Change and the College Process
About this time--but especially in the fall of their senior year--it isn't unusual to observe in
seniors drastic changes of behavior: chronic lateness to school, poor or uneven test results, an
inability to complete work on time, snappy retorts directed at siblings or parents, a feeling of
martyrdom about the work expected of them, sloppiness at home, a frequent sense of
disorganization, a tendency to be evasive about their true feelings, workaholism,
Cristopher Dorance, who is head of the Upper School at Maumee Valley Country Day School in
Toledo, Ohio, claims these behaviors are symptomatic of "senioritis," an ailment caused
generally by overwhelming anxiety about the future.
He claims that the causes for the anxiety can come from numerous sources:
1) From excessive demands and expectations of parents, grandparents, faculty and peers.
(Everyone has ideas about what the child's future should hold.)
2) From apprehension about separation from family and home.
3) From impending loss of deep friendship.
4) From being a person of worth in school to the thought of becoming a non- person.
5) From a change in the secure structure and value system in their lives.
6) From unanswered questions about their purpose for going to college and just where
their future lies.
In addition to these more deeply seated anxieties, there are the more obvious demands on the
senior which complicate life.
1) Workload is difficult.
2) Usually the senior is involved in a variety of activities which seem to have deadlines
that conflict with college applications.
3) The senior is frequently called upon to be a leader in these activities and must devote
more attention to the smooth running of them.
4) Couple these school demands with the need to visit colleges, fill out applications
which often include lengthy essays, and take college entrance exams, and the
pressures are apparent.
Another problem that produces anguish in the senior year is the fact that whether the student
likes it or not, he/she is being judged in a rather arbitrary fashion by colleges and to some extent
by the "real world." There is a great fear of being rejected and it all seems terribly unfair. The
student cannot show his or her hurt to the college, nor can the student influence the impersonal
manner in which "the real world" seems to be addressing him or her. However, he/she can
demonstrate unhappiness and frustration by being difficult to teach or to live with.
The final potential pitfall is the increasing feeling that a student's whole life and, indeed, the
whole future will be determined by where he/she chooses to go to college or by which college
chooses to accept him/her. A continuing anxiety that follows students even into colleges is the
panicky feeling that they need to determine career goals immediately. Not to know what you are
going to do is a real threat particularly when parents, relatives, and friends are frequently asking
as a matter of course where you are going to college and what you will do when you are finished.
Seniors are so often projecting into the future and getting anxious about what the future holds for
them that they cannot truly enjoy things as they are happening around them.
Cristopher Dorance makes several recommendations for faculty and parents:
1) Be firm with the child and hold him/her accountable for his actions. Any special
privileges should be earned.
2) A clear set of boundaries will lend some security to an agonizing year.
3) Maintain a dialogue with school in order to share perspectives of home and school.
4) Apply common sense and trust your instincts. Most of the anxiety is short-lived and
will actually seem small in proportion to the current magnitude a year from now. Be
ready to offer sympathy but also be aware that seniors all too often feel very sorry for
themselves, and will--with some encouragement--try to evade the problems and decisions
that they are facing. It is better that they should confront the seemingly monumental
challenge at home than on their own during the freshman year.
5) Help students understand that as they prepare to make the transition, most students do
have some measure of anxiety about going from one phase of life to another. This
knowledge of the "universality of experience," realizing that you are not alone, is a
It's also helpful to keep in mind that this acute anxiety about the future does not necessarily
subside on that day when students receive either those fat envelopes indicating admission to the
school of their choice or the thin envelope indicating rejection. By the way, Dr. Herbert Sacks, a
professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, in his book
entitled Hurdles, refers to this day as "Bloody Monday." He discusses the developmental crisis
which students endure in clearing admissions hurdles in the American university.
Back to the point, it isn't unusual if this period of transition lasts throughout the freshman year in
college. Fred Zuker, an experienced admissions professional, has outlined the developmental
stages he sees students working through from high school graduation on.
1. Post Graduation Latency - the days immediately following high school graduation. A
bittersweet time of sadness at the passing of high school, and of self-satisfaction and eager
anticipation for the challenges and possibly glory represented by going to college.
2. Incipient Separation Anxiety - the last days of summer. The realization that soon the
student will leave behind family, friends, and home, and the support of high school system in
which the student has achieved success.
3. Acute Undifferentiated Anxiety - the last days of summer and the first days of college. This
time will include: first encounter with the new roommate, the college bureaucracy, college
classroom, and college society.
4. Expectation and Elation: The Honeymoon Phase - the first days of the college experience
and the beginning of classes. A time of unreasonable expectations about college. Students
expect to have immediate intellectual experiences and to become socially adept.
5. Depression and Frustration: The End of the Honeymoon Phase - the weeks immediately
following the beginning of class. The realization that going to college is not all that glamorous.
There is a great deal of hard work, some frustration and disappointment. Students may have
received their first low grades. A time of crushing homesickness.
6. The Transfer Phase or The Grass is Always Greener - usually appears shortly before the
first mid-term exams. Students begin to think that college life must be better at another school.
They think transferring may alleviate some of their discomforts.
7. The Thomas Wolfe Phase or You Can't Go Home Again - the first time students going
away to school return home. The realization that things at home have changed; or perhaps the
returning student has changed.
8. Primitive Coping Behavior - the time between the first mid-term exams and the first
approach of the final examination period. This period marks the development of the ability to
use the library, first real conversation with the roommate, the first "intellectual experience," and
expansion of the student's social awareness.
9. Return of the Repressed Fear of Failure - the approach of the first final examination
period. The realization that much work is to be done, and the future, to a large extent, depends
upon academic performance and success.
10. Consolidation and Adaptation - usually occurs some time during the second semester.
The point at which the student understands that success or failure depends upon the individual.
Life in college is rich in opportunity and responds best to those who work hard and become
Not all of our students and children will have the same degree of anxiety, and not all will go
through these stages of growth at the same rates. Our goal is to try to understand the emotional
needs of each individual and to provide what we can to make the transition a growth experience.
We believe that students who are informed, who are realistic, who are supported, and who have
the experience in perspective will be the students who cope most successfully and adjust most