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When Penn's new crop of freshmen applicants fill in the last blanks on their applications, put the finishing touches on their personal essays and send the stress-inducing piles of forms off to the Admissions Office, many breathe a sigh of relief and believe their years of hard work in high school are finally over.

They should think again.

High school seniors' acceptances are contingent on satisfactory completion of the senior year, good behavior and regular school attendance, Admissions Dean Lee Stetson said.

So under Stetson's signature, the admissions office recently mailed out about 10 letters -- a typical amount -- to accepted students whose subpar academic performance in the second semester of their senior year has jeopardized that conditional acceptance.

"There's a tendency for students to relax once they hear about their admission," he said. "We just let them know that we've noticed it."

The letter tells students that the University knows their grades have declined significantly -- from mostly A's to several C's and a D, for example, Stetson said. It requires the students to explain their "senior slump."

After receiving the students' response, "we'll decide what to do," Stetson added.

They "usually say, 'I have no excuse, but please give me a chance. I'll prove myself when I arrive in the fall,'" he added. Explanations can range from a grade that was assigned unfairly to personal problems.

Typically, Penn accepts most students' excuse that "they just let up when they shouldn't have and are apologetic," Stetson said. But University officials "keep their eye out for them," he added.

Recognizing that many seniors simply don't feel that classwork in the second semester is relevant anymore, some schools are beginning to provide other academic outlets for students.

"They've gone through 11 and a half years of school -- does one more unit on poetry really mean that much at that point?" asked Jim Gallagher, assistant superintendent of Cherry Hill Schools in New Jersey, a local school system that sends a number of students to Penn each year.

New Jersey recently began allowing students to choose from several "senior options," Gallagher said, in the hopes that a broader array of academic challenges will counter the effects of "this 'senioritis' disease."

Students can do an internship, take a half-load of classes or take online courses, Gallagher said. "We're trying to make things more relevant" -- and that doesn't necessarily mean sitting in a classroom all day.

The program began in earnest this past year, and about 65 Cherry Hill students participated. Though there is no trend data on the success of the program, Gallagher said he has "heard from various admissions folks that they look very positively on that kind of endeavor."

But some college admissions officers say that these efforts are becoming increasingly unnecessary.

Seniors realize that acceptance rates are declining and that Ivy League universities and their peers -- including other competitive private and public schools -- have long lists of students waiting in the wings if spots open up.

"The notion of the senior year as vacation time is much, much less common than it used to be," said Patrick Smith, the director of communication for undergraduate admission at the University Park campus of Pennsylvania State University.

"It's relatively rare to get a students whose senior year in high school is such a vacation that it endangers their offer of admission," he added.

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