When achievers start to slacken Countdown: High school seniors who have received early acceptance to top colleges find it hard to focus in the last months before graduation.

March 08, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

She's hardly a goof-off: valedictorian of Franklin High's senior class; accepted early-action to Brown University; varsity athlete and artist.

But yes, even Becky Park has that senior disease.

"Oh, my God, it's so hard. Yes, I'm in school to learn, but I just can't help feeling like I'm wasting my time. I'm in college, and I'd rather be there than in high school. Now I'm just trying to enjoy my last couple of months."

The silly season has begun, ushered in by -- of all people -- the privileged bunch accepted to elite colleges under early-admittance programs.

Suddenly, kids accustomed to completing assignments two weeks before due date are staring at their math books, wondering "Why?"

"I don't think I've been through my backpack since Christmas," said Jake Smith, a Lansdowne High senior accepted to Rochester Institute of Technology, during an advanced placement Calculus III class. "My motivation is pretty much gone. This class I try to work in. The others are so easy, I don't have to try to get an A."

Their new challenge, aside from getting out of bed, is to excel at advanced-placement tests, which can earn college credit. And they need to avoid any major grade slippage that triggers alarms in college admissions circles.

Sure, they're still high performers. These teens are built for no less. But they have learned the shortcuts that let them ease up and maintain respectable records.

Sleep late

"I have them first period, and they'll sleep late more often," said Patrick McCusker, who teaches AP Calculus III at Owings Mills High, a distance-learning class beamed to Lansdowne High by interactive video. "If they have an English term paper due, they may decide they don't need to see math that day.

"A couple of them went skiing for a while and they didn't seem overly concerned. A couple missed a day to go to Ocean City to put deposits on Senior Week. They're still doing enough work to be successful; they're just not as focused or driven as they used to be."

Under "early-decision" programs, students generally make binding agreements to attend. "Early-action" acceptances normally allow students to pursue other colleges. Both typically are sent in the first semester, often by mid-December.

But anyone who thinks colleges won't rescind an offer hasn't heard English teacher James Bradley's "Don't Let Up" speech -- highlighting the Owings Mills student who was admitted early to a good northeastern college, then let his grades slip to C's, D's and F's in the last two quarters.

The college reneged, and the student -- who had ranked near the top of his class -- headed for community college. He eventually graduated from a four-year college and is now in law school.

"He was just so smug and confident he had gotten into this really good school, he just figured he had it made," Bradley said.

"And I tell them I know of other cases. They all say, 'Noooo.' Then they go ask guidance. Guidance says, 'Yes.' "

Withdrawn offers

College admissions officers say it happens rarely, but some have withdrawn offers. Colleges typically review final grades -- a number of them also flag the midterm grades of students admitted early -- and send warning letters when they see troubling trends.

At Cornell University, undergraduate admissions director Nancy Hargrave Meislahn can't recall the school rescinding an offer because of academic slippage in the past 10 years, but she estimates that 10 to 20 letters are sent annually inquiring about declines in performance.

At the Johns Hopkins University, admissions officials can't remember withdrawing an offer in at least eight years. But the school sent 10 to 12 letters last year asking why grades had dropped. In rare cases, students have been asked to take corrective action, such as a summer school course.

One or two students call each year wanting to drop a course -- not a good idea, said Paul T. White Hopkins' director of undergraduate admissions.

"There has to be a compelling reason, and that reason is not that I want to enjoy my last semester," he said. "There is a correlation between how one performs in the last semester of high school and their freshman year. If that seriousness has dissipated, who's to say they can regain that seriousness when they come in and have to be focused?"

Many colleges appear to be giving increasing scrutiny to senior year grades, say Baltimore-area guidance counselors.

William Bressler, guidance chairman at Owings Mills High, noted this week that he had just hung up with an official from Rutgers University who wanted projections on third-quarter grades for a student whose midyear marks had slipped.

"Ten years ago I would have been very surprised to receive that call. Not any longer."

While full-blown "senioritis" waits for warm weather and the flood of regular-admission acceptance letters in April, some schools are already showing symptoms.

The prom

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