Balancing brain power: the need to prioritize mental health over AP classes

A pile of Advanced Placement (AP) study books sit on a library desk. When taking AP classes, many students sacrifice other areas of their lives to keep their grades up. “Its not the fact that I am taking an AP class. I am spending more time doing the work for school than I would spend time with friends and family,” senior Noah Schell said. “It is a sacrifice I made and realized after signing up for the classes. Over the years, I have devised a system of managing my time, which sometimes means I don’t get all of the work done.”

Ashlyn Gillespie

A pile of Advanced Placement (AP) study books sit on a library desk. When taking AP classes, many students sacrifice other areas of their lives to keep their grades up. “It’s not the fact that I am taking an AP class. I am spending more time doing the work for school than I would spend time with friends and family,” senior Noah Schell said. “It is a sacrifice I made and realized after signing up for the classes. Over the years, I have devised a system of managing my time, which sometimes means I don’t get all of the work done.”

In 2022, 424 Parkway West students took 801 Advanced Placement (AP) examinations, meaning that most took two or more tests, and over a third of the student population enrolled in an AP class. Because course registration next year begins Jan. 18, class rigor is at the forefront of students’ minds. When registering for classes, students take higher amounts of AP classes to pad college applications. Still, we must question the importance of these classes over the rise of mental health awareness

Schools attempt to promote AP classes and student mental health simultaneously, but these two things are not “advertised” equally. Instead, mental health advocacy comes across as a box that needs to be checked. Dismissed mental health screenings and vague mental health meetings only acknowledge this point. Meanwhile, the campaign for AP classes seems to be promoted much more frequently. In correlation with the push for mental health, what type of course load is too much for students to handle?

Looking at the big picture, Parkway School District is well known for its push for APs. This high-achieving reputation puts pressure on students to meet this expectation and take on more significant challenges. Out of the 801 AP exams distributed in 2022, 82% received a score of three or higher on the AP exam. 

With course registration approaching, the district is promoting AP classes through counselor meetings and emails. This persistence puts pressure on students to take an increased number of AP classes when this promotion is set to provide equal opportunities among students. At the same time, while there’s a big push for AP classes, students — like senior Noah Schell — question why there isn’t a greater drive for mental health along with the push for AP classes. 

“Of course, mental health should come first; that is a no-brainer. There are ways that you can balance it so that you can take APs and still prioritize your mental health. I think West could do a better job focusing on mental health [which is] a bigger priority than APs,” Schell said. “Ultimately, it has to be the students themselves willing to [make mental health] a priority over class themselves.”

But while there appears to be a force of persuasion to take APs, there is no pressure to increase or uphold standards for AP classes such as attendance, the number of people taking exams or scores earned. 

“There’s never been any pressure or statement to say ‘hey, we have to do X, Y or Z,’” assistant principal Mario Pupillo said. “[We want] to have our student population taking AP classes to mirror our general population. We would like to see all of our students represented in our AP classes.”

English Department Chair and English teacher Shannon Cremeens believes that the AP push is not intended to convince kids to take more AP classes, rather to encourage more students  to explore the rigor. On the other hand, she thinks too many kids are taking too many AP classes. 

“[We advertise for AP classes] to make sure that we have equity among all students and that it is being offered and making sure all students feel like they could take it if they wanted to,” Cremeens said. “Let’s say I have never taken an honors class before in my life. Students are asking, ‘Am I worthy? Am I going to fail if I take this AP class?’ The question comes down to if you really want to do this. [If you do], then you should be able to. Does that mean you are going to get an A? No. But you have exposed yourself to something that you are passionate about.” 

When thinking about which courses to take next year, students should weigh the pros and cons of taking higher-level courses and what effect taking multiple AP classes can have on their mental health and personal life. (Emily Early and Ashlyn Gillespie)

When deciding courses for the next school year, students should consider the benefits and drawbacks to determine what workload appeals most to their schedule. Schoolwork should not be the sole focus of a teenager’s life. Instead of trying to conquer the most academically, schools should influence teenagers to find a balance across aspects of their life, including school life, social life, home life and sports. Students who do the most feel like they struggle or miss out on other parts of their lives. As a student determined to achieve the most academically, senior Nikita Bhaskar plans to attend the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and has taken 15 AP classes since eighth grade but can see the toll these courses have taken on her mental health. 

“During class, I am very tired, mainly from staying up late to do homework for that class, which is counterintuitive. In the beginning, I’ll sign up for an AP class because I am interested in the subject, but then as the semester goes on, it becomes harder to stay motivated in that class if the workload is unbearable,” Bhaskar said. 

An oversight Bhaskar noticed was that she was taking AP classes with other students who had a greater passion for learning. This may appear to be a positive impact, but this resulted in her not learning or interacting with any of her other friends or peers who don’t take AP classes. Often, we see the kids placed in gifted programs also following a heavy course rigor by taking multiple AP classes and then facing a phenomenon called “burning out.” Pressuring “gifted kids” into APs leads to less diversity in the groups of people we see in these classes because a test is required to be gifted but not to take AP classes. 

