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No Slumping, Sophomores: 11 Ways to Get Ahead in Your 2nd Year

Nov. 7, 2014
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The life of a sophomore on a college campus is much like being the middle child in a large family—you’re no longer the youngest who receives all the attention, yet you still need the care and support your younger and older siblings receive.

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More often than not, sophomore students return to campus feeling unequipped to take on a new year. The results of a 2013 report by higher education consultancy Noel-Levitz reinforce the idea of the “sophomore slump,” finding that 25% of second-years aren’t energized about the classes they’re taking.

Luckily, the last few years have seen a rise in the number of dedicated on-campus resources for sophomores. But unlike the freshman-year experience where handholding is normal, advisors of sophomore initiatives prefer to take a backseat approach by providing support that empowers students to make their own choices responsibly.

To stave off the “sophomore slump” and ensure a successful year, the experts advise checking these 11 things off of your to-do list. 

1. Be in the driver’s seat.

Your first year in college is largely a transition into adulthood—you’ve probably moved away from home but aren’t quite ready to make crucial life decisions such as choosing a career path. But sophomore year is the time to “step up into your responsibilities,” says Scott Wojciechowski, the assistant director of residential and first-year programs at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. You’ve had a year to experience college and see what resources are available. Now’s the time to start making decisions based on what you’ve learned.

Wojciechowski says this process is much like ordering food from a menu. While you’re offered a buffet of options your first year, sophomore year is about deciding which of those items you’d want to see on a menu. Spend the year refining your interests so that you’re able to choose a direction—or “order” from the menu—by the start of your junior year.

2. Explore your passions.

Invest in classes that excite you. Allow yourself to take something out of interest, not only because it fulfills a requirement,” says Adrienne Sewell, the director of advising for retention and sophomore initiatives at Indiana University. “This is the one time in your life that you have the opportunity to take the courses offered at your college or university, so explore.”

3. Get involved in undergraduate research.

A great way to boost your resume and get to know your professors is to seek research opportunities. Ask a few of your favorite professors if they have any research projects you can assist with. “Numerous studies show that students who interact frequently with faculty tend to get the most out of their college experience,” says Catherine L. Bradford, the director of learning communities and graduation coach at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “Ask around for opportunities to serve as an undergraduate researcher in your discipline. Who knows, you may end up publishing or presenting your work at a national conference with your faculty mentor.”

4. Consider opportunities to study abroad.

“College is a great time to broaden your horizons – literally!” Bradford says. “Without exception students tell me that their international educational trips were eye-opening and life-changing experiences.”

Studying abroad is an “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. As Bradford says, “most schools offer education abroad programs where students can travel while earning college credit, often at a fraction of the cost that a similar trip would cost after graduation.” Seriously consider your school’s study abroad programs early on so that you can plan to depart sometime in your junior year.

5. Develop a rapport with a faculty mentor.

Don’t wait until your senior year to get to know your professors, says Shannon Howes, the director of leadership development and second-year experience at Loyola University Chicago. Professors are the gatekeepers of knowledge in their respective fields and can lend you the advice you may need to decide on a major or explore career paths. Take advantage of their office hours and get to know them outside of class—you’ll be able to build a stronger relationship with them and distinguish yourself from other students in the process

This step is crucial to creating a successful college experience. Some schools even facilitate conversations with professors on a student’s behalf. At Loyola University Chicago, Howes says her department hosts an “out to lunch” program, where students are given gift cards to treat the professor of their choice to meal off campus. While still a fairly new program, she says it’s been successful in promoting healthy mentor-mentee relationships between faculty and students.

6. Take on leadership roles in a club or organization.

Do more than just join a club your sophomore year. Step out of your comfort zone and be a leader in an organization that interests you, says Jon Duraj, associate dean of students for student success and retention at Wittenberg University in Ohio. “Put yourself in a position of responsibility,” Duraj says. You’ll learn more about what you like and what you dislike during your extracurricular involvement while sharpening your leadership skills.

At Wittenberg, Duraj says sophomores who actively partake in community service organizations are more likely to stay involved throughout their third and fourth years. A business student who volunteers to build homes, for instance, might later step into an internship in the business planning portion of the organization. 

7. Conduct informational interviews.

Seek out advice from professionals in your desired field who can share their experiences with you, says Renee Starek, director of the career and professional development center at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania. Your career center can help you set up these informational interviews. For example, Starek says, “we bring representatives from a variety of businesses to campus so students can learn more about their companies, conduct mock interviews and have their resumes reviewed.”

“Make a list of five to seven questions that you would want to ask [professionals] about their academic careers, finding job satisfaction and success, finding their passion, [and] finding happiness,” says Lawrence Mike O’Neal, the director of second year programs at Miami University in Ohio. “Interview your parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents using these questions. Ask your professors these questions. Ask your neighbors these questions.” After each interview, O’Neal says, “reflect on what [you’ve] heard and decide if you are on the right path to finding your own happiness.”

8. Search for summer internships.

Set yourself up for success after college by gaining relevant work experience when you can. Take advantage of your summers when you’ll have a break from classes and can focus on building skills for the real world and “learn by doing,” says Ellen Whitt, executive director of The Exchange at Marian University – Indianapolis. Summer internships are a great “opportunity to network professionally and to secure references for future opportunities,” she says.

9. Set up mock internship interviews.

These will help prepare you for the real deal when you’re applying for summer internships. “A mock interview experience allows a student to think ahead about difficult questions that might be posed and to formulate solid responses,” Whitt says. “It also provides a chance to work on face-to-face communication skills like eye contact, posture, and other body language that can be important in conveying a good first impression.”

You can conduct mock interviews with friends or family but also make sure you work with your school’s career center. Most offer an abundance of interview advice.

10. Declare your major.

Most universities require students to start taking courses in their majors junior year. Your experiences throughout the year will ideally lead you to choose a major you’re passionate about. The end of the year is a “great time to clarify your major and career aspirations,” says Jimmie Gahagan, director for student engagement at the University of South Carolina.

Major in a field that you’ll enjoy studying and combines your academic and extracurricular interests, says Timand Bates, the assistant dean of student affairs in charge of the sophomore year experience program at Bard College in New York. More importantly, he says, find ways the two interconnect in a practical sense. You’ll be better prepared to declare a major that’s right for you.

11. Celebrate your successes.

For students planning to graduate in four years, the end of sophomore year marks the halfway point to graduation. Relax and celebrate your accomplishments, says Gahagan, while reflecting on your journey so far.

Know that your college and advisors are cheering for you, too. Gahagan says that the University of South Carolina even hosts an end of the year celebration for exiting sophomores, gifting them with graduation tassels as motivation to keep aiming for the commencement finish line.

Sophomore to-do list image via Shutterstock.