Columns, Opinions

Thomas ’21: The second semester slump

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The idea of the “sophomore slump” has significance outside of the college context: An artist’s second album might not be as good as their first, star rookies lose their luster and sequels are often worse than originals. So, it only makes sense that the second semester of the first year in college may be more challenging than the first. But we don’t acknowledge this particular slump, instead implicitly deeming sophomore year the only acceptable time to experience a decline in enthusiasm. This oversight can make the experiences of some freshmen almost invisible, with serious consequences for students’ well-being, graduation rates and higher education at large. A reckoning with this question is long overdue: What happens when the “sophomore slump” actually comes during your second semester?

There are many reasons why the second semester might produce a lull. For starters, a month-long winter break can be jarring for some freshmen still working to find their groove on campus. Most high school winter breaks are two weeks long, which is short enough that most students find it easy to get back in the rhythm of classes. In college, though, the break is much longer. Brown’s winter break is double the time, and rightfully so — the work that goes into a semester warrants more time off. The issue arises when students must return to campus after such a long layoff. While students should enjoy the well-deserved break afforded to us, our semester-long adjustment to life at Brown resets. Right before heading home, we’re operating at full speed and as soon as we get back, we’re thrown right back into the thick of things, expected to pick up where we left off. It’s kind of like when you first arrive to college, minus all of the orientation stuff.

A new semester also means new opportunities — and new challenges to students’ well-being. Using their first semester as a benchmark, second-semester freshmen might push themselves to do more and do better — both in classes and in extracurriculars, social engagements and other activities — than they did their last semester. But, in the race to make the most out of the college experience, other important priorities can fall by the wayside. A recent study in the Psychological Bulletin found, between 1989 and 2016, a 10 percent uptick in self-oriented perfectionism — the need for perfection — and a 33 percent increase in socially prescribed perfectionism — thinking others expect a lot from you — among American, Canadian and British college students. Andrew Hill, a co-author of the study, believes that this pursuit of perfection can potentially harm students’ mental health, noting increases in student depression, anxiety and suicidal thought levels. So, while the goal of making the most of a new semester might initially seem positive, some freshmen might succumb to the pressures of perfectionism and inadvertently develop a fear of imperfection or failure. And, in its worst forms, this fear can drive some freshmen to lose confidence and even drop out of school altogether — after all, only 58 percent of American freshmen return to the school at which they started for a second year. In a convoluted way, attempts to excel in the second semester may have the potential to produce a slump before students even get to sophomore year.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the first and second semesters of college is the latter’s focus on the future. Where last semester it may have been possible to stay in the moment and focus on the present, it’s now impossible to escape talk of the summer and next year. It can feel like the ability to explore and play in the sand has been rolled back a bit — and it has. Conversations with your Meiklejohn shift from, “What classes should I take this semester?” to “How do I become a Meiklejohn?” In addition to the books and papers assigned in classes, you also have to read up on companies and organizations to start crafting cover letters. To be clear, becoming a Meiklejohn and applying for summer opportunities are not the immediate causes of a slump. Rather, it’s the way in which they reorient the typical workload from one centered around classes to one that is concerned with classes, resume-building and career development that can cause a slump. Of course, it’s reasonable to expect changes in workload and focus as you progress through college. But this change occurs sooner than we might think, and not everybody is ready to handle it the first time around, in their second semester.

`Because the “sophomore slump” is the dominant narrative, those who find the second semester to be much more of a challenge than the first might feel isolated in their experiences and think less of themselves for feeling the true weight of college earlier than they’re “allowed” to feel it. But freshman year is a pivotal, make-or-break time for college students. Ignoring their experiences will only make it harder to improve graduation rates, improve higher education and make sure students leave college with a strong sense of purpose. So, what can be done to remedy the “second semester slump?” Brown might consider developing programming for the second semester, similar to orientation. Unit-wide presentations that highlight resources on campus, managing the internship search and planning for sophomore year would not only provide students with useful information entering their second semester, but would also allow them to reorient themselves to Brown before being thrown right back into the mix. The second semester of college is different from the first, but there are ways it can be enjoyable, too.