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The boy sitting to my left was shaking his legs up and down. To my right, a girl cupped her hands in a silent prayer. Their anxiety was as palpable as my own, each of us breathing in irregular harmonies as the proctor handed out the scantrons. The sacrifices that culminated in this day, this test, were immense.
For me, it was 20 hours a week of studying for three months. Some kids studied less and some more for the controversial Specialized High School Admissions Test, or the SHSAT — the sole criteria for entry to eight elite public high schools in New York City. Whatever preparation went into that day, what mattered now was our ability to score high enough for admission.
Stuyvesant, the school requiring the highest score, was my goal. And when I was accepted about six months later, I cried as months of anticipation and stress lifted from my shoulders.
Three years on, I rarely think about the SHSAT and what it means to have tested into a specialized high school. But now and then, I’m reminded of my school’s prestige, like when a substitute teacher says, “You are all going to Harvard, right?” (Spoiler alert: We’re not.)
Many people — especially prospective students — get things wrong about Stuyvesant due to unflattering headlines and daunting stories about the heavy workload and the pressure-cooker atmosphere. I made a lot of unwise decisions based on misconceptions about Stuy. I overestimated the importance of certain tests and lost sleep as a result. I spent too much time lamenting past grades.
The stereotypes don’t tell the whole story of my large Lower Manhattan high school. With graduation just over a year away, here are some things I’d wish I’d known about Stuyvesant before enrolling at the school I’ve grown to love.
Don’t stress about placement tests.
Once rising freshmen officially confirm their seats at Stuy, they’re invited to “Camp Stuy” for two days. There, soon-to-be students sit for math and foreign language placement exams, meet school guidance counselors, take swim tests, and get their photos taken for their student ID. For many incoming students, Camp Stuy marks their first time on our Lower Manhattan campus. (There’s also a version of Camp Stuy for new Stuyvesant parents but no placement exams!)
This past year, I was one of the “big sibs” assisting with Camp Stuy, and many students were anxious about the placement tests. Some admitted they had hired tutors to help them prepare.
Here’s what I told them: Don’t worry if you don’t place into honors classes your freshman year. It’s common for freshmen who didn’t test into advanced courses to switch to them by sophomore year — so long as they keep up their average and get a recommendation from their current math teacher.
Remember: Getting into a class you’re unprepared for can be counterproductive. If a student tests into an honors class they’re not ready for, it could be detrimental to their GPA, limiting the classes they can take in future years (to say nothing of the unnecessary stress).
Advanced Placement classes are capped.
While Stuyvesant is known for its numerous advanced placement and honors classes — the high school offers dozens of APs in everything from Studio Art to Microeconomics to Music Theory — the number of AP classes students can take each year is capped based on their GPA.
For instance, students who wish to take three AP classes at Stuyvesant must have at least a 93% average overall. Students must maintain an overall average of 88% to enroll in two AP classes. And there’s an added hurdle: You’re often competing with hundreds of other students for a spot in the AP class you have your eye on.
The transition to Stuy is difficult, and some students struggle freshman year as they adjust to the workload and pace of the demanding curriculum. For those students, freshman grades can hinder their GPA and limit the number of AP courses they can take in the future. This makes the climb more difficult.
Stuy runs on Facebook.
Before I started at Stuy, I, like many of my peers, thought that Facebook was for older adults. But “Dear incoming Stuyvesant Class of [insert graduation year] ... WE HAVE ADVICE!” Facebook groups are part of the school’s culture and connective tissue. At Camp Stuy, “big sibs” encourage new students to get on the social platform that they’re more likely to associate with their parents and grandparents.
Private Facebook groups for Stuy students and alums provide a safe and easy way to get or give advice, learn more about extracurriculars, and connect with upperclassmen and alums on everything from how much sleep to get to the pros and cons of taking one class over another. Most Stuyvesant clubs and activities also have their own Facebook groups, where they post advertisements and announcements (typically embellished with emojis and exclamation points).
It was on the Class of 2024 advice page that, during remote learning, I found a posting for the Stuyvesant Theatre Community. They were looking for small role actors for their spring comedy, “Twelfth Night,” and although I had never acted before, in a flurry of pandemic isolation and boredom, I decided to audition for the play. Luckily, I got the role.
For the next few weeks, I worked one-on-one with the directors and talked with my fellow cast members, most of whom were older than I was. I found joy and excitement in interacting with people I had never met. That brings me to my next point.
Stuyvesant is a creative community.
At Stuyvesant, you’ll study harder than ever here and stay up until the early morning hours writing papers, but your experience will also transcend academics. There are so many creative outlets here, from the school newspaper to the calligraphy club, from podcasting to theater arts.
Once we were back from remote learning, I auditioned for the fall 2021 musical, “Something Rotten!” I was chosen to be a part of the ensemble. Every day after school, hundreds of students would come together to sew costumes, build sets, and practice lines. The energy was contagious, especially in the frenzied days leading up to opening night. My part was small — one that involved striking a scorpion pose and singing a song about rotten eggs — but it was meaningful. With every lyric I sang and every step I sashayed to, I learned, first off, that I’m not a talented dancer, but, more importantly, that I love to see a vision come to life.
I went from playing a two-line part in “Twelfth Night” freshman year to being the executive producer of Stuyvesant Theater Community my junior year. Although my responsibilities are much greater now, I still love what drew me to the theater in the first place: the creative freedom and the supportive community.
Three years ago, I would have never anticipated finding my niche in Stuy’s theater program. I had set my sights on Stuy before I’d even been to an open house or researched the school’s clubs and electives. But what ultimately made Stuy the perfect school for me was the quirky, supportive, and creative community I found once I got there.
To those eighth graders who have just received their high school results, remember that schools are complex and idiosyncratic places. You’ll be learning about your campus and classmates from orientation up until graduation. You’ll discover niches you didn’t know existed and find yourself at home in some of them — even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. Good luck!
Vanessa Chen is a high school junior who loves to write and read in her free time. She has organized community events, including gatherings where Chinatown youth can bond and protests against neighborhood displacement. In school, Vanessa serves as executive producer for her school’s theater community and produced her school’s fall musical, “Matilda.”