged: there seems to be an underlying pressure to take advanced courses because of a desire to stand out or compare college admissions.

In theory, academic organizations and institutions may affirm that students’ learning preferences should take precedence over course rigor. But in practice, a school culture of high achievement can push students to schedule courses that they might not have otherwise taken: they are competing to compare with their peers, with the end goal of looking impressive to college admissions officers.

“I’m in AP (Advanced Placement) Bio, but I don’t like biology — I’m never going to take it in college. But I have to put in hours for this class, even though I’d wanted to take something like botany, because — in accordance with the rigor I’ve had throughout high school — it would look inconsistent,” said Sarrah, referring to the pressure to take rigorous classes

Natalie continued, “This school year, for example, there were a lot of classes that I wanted to take, but like Sarrah said, I felt like I had to take an AP science course…just to make my transcript look good, so that hopefully I can get into the colleges that I want to.”

By design, Advanced Placement (AP) classes are meant to be for college preparedness: According to the College Board, AP classes are meant to provide high schoolers with courses at a college-level rigor, allowing them to potentially earn credit that would allow them to skip prerequisite classes once enrolled in college.

The number of Advanced Placement courses that students can take adds up over the course of one’s school career.

In a Twitter thread, Trevor Packer, Senior Vice President of Advanced Placement at the College Board, stated, “After a student takes 6 AP courses total in high school, our research show (sic) the college completion rates stay the same for students who take >6 AP courses.”

Packer continued on to acknowledge the mounting pressure that students feel to take AP classes, adding, “What about students that simply want more than 1–2 AP courses per year? If students take such a courseload out of a love for learning or a deliberate plan to reduce college costs: GREAT.”

College Board officials acknowledging academic pressure is a step in the right direction. Steps like discontinuing the State AP Scholar award — which rewarded the one male and one female student with scores of 3 or higher on the greatest number of AP Exams, in addition to the highest average score on all AP Exams taken — are one way that major academic institutions can reduce a harmful culture at the national level.

But a shift in academic culture will need to continue at the individual school level.

Exploring Interests

Beyond students’ graduation requirements and academic courses, there may not be flexibility for exploring additional interests.

Not every student will excel in academic courses, and may be interested in taking electives, like art or business. However, from our discussion, there seemed to be the belief that academic classes are more valid choices for the serious student.

Sarrah expressed concern over not having room in her schedule to explore beyond core subjects, not for a lack of availability, but for the impression that taking non-academic subjects leave.

“I feel like we do have options for things that strengthen the traditional — math, science, English, and history — but if we’re looking at a transcript, yeah, you may have been interested in pottery, but the classes that are actually considered academic experiences are not those classes, and they’re not given the same weight — so people don’t really want to take what they’re interested in,” said Sarrah.

Looking Forward

Natalie and Sarrah both expressed an appreciation for the options they had as far as courses. However, they also expressed the idea that academic curiosity needs to be prioritized over academic rigor alone.

Students who push themselves to take advanced courses in subjects they aren’t interested in may experience burnout and discouragement.

Throughout my discussion, I repeatedly heard references to a nebulous, sometimes unclear idea of what colleges want to see that influenced my peers’ decisions. Perhaps one solution may lie with admissions departments clearly defining what their realistic expectations are when they evaluate an applicant’s academic rigor. Students could tailor their schedule to admissions standards without overcompensating in an attempt to stand out.

Academic pressure is a cultural issue, one that will require efforts on both school and institutional levels. If we tell students that they have the power to personalize their education, then we must first make them feel comfortable in doing so.