Somewhere between the frenzy of freshman life and the career-minded bustle of upperclassmen, sophomore year can slip through the cracks. Researchers in higher education call this sense of stagnation the "sophomore slump" 一 a period of confusion, stress and discouragement that hits some students as they enter their second year. The novelty of college has worn off but graduation is still two years away, and the rising pressure to settle on a major or career path can make year two a difficult one.
The sophomore slump is often reflected in a GPA dip and lower retention rates, said Theresa Browitz, an Academic and Career Advisor at UO. Emotionally, its symptoms might include increased anxiety, depression or loneliness. “It could also be just not feeling connected in the classroom or feeling really lost about majors and interest areas,” Browitz added.
When freshmen first arrive on campus, a myriad of services usher them into college life; Academic Residential Communities, Residential Assistants, First Year Interest Groups and social events aimed at new students all serve to ease the adjustment. But when students return for year two, these services fall away. “There’s this increased pressure to understand how to do college without them,” Brostowtiz said.
Ivan Lopez, a sophomore studying sociology at UO, agrees that the added independence can be a challenge. “Now it’s kind of like you’re on your own,” he said. “As a sophomore I really don’t have anyone around that’s pushing me to do stuff.”
Brostowitz believes that this drop-off in programming is accompanied by a lack of culturally-assigned meaning. “Our culture and the way that we talk about college is the way people can often experience college,” she explained. Freshman year is labeled as a time of adjustment and exploration, while junior and senior years are often lumped together as the preparatory period in which students dive into their field and get ready for life after graduation. “But what does our culture tell you about what your second year is about?” Brostowitz said. “It’s kind of missing.” This gap leaves sophomores to make their own meaning of the second year 一 deciding where to put their focus and what they want to accomplish.
Rising academic pressure can also fuel the slump. Sophomore Kristyn Lovegren is working through a math-heavy term as she prepares to apply to the Lundquist Business School. “It’s definitely been more time consuming school wise even though I’m taking the same number of classes as last year,” she said.
Lopez noted that “more is at stake” your second year as the focus shifts to classes within your major rather than core education requirements or electives. “Classes are certainly harder than they were before; they’re now more specialized and specific.”
Lopez is excited to pursue his sociology major, but not everyone has found the discipline of their dreams; settling on a major that feels right can be the crux of sophomore year. Like many institutions, UO requires students to declare a major by the end of year two. While they can later change majors, doing so may push back students’ graduation dates and add financial strain.
Pressure from all directions一from parents and peers to the media一can complicate this weighty decision. “There truly are a number of students who really aren’t sure and have very little clarity about what their passions and interests are,” said Brostowitz. But more often than not, she thinks that outside influences are at play. Students may not even realize that gender and racial norms are shaping their perceived options, she said. Implicit and explicit messages teach students which fields are open to their demographic and which might render them the odd one out. “For many students, if they weren’t feeling that pressure from outside sources, it would be easier for them to pick a major,” Brostowitz said.
Collegiates still searching for their academic home on campus are likely to feel adrift. Barbara Tobolowsky, author of Helping Sophomores Succeed, wrote that “students who have not clarified their reasons for attending college or have not selected a major may feel the inertia, confusion, and resulting stress that define the sophomore slump.” In this sense, sophomore year can challenge students to develop a sense of purpose that will carry them through the second half of college.
Sophomores are the “middle children” of higher education, no longer awed by the college scene but still in the midst of difficult course work and academic decisions. Not everyone experiences the slump, but for those who do, Brostowitz recommends taking initiative to form connections on campus. Reaching out to a coach, religious leader, RA or advisor, or joining a club or organization can help students pull themselves out of the sophomore slump. “Even if feels really hard, reach out,” she said. “Just identify one person on campus that you’re going to go talk to about what you’re experiencing.”