Smart but unmotivated HS junior

I know that gap years are held in high esteem by nearly everyone on here, but I want to express the opposite opinion. Gap years can be very good things for certain driven students, who approach a gap year the same way they approached school and the college application process, who work interesting worthwhile jobs that help to shape their future educational and career goals, or who travel internationally and polish foreign language skills. But there are plenty of other students who spend a gap year doing not much of anything worthwhile, especially the ones who weren’t already mature, driven, goal-oriented planners. That year off from academics can lead to them falling off the academic treadmill, without having gotten a degree. They may not be able to get themselves back into the rhythm of school after their gap year. My own kid had a very strong non-academic interest/talent and was young for their year. When offered a gap year doing professional studies with a Master in that interest, partly in order to avoid starting during pandemic restrictions, they adamantly refused, because they were afraid they might have trouble getting back into the swing of academics.

Just because a young man is a B student academic underachiever does not mean that he needs a gap year.


Agree! Many kids just come into their own in college.


This would be a really good summer for him to have a job.

1 Like

Even if your son isn’t focused on college right now that doesn’t mean he won’t come around by the time applications are due. A lot of boys (including my S22) are like this at first - reluctant to talk about it, disinterested in the process etc. Not every student is hyper focused on college admissions as a junior. Some come to it later. By your description your son has great ECs (far more impressive than just joining some school clubs), decent grades, good rigor and an outstanding test score. He will have choices. My S22 never really got into the college process but he did apply to 7 good schools and was accepted at 5. He is at our state flagship - I worried how he would do as he was a bit of a coaster in HS and wasn’t the most organized kid, but I was proven wrong. He has made great choices, avoided bad choices (i.e. too much partying) and got a 3.9 his first semester. If you had shared this outcome when I was pulling teeth to get him to even talk about college, I would have been surprised.


And I’ll add that many kids just muddle through college … and do just fine in life. I’m blown away by the things some of my “burnout” high school classmates have done in life - and I’m surprised by the things some of my kids’ childhood friends, who barely got through college, are doing. One’s life isn’t necessarily defined by anything they did or didn’t do in high school or college.


I’m not sure this student needs a gap year, but I’ll add my perspective about that.

As someone who took a lot of gaps and spent six years doing my undergrad degree, I can vouch that it’s sometimes hard to stay motivated. I admit I was a slacker in high school and college, at first. What finally motivated me to finish my degree was getting put on academic probation at community college. I grew up when I realized that if I didn’t get the degree, I’d end up in a dead end. (For context, I commuted for all my college years.)

Taking gaps was good for me, because during those times I travelled the world and had a lot of fun. I worked all through college and had friends, money, and a car. So I didn’t view my path as any kind of problem. I just needed to do it in my own time.

My own son is very much like OPs son (but not anymore, as a college senior.) When we suggested he take a gap year, he flatly refused, saying he would probably not go to college at all if he did that. He made a lot of mistakes as an undergrad at his rigorous state U. Coasting no longer worked. He was surrounded by people who were as smart as him, and many were even smarter. He got his act together too.

One of my students took a forced gap year due to cockiness and senioritis. He applied to one college at 11:59 pm and didn’t get in. He hated his gap year because none of his friends were around. He realized that he was going to be left behind if he wasn’t proactive, and he’d be at home without friends for four years. He is headed to college this fall, after a lot of effort. But, in all honesty, he didn’t do much that was productive during his gap year.

Then, there’s this inspiring story of one kid who made the most out of his gap year. I still wonder where he is now. No Acceptances: One Kid's Story - A year later...

1 Like

If I recall correctly, that was a highly motivated, high-achieving young man who had gotten the short end of the stick in the absurdly competitive college application process, hadn’t had a true safety school. I would have been very surprised had he spent his gap year doing nothing.

Much more common for the high school slacker who did nothing in high school to spend a gap year doing more nothing.


The student in the link matriculated at MIT. And IIRC also got a masters there. He was a NM Finalist, class top student, excellent ECs…but as noted his first round applications had no true safety.

When he applied again, he was accepted everywhere on that second list except the school he reapplied to.

Totally different story than this OP’s son.

