According to a 2012 survey conducted by the consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a quarter of college sophomores reported that they are not energized by their classes or do not feel at home on their campus. These results are possibly due to a phenomenon called the sophomore slump — a time when sophomores experience a period of confusion and uncertainty — though “slumping” can occur at any time. Most students at Brown have experienced a time when they have had low levels of academic achievement and felt indecisive about their goals and future. While slumping during any year in college can be overwhelming, people can shift their perspective during unpredictable moments in their lives. Uncertainty gives people autonomy over how they can shape their own lives and provides an opportunity to allow them to grow as individuals when faced with new types of challenges.
Contrary to the popular conception of the start of freshman year as a new beginning, one theory suggests that this “beginning” is actually the ending of the lives and identity that freshmen had prior to college. From there on, the theory suggests, students move into a “neutral zone”, gathering information about themselves and enjoying the random exploration of different opportunities in college. It isn’t until the students evaluate their purposes and priorities that they experience a new beginning with a new sense of self. This is why, compared to their first year, most students in their sophomore year are more focused on gaining new insight into their relationships, future and personal identity.
While it is common for people to feel uncertainty during their second year as a result of this period of personal examination, almost everyone goes through some kind of slump at multiple points in their college career. There are some freshmen who have to deal with imposter syndrome and wonder whether they really belong at Brown. Many people in sophomore year have the impending deadline of declaring their concentration. Some juniors network and fly all over the country during recruiting season in order to get a summer internship that can lead to a full-time offer — and some have no interest in that process at all. And all seniors have to decide what their post-grad plans will be. This is not to mention the other personal matters that affect students regardless of their year: outgrowing and developing friendships and relationships, taking care of their mental health, changes in their financial situations and so on.
Even though slumping in college can be difficult and exhausting while handling a busy schedule, it can give students the opportunity to be more motivated in taking new risks. Ayelet Fishbach, a behavioral science and marketing professor at the University of Chicago, found that people feel more excited and work harder on tasks for which the size of the reward is uncertain. The only catch is that the stakes shouldn’t be too high to make people feel anxious about these uncertainties. While it can be overwhelming to make decisions that do have high stakes like a potential salary or grad school, it’s best for students to shift their perspective to consider the unknown rewards they can possibly reap in this time. This time of uncertainty can open doors to new experiences, meeting new people and learning lessons about themselves and the world. As a result, students will have a better understanding of their purpose and values right now and of how they can incorporate this into their lives in order to feel more fulfilled.
While uncertainty can give a student more independence to define their own path, that does not mean the person has to suffer during this unpredictable time since that may only hinder their mental health more. For some people, mindfulness and meditation, even through an app, may help them embrace ambiguity and stay present in their life. For others, this anxious time could be an opportunity to truly take advantage of the resources here at Brown and make an impact on campus. In a major study known as the Strada-Gallup Alumni survey, 100,000 American college graduates of all ages were questioned about their college experiences to see if there was a connection between what students did on campus and their level of fulfillment today. While they found that attending a highly selective college like Brown does not foretell greater satisfaction, they did find that establishing a great connection with a mentor, taking on a sustained academic project or playing a significant part in a campus organization primarily contributed to their fulfillment. Getting close to a professor or having a mentor in a campus organization can help students have a better sense of their lives and goals. In addition, students can engage in research or write an academic paper within a department that motivates them to discover new information and find topics that spark their interest. Finally, students can engage in leadership positions in campus organizations to contribute to campus and improve the Brown environment for future generations.
Even though these suggestions can help any student while they are in a slump, it’s important to note that the student must be genuinely interested in these types of activities if they choose to do them. A student doing these activities for the sake of avoidance of uncomfortable feelings or with a closed mind may not get the reflection and clarity they want right now. However, students having open minds, accepting the ambiguity of redefining their social engagement on campus, defining their career goals and developing their purpose can help them navigate the frustrating but crucial time in their lives to develop their own individuality.
Chanel Johnson ’20 was slumping last week, but she’s okay now. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.