Surging from Sophomore Slump

by Josh Koenig | 7/24/14 8:48pm

Let’s suppose you’ve never heard of the so-called “sophomore slump,” a drop-off in academic performance that occurs among second-year college students. To get up to speed, you pull out your laptop, open a Google search engine, and hit enter. “Pity the sophomore,” proclaims The New York Times. “The reality of college hits sophomore year,” offers The Denver Post. You keep clicking, and the punch lines keep landing. There is always another page of search results to read.

In the non-virtual world, among New Hampshire’s warmth and greenery, Dartmouth College is known as much for its academic excellence and intensity as it is for its robust social life. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — after all, Dartmouth is a college that rejected nearly 89 percent of the students who applied for admission last year. So if the sophomore slump is a synonym for lagging academic performance, perhaps it’s not surprising that students at Dartmouth don’t want to talk about the sophomore slump. In fact, the first six students I attempted to interview for this story turned us down. When I finally found a student to chat, he was quick to mention that the sophomore slump didn’t apply to him and that it might only be affecting his friends. And instead of isolating any overarching factors, he chalked up lagging motivation to sophomore summer as much as academic fatigue. I kept looking for students with whom to chat, without further results.

Perhaps I had begun our search with the wrong terminology. When I talked to Brown University deputy dean of the college Chris Dennis, asking him about the phenomenon at our Ivy League peer, he suggested that “slump” might not be the correct phrasing.

“I think for most students, slump is not the right word,” Dennis said. “But there is no doubt there is an effect. It’s different than the first year.”

At Brown, Dennis said, a lack of core requirements helps alleviate some of the lagging motivation often associated with the sophomore slump, as students remain “energized” by an ability to explore widely in various academic fields. But, Dennis noted, pressure to choose a major does in some way contribute to sophomore year’s challenges.

“I think they feel that pressure to make the right deal,” Dennis said. “There’s gathering anxiety about making the right choice and knowing that time is dwindling — they’re not going to be able to take all 2,000 courses in our catalogue.”

This pressure to choose a major is often associated with sophomore slump by experts who study the subject, like Stuart Hunter, associate vice-president and executive director of national resource center for the first-year experience and students in transition at the University of South Carolina.

Some of the staying power of the sophomore slump, Hunter noted, comes from its alliterative resonance. But semantics aside, there are numerous reasons the sophomore slump remains part of the national conversation on advising, Hunter said.

“A lot of it has to do with students being betwixt and between,” Hunter said, referencing the gap between the excitement of first-year courses and the academic focus that comes with declaring a major. “Frequently we find sophomores a little disengaged with academics.”

Since major declaration is mandated at Dartmouth by the end of the fifth term of residence — which often occurs during students’ sophomore year — it’s possible that this lack of first-year starry-eyed excitement and the drive that comes with a major might play a role in creating the sophomore slump.

In a conversation with Mark Montgomery ’84, president of Montgomery Education Consulting, I came across another possible explanation for the phenomenon. While recognizing several factors that impacted sophomore slump, Montgomery pointed to an aspect of the slump not as widely discussed — the glamorization of the college experience.

“This is going to sound grandiose, but part of it is the cultural pressure we put on the whole idea of college,” Montgomery said. “By the time sophomore year rolls around, the fact is that the bloom is off the rose.”

College, Montgomery said, is just another place where we continue to grow up. It’s not perfect. But this leaves some feeling like they’ve been cheated, like college hasn’t lived up to everything that’s been advertised. This, in turn, plays into the sophomore slump.

Of course, colleges aren’t turning a blind eye to the motivational struggles faced by sophomores. At Brown, Dennis said, sophomores receive tailored advising focusing on balancing their course load, meeting with sophomores in small groups and special sophomore advising guides.

And at Dartmouth, while the Undergraduate Dean’s Office could not be reached for comment on July 24 to specify the programs offered and the Dean of the College’s office redirected us to the undergraduate deans, sophomores receive continued advising through weekly check-in blitzes, expanded outreach from the Center for Professional Development and the selection of a major advisor.

This seems, at least from a cursory glance, to be the right type of tactic — it’s increasingly important, Hunter said, for colleges to encourage students and faculty to recognize challenges faced by sophomores. Institutions should examine what programs are offered for sophomores and ensure that programs meet their needs. At Dartmouth, the D-Plan may offer students an additional way to combat academic fatigue, Montgomery said.

“If you’re feeling slumpy, you can take time off,” Montgomery said. “You can go do something different and then come back. You don’t have the same kind of semester march that you have at other schools — there are a lot more coming and going.”

But while colleges can act to combat sophomore slump — and while we keep looking for students to chat with — sophomore slump continues outside of the academic world. You can keep clicking through the pages of search results and keep reading for days: Katy Perry has barely avoided the sophomore slump, President Barack Obama has faced it in his foreign policy in the Middle East and hipsters as a cultural movement are feeling its effect. Keep clicking for days. Let your work fall to the wayside.

When we recall that the word “sophomore” itself has been cited as a compound of the Greek words sophos meaning wise and moros meaning foolish, the moral of the story seems to distill into a somewhat disconcerting fact.

As much as we would like to consider ourselves so much cooler than freshmen, we are still a vulnerable contingent, full of inner contradictions and fears. Perhaps we will one day consider the “sophomore surge,” when we ascend to our rightful places as no-longer-slumpy college students.