That thread should be a must read for anyone who think about applying only to tippy top schools


DH and I were just discussing that last night! S24 would be happier where he could find other smart kids. How does one get into a school with smart kids without going through a tough application process? We’re observing D23’s dual enrollment experience at a university nearby. While it works in her favor, she feels like so little is expected of the students. There are group assignments in her calculus class. She said I don’t mind if some people don’t do anything, but only if they’re not annoying and making extra work for the ones who are doing the work. Bless her heart. Multiple classes have a policy where they replace the lowest grade with your attendance grade. One professor recently sent a pleading email about not procrastinating. Why is a college professor doing that? I’ve heard going to a tough high school is great because things will be easier in college, but she’s actually frustrated. She doesn’t relate to the other students. For reference, she is a solid student, similar GPA to S24, less rigor, 1440 SAT. People say you can find your people anywhere - but imagining him going to this local university, how hard will he look?

So the UK huh? That might be a tough sell for him - he likes his life, why go looking for an adventure? Who knows though. We’d love to go visit him if he did. I’m hopeful, as others are saying, that it’ll all kick in come fall when everyone else is going through it.

I also thought, after the many “your kid is great” comments (thank you everyone!!), my post looks like a humble brag, eye roll, gross. I hope in describing him more, it was more about his engagement and of course anxiety as parents about how much to do. CC seems like a safe space to ask about kids who get 36 on the ACT. Ha! No really, where else can I find informed advice about this kid? I read the 3.0-3.4 and the 3.5-3.8 threads but didn’t find enough about the oddball high score combined with the lack of direction.

I hope to have enough input from him to ask a match me question before October! I did ask him last night - if he had to take 4 classes of the same subject out of his current 6 subjects, which would he pick. First thing he said was “not Latin”. Then he couldn’t decide between math or science, but because he’s not taking science, he wasn’t sure. He said he’d fill 4 classes with STEM. But then he said Honors Chem was the worst class he took in all of high school. Not what I expected to hear! The advice about getting some "no"s from him makes sense. We just have to be patient with the process.


There are smart kids at ALL colleges. Regardless of where you son goes to college…he will find his tribe. You need to have some faith that this is going to happen.

Many many smart kids do NOT attend the top 100 colleges in this country for any number of reasons.


Any flagship will have students of high ability level where he can fnd his peers. He may not be admitted to the honors college at the flagship but some schools let you in after freshman year too.


There are plenty of schools that offer rigor and access to bright peers without having highly rejective admissions. State flagships are always this way. Schools like The Colleges That Change Lives are other examples. There are many excellent schools with very smart students that would be “likely” or “match” for your son. Often they are located in less popular destinations (e.g. Worcester instead of Boston, the Midwest instead of New England etc.)

ETA: sorry kelsmom, not sure why this reply went to you!


One qualifier, however. It is nice to be smart, but results matter. No matter how smart one may be, if one is unwilling to put in the coursework required, the grade will likely reflect that in college, and that may determine future opportunities open to him. So time to put that smartness to work and have evidence of it by getting good grades showing mastery of the coursework.


He may enjoy a SLAC with bright, quirky kids. I am thinking of schools like Oberlin or Kenyon or similar. They aren’t as selective as the tippy top liberal arts schools like Williams and Amherst, but they do attract really interesting kids. He will not feel like he is all of the brainpower in a Calculus project, that’s for sure.

When we toured Kenyon, for instance, I found those students on our admissions panel to be by far the most engaging, grounded, and thoughtful of any we had met — and we toured Ivies and other highly selective schools.

I don’t know specifically which schools like that would be a fit for his grades and which would be more reach, but I do think there is a wide enough range of SLAC selectivity where he could find a few to love.

1 Like

For anyone thinking the UK might be an option, this thread:

And its denouement:

are worth a read.

But as someone who grew up in the UK and was smart but relatively lazy (I switched my major from natural sciences to math because it was “easy” and involved much less work without any labs), what the UK values is focus and exam performance over busy work. Sure you can get a bunch of Bs in class grades, but you’d better be able to study at the end of the year and get a 5 in your APs.

What stood out in the threads above was a kid who loved their subject enough to go and self-study for APs that weren’t even offered at their high school and still get 5s.

A kid without direction in freshman year of high school (and who gets Bs as a result) can do OK in the UK, but only if they have acquired the focus and motivation by the time they go to college to do one subject and nothing else for 3 years. It’s a system that is way more favorable to late developing boys than US college admissions.

Final exams are a whole different level in the UK and your entire grade depends on them: I spent 6 weeks revising 8 hours every day to prepare for them. That’s the sort of focus required to succeed there (both in college and for the exams at ages 16 and 18 in high school).

In addition, despite the great ACT score, his AP scores so far aren’t amazing, so Oxbridge seems unlikely. And given the choice, I’d pick a mid tier state flagship in the US over similar UK schools (Manchester, Exeter etc).

