Jason Rowland: Combating the sophomore slump

Tuesday, December 6, 2016 - 3:48pm

Believe it or not, we columnists have a topic we’re supposed to explore over the course of the semester. Perhaps harder to believe, my topic is not race relations on campus or the presidential election, but “the first-year experience.” So maybe it’s fitting that after a semester of not writing about my assigned topic, my final column of the semester is also not about the first-year experience, but about combating the dreaded sophomore slump.

The mechanisms behind this slump are simple: During freshman year, everything is new and everyone is focused on ensuring an easy transition into college life. However, at the end of the year, everything that was once exciting becomes normal and routine. This phenomenon is actually pretty common. It happened to me when I received my first phone, my first laptop and, apparently, enrolled in college. Living in a new dorm with new friends became living in a germ-infested dungeon, a fun game against an in-state rival became a soul-crushing loss that will never be forgotten and the beauty of snow in the Law Quad became just something that interrupted my walk to class.

All of this seems to be compounded by the fact that during sophomore year, classes get tougher while extracurricular demands begin to pile up. “What are you majoring in?” replaces “How do you like school?” and everyone wants to know where you’re interning over the summer. As if that wasn’t enough, the school treats us sophomores like an elderly dog — once young and adored but now old and unloved — compared to the treatment we received upon entering campus.

To be fair, this is far from being just a University of Michigan phenomenon. Every publication from The New York Times to USA Today has written about the slump at colleges across the country. Yet nothing seems to be getting done to avoid it. While joining new clubs or making new friends seem like easy solutions, most students’ top priorities lie in the more challenging and demanding classroom. As a result, time that was spent during freshman year exploring interests or talking to new people is now spent doing section readings or studying for exams.

At its root, the sophomore slump is the disappointment felt by a student who can’t quite capture the same excitement they felt during their first year. Based on my experience, the cure for this, then, is not necessarily joining new organizations (though, as long as you’re not overbooked, that certainly doesn’t hurt). The best way to combat the sophomore slump is simply to adjust your expectations and then balance accordingly.

First, it’s important to know that almost nothing we do will recapture all of the excitement of freshman year. However, colleges should do a better job at conveying that each year is supposed to be very different from the last. To survive in the 21st century, it’s essential that we can adapt to constant change. The same holds true for making it through our college careers. If sophomore year was just like freshman year, it’d be a sign that progress through the “college experience” is not occurring. This is because sophomores are held to a higher academic standard and have higher expectations to meet than their freshman counterparts. By now, after a year of experience of classes at the university level, we’re expected to understand how school works. By this point, we’re working toward our majors and taking fewer distribution classes. By sophomore year, our shift in mindset from being here to enjoy ourselves to being here to work toward a better future should be well underway. Furthermore, it’s important to realize that this shift isn't bad — despite what films and TV shows, replete with partying and little actual studying, have to say about the college experience.

With these new expectations, a delicate balance must be made so personal growth is still possible. During freshman year, filled with less-intensive introductory courses and, as a result, more free time, it’s possible to dedicate almost all of your time outside the classroom to exploring new interests and people. In later years, however, course work begins to eat up more and more of your waking hours. Achieving a balance, where class assignments reign as the top priority but you’re still finding time for extracurricular pursuits, should be the goal for sophomore students — not a futile pursuit of excitement from years before.

As for finding this perfect balance, I’m still struggling. If I spend too much time in the library, I stop enjoying my time in college; too much time hanging out with friends leads to stress around due dates over the course of the semester and during exam week. However, just knowing that this uncertainty is acceptable, even if it leads to feelings I didn’t experience during my freshman year, is my way to keep the sophomore slump at bay. So, first-year students, live it up while you still can. And to sophomores and up: Know that the freshman experience won’t last forever, but keep in mind that it’s not supposed to, and you’ll be more than OK.

Jason Rowland can be reached at jerow@umich.edu