Why Is Junior Year So Brutal? Does It Have to Be?

by Kara Thompson ’20

Junior year is notorious for being the hardest year of high school. Many students who plan to attend a four-year college are balancing three or more AP classes, honors courses, and the approaching SAT and ACT. There are also outside stressors such as getting a driver’s license and participating in sports and extracurriculars. Students seem to accept that the workload is just the way it goes during junior year, and that there is nothing that can be done about the stress that comes with it.

“The stress is mostly evident in like subconscious thoughts. I spent so much of my time thinking about assignments and tests that have happened, that I’m working on, or that are coming up that my mind can’t focus on anything else,” explained junior Carlee Malone.

The level of rigor and amount of homework is noticeably different in the jump from sophomore to junior year. Honors PreCalculus, AP Lang, AP World, and an AP science class can be found on most schedules for college-bound juniors, and are typically the ones that give them the most trouble. “With the choice of jumping from one AP to three APs and knowing the workload would be ridiculous amounts, I wasn’t entirely surprised [at my increased stress levels],” said Elizabeth Oliver.

The fact that students like Oliver knew that junior year would be very difficult may be an indication that students have internalized messaging that they have to take the most rigorous courses.“It’s ridiculous [the emphasis MCPS puts on kids to take rigorous courses],” commented counselor Jamii Avery. “I think that MCPS really does push way too hard, I think that parents push kids way too hard, and I think teachers sometimes push kids way too hard.”

AP World teacher Joshua Kinnetz agrees. “The best proactive way I think [students] can manage is to not get hung up on how many AP classes they ‘need’ to take in order to be ready for college.” he advised. “Be realistic as to what you can handle.”

It’s not even always the content material of the classes themselves–it’s the crushing workload that comes with them. Many students have hours of homework each night, as each teacher believes that their course is crucial and possibly more important than other classes. “I’d say I spend about four-five hours on homework [a night], maybe more,” said Malone. ‘But combined with after-school activities and just taking a little bit of time to myself, I still end up staying up pretty late doing work.”

Shelley Jackson, head of the English Department, says that on the whole, Lang teachers give the same major assignments with roughly the same amount of time. They also try to give deadlines enough in advance that it is manageable for students. Jackson believes the main problem is that students don’t typically look at their junior year overall when picking classes and end up overestimating their ability to complete the work well and efficiently.

The other heads of the departments and the administrators for 11th and 12th grade did not respond to the questions about the prevalence of overstressed students. The departments at Sherwood do not coordinate with each other to see when assignments and tests are due, nor has the the school devoted staff training or meetings to the topic of how much homework students receive.

AP Biology teacher Rebekah Harrison thinks that the late school year start date quickens the pace of AP classes. “We start after Labor Day … and because AP exams are still in May and the date doesn’t change, we have to cram more information into shorter amounts of time, which . . .  makes our class have to go a lot faster, makes [students] have a lot more homework, and we [as teachers] don’t really have a say in that.”

The overwhelming amount of homework leave juniors with little free time to do things they enjoy, especially if the student plays a sport. “Not playing a sport would give me more time to do my homework and do other recreational activities, so I would probably be less stressed. However, I think the advantages of being on a team outweigh the consequence of stress,” said Eliza Averbach, who is the captain of the girls’ varsity soccer team.

One way counselors recommend cutting back on stress is by being realistic when picking your junior year schedule. “You have to put it in perspective [when choosing classes]: what else do you do outside of school, what else is going on in your life … you need a balance,” cautioned Avery. For many juniors, however, this advice may be easier said than done.