The year of living idly: With early college acceptance in hand, high school seniors find they have a license to coast

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Annie Quasnitschka has been a successful student at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst. She’s mulling admission offers from three quality universities in the Northeast.

But don’t expect her to be too stressed about schoolwork while she makes up her mind.

“I guess we’d have to study more if senior year actually counted,” the 17-year-old said. “But the colleges don’t care. The college application process takes so long that when you finally get in, you don’t want to do anything.

“We’re basically taking a whole year off.”

The senior slump is as ancient an American high school ritual as bake sales and Sadie Hawkins dances. For generations, schools have watched previously motivated students downshift into neutral.

But with colleges admitting students earlier in the academic year, rendering senior-year grades more meaningless than ever, more students are starting their slump as soon as 12th grade begins.

Opportunity wasted

A federal study released last month criticized the American senior year as a wasted opportunity, a “farewell tour of adolescence” instead of a real academic challenge. It says the senior slump is at least partially to blame for why college students fare so poorly in international comparisons and why more than a quarter of them take remedial classes.

“Students work very, very hard. These are very stressed young human beings,” said Bill McCumber, director of college counseling at St. Mark’s School of Texas. “And once their college applications go out the door, they think: ‘Phew. Maybe I can live a life now.’

“We gently remind them that that’s not the case,” he said, only half-joking.

Michael Coleman, dean of undergraduate education at the University of Texas at Dallas and chairman of the freshman admissions committee, said he recognizes the phenomenon.

“I’m a psychologist, and we talk about something called the post-reinforcement pause,” he said. “That’s when you complete something, and it’s ‘I’m in; I’m done; I’m breathing again. I’m taking a break.’ We do that throughout our lives. We work really hard, and then we take a break.”

‘Senioritis’ strikes

It’s not difficult to find evidence of the disengagement that comes with “senioritis.”

Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles survey American college freshmen each year about their experiences as high school seniors. Last year, nearly 40 percent reported being frequently bored in class as seniors, up from 26 percent when the question was first asked 15 years ago.

The federal study, issued last month by the National Commission on the High School Senior Year, noted that American elementary students generally fare well when compared with their peers internationally and U.S. middle school students are about average.

But the authors say seniors lag far behind, scoring lower on standardized tests and taking less challenging course loads.

The slump can affect all seniors, including those headed for the workforce, but often the most pronounced effect is on those headed for higher education.

Early admissions

The report blames the problem, in part, on America’s college admissions calendar, saying that “practically every college-bound student is aware that serious preparation for college ends at Grade 11.”

Traditionally, colleges have set application deadlines in December or January and looked at fall-semester grades of applying seniors. Students had to sweat it out until April to see whether the envelope that arrived in their mailbox would be fat (good, packed with brochures and forms) or skinny (bad, a simple rejection).

But in the 1990s, more colleges began offering early-admission plans. Research by the College Board showed that the number of colleges with such plans went up 15 percent in the decade.

Earlier admissions serve anxious students and colleges. Students get perhaps the most stressful decisions of their young lives out of the way, and colleges get a jump on the competition for top students.

Some schools, such as Texas A&M University, don’t have formal early admissions, but students who apply earlier find out sooner whether they got in.

Joseph Estrada, assistant provost for enrollment, said that about half of the school’s acceptance letters are sent before Jan. 1.

Jaclyn Shaw, a senior at Denton High School, applied to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi at the start of the school year and found out she was accepted in October.

“So I’ve known all year where I’m going,” she said. “If you know you’ve been accepted, it’s even harder to get motivated.”

She said she applied early “just so I would know. It’s been such a burden lifted off me.”

Shunning stress

Laura Cook, another Bell senior, said she poured her all into getting good grades in the year’s first grading period.

“I busted my rear end to get straight A’s,” she said. “On the weekends, I’d be so tired that all I would do is sleep.”

But the day after she dropped her college applications in the mail, her attitude changed.

“As soon as that was over, I sat there and said, ‘Now all I have to do is pass.’ I started looking around at everybody working and stressing and thought, ‘I’m just ready to move on to bigger and better things.’

“It’s harder to get motivated,” said Ms. Shaw, whose high school day starts at 10 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m., though she also takes a college course on the side. “You spend less time studying.”

And what is filling up the time that she used to spend studying?

“Nothing, really. I’m just being lazy,” she said.

Tests add to problems

Even the biggest educational change of the last decade in the United States – the standardized tests required in many states for graduation – contributes to senior-year problems, according to the federal study. By requiring only a ninth- or 10th-grade level of knowledge, tests such as the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills can make the last two years of high school seem even more extraneous to students, according to the study.

One way school officials try keeping seniors out of slumps is to remind them that colleges are always free to take back admissions offers.

“The admissions letters that universities send out always have a line about how the student is admitted conditionally, awaiting a good performance in the senior year,” Dr. Coleman of UTD said.

Although colleges can yank offers, finding cases in which that happens is a little like hunting for four-leaf clovers: They’re probably out there somewhere, but best of luck tracking one down.

Mr. Estrada said he did not know of an example of A&M withdrawing an offer.

“In many cases, senior year is irrelevant in the admissions decision,” Dr. Coleman said. “I suspect nobody ever looks back at those final transcripts. I wouldn’t doubt that there’s not much checking-up that goes on, unless you mess up so bad that you don’t get enough credits to graduate.”

Mr. McCumber, an admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania before arriving at St. Mark’s, said he could not recall any student’s offer being rescinded.

But if senior-year grades plummeted without explanation, students would be on the painful end of a “pretty pointed phone call,” he said.

If the drop-off was particularly severe, college deans might be notified about the student and told that he or she is a potential academic casualty.

But usually “just the fact that the college calls them scares the you-know-what out of them,” he said. And though withdrawn offers are rarities, “it really only takes one example every handful of years for that to be the boogeyman.”

Engaging students

Schools are looking for other ways to coax effort out of seniors. St. Mark’s is undertaking a study of the senior year by sending questionnaires to alumni and their parents.

At L.D. Bell, teachers have created a mandatory senior project to keep seniors engaged. Students choose a subject they find interesting – “anything from how to cut hair to how to install a car stereo,” said Gary Russell, Bell’s coordinator of counseling – write a paper on it and spend 15 hours outside of school learning about the topic with a mentor.

Then they must give a 10-minute presentation to a panel of faculty judges.

“The kids all dread doing it, but they end up having a great time,” Mr. Russell said.

Like many other area schools, Bell also builds in an incentive for seniors to show up for class. Students who miss fewer than a handful of days in each grading period may opt out of final exams.

Mr. Russell said seniors’ attendance rate has gone up in the two years exemptions have been offered.

At Denton High School, seniors may spend half of their day taking college classes at the University of North Texas or Texas Woman’s University if their academic standing is strong enough. This semester, about 55 seniors are enrolled in the program, lead counselor Dorothy Watts said.

“It gives them something else to look forward to, a little more motivation,” she said.

Despite all the incentives, even the most conscientious students find motivation a bit lacking come senior year.

“I do my homework, but I have more free time,” Ms. Cook said. “My goal is to pass with pretty good grades and just enjoy it. You’re only a senior once. … Me and my friends are all going in different directions, and we’re really close. I want to spend time with them. That’s the attitude I’m taking: ‘Well, I did my best. Now it’s out of my hands.'”