EDUCATION

The surprising truth about college and what your child really needs to do to thrive

Alex McFarland

Students who will be starting or returning to college in the next few weeks are getting no shortage of advice on how to succeed and lay the foundation for their careers. In my decade-plus in church youth ministry, I’ve handed out a lot of that advice myself, including to confused students and irate parents. I’d like to share some of it here as the fall semester begins.

I remember one meeting in particular with parents and their college-age son who attended our church. The beleaguered dad was red-faced with anger over the costs of time and money because his son had 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 to help students succeed in college. I have watched not-especially-gifted students do well in college, and I 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.

I have watched not-especially-gifted students do well in college, and I 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 all students must cultivate within themselves in order to thrive at college:

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-it notes, or put alarms on your phone. Whatever it takes, become a disciplined “get it done right” type of person.

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

Discernment. 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 the university campus. The pursuit of higher education – though valuable – also comes with risk.

Most campuses and “college towns” can be a wonderland of opportunities to wreck one’s life (alcohol, drugs, STDs and violence). Far too many universities can also be places where critical thinking skills and one’s worldview may get deeply warped. Mom and Dad, don’t send your child to a school where he or she will be programmed to become a godless, America-hating “social justice warrior.” Within the classroom and without, students need discernment. 

Direction. As was the case with the student whose third change-of-major led him to the music department – and to my discussions with his frustrated benefactors, Mom and 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 children help pay their own tuition. Let students 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 and – unless something changes radically – stick to it.

Dedication. 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 the film “Apollo 13:” “Failure is not an option.” Approach college, and even each individual class, with this mind-set of commitment. 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.”

Most importantly, 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 important than talent or opportunity. Hanging in there and 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 you, resolve to obtain both.

Dr. Alex McFarland is Director for Christian Worldview and Apologetics at North Greenville University. His latest book is “Abandoned Faith: Why Millennials Are Walking Away and How You Can Lead Them Home.”