As parents, we worry about our high school senior’s transition to college. We know that this is a big step and we hope that both our student, and we, are prepared.
But even after your student has made those important first transitions to college, there are more changes ahead. Each year of college brings its own phase of development, and the phenomenon of the “sophomore slump” is very real for many students. Parents may be less comfortable with knowing what conversations they should be having with their second year student, but the work isn’t done.
Knowing that the second year of college may be significantly different from the first and being prepared for some changes, or even a potential sophomore slump, will arm your student and may prevent some difficult times. Now that your student has some perspective on college life and studies, this is the ideal time to contemplate next steps. Not all topics are appropriate for everyone, but we’d like to suggest seven possible conversation starters.
- Talk to your student about a major. Sophomore year is often when students are required to formally declare a major if they haven’t already done so. Perhaps your student headed off to college knowing what they wanted to do. Is that major still a good fit? If not, has there been a change? Some students may find that what they thought they wanted is not what they want now, but they have not yet found a new direction. Talk to your student about exploring possibilities. Ask whether their schedule reflects a change of interest. Ask whether they have discussed options with an advisor.
If your student was undecided entering the first year of college, have they now made a decision? Ask the same questions about moving toward that decision. Sophomore year should be the year for settling into a major. Make sure that your student is taking action toward something. This can be a stressful decision for some students, so make sure that your student knows that your support is there no matter what the choice.
- Talk to your student about career aspirations and the future. This can be an exciting topic for your student, or it can be frightening. Looking very far down the road may feel overwhelming, but it is important that students begin to connect what they are doing now to where they ultimately want to be. Ask your student about their dream job and career goals. It may be important to explore how a major and career goals relate. A particular major may lead to many careers, and many majors may lead to a particular career. Your student may not yet know what they want to do, but may know what they like to study. That is fine. Or your student may know what they want to do, but aren’t sure what to study to get there.
Help your student do some dreaming about the future. Where will they be in a few years? How can they find out more during this second year of school? Work with the Career Development office? Talk to professors about possible careers in a chosen major? Shadow or interview professionals? Work toward an internship? Work at a part-time job in the field? Your sophomore student doesn’t need to know the ideal career yet, but should be thinking about how to find out more.
- Help your sophomore student think about connections on campus. Students who are engaged and connected on their campus have a greater chance of being successful students. Now that the initial transition is over, what connections can your student cultivate? Who are the peers who can help your student be successful in supporting goals? Who are the professors and staff members who can be good mentors? What activities and organizations do they enjoy participating in that might lead to potential leadership opportunities?
Help your student think proactively about how, now that they have settled into a new school environment, they will work at building a life and social network that will help them be the person that they want to be for the next three or four years. First year college friends are often friends of “convenience.” They are the students who live nearby or attend the same classes. By sophomore year, your student may begin to connect more closely with the students who share similar interests and values. Your student’s choices about connections may have a significant influence on future experiences and direction.
- Help your sophomore student think carefully about a four (or five) year college plan. First year students are often overwhelmed by the logistics of the college experience. For freshmen, the prospects of managing their new independence, navigating the social world of college, managing their time and settling in, may mean that they don’t necessarily take the “long view.” Now that the largest transition is complete, this is a good time for your student to map out their academic career, at least tentatively. Having a plan is important. How many total credits does your student need to graduate? How many did they earn during freshman year? How many will need to be completed each year? Are they on track? Are there major courses that are required? When will they take each one? Do some courses have pre-requisites that will need to be completed first? Is there time to get those done? Is your student planning to study abroad or do an internship? Is there credit for those experiences?
There are many factors that can influence college schedules and many factors that your student will need to consider and balance. Now that the mystery of college is not quite so overwhelming, it is important that your student understand what will be required and how to progress toward completing those requirements. It is important that your student feel in control of the plan and the progress. While they may need help and consultation with an advisor, professors, and even you, it is important that your sophomore student be in charge of their progress.
- Talk to your sophomore student about potential minors. For some students, settling on a college major is so overwhelming that they haven’t considered a minor. Although a minor is generally not necessary, it is often a good way to balance and expand on a major. This is particularly important for a student who may be having difficulty choosing between two areas for a major.
Help your student think about whether or not to develop a minor. This will be important in mapping out potential courses over the next three years. What minor might add to major studies? What minor might provide an interesting or unique combination of skills? Developing a minor along with the major may strengthen both your student’s understanding of the major field of study and their resume. Beginning early to build a minor will help determine if the subject is helpful and will help when planning course sequencing.
- Talk to your student about how summer or winter breaks fit in with overall plans. Perhaps summer and winter breaks are simply vacations – used for relaxation and travel. This can be fine. Perhaps summer and winter breaks are used for a job which helps your student pay for tuition and expenses. This is the reality for more and more students. But help your student think about how summer fits into the overall plan of college.
Is your student going to need to take any summer classes to make up for credits? Can any of those summer classes be taken at a local college and transferred or must they be at your student’s institution? Are they available online? Is your student planning on any summer internships? When and how must they be approved? Will this mean a loss of earning potential in a summer job? Is there a plan for that? Are there school travel opportunities or special interest opportunities over the summer? Help your student think about how best to use summer and winter breaks as part of the overall picture of the college experience. Once again, taking the longer, more comprehensive view of the total experience of the college years may be helpful.
- Talk to your student about life values. The college years are years during which many students explore and build important value systems. Of course, they begin with many of the values that they have gained from family. But these are often years of new thinking and questioning. Students may shift some values and solidify others.
Talk to your student about how they feel about life, what matters, and how they view the world. Encourage using the college years to think about the kind of person they want to become and how building experiences will lead to exploration of these things. As the turmoil of the first year of college ends, this is an ideal time for college sophomores to think about the decisions that they are making every day and the path they see for their lives – apart from simply classes, career development, and social life.
Encourage your student to continue to ask, “Who am I?” and “How am I creating the person I want to be?” You may be surprised at some of the answers that you hear, and you may be pleased at how rewarding this conversation can be.