saved from the slump

escaping the fated sophomore slump

The alarm sounded from the other end of the room. I burrowed deeper into the blankets, hoping to mute the noise. The discordant ringing grew louder. I tried to bend the pillow to cover my ears, but the sound still found its way through.

After a minute of resisting, I gave in. Abandoning my dream—in which I was sitting atop a mountain of chocolate chip cookies — I threw aside the blanket, walked to my desk, and shut off the alarm. Yawning, I checked my email. Three unread messages. I tapped on the first and started reading: “Dear Tushar: Thank you for your interest in our software engineering internship. We regret to inform you …” I grimaced and swiped the message away. It was the fifth rejection email of the week. Picking up my towel and thinking dark thoughts, I headed for the shower.

As the water poured down my head, unwanted worries continued to bombard me. I felt underprepared for an upcoming midterm, my CS project was due in the morning, I had yet to start the problem set for my insipid math class, and all my friends suddenly seemed busy. Emerging from the shower, I was struck by an overwhelming urge to return to bed, crawl under the covers, rest my head on the pillow, and not move until the snow had gone

* * *

The “sophomore slump” is perhaps the best known colloquialism when it comes to discussing our brief college span. It is an umbrella term meant to capture a wide range of negative feelings and a general sense of weariness. However, given the broad nature of the phrase, it is important to narrow the scope of its usage, and for the purposes of this article, we’ll define the slump as a feeling of apathy or underperformance in academic and other spheres of life, relative to a student’s first year at college. The slump, however, is not synonymous with the more serious topics of depression or mental illness, and we will restrict our discussion to the above definition.

The next question is whether the slump actually exists. Hesitant to rely merely on my own experience, I conducted a short survey among my fellow 2017 students, presenting them with the same definition as a guideline and asking them whether they had felt the fateful sophomore slump. While the number of respondents was not large enough to draw any broad conclusions, and selection bias was, of course, a concern, the survey results seem to be enough to anecdotally confirm that the slump phenomenon does indeed exist. Ninety percent of the survey’s takers stated that they had experienced the sophomore slump, while approximately 80 percent claimed they knew of a friend who was slumping.

With the freshly-uncorked effervescence that comes from realizing you’re not alone, I set out to sleuth for the causes of this malady. First, I sent all the original respondents a more detailed follow-up survey. Next, I arranged for a few in-person interviews. While I expected every student’s story to be unique, I also hoped to identify broad patterns that could reveal a path out of the slump.

My first interview was with Orlando Rodriguez ‘17 and Ally Nguyen ‘17, organizers of the Class Board’s Sophomore Slump events. Orlando and Ally were slumping in the Fall semester, but achieved a complete volte-face in the spring. In fact, when I met them they were positively exuberant and brimming with energy.

After a brief discussion about the weather (it was raining) and the state of our classes (somewhat perilous), our conversation meandered to the causes of the slump.

“I think Brown loses a lot of its enchantment [in sophomore year],” Orlando said.

“Yeah,” Ally agreed, “Freshmen year you’re excited about everything, but sophomore year is this awkward phase. You’re not old enough to have all these experiences that juniors and seniors have access too … like getting internships, or non-requirement classes that are actually interesting. And everything becomes kind of blasé.  Where can I fit in now? What can keep me excited now?”

“And the fact that you have to declare at the end of the year is a looming pressure,” Orlando added.

I nodded; these sentiments had been echoed in the follow-up survey responses that were slowly trickling in. Several respondents had noted that their courses were dreary and uninteresting, often concentration requirements. Dissatisfaction with one’s social circle was also a recurring theme: “There was a diffusion of [my] original group of friends. [They had] new responsibilities or commitments,” one respondent wrote. The murkiness of the future was an equally common concern and cause. Another respondent replied: “It started when I tried to find a job for the summer. It also started when I had to choose a concentration.” Moreover, the winter weather and being cooped up indoors scarcely helped anyone’s mood.

It is important to emphasize that these causes often work in tandem, conjuring a makeshift prison that is absolutely stifling. As one survey noted: “[The slump is] the want to explore many new classes but the leash that your concentration ties around your neck. It’s the want to socialize but the need to finish a project by Friday midnight.”

Ally seemed to agree. “You’re locked in terms of both classes and your social circle … people are less willing to make friends.”

The sense of dwindling possibilities, then, is perhaps the root cause of this malaise. In German there is a word for these premonitions (the Germans have a word for everything)—torschlusspanik, or the fear of closing doors. And in your second year, with the deadline to declare rushing up, with the freshmen heyday of unabashed hellos to strangers receding in the past, and with half of your time at Brown nearly exhausted, the doors are shutting faster than ever.

* * *

As I climbed the last of the four flights of stairs, trying hard not to berate myself for yesterday’s botched midterm, I noticed my roommate’s bright blue T-shirt hanging from the door knob. (He had earlier, in keeping with the custom, used his sock as signage. But the odor was so pungent, the appearance so grimy that I had been forced to advocate a different signal. The shirt was far too obvious for my liking but what the heck, anything was better than that malodorous footwear.) I swore. Resting against the wall, I weighed my options. It was too late and too cold to go to the Rock. The prospect of sitting in the dank Caswell basement didn’t appeal to me either. Drawing upon my last reserves of strength, I knocked twice.

“Give us a moment.” My roommate’s voice emerged from the door, muffled.

I sat down to wait in the hallway.

After 10 minutes, the lock turned and the door swung open. I walked in, gave a small wave to the entangled couple, dropped my backpack to the floor, and collapsed on my bed.