Another downside to the AP track that is often left out of the conversation is that not all colleges give college credit for some AP classes available. For example, the University of Missouri (Mizzou) requires an exam score of three or higher in AP Literature and AP Language; however, they only accept one of the two options for credit — students cannot get credit for both. There are many courses Bhaskar has taken, knowing the exam credit will not transfer over to her college, but instead took because she feels more productive, learns more in these classes and practices her test-taking by signing up for the exams. 

“The college that I am going to doesn’t take the AP exam credit for some of the classes [I am taking], but without the course rigor of taking [AP classes], it would be much harder to get into any school,” Bhaskar said. “As hard as AP classes can be, it is really hard if you are trying to go to a competitive school to not take AP classes because kids all over the country are [taking those courses], and that’s who you are competing with.” 

Even if a student decides to take AP courses, there is a difference between taking one and four. The discrepancies between these amounts can have a significant effect on students’ mental health, which can influence stress levels, increase the risk of depression or anxiety and can decrease the value of self-worth.  

“When you break it all down, it’s not worth it. It’s not worth your health. Nothing is, really,” Cremeens said. “Yes, I think AP classes are important. I think it’s awesome that we have them. I don’t think it’s important that they need to take more than two. Once you get to that point, you have to ask yourself, ‘what am I doing this for?’” 

Still, some students may find themselves trying to take AP class after AP class; some say it is to challenge themselves, and some just need the academic rigor. However, there must be a balance between an academic and personal life to maintain mental health. Taking AP classes since he was a freshman, Schell quickly found ways to help manage his workload and relieve stress from his classes. 

“It comes down to setting my priorities straight and then making sacrifices when needed. Sometimes I know I need to get a homework assignment done, so I tell my friends I can’t go out for ice cream or whatever,” Schell said. “Sometimes, I’m like, ‘I have done a lot of homework today [so] I’m just not going to do anymore. It’s not going to get done tonight, and that’s fine.’ I have learned to be okay with it over the years. Usually, when it hits 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m., if I still have homework, I’ll be like, ‘Well, that sucks,’ and I will cut my losses. It has taught me to prioritize and manage my time better.”

Although he supports students taking AP classes, Schell admits that Parkway should have a higher focus on mental health and do a better job of prioritizing it. Studies from medical journals suggest that AP students lose an extra hour and 40 minutes of sleep compared to non-AP course takers. This forecasts a problem related to mental health: sleep loss. Junior Serpil Kucukkaya relates to the stressors of taking too many AP classes. With a workload of four AP classes, Kucukkaya finds herself studying through many sleepless nights. 

“Sometimes [AP classes] can take a toll on my mental health because I’m so drained. [On] my third unit test, I was so drained from studying all night that I’m pretty sure I zoned out for a good five minutes during the test,” Kucukkaya said. “I couldn’t do anything, and I wasn’t able to finish the test. It takes a big toll because I have so much workload. I don’t just have these classes. I have to balance it with other [classes] too.”

As an advocate for mental health, Cremeens further stresses the importance of students taking time for themselves, exploring hobbies and spending time with friends and family. Nowadays, students put pressure on themselves to get the highest grades in the highest classes to compete for prestigious colleges. It seems impossible to attend a top school in current times without overwhelming schedules with AP classes and extracurricular activities because they are highly focused on college applications. 

Returning to school after the pandemic brought varied mental health issues to the surface. In addition to the mental health issues high schoolers already deal with day-to-day, students face issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which include anxiety over mask mandates lifting, lack of motivation or anxiety over school work and depression from lack of social behaviors and events. Schools like Kirkwood and Rockwood have provided specific resources for students dealing with these issues on their websites. They have had meetings with students and counselors to help ease these issues and provide better transitions. On the Parkway website, there are only resources for the Parkway Counseling Center and hotlines listed for varied uses. On the other hand, Kirkwood’s health services page includes personal counseling services, links to helpful healthcare tips, and extended resources for students and parents. Hopefully, we will see Parkway’s mental health resources extended to include some options available for students and teachers. 

Parkway must do a better job of helping encourage students to prioritize mental health over coursework and AP classes. Other schools in the St. Louis Metro area — including East Saint Louis School District — have moved to provide mental health days for students, which are excused absences from school days to provide students a chance to work on their mental health. 

With course registration crawling to the forefront of students’ minds, our school should be encouraging a balance between AP courses and mental health. Parkway should offer resources like outside counseling services and options for mental health days to students. Counselors should address mental health issues before allowing students to take multiple AP classes, but this alone would be impossible. We should consider adding more mental health counselors to the staff to enable guidance counselors to focus on their job: to help lead kids through high school. We must stress the importance of enjoying the little things and being satisfied with taking lower courses to prioritize mental health. 

“You equate that you are not good enough when you don’t do well, and that’s truly not what that lesson is telling you,” Cremeens said. “That lesson is telling you that you have overextended yourself. It is not telling you that you are stupid. It is telling you you do not have the time to devote to doing everything because you can’t do that. No one can do that. I think that is the issue [everyone needs to consider.]”