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When College Is a Four-Year Journey: Sophomore Year

Vicki Nelson

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This is the second in a four-part series about the college journey for students in a traditional bachelor's degree program. Although your student’s experiences and timetable will be unique, the evolution from new freshman to graduating senior often follows a common path. Click here to read Part 1, Freshman Year.

Once your student has survived that first tumultuous year of college, you may assume they will move seamlessly through the next three years. But each year of college marks a different stage in your student’s development.

The word sophomore has its roots in the Greek language and means “wise fool.” It’s an appropriate label for students at this stage. Sophomores have more self-confidence and “college knowledge,” but they still have a long way to go. Like the first year of college, this is also a year of discovery, but this year will be different.

Sophomores are settling into the life of their school. They may be deciding about a major, narrowing their choice of organizations in which to participate, and redefining their social engagement on campus as they move away from friends-of-convenience and find those who share their interests and values.

The first year of college may have been a year of discovery about independence and college life, but the second year is about finding your place in that community and making important decisions.

Sophomore Slump

This can be an awkward year.

Some second-year students experience the dreaded sophomore slump. Sophomores are no longer the center of attention. They become the “middle child” as they transition from the more structured first year to more independence.

This is a year when the idealistic vision about what college would be meets the everyday reality of the work. Students need to think about who they want to be and choose a major.

The end of college still seems a long way off.

Courses are more difficult as students move into more classes with upperclassmen. Many sophomores experienced a lack of motivation because they continue to struggle to decide what they want to study. Some studies have found that sophomores spend the least amount of time studying in college. They may experience a dip in grades for which they are unprepared.

Who Am I?

While the first year of college involved broad exploration about what it means to be a college student, sophomore year is often about a deeper, more personal exploration. Students need to make sense of all the information they gathered during their first year and find their place in this community.

Although many sophomores may not realize it, or be ready for it, the main task this year is identity development.

Students face a big question: “What do I want my life to be?” The task of choosing a major requires more self-reflection than many students expect. They may wrestle with questions about values, sense of purpose and what gives their life meaning.

Your student’s ties with home and hometown friends may decrease as they become more independent and more vested in their new community at school, yet the work of sophomore year can be difficult work, and students may need support and encouragement now more than ever.

Encourage your student to do the deep work involved in self-reflection. Remind them that getting to know who they are now will help them find direction. Talk about their dreams and aspirations and the vision they have for their lives.

Choosing and Moving into a Major

This is a year when students need to connect the reality of the present to their vision of their future.

Much of the deep work that sophomore students are engaged in this year is prompted by the need to declare a major by the end of the year. Some students may also struggle as they discover that the major they thought they wanted isn’t a good fit. What now?

Students feel much like they felt about their choice of college –making a wrong decision will ruin their future.

Choosing a major rarely locks a student into a specific career – and many careers can be approached from various majors. As they delve deeper into a field that interests and excites them, students will learn more about specific careers. Knowing this may help alleviate the stress around this important decision.

The work of sophomore year feels weighty and has consequences. Mistakes begin to feel costly and it’s a good time to begin to map out a plan for how your student will complete their studies over the next years.

Transfer Panic?

Sophomore year is a time when many students consider transferring. While a transfer may be the right thing for some students, it is important that your student think carefully about it.

Students who are considering a transfer because they want to start somewhere with a clean slate or who have chosen a major that their current school doesn’t offer, are taking an appropriate step.

Some students want to transfer because they are disillusioned with their college experience. Their expectations were high, and what they see on social media looks as. though things would be so much better somewhere else – anywhere else.

The difficulty of the self-reflection that students need to do this year may add to their disillusionment. This is hard work. Discomfort may translate into dissatisfaction with the school. Students may not realize that they will take their internal struggles with them.

The decision to transfer is a personal that rarely has a clear right or wrong choice. However, talking to your student about their reasons may help give them perspective and help them understand why many sophomores wrestle with this decision.

What Can Parents Do This Year?

  • Talk to your student about sophomore slump. Understanding it may help your student avoid it.
  • Don’t be alarmed by a possible dip in grades. It is normal this year.
  • Encourage your student to explore their values and sense of purpose.
  • Remind your student that time spent studying is important and often translates into better grades. This seems obvious, but lack of motivation may affect grades.
  • Encourage your student to take courses that will help them explore potential majors and to find those that excite them.
  • Remind your student that a choice of major does not necessarily equal a career choice.
  • Help your student explore their reasons for any feelings of dissatisfaction.
  • Encourage your student to work with an advisor to begin to map a plan for completion – especially if your student is considering study abroad next year.

This year marks the conclusion of the transition into college and into a more stable time of getting the work done. The next two years will be the time for your student to start a new transition in preparation for a career and professional life.

Junior year will bring even more changes.

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Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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