Your student can outsmart sophomore slump

By Diane Schwemm

Depending on who you talk to, “sophomore slump” is either “ubiquitous” and “unavoidable” or a total non-issue. If your second-year student isn’t experiencing it, you can feel grateful. If you are sensing a slump, however, you’re not alone. Here’s what may be going on, and how you can help your second-year student turn things around (or fend off the syndrome altogether if you are the parent of a first-year student!).

The novelty — and relative ease — of freshman year is over.

Students and parents alike agree that sophomore year means the “excitement and new experiences” of freshman year are a thing of the past “but you haven’t found your rhythm like you do in junior year” (Ziv, Pomona College sophomore).

Catherine, a sophomore at Baylor University, agreed. She also pointed out that even as “enthusiasm and motivation” falter a bit, academic pressure increases for second-year students. “Many of the prerequisites are out of the way and sophomores begin taking upper level classes and classes specific to their majors. Accountability is higher,” she said, and there’s none of the “wiggle room” professors sometimes allow freshmen. The “slump,” in other words, can equate to a GPA dip as well as a generalized slump in spirits.

Some second-year students are still searching for a place on campus — a club, team, or campus job that might create a feeling of home. Students who don’t know what they want to major in may feel anxious and unfocused. “My son is slow to understand his big picture and how he can make the best use of his talents,” one parent observed.

Schools recognize that sophomore slump is a problem.

“Being prepared for the changes that happen during the second year of college will help students deal with the transition from being freshmen, and enjoy the many good things that come with sophomore year — like closer friendships, leadership opportunities, faculty connections, and more relevant classes.” — Catherine, a current sophomore

Many universities have instituted “Second Year Experience” programs to counter the lack of momentum and connection that can lead to sophomore slump. At large universities, SYE living-learning communities are designed to keep students living on campus and engaged. Ohio State, for example, has documented higher retention and graduation rates among students who live on campus sophomore year (95.7% vs. 91% for all the other students in the entering class).

At other schools, SYE programming includes events that connect students with faculty members — at Duke, students attend “career luncheons” in the faculty dining hall while at Loyola University in Chicago funds are available for students to take professors out. Loyola also sponsors a sophomore retreat and “Halfway to Graduation” celebration and gives out a special “Second Year Finals Kit” at the Student Center.

This is what students who escape sophomore slump do, and do well.

They get involved.

  • “I was a leader of a service group that brought food to low-income and homeless people near my university,” recent graduate Evanne recalled. “Rubbing elbows with other dedicated and engaged students kept me busy and provided a refreshing counterpoint to academics.”
  • “My daughter started to go to church which was something she did growing up but did not do freshman year,” one parent said. “It definitely helped her feel more connected.”
  • “My son sings in two choral groups. He’s saving money for a Glee Club spring break trip to South America.” (Parent of a current sophomore)

They focus on major and career.

  • “My daughter started to get more into the classes for her major and loved her major, so that really helped,” the parent of a recent graduate said.
  • “I’m working as a Physics T.A. — it’s more connected to what I’m learning than my previous campus job.” (Josh, current sophomore)
  • “My daughter is desperate to get off campus so she’s busily researching study abroad and domestic exchange programs.” (Mother of current sophomore)
  • “My son wanted a ‘serious’ summer job in between sophomore and junior year so he was hyper-focused on resume-writing and -building.” (Parent of a recent graduate)
  • “My daughter spent a good portion of second semester researching and applying for internships in New York. Her persistence paid off — she found meaningful summer work in a community education program and she got internship credit.” (Parent of a current junior)
  • “I did an internal transfer and now I’m in the program where I can take the classes I really want. College finally makes sense to me!” (Current sophomore)

Students enjoy deeper friendships, better housing, and expanded social opportunities.

  • “The sophomore housing situation gave both my kids another level of independence and fun with self-selected roommates,” Lucy remembered, “but they weren’t saddled yet with the stress of being renters.”
  • “I’m getting off campus more — to see a concert in L.A., or going up to San Francisco to stay with a friend over fall break.” (Current sophomore)
  • “Last year my son was in a one-room double with a guy he barely spoke to. This year he’s living with a great group of friends. They all have singles but they hang out in the common room and do things together. I can tell he’s happy.” (Parent of current sophomore)

They take care of health and wellness.

  • “I took multiple dance classes, for class credit and for recreation,” a recent grad said. “This kept me in shape and was great stress relief.”
  • “Health problems were casting a cloud earlier this semester. But I recently figured out that I have a ton of allergies and if I take care of that going forward, it should help my outlook.” (Current sophomore)
  • “Sophomore year was when I figured out that I could rent hiking and ski gear very cheaply from the Outdoor Club,” an upperclassman recalled. “I got outside more and that actually helped my grades.”

Parents can support slumping sophomores by listening and encouraging. Students who feel unfocused and indecisive may benefit from some time in the Career Center or an appointment with an academic advisor. Involvement on campus and good health are both spirit-boosters.

When students are grounded in the positive, they can be more resilient if (or when!) they do hit a bump in the road.