October 13, 2006

Universities Work to Prevent H.S. Senioritis

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Like most high school seniors, Jonathan Lee ’09 was ready to party. It was Nov. 2, 2004, and, as an early-decision applicant to Cornell, Lee had nothing else to do. His essays were in the mail, his standardized test scores were as good as they were going to get, and the time had finally come for some well-deserved relaxation.

“My mindset was, second half of senior year, you can take it easy,” said Lee. “But everybody slacked off, so it really wasn’t a problem.”

Indeed, as any high school graduate can attest, the second semester of senior year is often the start of an extended summer vacation. With college applications out of the way, high school seniors have been known to do less work, take easier classes and attend less class altogether. The trend is nothing new, but, as the University of Washington has recently shown, college admissions officers may be taking “senioritis” a little more seriously than before.

Last spring, admissions officers at the University of Washington adopted a stricter policy toward their admitted applicants, threatening to revoke a letter of admission based on poor academic performance in the spring semester. Twenty-three students were informed this past summer that their admission to the University had been rescinded, and another 180 seniors were warned that they had come close to suffering the same fate.

Phillip A. Ballinger, Washington’s director of undergraduate admissions, explained in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that his office received few complaints in response to the stricter admissions policy.

“I think in many cases, parents say, ‘Yeah, I don’t like it, but my son or daughter didn’t do diddly in the senior year, so they’ll go to another school.’”

Like students applying to the University of Washington, Cornell hopefuls are expected to maintain an acceptable level of academic performance throughout their senior year of high school. Prospective Cornellians, though, seem to be in less danger than their counterparts in Spokane.

“We have a right to rescind a student’s offer of admission if the student does not continue to perform well,” said Doris Davis, associate provost of admissions and enrollment at Cornell, stated in an e-mail, “but rarely do we have to do this. Cornell students tend to maintain high levels of performance even after they have been admitted.”

Still, said Davis, students admitted to Cornell run the risk of losing their place at the University with a bad report card.

“The letter of admission to Cornell specifically states that the offer of admission is contingent upon satisfactory completion of high school,” Davis explained. “Therefore, we expect a student to maintain their high level of academic performance throughout high school.”

Despite the strict admissions policies at Cornell, high school seniors may never seriously consider the possibility that their admission might be revoked for poor academic performance. Lee, who was admitted through Cornell’s early-decision program, recalls that the threat of losing his place on campus never crossed his mind in those last few months of high school.

“I had heard that Cornell rarely rescinds letters of acceptance,” Lee said. “That, and the fact that my teachers didn’t really expect us to work that hard, made it easy to slack off.”

As Lee explained, the expectations of high school faculty have evolved along with the trend of “senioritis”: many high school educators have simply accepted the fact that their seniors will take second semester off. But, according to Ballinger, some high school faculty members are demanding a change.

“High school counselors have been asking us to do this for years,” Ballinger said in the same interview, referring to the stricter admissions policies recently adopted by the University of Washington.

Admissions policies like those at Washington and Cornell are designed to encourage a high level of academic performance among high school seniors. Some students, though, like Dmitri Koustas ’09, keep their grades up for different reasons.

“I still thought I had to do well,” Koustas explained. “People still expected a lot of me. It was kind of like the final stretch.”

Additionally, Koustas said, the prospect of attending Cornell made him work even harder.

“I didn’t want people to think that I wasn’t ready for Cornell,” Koustas recalled. “Even though I had already applied, I still wanted to show that I was ready for the workload.”

Ballinger agreed with Koustas’ attitude.

“Someone who was a concert pianist wouldn’t take a year off,” Ballinger said. “For a star athlete, taking a year off would be inconceivable. If you’re expecting to come to a university and do good work, taking the senior year off should be inconceivable, too.”