The Invisible Competition

An inside look into Arnold O. Beckman High School's academic competitiveness

September 22, 2019

First semester has just settled in, and the drop/add deadline just passed us on September 6. Students considered whether to drop a rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors course, add a course to their schedule, or challenge themselves and move from their College Prep (CP) course to a more advanced level.


This brings up the constant debate students have with themselves – which classes do they take for the following year? Is taking a certain AP worth it? Would enrolling in a CP class be too easy for them? What is a healthy balance? 


Although school administrators encourage students to take AP and Honors courses according to their interests, many students disregard this advice. Instead, students take almost every AP and Honors class available to them in an attempt to gain a competitive edge against their peers. “For certain AP’s and honors classes, my main motivations for taking them are that I feel like I need to prove that I am just as smart as someone in a higher level class,” comments a junior. This peer pressure to take the most rigorous classes on campus leads to a silent competition between students feeling pressured to outshine one another.


However, competition in a school environment is not always detrimental. According to The Classroom, “competition plays an important role in academic achievement because it often spurs students to pursue excellence. College acceptance is competitive, so students who have worked hard to be at the top of their high school classes receive the reward of college admission.”


Without a doubt, having a competitive environment prepares students for the future ahead of them. College acceptances, job interviews, and job promotions are only a few examples of competition throughout adulthood. Taking out competition altogether in a high school will deprive students of an important lesson they need to learn. Being able to cope in these competitive environments is essential to succeed in the adult world.


Yet, the competitive atmosphere at Beckman is what many students would consider as extreme. “[Students] want to take all of the hardest classes and make sure that they have the highest scores in the class. Also, there are constantly students who want to try to one-up not only the people around them but also themselves,” states a junior. This culture of one-upping each other fuels the competition here at Beckman. 


Students constantly feel the need to prove themselves to one another:


To prove that they are capable of taking rigorous AP and Honors classes. 


To prove that they can maintain impeccable grades in the most challenging classes and having the slightest chance of making themselves noticeable to college admissions officers.


In fact, the majority of Beckman’s students are enrolled in AP classes. According to the US News & World Report 2018 Best High Schools Ranking, Beckman ranks #55 out of 700 public high schools in California. Moreover, 67% of the 2,847 enrolled students participate in the AP program and 93% of these participants pass the AP exams. These statistics are indicative of the hardworking nature of Beckman’s students, but also, explain the pressure that many students feel to take an AP class.


With the majority of the student body involved in an AP class, it creates an environment where taking an AP seems absolutely necessary. When a student reaches their senior year, it is quite common for students to fit five AP’s into their schedule.


One AP class already comes with a hefty workload and stress, and taking five or more only augments that. Regardless, many seniors take upon the challenge. “I [felt] very, very stressed 5 days a week. On a scale of 1-10, I usually [hovered] around a 7 or 8 out of 10,” a 2019 alumni states.


A senior’s choice to take an abundant amount of AP’s is one for them to make for themselves. Taking five to six AP’s only benefits the senior, not anyone else. Whether seniors have a strong desire to learn and understand the world around them at a deeper level or feel peer pressured, these advanced and rigorous classes come with stress – a lot of it.


Recently, the Beckman administration has implemented a limit on the number of AP and Honors classes that a student can take to alleviate the amount of stress that comes with taking a multitude of rigorous classes. However, students can still exceed the maximum by signing a waiver. “The limit on Honors and AP’s was idealistic. It will cause students to be more thoughtful about which harder classes they choose to take [but,] I would consider the limit ineffective because there are workarounds,” says a senior.


Beckman’s culture of taking a considerable amount of AP and Honors classes is obvious; students spend the majority of their time studying, preparing for the next exam, and stressing over their GPA.


The administration’s decision to lessen the amount of AP’s and Honors has good intentions in mind. Many students beg to differ, but the stress that many students experience on a daily basis goes to show the detriments that come with taking multiple advanced classes.


Although it is difficult to reverse the behaviors of a large population of students, it is always important for students to reflect on what they are trying to achieve with taking higher level classes. The AP and Honors limit requires students to think about their decisions before going to each of their teachers to sign off for each AP and Honors class offered to them for the upcoming school year. 


Beckman’s competitive environment will never be completely eradicated; it is absolutely necessary for a student to experience stress to succeed in the future. However, the competition in recent years has been extreme. Hopefully, students’ stress levels will diminish as the school administration is working towards cultivating an environment where students can work hard and focus solely on learning the content rather than competing on every level with one another.


All names were removed from the article to preserve the anonymity of the interviewees.


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