At all stages of undergraduate life, Princeton is challenging. Freshmen take on the difficulty of first-year adjustments to campus life, and the rigorous independent work demands of junior and senior year are well documented. But, strangely, the struggles of sophomores often go under the radar. Many Princeton students who are (unsurprisingly) not sophomores say that sophomore year is the “best” year at Princeton, since there are no formal independent-research requirements, the first-year adjustment period is over, and graduation is far enough away to be out of mind.
Nevertheless, sophomore year — especially sophomore spring — is extremely stressful, as the period requires students to make a series of highly important and anxiety-ridden decisions about their academic and social lives for their future as upperclassmen. The stress of sophomore year can (and must) be mitigated by institutional and sociocultural reform.
Sophomore spring is a time of change for Princeton students. To begin with, sophomores have to decide their dining plan for their upperclassmen years, a decision that will — at least to some extent — affect their social lives. In recent years, 77 of sophomores have signed into or bickered an eating club at the beginning of their spring semester. Needless to say, the eating-club process — particularly Bicker — creates an inordinate amount of anxiety, social segregation, and disillusionment among sophomores.
On top of making difficult dining and social choices, during the spring term, sophomores on the A.B. track must declare their concentration during the declaration , which lasts from April 5–24. This decision will, of course, tremendously impact the academic nature of sophomores’ upperclassmen experience. While they are only one element of a Princeton education, concentrations play a significant role in a Princeton student’s course enrollment and independent research during junior and senior year. Despite the unambiguous importance of declaring a concentration, many students fear they will lack the proper departmental guidance to confidently select their concentration when the declaration period materializes.
On top of concentration decisions, by mid-spring semester, peers, advisers, and Princeton’s perfectionistic culture expect sophomores to have an intellectually rigorous and socially meaningful summer experience between their sophomore and junior year. Throughout sophomore year, many Princeton students apply to multiple internship, research, and study-abroad positions in the hope of landing a quality summer experience — an undeniably stressful process that must be completed amid the demands of coursework and extracurricular obligations.
As a sophomore, I have seen how the obligations of this period have taken a toll on myself and on my peers. Many people I have spoken with recently feel like they need more time to make these important long-term decisions and believe that sophomore spring arrived too soon. Something, therefore, must be done to alleviate the inordinate psychological torment that often defines this time of year for sophomores.
First, the decision-making process regarding dining options must be reformed. While I do not think Bicker must be eliminated, I do contend the process should be substantially reformed to relieve, in part, sophomores’ social stress.
On Feb. 21, columnist Liam O’Connor ’20 penned an in which he argued, “Eating clubs should depersonalize the process by making [the process] more like a job interview.” He went on to assert, “Club members don't need to know about a bickeree's secrets, potential dying words, or relationships with parents to judge their personalities. They should instead focus on [bickerees’] goals, interests, classes, and experiences at Princeton.”
I fully concur with O’Connor’s assessment. The Bicker process should be more standardized. Making this change would hopefully lessen the hyper-personalized sting that many sophomores feel when they are rejected from an exclusive eating club. By formalizing Bicker, hosed sophomores will at least feel like their rejection was less about who they were as people and more about how well they met a certain set of arbitrary criteria established by club leaders.
In addition, the Bicker process should be demystified and more transparent. All bickerees — not just the well-connected ones — should have a general sense of what the Bicker process at each club will look like. Club leaders should post the framework of their club’s Bicker process at the start of the Bicker registration period to provide sophomores with sufficient knowledge of the process. Much of the stress of Bicker materializes with speculation before the process even occurs, as sophomores dread what they will be asked to do and say. By knowing the expectations beforehand, sophomores will have a better idea of what the process at each club looks like, and will be equipped to make their Bicker decisions accordingly.
Further, departments of the University should more consistently and personably reach out to sophomores who are considering a concentration in their department. Departments have access to the identities of prospective concentrators — departments gain this access through students’ selection of prospective concentrations on the Academic Planning Form.
Although some departments do actively reach out to their prospective concentrators, other departments do not utilize this information as effectively as they could. All A.B. departments should be required by the University to reach out to their prospective concentrators and host more departmentally-relevant academic and social events throughout the spring term. Open houses are wonderful, but departments should do more to connect with prospective concentrators throughout the spring semester on a more personal level. Consequently, departments should consistently organize events such as study breaks, department-specific advising fairs, off-campus field trips, and department-based discussion groups for prospective concentrators.
Doing so would significantly mitigate the stress many sophomores experience regarding concentration declaration. By providing A.B. sophomores with consistent, personable opportunities to intellectually and socially orient themselves to a few departments throughout the spring term, A.B. sophomores will feel more informed and confident about their concentration declaration come April.
Finally, the University should more effectively and consistently advertise summer opportunities and their deadlines. Many sophomores are somewhat unfamiliar with the internship application process, and would tremendously benefit from more institutional guidance. Academic advisors, Directors of Studies, Directors of Student Life, Resident College Advisors, Career Service Advisors, and Peer Academic Advisors should reach out more to the sophomores they advise and describe the summer-opportunity process. Likewise, these advisors should proactively organize meetings with sophomores to further guide them through the summer-experience application process. Perhaps there could be an advising period — facilitated by these personnel — at the start of the fall and spring semester for sophomores regarding summer opportunities.
Sophomore spring can be terribly stressful. Although we often inaccurately regard sophomore year as a period of comparative bliss, sophomore year — especially sophomore spring — asks Princetonians to make a series of highly consequential and psychologically torturous decisions. Nonetheless, a multitude of campus institutions must work together to alleviate the stress of sophomores. If such reform materializes, sophomore year can be reoriented as a time of excitement and optimism, rather than a time of frustration and anxiety.
Samuel Aftel is a sophomore from East Northport, N.Y. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.