In Praise of Senioritis

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By Jay Mathews
Monday, February 4, 2008

When I was in high school, nobody worried about slacking off during senior year. Stanford, Yale, U-Va. and the other brand-name colleges weren't so important then. We didn't have three-hour Advanced Placement exams ruining the lovely May weather. Cutting school for some beach time was not just tolerated, it was an expected rite of passage.

High school is different now. My generation's lighthearted approach to the second semester of 12th grade has acquired a pathological label, "senioritis," which gets 141,000 hits on Google. Some 17-year-olds do in fact become severely distracted, but to some experts, even delaying homework awhile to sniff the flowers is a sign of a potentially damaging ailment, for which we have created the tax-supported National Commission on the High School Senior Year to find a cure.

I have to wonder: Why is it that we parents and educators who warn fun-loving seniors that they could have their college admission letters revoked are the same people who also wring our hands over the academic stresses of high school? Harvard's admissions and financial aid dean, William Fitzsimmons, laments college graduates who sound as though they've been on a rat-cage treadmill since they were 13. Once you're in the habit of treating every assignment as critical to your future, it's hard to regain perspective. Isn't the second half of senior year, with college applications turned in -- in some cases with an admission letter in your pocket -- the perfect time to try out a balanced life?

I admit that many members of the class of 2008 need no encouragement to party, but a different kind of advice would help even the most playful seniors see the advantages of a less GPA-oriented spring term. Our fear-mongering is bankrupt. The standard bogeyman -- they'll cancel your college acceptance! -- is out of touch with reality. Bruce J. Poch, Pomona College's vice president and admissions dean, says he has done it only eight times in 21 years. Last year, Harvard reversed just one admission, and only 35 percent of colleges surveyed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling did it at all.

We aren't so gloomy when we advise college-bound youths on other enjoyable if perilous adult pursuits, such as falling in love or learning to ski or pledging a sorority. We remember how we felt at that age and say that it's fine to embrace life's joys and opportunities. But when asked if it might be okay to dial down the studying now that the college application is in, many of us have only visions of disaster.

Some educators have begun to explore the alternatives. Robyn Lady, head counselor at Fairfax County's Chantilly High School, said, "I have always encouraged seniors to relax and enjoy their last year of high school." Montgomery County just changed the rules so that seniors who are taking an Advanced Placement exam no longer have to take their classroom teacher's final, too.

But many high-octane students play it safe. Textbook pages are still memorized. Old exams are mastered. Anything less than a perfect score is cause for concern. Such students need to discover that that is not the way creative and productive work is done in college, or in life. The important part of the learning process is not pounding in the material but thinking it over, talking about it, coming up with new and intriguing ways of connecting it to the rest of the world.

So this spring, why not use those daunting AP exams as a path to sanity through senioritis? Forget about cramming until 3 a.m. Order a pizza, have your friends over and just talk, maybe about the course, maybe not. Go to bed when you feel like it. Have a nice sleep.

You don't need to ace the exam. It's May, for heaven's sake. You already got into college. AP scores don't count on your report card. And anyway, you can miss most of the multiple-choice questions on an AP exam and still get the top grade if you do well on the free response questions. This is how the smartest college kids do it. Don't grind. Think. You, too, can be in tune with all parts of your life, if you learn to appreciate the easier rhythms of your last months in K-12 and never, ever think of them as a slump.

The writer covers schools for The Post. His e-mail address is mathewsj@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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