The Sophomore Slump

Stressed Students Should Take Time Off

It circles over the heads of the Class of '97 like a vulture awaiting new victims. One by one, sophomores find their peers falling prey to this mysterious malaise.

As a friend and I walk through the Yard, we met one of his classmates from last year's Expos section.

"How's it going?" my friend asks innocently.

"Well...I've been better," the other responds. "Classes are OK, extra-curriculars are OK, my social life is OK...Pretty much everything is OK. Somehow that doesn't seem like enough."

"I see," my friend responds with a frown, realizing that the affliction has claimed yet another victim. "A little bit of sophomore slump, I guess." We all shrug and walk away.


While the symptons of "sophomore slump" are quite disparate, many of my classmates complain of a sense of despondency that they did not feel during their first year. Some, like the person I passed in the Yard, are not inspired by any facet of their lives. Though nothing upsets them particularly, they feel a let-down from their first year, in which everything was exciting and fresh. As sophomores, they have acquired a "Been there, done that" cynicism that makes them doubt that any truly new experiences await them. Others, however, take a far more negative attitude than this general ennui. They may even feel that much of their life was just plain bad, and they begin wondering why they are living their lives in this way when it makes them so unhappy.

Some of the people suffering from this "slump" find it difficult to concentrate on academics and are concerned about their performance slipping. Meanwhile, there are those who find studying the only way for them to avoid negative thoughts. At the same time, the idea of studying as a retreat from reality often scares them.

"When people first leave home, they feel more attached to their home base," explains Dr. Randolph Catlin, Chief of Mental Health for U.H.S. "Often when they get to their sophomore year, they feel pretty much on their own. This is the time when they start thinking. "What am I going to study? What kind of work am I going to do? What do I want from my relationships, or friends? What are my priorities?"

According to Dr. Catlin, sophomore year is a time when many students begin defining their identity independent of their attachments to home. Freed from the structure of parents and teachers' authority, many second-year students feel the pressure of determining for themselves what their priorities should be.

"Some people see it as an opportunity," he says. "Other people see it as scary."

This rash of new identity-determining decisions quite often leaves sophomores paralyzed by uncertainty. One of the areas that seems to suffer quite frequently is motivation, especially concerning academics.

"Many [sophomores] feel like there isn't anything they can allow to really matter, because to really matter means you have made a choice, you have chosen a priority...As a result, it becomes harder to study, harder to study, harder to concentrate, because you don't feel adequate to do it, and you don't know if it is worth doing...People feel stuck because of the unresolved conflict."

This "apathy," as Dr. Catlin describes it, is new to most Harvard students, and is therefore something that many find most disturbing. Clearly, being in the intense Harvard atmosphere does not facilitate a quick recovery. As Dr. Catlin says, "The transition from being well-valued in your home or school to the Harvard community where you don't stand out can be very difficult."

Dr. Catlin's account also explains why some of my friends, and doubtless some of those reading this, are oblivious to the existence of this malaise. Some of these are the famed, super-motivated Harvard students who found their identity during Freshman Week, and don't Most, however, have just managed to find a comfortable niche that satisfies their self-image. Clearly this is the best situation.

Unfortunately, not all of us are so lucky. Some of us can't find a response to our friends and family members who insist on telling us we have great lives and no reason for unhappiness. For those who still struggle with this crisis of self-definition, whether consciously or not, Dr. Catlin suggests a course of action that most Harvard students would shudder to consider--a year off. Time off allows a student to be "taken away from the pressure cooker...while still giving you a chance to be on your own."

At Harvard, independence is often accompanied by the relentless pressure of college life. Time off removes the stress of the academic year, and can develop this newfound independence. Dr. Catlin tells a story about one student who decided to take a year off, and took a job as a bartender in London. In this role, he had responsibility, but without the pressures of making seemingly irreversibly decisions about priorities. In his time abroad he came to see himself more positively and to have a more accurate understanding of his own identity.

It is true that such a recourse would put us a whole year behind in our quest to save the world or rule he world (depending on the particular Harvard student) but in the end, it might very well be worthwhile. As a sophomore suffering through a slump of my own, I think maybe I'll defer my degree in Applied Math for a year or so, and pursue more relaxed studies. Maybe the Tokyo Dome has an opening for an usher. At the very least they have bass-ball.

Recommended Articles