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“The Struggle is Real”: Student Motivation in Light of Senioritis, the Moral Enemy

Senioritis”: A supposed affliction of students in their final year of high school or college, characterized by a decline in motivation or performance.

Senioritis is an epidemic affecting high school seniors nationwide. The symptoms, including incompletion of homework, frequent absences, and lateness, first appear after a college acceptance is received [note: in some cases, the symptoms can appear as early as application submissions]. An acceptance letter gives kids the chance to breathe: finally, after years of working hard in school, months of studying for standardized tests and writing college essay upon college essay, the payoff is tangible. But more often than not, that same acceptance letter is the catalyst for Senioritis. A student once found buried in textbooks in the library can be found lounging in their future school’s sweatshirt out on the quad after receiving an offer of admission to their dream school. Among seniors there is an omnipresent and problematic eagerness to graduate and move onto the next phase in their lives.

As the second semester is now upon us, more and more cases of Senioritis will surface at Friends Academy.  Our school emphasizes college as one of its main goals for its graduates. As stated in the Upper School section of FA’s website,

“Friends Academy’s Upper School curriculum is a vigorous college preparatory program rooted in the liberal arts and sciences, enhanced by programs critical for developing 21st-century skills and knowledge. Our graduates are prepared to pursue their college aspirations and to use their education for the betterment of the community at large.”

The finish line is unclear: students see it as college admittance, but administration sees it as graduation. In her blog, Mrs. Schoman says the Upper School strives to create “an environment that fosters a love of learning.” But how is it that seniors, even those who love to learn, come down with senioritis once their spots at colleges have been secured and have no desire to engage in academics? In September, students arrive energized and eager to take on the new school year and its challenges. However motivation for a student in September of their senior year versus April of their senior year varies greatly. Students deserve to enjoy the relief from stress and should focus on enjoying their last months, but when the level of their performance and interest in school decline significantly post college acceptance, this decline must be investigated.

Under scrutiny, it is evident that Senioritis–its causes and symptoms–is driven by a social behavior. Many high school seniors are motivated by “competition with other peers and, in the long run, [getting into] college,” said Oliver Muran ‘15, a senior in the midst of the chaotic college process. But when goals of college acceptance have been reached, motivation has a way of fizzling out. Having spent the last four years competing with each other for top markings and spots at acclaimed colleges, second semester seniors don’t feel the immense pressure that once hung over heads like a dark cloud.  Senioritis holds a socially contagious nature: even people who aren’t yet accepted to their university of choice feel the effects of the problem.  In her comparative analysis of U.S. high school students’ motivational factors, Debbie Kavanaugh recognized a social aspect among seniors as having “an effect on academic motivation.” Kavanaugh characterizes students as “discouraged” instead of motivated. She notes that “if a discouraged student is prompting a classmate to start trouble, the students in question are sure to consider social ramifications before (non)acting.” “Discouraged” students tend to not care about their classes and the experience of school as they’re only focused on what’s ahead.

Though a root cause and magnitude of Senioritis is ambiguous, there’s no question that this “on to the next” mentality is deeply rooted in a cultural issue. As Mr. Lape put it in a recent interview, “There is (and I’ve seen this, I’ve been teaching 40+ years) the growth of a culture [that values] achievement at all costs, even at the cost of character.” While there are more obvious and deliberate problems concerning achievement and integrity, such as cheating, the issue of Senioritis is one that poses a severe threat and it is in its subliminal nature that the threat resides. By mentally “checking out” of the school experience months prior to graduation, students are adding to and the supporting the story of our culture. “Here’s the story that that culture tells: the purpose of an education is to build a resume (of academics, arts, athletics). With that resume you get into a good college, which gets you a good job, and good money, which gets you a good life,” Mr. Lape explained. Now of course trying for individual success is commendable, but a mindset preoccupied with achievement and resume building is not. Applying oneself in school is still a necessity. Students with a complacent attitude post-acceptance tend to lose their understanding of moral ground. Mr. Lape continued, “Personal responsibility and character have been lost, and parents too want the good grade, for good college and the good life… what good is this [life] story when kids freak out because they don’t have the character to deal with crisis on their own?” He pointed out that for AP classes, students are required to sign a contract agreeing to take the AP examination in May. Many students take an AP course because they are challenging, and not to mention impressive to admissions officers reading a transcript. Mr. Lape also recognized that a lot of the time, a student’s future school won’t accept the AP credit , so they choose to “blow off the test… it becomes a point of pride [for a student] to get a 2 or a 1, to show they don’t need to care about it because they’re into college. It’s really upsetting to teachers who believe their subject matter is important,” and believe in their role shaping each student into “someone who will become a force of kindness and hard work.” It is for reasons like these that teachers sigh and shake their heads at hearing the word “senioritis.” The most unsatisfying thing for teachers who want to instill a passion for learning in their students is unmotivated and disengaged students.

When students don’t view the assignment at hand as a learning opportunity, but rather something to check off their to-do lists, the sense of purpose in learning is gone. In order to recapture the excitement in classrooms, we must remember that “we aren’t just individuals seeking our own private gain, we owe things to these groups and communities that have claims on us,” as Mr. Lape put it. As a school, Friends Academy does a great job of reminding students that we serve a purpose in our community and we can always learn from that.

Although they’re out of the classroom after May 1st, Seniors are still engaged in learning through the Independent Service Project (ISP). On the FA website, the ISP is described as, “ a two or three week opportunity at the end of May or beginning of June for seniors to pursue activities and studies in the community. Each senior designs a project that is reviewed by an ISP committee, composed of faculty and students….Upon completion of the project, the student gives a presentation to the seniors and the ISP committee. The ISP committee rates the project as satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and this rating goes on the student’s official transcript. The student must earn a grade of satisfactory to fulfill the graduation requirement.”

While they aren’t from a textbook, the lessons taught through the ISP reinforce the moral code of Friends Academy. Through the ISP, students are reminded to involve themselves in community organizations that they find meaningful. This not only gives kids the chance to learn about and experience something they’re really interested in, but also helps to solidify their connections to the community and service- oriented goals of our school. ISP gives Friends Academy students an understanding that our learning experiences aren’t just valued in terms of grades; we are strong morally and have the power to as a community reach out to seniors and involve them in what should be the most unique learning time, where they aren’t preoccupied with stress about getting grades for a certain college, but rather where they can enjoy learning for the pure experience of what is it: teachers assigning presentations and kids immersing themselves in projects that inspire them.

Now this issue is two sided. As a Senior embarking on her second semester, I sympathize with my peers, Like many, I’m excited to hang out on the quad and enjoy my last days at Friends with my own friends. But I’m certain that FA’s taught me enough about morality and responsibility that I can welcome the next chapter in my life while still keeping up with the current one. Senioritis may be real, but FA has provided students with the moral tools necessary to battle the disease.


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