Heading to the college campus? Be sure to pack these 5 skills

Spend a decade-plus in church youth ministry, and you’ll have at least a couple of meetings with irate parents.  It may be the teen who was reprimanded on the youth retreat, and the parent felt their child was treated unfairly.  Or it could be that a parent is livid – wanting an explanation how the youth minister could be so irresponsible not to realize that teens were playing dodge-ball 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 really tense as “Jr.” (who had never previously expressed much interest in music) announced that he was now pursuing a degree in . . . Orchestral Percussion.  “What kind of job are you going to get with that?!,” the parents wanted to know.

Having now spent more than a decade in both administration and teaching, it has been my joy to try and 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 / eye-opening to interview hundreds of students over the years, and learn about their experiences.  Here are five traits I am convinced every student must cultivate within themselves in order to thrive at college:

  1. Discipline

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:  Such as being responsible to get up on time, arriving punctually for commitments (like class), and meeting deadlines.  Keep a “To Do” list on a legal pad, write yourself Post-its, or put alarms in your phone.  Whatever it takes, become a disciplined, “get it done right” type of person.

  1.   Decision making

It has been said that good leaders don’t make good decisions, good leaders make hard decisions.  Every college student should see themselves as a leader (at the very least, a leader in terms of their own personal development and future).  The student should carefully (and prayerfully) make decisions about class load, desired major, time management, relationships and activities outside class – so many things.  Life is about knowing where to invest and what to jettison.  College is a training ground to hone this ability.     

  1.  Discernment

A wise professor told me, “Show me who friends are and I will tell you who you’ll be in 10 years.”  So many promising young futures have been lost on the university campus.  The pursuit of higher education- though valuable- also comes with risk.  Unless a student attends a solidly Christian university (such as North Greenville), the campus and “college towns” can be a wonderland of opportunity to wreck one’s life (alcohol, drugs, STD’s, violence).  Far too many universities can also be a place where critical thinking skills and one’s worldview may get deeply warped.  Mom and Dad, don’t send your child to a school where your child will be programmed to become a godless, America-hating, SJW (“Social Justice Warrior”).  Within the classroom and without, students need discernment

  1.  Direction

Like to student whose third change-of-major led him to the music department (and to my study with his frustrated benefactors, Mom & Dad), success at college depends on a clear and realistic vision for oneself.  Repeated changes of major and even too many “drop/adds” of classes get expensive.  I encourage parents to make their child help pay their own tuition.  Let the student have some financial skin in the game, and watch their responsibility level increase!

The old saying applies:  “Plan the work, and work the plan.” Students, choose a school, a degree path, and¾ unless something exceptionally radical changes¾ stick to it.

  1.  Dedication (commitment)

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 individual 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.”

Do more than just “phone it in.”  Invest.

Similar to Winston Churchill’s iconic speech about never quitting, President Calvin Coolidge famously said that nothing can take the place of persistence.  Coolidge preached that persistence was a key virtue, even more importance that talent or opportunity.  Hanging in there and just not quitting . . . these things are 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.  Plan to become someone.  There is knowledge, and there is wisdom.  For God and country, and in honor of those who have invested in you¾  resolve to obtain both.

Alex McFarland is Director of the Center for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at North Greenville University (ngu.edu).  He is author of 18 books, and has spoken throughout the US and internationally (alexmcfarland.com).

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