10 tips for Christian students to get the most out of college

Originally published September 10, 2023 as an op-ed at The Christian Post

A new school year is upon us. The dazzle of welcome week is over. Fall semester has begun. College freshmen are settling and for some students it is overwhelming. They have entered a season of expanded freedom. College life comes without a lot of the old boundaries of home. Besides that, there are so many things to do. At a vibrant university there is something happening all the time — classes, clubs, sports, lectures, plays, concerts, social life. Class work will be harder. No one is looking over your shoulder. You will be expected to independently manage your life. But how?

Here are ten reminders for having a successful first year and beyond.

1.  Listen to God first

Every day you will be bombarded with many voices — social media, your peers, your professors and the books you read. But begin each day by listening to God. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “The moment you wake up each morning, all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists in shoving it all back; in listening to the other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.” How do you do this? By meeting God in his Word (the Bible), reading it and listening to Him there. This is the most important book in your library. It is a divinely ordained meeting place where God reveals His mind to yours. There you learn how to order your life and loves, there you discover your primary identity and calling, there you can check your attitude and thoughts. If I had one habit that has been an anchor in my life, this is it. Begin with God first every day.

2. Set clear priorities and learn to manage your time

While you are at college you may wonder about finding God’s will for your life — your calling. Start with the obvious. Your calling right now, after loving God and your neighbor, is to be a good student and learn. In terms of priorities, it should be God first, school second, and then other things. Everything else is built on this foundation. To manage your time, establish a weekly schedule, lay out your classes, assignments, reading, paper and test schedule. Divide your tasks, methodically pace yourself, and write down your “top five” goals for each day.

3. Study well, pursuing both knowledge and wisdom

Good study habits include reading your class syllabus, completing your assignments, staying up-to-date on your assigned readings, arriving to class on time, proofreading your written work. But remember, there is more knowledge out there than you can ever know and not all of it is worth knowing. This is where wisdom comes in. Knowledge without wisdom is incomplete. Wisdom helps you discern essential from non-essential knowledge. Wisdom is knowing what things change and what things don’t. It helps you discern permanent things, timeless classic truths about the world and human nature. This is what the Bible describes as “ever learning and never coming to a knowledge of the truth.” So, as Proverbs says, “pursue wisdom.” Hang with the wise — wise friends and profs. Wise teachers will be your best teachers.

4. Hone your habits of learning

College is the right place to do this. I am thinking of four essential habits: focus, reading, thinking and writing. These are habits to strengthen now, which you will be able to employ for the rest of your life. But above all, learn to concentrate. We live in an age of distractions. The internet and smartphone, for all their usefulness, have a now discernable downside. I call it “TikTok brain.” Recent studies show that it not only makes us more passive, but it compromises our ability to pay attention and think deeply, and even alters the physiological structure of our brains. To be a great student you must tame your phone (and technology) and regain cognitive control. Create spaces of silence and digital free zones — in class, doing homework, when you are sitting with someone in the dining hall. Learn the important discipline of focus. This will strengthen your ability to read, write and think. Related to this, pursue a passion for excellence. This takes focus too. It may come through sports, the arts or some academic discipline. Learning excellence in one area is transferrable and will teach you how to learn it in other areas. 

5. Explore new things

Take some classes in things you always wanted to learn about but may not fit your major. Leave room to explore astronomy, personal finance, American literature, and the arts. In college I was a history major, but an introduction to music class gave me a surprising life-long love for classical music. My early British literature class gave me a love for Shakespeare and poetry. The liberal arts idea is that you have this one time in life with the freedom to explore. So, take those Gen-Ed courses seriously and discover some new areas of interest as well.

6. Pursue integrity

Do the right thing, whether someone is watching or not. Play by the rules, don’t cheat, avoid shortcuts. In a world of Chat GPT, do your own work. Don’t plagiarize. In sports and in the classroom, character counts. In fact, it is the most important thing about you. Character is more important than grades. Micah 6:8 says, “O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (NLT). Warren Buffet once said, “I look for three things in hiring people. The first thing is integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is a high energy level. If you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” 

7. Choose your friends carefully

In saying this I am reminding you not to isolate on the one hand, and not to get swept up by your peers on the other. Hang out with friends who cause you to be the best version of you. You are who you hang out with. The people you surround yourself with will shape your ideas, habits, and behaviors, fill you with positive or negative inspiration, and will influence the choices and decisions you make. So, look for people who will build you up. And, while you generally cannot choose your roommate, use that experience, however challenging it is, as an opportunity to learn to get along with others and to love your neighbor.

8. Own your faith

No matter where you go to college — even at a Christian university — your faith will be challenged. You will meet fellow students from other faith traditions. Professors will challenge you to think through your ideas and convictions. So will reading assignments. It’s time to come to your own conclusions. So, pray for guidance, deal with one question at a time, and welcome this opportunity. God can use moments of constructive doubt and questioning to strengthen you. 

9. Join a local church

Find one quickly and commit to it. Campus fellowship is great, but not enough. The church is the body and bride of Christ, entrusted with the Gospel, the Word and the sacraments. Being part of one will ground you in your identity in Christ and provide community and gospel perspective to keep you grounded. It will help keep you centered as you go through the normal challenges of college. So, find a multi-generational, Bible-believing, gospel-centered church with wise, faithful pastors.

10. Do not drop out       

Most college students in America count on graduating in four years. But many don’t. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the college graduation rate in 2022 was about 63% for all kinds of schools. Sixty-three percent! The percentage of college students who graduate within 4 years from a private institution is something like 79%. For public institutions, that number drops to 49%. Which means that many college students do not graduate. For some the issue is finances. For others it just takes more than 4 years. But persevere. A college degree provides learning opportunities and specialized knowledge and skills that will, among other things, make you more competitive in the job market. College graduates generally still earn about twice as much as their non-college educated counterparts.

So that’s my advice for students who hope to get the most out of college. It’s a wisdom born out of many years in college, sending four children to college, and observations from being a college president and chancellor.

College can be a place for a fresh and powerful new beginning in your life. Attending college, especially a solid and sane college (like CCU), is still a privilege of the highest order. But it is a privilege that comes with cost and responsibility. The secret of your success — and the kind of person you’ll become — will be found in establishing the right habits and daily routines. It will also help launch you into the trajectory of your life. So don’t waste what for many is the opportunity of a lifetime.

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