“Senioritis” sweeps nation’s campuses, including U-M. “All I want to do after graduation is lie on my mother’s couch.”

April 16, 1997
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—It’s April and an outbreak of “senioritis”— the syndrome that hits most college seniors sometime before spring break and lasts until graduation—is sweeping campuses across the country.

Senioritis combines high stress and high excitement with feelings of loss and anxiety. These psychological factors are compounded by lack of sleep, fitful immune systems and lingering colds, according to Jerome D. Dowis, associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Michigan.

“Graduation from college is a major life transition,” Dowis explained. “For the past four years, seniors here have identified themselves as U-M students, history or engineering students, members of the Greek system or of service clubs or co ops. All of that will change in a month or two.

“The senior year is the swinging bridge between a well established identity as the student who learns how to do things and the emerging, often shaky identity as the working person who knows how to do things.”

Crossing the bridge takes a phenomenal amount of energy, added Gwyneth Awai, assistant director of Counseling Services.

“Seniors are taking a full load of classes and writing honors theses or finishing up major class projects. At the same time they are sending out graduate school applications and job resumes, and interviewing for jobs. It is exhausting.”

When there is a conflict between class work and the job or graduate school search, class work often suffers. “But it is a question of salience,” Dowis explained. “In the senior year, the future is more salient than present academics.”

Seniors also are already experiencing the loss of friends who will be moving all over the country or the world.

“Seniors know that they are about to lose contact with friends they have made during a critical period of their lives, so they spend considerable time preparing to say good-bye. To offset these anticipated losses, they ritualize events. They pull out their cameras, troop around in large groups and visit old haunts together. They give each other small, personal gifts. These rituals are important because they help bring some closure,” Awai stressed.

Many seniors also grapple with whether to continue love relationships or to break them off. “They spend huge amounts of time with their partners to determine whether they should stay together or not. These decisions force the partners to look closely at the relationship. Are both partners ready to settle down? Is the relationship rewarding enough to continue it? Is it feasible to live in the same city? If the answer is ‘No,’ at least one partner is likely to feel some real pain. If the answer is ‘Yes,’ the logistical factors, such as finding jobs in the same city, cause more stress. These personal issues often loom much larger than the next test,” Dowis added.

Graduation day itself, while tremendously exciting for most, can be a source of stress. “Parents and family may have traveled some distance to attend the event, so the seniors are torn between spending time with their families and spending time with their friends who are about to ‘disappear.’ It is particularly stressful for children of divorced parents, if the parents are still in conflict. It is almost like a wedding. Who should be invited? Will they get along that day? Who comes to dinner and where will they sit? For the very rare student who has cut off family ties, the day can be quite difficult,” Dowis said.

Conflict with parents over the future, however, is frequently a thing of the past. “By this time, students and their parents both want the same thing for the senior– successful, secure lives.” And parents sympathize with the senior’s exhaustion. “My daughter’s good friend, who graduated last year, said all she wanted to do after graduation was lie on her mother’s couch. And that is what she did for three months. But then she got up and went off into the world,” Awai said.

Awai also cited another student who went directly into law school after graduation. “He said he felt like his head was going to explode after a few months in law school. He might have been better off taking a year off first.”

Many seniors do choose to take a year off traveling and supporting themselves in low-level, low-stress, minimum pay jobs, and most of their families accept this choice. “We often counsel our clients not to make major life decisions when they are experiencing stress. A year to regroup, recoup and recharge—to not worry—can be a positive step for some seniors,” Dowis said.

Counseling and Psychological Services