Set the stage for a successful second semester

By Vicki Nelson

We all need to hit the restart button on our computer from time to time. It gives the machine a chance to start up again and often work faster and with fewer problems. College students need a refresh sometimes as well, and the start of the second semester can provide that opportunity.

Cassie had a wonderful first semester at college — at least it felt that way. She made new friends quickly, only felt homesick briefly during the first week of school, was involved in several clubs on campus, including being elected to the student government association. She found fun parties to attend on the weekends, and worked several hours a week at the local mall. Unfortunately, when grades came out at the end of the semester, she — and her parents — were disappointed. In fact, Cassie’s parents told her that if her grades didn’t improve next semester, they might insist that she leave college and return home.

Neil had his academic act together. He kept careful track of every assignment on every syllabus and handed in every paper or project on time or even early. He found an out-of-the-way corner of the library that was perfect for studying and spent much of his free time there, which is probably why he aced almost every test, even in the physics class that had the reputation for ruining many students’ GPAs. When grades came out at the end of the semester, he made his parents proud. But as he got ready to head home for winter break, and watched his hallmates exchanging exuberant holiday goodbyes, he felt a little left out, realizing he didn’t feel that close to any of them.

Cassie and Neil had very different experiences during their first semester of college.  Both could make some changes to make their second semester better. Before they can do that, however, they’ll need to look carefully at what they did during the first semester and reflect on what they can do differently going forward.

As parents of college students, we can help our students take stock of their experiences.

Looking backward while moving forward

Helping your student make the most of the beginning of her second semester of college begins by helping her reflect on her first semester. The first semester was a transitional time, but your student now has a wealth of “college knowledge” and has probably gained some confidence in her abilities. Even if the first semester fell short of her (or your) expectations (as first semesters often do!), your student has the opportunity to learn from mistakes or poor choices she may have made. Learning from mistakes begins by recognizing them.

Your student might begin by asking herself some key questions that will help her think critically about the past semester. 

What classes did she love — or hate? What worked well during the semester and what could have gone better? Were there any surprises or disappointments? Did she discover any strengths or weaknesses in herself? If she had the semester to do over again, what would she change?

What was your favorite class, and why? Where do you do most of your studying?

A fresh start

With the answers to these questions in hand, your student is in a better position to begin her second semester as a wiser college student. She may approach this semester with some mixed feelings — the novelty of college has worn off, the long winter months loom ahead, and a case of the second semester blues may set in. Help your student remember that this is a fresh start with new classes, new professors, and the chance to make some new friends and try some new activities. Her more realistic picture of college life will help her to make the most of these opportunities.

Cassie might think about whether she spent enough time studying last semester or whether she was spreading herself too thin. Being involved on campus is important, but trying to do too much may not leave enough time to do anything well. Cassie might also think about trying to find a job on campus rather than at the local mall. Working on campus will still allow her to earn some money, save on commuting time, and help her be involved on campus in a new way — perhaps substituting for one or two of her clubs.  This will leave more time to get organized and spend quality hours studying.

Neil also needs to find some balance. As laudable as it is that he earned top grades, he is missing out on other aspects of college life. Adding some campus involvement and social activities to his schedule will help him balance his experiences. He’ll enjoy his friends more and may even get to know some of his professors outside of the classroom.

Create a plan

Winter break is a good time for your student to get a mental head start on next semester. Help her to review her expectations in light of what she learned last semester and to set some goals — perhaps to get more involved in campus activities, achieve a certain GPA, find a campus job, or volunteer for a leadership position.

Your student may do a few practical things to get a head start on this semester as well. This is a good time to check online for course syllabi, to order textbooks (which should be listed on the syllabi or college bookstore website), and to gather any helpful academic tools such as a good planner for time management. If your student orders her textbooks and is feeling ambitious, she might even start reading the first chapters. It’s great to start the second semester feeling a little ahead.