Sophomore Slump: Can It Be Remedied?

"When I came back to Harvard this year," a sophomore explained, "I was really full of great resolves. After a fair performance academically my freshman year I vowed that this was going to be the year. All my courses are fairly interesting, but I haven't been able to muster enough energy to do even a modicum of work all year. I ended up doing all the reading for each of my courses last term the night before the exam, and I frankly doubt whether it will be any different this term."

This sophomore is not an anomaly. His statement indicates the type of difficulty which affects a substantial segment of the sophomore class every year. Although the problems of freshmen are far more obvious and have received infinitely greater attention, the sophomore slump is now causing administrators increasing concern.

By themselves the statistics indicate that the sophomore does have an acute problem. Of the last ten classes at Harvard, none had a higher percentage of its members on the Dean's List in the sophomore year than in the junior, and only one of these classes did better academically as sophomores than as freshmen. For example, the Class of 1962 placed 42 per cent of its members on the Dean's List as freshmen; this percentage dropped to 37.1 the following year and soared to 49.1 in their junior year. But graphic as they are, these statistics only provide a superficial indication of the difficulties of the sophomore year.

Freshmen Try to Survive

Although the freshman's problems of adjustment have received more attention than those of the sophomore, they are basically less complicated and more has been done to overcome them. Because virtually all freshmen are in the same boat, a feeling of kinship characteristically arises among them. Furthermore, the vastly improved system of advising in the Yard has mitigated the traumatic effects of the transition from secondary school to college. As Dean Monro observed, "The main problem for many freshmen is to establish the right to be in the academic community - to survive they must only behave and get at least three C's and a D. Their main apprehension is, "Will I succeed or fail?"


By the sophomore year students realize that mere survival is not a problem at Harvard. "The problem of whether they can handle Harvard or not may have been solved," William G. Perry Jr., director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, commented. "If this has been their primary challenge or motivation they may find themselves looking but new ones."

Throughout high school the student was probably under constant pressure to get into a good college; in the freshman year he was preoccupied with surviving at Harvard. But in the sophomore year there is usually no "next step" to serve as a motivation - graduate school, three years away, is still remote. With his two most familiar impetuses removed - error and a concern for the future - the sophomore is frequently struck with an overpowering apathy toward his academic work.

Institutional Problems

In addition to this one psychological came cause of the sophomore slump, there are several important institutional causes; to a large degree, the sophomore slump is built into the nature of Harvard.

One of the major sources of unrest for many sophomores is their entry into a particular field of concentration. Although the choice is advertised in the freshman year as being extremely flexible, the sophomore gradually becomes aware that what he is doing will probably determine his career; this is especially true for the large number of students going to graduate school.

Many types of anxieties can arise from the choice of a field of concentration: for the student torn between two very different academic interests; for the student who has aimed all his life at a particular vocation and begins to recognize a lack of ability in that field; for the student who has no idea what field he wants to enter and resents having been forced to make a decision in May of his freshman year.

Academic Pressure Increases

Academic work presents the sophomore with a greater burden than he had as a freshman. He has a fifth course, tutorial, which may put more pressure on him than any of his other courses. He is often taking upper level courses, frequently for the first time. Those who have already decided to go to graduate school realize that bad grades will hurt them.

Other pressure originates from outside the academic sphere. The sophomore interested in athletics invariably faces intense competition and great pressures in trying to make a varsity team. The fall of the sophomore year is also the time of the final clubs punching season, and this period may be real agony for the student who considers election to one of them to be all-important.

But the sophomore with no significant extracurricular interests may also find his second year at Harvard extremely trying. For such a student, particularly if he has no consuming interest in his studies, the "identity crisis may be the most critical problem of his years at Harvard.