Freshman Year Is Done and Over

What now? What's next?

Posted May 03, 2016

Around the country, the majority of freshmen students are ending their first year in college. Some are taking their final exams, others have finished these end-of-term tests, and still others will do so in the coming weeks. Last fall’s freshmen are (mostly) soon to be sophomores. Now what? In spite of the freedom (and free time) that summer offers, I suggest that the sophomore class should take stock of their academic year and to plan for the next one, thereby avoiding what is often referred to as the sophomore slump.

Time to assess what went well and what didn’t. How would you rate the first year of college? Was it a success, meaning that your chosen college is a good fit, your grades were good (i.e., what you had hoped to earn), and you did well socially (i.e., making some new friends, perhaps a romance or two)? Or did it go less well, so that the reality you experienced did not meet your hopes? A third possibility—your first year was not bad but not great, either—lies somewhere between those two experiences. Regardless of how your first year went, you should assess the outcome by asking yourself what you can do come fall to maintain your successes, reverse your problems, or jump start things a bit.

After some reflection, many soon to be sophomores identify the simple truths that they did not manage their time very well. There may have been too many late nights, too little study time, some procrastination on papers and projects, and a general lack of prioritizing what work demands more attention versus that which requires less (tips on time management can be found here). If you signed up for athletic activities (varsity or inter-mural sports) or social obligations (fraternity or sorority life, clubs and other campus organizations), you may have had even less time. Many students, too, hold down a part time job during college, which can pose challenges for fitting all desired activities in.

For some readers, a sobering assessment may result: Studying and allocated time for study paled in comparison to the time reserved for all other pursuits, including serious “time sucks” like streaming video, following social media, and good old fashioned hanging out with friends. The solution is obvious, that more time during the sophomore year needs to be dedicated to college study. The good news is that each semester and year during college allows for reinvention—that’s right; you can begin again with a clean slate (except for the pesky grade point average) and create a better outcome.

Begin planning goals for your second year of college now. You have probably already registered for classes in the fall. Have you selected the right ones? Will the courses fulfill general education or major requirements? Are you taking a course that will allow you to explore something you don’t know about (e.g., astronomy, philosophy, gender studies), thereby broadening your intellectual horizons? Did you sign up for any courses that in retrospect probably aren’t in your best interest now that you’ve surveyed your first year performance (e.g., a D grade in introductory economics doesn’t bode well for a major in finance)? Take stock and consider making necessary changes now or immediately when you return to campus come fall.

Have you decided on an academic major? You may not have yet—which is perfectly fine—but you should begin to consolidate your search for a major by the end of your sophomore year. The reasons for doing so include making certain you can finish your chosen major by the end of your senior year—that’s the easy reason. But other reasons include gaining summer work experience (if possible) that aligns with your major or is somehow related to it, as well as planning some enriching experiences for your last two years in college. Such experiences include internships, study abroad, an independent study with a faculty member, research experience in a faculty member’s lab (ideal for psychology students as well as those planning to major in STEM disciplines), or even an honors project for those students who meet their institution’s requirements for what is usually a year long project during their final two terms in college. Any and all of these enriching experiences are not only rigorous opportunities to really learn and acquire skills linked to your major—they also represent growth opportunities that may propel you toward post-graduate study or make you more attractive to prospective employers.

So, after doing the post-mortem on your first year in college—begin planning for what you will do during your sophomore, junior, and senior years. Hesitating to do so will close off some opportunities, whereas planning ahead and seeking relevant information during the summer (when you presumably have some time) will enable you to keep many options open.

What else should happen this summer? Well, you should take a break and relax a little so that when you return to campus in August or September you are recharged and armed with goals for your future. But—and there is usually a “but”—don’t let your skills slip over the summer. I am not suggesting taking summer classes (though many students do so to work ahead), however, I am suggesting that you read. Now, at this point I am not suggesting you take down War and Peace off the shelf, but if you are not an avid reader, you might try some graphic novels. The members of the History Department at my college just posted this list of suggestions for summer reading—it’s a good place to begin.

Enjoy summer—but use it to plan for your future.