Trying hard to ignore the hushed whispering and to forget the midterm, I stared at the ceiling. Just then, my phone buzzed; I had gotten a few replies to the messages I had sent out earlier. I went through the texts. All of them seemed genuine, but apparently no one had time to meet over the weekend. Some cited papers, others prior social commitments, but the end result was another uneventful weekend for me. I, however, had one last person to ask, my erstwhile partner-in-crime.

I turned to my roommate. “Hey, do you want to hang out this weekend? We could go for a play in the Downspace.”

He surfaced from under the sheets like a seal breaking the surface of water, “Sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.”

I repeated the invitation.

“No, I’m afraid not. Me and her already have plans.”

“Oh, OK. No worries,” I said, tossing my phone aside. When I lay back, I noticed the cracks in the ceiling, and as I shut my eyes I hoped to God that it wasn’t a metaphor.

* * *

Often the causes and effects of the sophomore slump are closely intertwined. For instance, dreary classes lead to students slacking off, which in turn leads to poor grades, further eroding a student’s interest in the class. Similarly, the weakening of old friendships can cause students to retreat into their shells. One survey-taker mentioned that their slump had “led to a lot of nights spent in, instead of going out.” Naturally, this only further deteriorates one’s social situation, as it’s hard to meet new people. “These kind of feelings feed on each other,” Dean of the College Maud Mandel affirmed.

Having examined the complex nature of this malady, we now come to the most important question of all: How can one fight the sophomore slump?

By sifting through the survey and interview responses, aggregating advice from former slumpers and re-examining my own experience, I have devised a blueprint that will (hopefully) help students reverse the curse.

One of the root causes of the slump is a paucity of time: to think, reflect, socialize, and relax. Therefore, the very first step of my stratagem asks you to quit something. Maybe this means leaving the multiple clubs you joined for now-murky reasons or the extremely hard class you are taking for “pragmatic” reasons. Whatever it is, be ruthless. Remove the big, unnecessary time-sinks from your schedule. “Do what you want, do what you feel, and if you’re not feeling what you’re doing, change it,” Orlando said, encapsulating his own lessons from the year. (He intends to pare down his extracurriculars even more next semester.) Seriously, if you aren’t deeply interested in a club, class, or even a concentration, then quit it. Extrinsic motivation can only do so much; you need intrinsic motivation to fuel long days and nights. If, even after quitting your most time-consuming commitments, your schedule is packed, embark on a mission to drastically improve your study techniques (start with understanding the single biggest culprit of time shortage—pseudo-work).

With your newfound free time, plan exactly two structured activities. (You know you did the previous step wrong if you don’t have a decent chunk of extra time. If you’re reluctant to give up some clubs which you feel committed to, consider taking a brief hiatus and trying the less-busy-but-more involved lifestyle as an experiment.) One of these should be journaling. This might seem clichéd, even awfully reminiscent of an inferior class of literature. However, it is the single most effective method to clarify one’s thoughts. This is not trivial, and it deserves emphasis. Several of the former-slumpers commented on the importance of describing their emotions. “Never invalidate your feelings,” Ally warned, who herself is a big fan of keeping a diary. Journaling can often make you aware of the nature of your slump, and it can even help you start to ruminate on the bigger questions of happiness and what you want your future to look like.

For the second activity, follow Dean Mandel’s refreshingly simple suggestion: “Do something you’re good at,” and find a related course or club to join. Now this might seem like contrarian advice — I was harrying you to quit things just a few paragraphs before — but if you truly pick something you enjoy, then this activity won’t be a chore, and it will help you de-stress. In addition, this strategy will help you expand your social group. Dean Mandel noted that people often feel more trapped than they are, and that college is the easiest time to change one’s social circle: “Don’t set out to make a friend, that’s a big step. Instead say I’m going to try something new. That’s a small step and with all the social outlets on campus it is easy to do.”

And what should you do with the remaining time? Revel in it. Spend time with your friends, go to impromptu events, dwell in your coursework, read interesting books outside of class. Your happiness will skyrocket. Trust me.

To return to the metaphor of the closing doors, the combination of time for interesting events and growing skills in one particular endeavour will introduce you to more people and unlock all sorts of new possibilities. In other words, open the very doors you feared were closing.

* * *

I stuck the sheet of paper to my desk, the Scotch tape making a pleasant crinkling sound.

“What are you doing?” my roommate asked, looking up from his phone.

“I’m setting myself a writing schedule. I’ve decided to write everyday.”

“Do you have the time?” he asked.

“I quit ______ (an inconsequential extracurricular), and S/NCed that math class I was telling you about. So yeah.”

“Oh, cool.”

My phone vibrated, and I saw it was a text from one of my friends from Fiction II — with my newfound time, I could hang out after class and had begun talking to some of the other students. Another notification. This time it was an email, from the editors at Post-, saying they had liked my writing samples and asking whether I would consider writing an article for the magazine. (The article, appropriately enough, is this very one.)

As I sat down to write my journal for the day, I reflected on how quickly things were changing. (An important point of clarification: never start your daily logs with “dear diary;” it simply isn’t done.) With my past diary entries, I had noticed a lot of monotonous patterns (routine can often cause the slump. The plan outlined in the article aims to break the rut) and had taken simple steps to rail against them. It seemed to be working.

I stared out of my window, which overlooks Lincoln Field. I could make out small muted green patches dotting the not-so-pristine snow. I smiled, and—as Brown alum Sarah Kay said in her song, “Providence”—I thought spring could be here any day.

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