Finishing High School and "Senioritis" (Academic Letdown)

Slacking off senior year for social fun can be expected, and also prove costly

Posted Jan 14, 2013

Senioritis: is this common adolescent infection that reduces academic effort, and is so contagious during the spring semester of senior year in high school, viral or bacterial?

I think the answer is neither. Senioritis is more developmental and social – an inflammation of the motivation that makes priority attention to studies harder to give, time with friends more urgent to enjoy, tolerance for parental demands significantly less, and stimulates the desire to start celebrating graduation early as the long goodbye of grade school unfolds.

“Graduation fever” was how one veteran high school English teacher termed it. He described how most seniors start catching it after the Winter break, this mind altering mix of excitement and anxiety. Happiness at winding up high school is alloyed with worry about what comes next, and missing friends they won’t ever see as much again. No wonder they’re often more disaffected to teach and more socially distracted. “Actually they’re pretty mellow to be with,” the teacher explained, “but I can’t push them as hard as I did when they were juniors, or even in last fall’s semester. In their own minds, they’re almost out of here. They won’t put up with so much demand now that working for grades matters less.”

As for parents, well they usually notice some changes too. Academic focus can be lost (maybe not studying with the old intensity), responsibility can suffer some lapses (Senior Prom and partying may bring some unwelcome acting out), and commitments can be more casually kept (household chores previously done with regularity may be more hit and miss.) It’s transition time, and as a young person’s thoughts race ahead to the next level of independence, there is restlessness connected with getting ready for moving on.

A down side of senioritis awaits some of the 60-some percent of high school graduates that are college bound. Those who have decided that as seniors they deserve a “blow off year” may have scheduled less demanding, or even fewer classes, or at least resolved to coast to graduation by doing just enough to get by. After all, college applications only consider one’s grade point average through junior year. So this ‘good time few’ decide to kick back, cut some corners, savor finishing up, and reserve energy for social enjoyment.

Now they practice study habits they will take with them into college (social preoccupation, lack of self-discipline, intolerance of working hard, procrastination) that will not serve them well freshman year. Socially they may be in great shape to cope with the college experience, but academically they have grown rusty and this may be one contributor to the low average college retention rate (see The Journal of College Retention) that hovers around 50% -- about half of entering freshmen failing to graduate from the college in which they first enroll.

So the parental advice with a college bound senior who is showing signs of senioritis might be this. “How well you are able to academically catch hold freshman year in college is influenced by the study habits you practice senior year in high school. Work hard now, when it is harder to do, and that strength of application will carry over next fall when the more demanding academic work of college begins.”

Finally, consider a conversation between a high school senior and his parent that went something like this.

Parent: “What’s happened to your grades? Last year you worked so hard and now as a senior you’re doing just enough to get by. You don’t study much anymore. You don’t seem to care, or now you care about other things. Act this way in college and you’ll be on your way out before you begin!”

Teenager: “Give me a break! Twelve years and I’m tired of school. I need to slow down. I want a last time to let down and enjoy my friends. Who knows when we’ll be together again? Besides, grades senior year don’t count for college, so what’s the point. I want to slack off before the train ride begins.”

Parent: “The train ride? What do you mean?”

Teenager: “You know; the one that starts you down the track of the System and takes over your life, station to station to the end of the line. Work hard in high school, get into college if you’re lucky, four more years of sitting in class, finally get out and hopefully find a good job, begin a career, get married, maybe raise a family, save for the future, finally retire, and get to enjoy a little free time if you’re healthy enough and can afford to enjoy it before you die. The System, that’s what I mean. I want some slack time now before I climb on board and can’t get off.”

So, in many cases, academic performance senior year and social freedom are compromises for both parent and teenager. Parents don’t get all the dedication to study that they could desire, and the adolescent doesn’t get all the running room that she wants as senioritis, and the contagion of working less and playing more while there’s still a chance, inevitably plays out.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE” (Wiley, 2103.) Information at:

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: Identifying a Psychological Problem in Your Adolescent