When S23 was in middle school I seriously thought we might end up with him going to the UK: the neuropsychologist who assessed him for ADHD said he was the smartest kid she’d seen in 20 years (well into top 0.1%), but he very much favors math over writing. However he stayed unmotivated throughout high school and there’s no way I would send him now. Although he’d be happy doing nothing other than astrophysics in college, he doesn’t yet have the motivation and focus to sit and study for final exams. Our neighbor’s ADHD kid went to St Andrews and it’s gone pretty poorly, struggling with motivation and exams and now having to take an extra (5th) year. It would have been much better to attend a lower ranking US college without high stakes exams where you can to some extent choose your own pace.


Schools like Kalamazoo and St. Olaf might be good possibilities. Furman and Wofford too, if you want closer to home.


I had a similar impression of Lawrence U., in Wisconsin - bright, quirky, friendly, engaged kids. An added bonus for this young man would be the strength of music programs at Lawrence, which offers conservatory-level training but is also very welcoming to non-major musicians who wish to participate in ensembles. There’s also a culture of informal performances - many coffee houses and such - where the students come to hear and support one another. They have fun, quirky traditions, like the annual “Great Midwest Trivia Contest” (which, with a 58-year history, is the longest-running “college bowl” type trivia competition). Academically speaking, Lawrence is quite strong in the STEM majors (it’s known for physics in particular, but has very solid math and CS as well), and it encourages student-initiated courses, often in the form of 1:1 or small-group tutorials with faculty. Student-Initiated Courses | Lawrence University Lawrence can be quite generous with merit as well.

Random thought: a student who likes math/CS and Latin might also enjoy linguistics - and a gifted test-taker might particularly enjoy the NACLO competition. There are practice problems on the website that he could try and see if he finds them rewarding: North American Computational Linguistics Open Competition


You’re getting lots of great advice and encouragement here. Let me throw this thought out there. You mention your D23 going thru the college application process now and sounds like she was pretty focused. Has she made her decision yet? Maybe once she is “done” your son will start to pay more attention to his upcoming college decisions. I offer this only because that is what I see my D24 doing. My S23 was very focused on his college search and my junior daughter seemed completely uninterested in college. Now as his search is winding down, she’s showing more interest in college and is talking about what she wants to do. She does not like to be in her older siblings’ shadows so this didn’t surprise me, but it has been frustrating! So maybe he just feels it isn’t his turn yet but he’ll get there!

1 Like

I have a kid that was actually described in a neuropsych report as “a gifted underachiever”. The thing was, he wasn’t underachieving when he was interested and challenged. Just when he was bored or didn’t buy into grades as a form of competition. We switched school settings going into high school and that changed everything. I think your son will be the same once he finds the classes that interest him in college. On one hand, you don’t have to worry because he’s smart enough to make anything work, but I understand on the other hand you want him to have the best opportunities possible.

These are my observations after watching a couple of years’ worth of the college cycle for kids like ours:

They are going to start their search later. It isn’t important to them right now and they have other things to do. I’m a planner and this can be infuriating, but I’m sure your son always manages to pull it together by the deadline.

It has to be their search. You can give suggestions and guide them, but of the people I know that did the “work” for their kids, all of the kids have ended up at home within the year. He has to be invested.

Stress the importance of “fit” rather than prestige.

I find dropping the information into their lap but not following up somehow gets my kid to start the work at some point. The more follow-up from me, the more he pushes it off.

As I said, he sounds like a kid that is smart enough to make anything work. Once he realizes everyone is way ahead of him, he’ll start to explore. Just be glad when he starts exploring and don’t add more pressure to create a “list”

Part of the problem can be he’s tracked with the Ivy crowd, but he’s not interested in that type of college experience. He probably hasn’t heard about anything other than Ivies and flagship state schools. Maybe send the Colleges that Change Lives list or the 50 Underrated Colleges Doing Great Things list. There are also searches he can run like “Colleges for Eagle Scouts” or “Schools with exploratory programs”

I’d rethink the 5 minutes a day. That becomes a chore. Smart kids will get super focused and dig deep once the interest is there.

DS college counseling wouldn’t let them make a list of specific schools in the beginning. They listed attributes they wanted in a school. They started with exploring one topic at a time such as “clubs I could join”, “what are the on-campus living requirements/options?”, “university required courses outside of major”, etc. at various random schools to see how different schools could be. I found this to be really valuable as it helped him form a picture of what he wanted without getting too attached to a “name”.


My S didn’t worry or care about fit. For him, college was a means to a degree. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.