Jorge Zhang

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On Senioritis (Guest Article)

Guest article by Liam Schumm; I blog at about coding and life.

I’ve had a peculiar experience with “senioritis”. Freshman year I took calculus, a class with many seniors. Many of my friends graduated in the next couple years, and I felt like I got early-onset senioritis. As somebody who grew up homeschooled, I’ve never really liked structured education, and as a result I never liked high school that much, and found it difficult to do menial worksheets and classwork that weren’t engaging to me. Over my 4 years, I gradually learned the art of extrinsic motivation: how to do things I didn’t want to do, keep track of assignments with no particular relevance to me or my life, and all the other “skills” school teaches you.

Something that struck me sophomore year was a poster in a teacher’s room of a “senior declaration of incompetence.” After thinking it over, I don’t find it funny because after 4 years of high school and all school before that, the blame for a lack of educational competence should not be on the student, but instead on the teacher and on the broader educational system. There’s fundamentally a contradiction in adults and teachers getting mad at students for not trying once the incentives to achieve in school are taken away. It’s the teachers’ fault for not creating curriculums that aren’t interesting when they aren’t driven by grades. If classes in school were truly engaging enough to students, “senioritis” would not exist.

Even among high-performing individuals attending highly-ranked universities, the same trend of a loss of motivation occurs, indicating that success or drive isn’t some kind of reflection of seniors’ lack of drive. In fact, I’ve observed that the change in committment to school is greater among high-performing individuals: graduating students who committed to Harvard or Yale stopped attending the clubs they started and Georgetown students who stopped showing up to school (sorry Jorge! 🙂 ).

Again, regardless of an individual student’s individual passion or initiative, the psychological effect of residual pressure of an entire life of education is not negligable. Many kids spend their entire life attending school, summer camp, school, summer camp, and so on for as long as they can remember. Since middle school, students start prepping for tests to get into the right high school, and in high school they prep for getting into the right college. Second semester senior year is the first time in many peoples’ recent lives that immense pressure and definition of self is lifted.

As a result, even in interesting classes or in extracurriculars senioritis is absolutely justified. No amount of passion in a subject can remedy physical exhaustion: due to the neurological effects of being stressed all the time, the physical effects, or even the literal exhaustion caused by chronic sleep deprivation throughout the American high school system. In my case, I feel like I’ve become more productive senior year after the pressure of college was lifted. After I got admitted to UMass Amherst, I’ve been able to redistribute time from classwork to things I’m actually passionate about. However, for many people who haven’t known a life without pressure and driven by intrinsic motivation before, I absolutely understand senioritis. I think it should be treated as an important developmental period in many peoples’ lives, and I advocate for self-exploration during that time, or taking a gap year to further explore ones’ self.

In the end, I think that senioritis is a broader reflection of failure of the educational system. When the incentives to achieve are removed, students universally stop trying to overachieve–and that’s not a bad thing.

© 2020 Jorge Zhang