Advice for the Returning

It is the time of year that the media, newspapers, blogs and higher-ed focused venues put out articles on advice to college freshmen. I was thinking of adding to that collection, but it struck me that there’s an audience that could use some back-to-school advice as well but which seems to be largely ignored: sophomores.

It’s an interesting omission, given that missteps, meandering, or general malaise is so common in the sophomore year that there’s an entire phrase for it: the “sophomore slump”. And yet while a Google News search on “freshman advice” returns a top-ten links filled with tips for students starting college (8 of the 10, with the other two being tips for high school freshmen), the comparable Google News search on “sophomore advice” turns up one article of advice for students starting their second year of college, preceded by an article on avoiding the sophomore slump in one’s music career and followed by seven articles about college football and one article with advice for freshmen in high school.

And the evidence that sophomores need advice is based on more than the cliche of a sophomore slump. In talking to a group of near-graduation seniors last year about their college experiences, the students themselves identified that sophomore year can be a bit of a dead spot. Entering freshmen are greeted by ever-growing orientation programs and, at colleges like mine, entire courses their first semester dedicated to getting them up to speed at being a college student. By your junior year, you’ve progressed to far enough in your major that you’ve likely built a relationship with your advisor and have moved into smaller upper-level courses with increased contact and mentoring, which continues into your senior year. But sophomore year, you’ve moved past the safety nets of freshman year and are still working on finding a stable landing in your major.

So what is a sophomore to do? My first advice is: be aware of this and try to be proactive to counteract it. As a freshman, your advisor may have actively checked in on your progress, reminded you about deadlines, or been required to sign off on changes to your courses. As a sophomore, it’s time to take responsibility for your education on yourself, but a big part of that is recognizing those times that, as a freshman, you’d have been required to talk to an advisor and taking the initiative to request that advice yourself if you need it. Yes, you can now decide for yourself if you should switch your programming course to S/U, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask your advisor if they have any thoughts on the decision. Bonus points if you approach this conversation in the spirit of helping you make a decision about what is right for you given your goals and pressures rather than a request that your advisor make the decision and tell you what to do.

And, as I think about it, the rest of my advice really flows from there – sophomore year is about taking responsibility for your education while learning to take advantage of the mentoring and support around you to be as successful as possible in that venture. Think carefully about who your relationships are with and if they are encouraging you to make the most of your college years. Surround yourself with people who press you to do be your best while also supporting you – whether your friends, your faculty, your coaches, or your collaborators and colleagues. You’re probably getting more freedom to choose your living situation and who to live with; consider this question broadly based not just on who will be fun to live with but who will let you have fun while also being successful.

Finally, now is the time to think ahead and ask yourself: What do I want my senior year to look like? What experiences do I want to be having? You may find that some of the great opportunities you want to pursue take a bit of planning and background effort. I encourage students to look at the college catalog and read the course descriptions of the 300-level courses – there’s a lot of great content there, and if you know as a sophomore that you want to make sure you take Quantum Mechanics before you graduate, you’ll have the time to get the prerequisites worked into your schedule in advance. Do this outside your major as well – if you feel like you aren’t getting a lot out of your general education or elective courses consider if you could be choosing those courses more thoughtfully. This same type of planning applies to goals of doing summer research, interning with a particular company, or studying abroad.

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