Spend a decade-plus in church youth ministry and you’ll have innumerable meetings with irate parents. It may be that a teen was reprimanded on the youth retreat and the parents felt their child was treated unfairly. Or it could be that a parent is livid, wanting an explanation for how the youth minister could be so irresponsible and not realize teens were playing dodgeball on the roof of the sanctuary. (Yes, this really happened.)
I remember one meeting in my study with parents and their college-aged son who attended our church. The beleaguered dad was red-faced with anger over the costs of time and money as their son changed majors three times. The family meeting got tense as the son, who had never expressed much interest in music, announced he was now pursuing a degree in Orchestral Percussion. “What kind of job are you going to get with that,” his parents wanted to know.
Having now spent more than a decade in both administration and teaching, it has been my joy to help students succeed in college. I have watched not-especially-gifted students do well in college, and have witnessed extremely gifted students fall by the wayside. Success during the college years is, in many ways, less about raw talent and more about choices and character. In my book Stand Strong In College, I write about the intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual dynamics of university life. It has been fascinating and eye opening to interview hundreds of students over the years and learn about their experiences. Here are five traits I am convinced students must cultivate within themselves to thrive in college:
This cannot be emphasized enough: In both college and in life, you must supervise yourself. There comes a time when you have to take ownership of certain things in life. Be responsible to get up on time; arrive punctually for commitments; meet deadlines; keep a “To Do” list; write yourself Post-its; put alarms on your phone. Whatever it takes, earn the reputation as a person who gets things done.
It has been said that good leaders don’t make good decisions; good leaders make hard decisions. College students, see yourselves as leaders (at the very least lead in terms of your own personal development and future). Carefully and prayerfully make decisions about class load, desired major, time management, relationships, extracurricular activities, and more. Life is about knowing where to invest and what to jettison. College is a training ground to hone this ability.
A wise professor once told me, “Show me who your friends are and I will tell you who you’ll be in 10 years.”
So many promising young futures have been lost on university campuses. The pursuit of higher education, though valuable, comes with risks. Most campuses and college towns can be a wonderland of opportunities to wreck one’s life. Far too many universities can also be a place where critical thinking skills and one’s worldview can be deeply warped. It is wise to avoid a school where you child will be programmed to become a godless, America-hating, Social Justice Warrior unless you know how to hold fast to your faith. Within the classroom and without, students need discernment.
Like the student whose third change of major led him to the music department (and to my study with his frustrated parents), success at college depends on a clear and realistic vision for yourself. Repeated changes of major and even too many dropped or added classes can get expensive. I firmly believe college students to help pay their own tuition. Have some financial skin in the game, and the level of responsibility you feel for your education will definitely increase.
The old saying applies: “Plan the work, and work the plan.” Choose a school; choose a degree path; and, unless something exceptionally radical changes, stick to it.
During the pursuit of a degree and the launching of one’s career, there will be times when it is tempting to throw in the towel. I love the line from Apollo 13, “Failure is not an option.” Approach college, and even each class, with this mindset. Tell yourself, “I will succeed.” College is a wonderful time to set patterns for life, of following through and succeeding. Make the mental commitment that, God willing, nothing will stop you from going the distance.
Bonus: Do more than “phone it in.” Invest.
Similar to Winston Churchill’s iconic speech about never quitting, President Calvin Coolidge famously said nothing can take the place of persistence. Coolidge preached that persistence is the key virtue. He emphasized it more than talent or opportunity. This is crucial in life, and certainly so during the college years. New or returning student, you can do this! Give your best today and you will thank yourself tomorrow! Be vigilant about how you are using your time and resources each day.
College is not a time to merely learn stuff. Plan to make a mark. There is knowledge, and there is wisdom. For the glory of God and the honor of those who have invested in you, resolve to obtain both.