My 4 Pieces of Advice for New College Students
#1: Be a student
Across the country this month, several million young Americans will start their college education. Some will live on campus; some will commute. Most are starting at 4-year institutions, though many first attend community college. (Not to mention those still in high school.) However one starts college, it’s a big transition, freighted with both anticipation and anxiety.
So while I don’t expect that there are a lot of 16-18 year olds on my subscriber list, I do know that some of you are parents of 16-18 year olds. So in case you’re looking for some last words of wisdom to pass along to your child as she or he heads off to college, let me offer some advice, as someone who has taught hundreds of first-year students in his twenty years in higher ed.
When I do write the college guide I have in mind for my next book, I mean it to be both philosophical and practical. The latter is certainly important (Get enough sleep!), but today I’m going to focus on the former. On to the advice!
1. Be a student
Uh yeah, “duh.” But think of all the other ways you’ve been trained to think of yourself as a young American starting college. As a customer purchasing a service, or an investment by parents who have scrimped, saved, and borrowed to pay the tuition. As a future employee of whatever organization will pay the most for your marketable knowledge and skills. As a new adult suddenly freed from parental control to make many more of your own decisions about your time and your body.
Those identities aren’t inherently bad or unimportant, but they can distract you from seeing yourself as what you primarily are for the next few years: a student.1
In other words, my advice is that you truly dedicate yourself to learning: asking questions and seeking answers; processing information, encountering ideas, and evaluating arguments; considering different perspectives and reconsidering your own worldview; honing the skills, practices, and disciplines that make the rest of it possible.
And all of that, at least in the moment, for its own sake. Be confident that learning will pay off in the long run, in ways you expect and those you don’t. But if you primarily approach a curriculum, an individual course, or any single assignment as a means to some future end, you’ll only see its value as you already understand it — which is the very opposite of learning.
And if all that seems like way too much for you to handle alone… well, I have good news: no one in college (from a Latin term for partnership) needs to learn alone. You’re in it together with fellow students, but also your teachers.
2. Trust your teachers
So if you’re going to take seriously the vocation of being a student, then you should trust your teachers: trust that they have good reasons for teaching as they do, for assigning what they assign; trust their critiques, that they might be showing you an opportunity for growth; but trust their praise, too, that they might perceive something in you that you don’t yet recognize yourself. Most of all, trust that you have something to learn from your teachers — maybe something more important than the course content itself.
The cost of this trust is that it will be betrayed: for all their expertise and wisdom, teachers are as fallible as anyone else and will inevitably let you down to some degree. So don’t misunderstand the verb here. Trust doesn’t mean never criticize or never question your teacher, or assume that your teachers are always right. As one of my mentors once said, the best compliment a student can pay their teacher is to disagree with them well. And there’s never been a year when I haven’t learned something from a constructively critical student comment on a course evaluation.2
But the benefit of this trust is far greater: it makes possible the transformation we so often expect out of a college education. When you trust your teachers, you stop trying to control how you think your learning is going to go and leave yourself open to the impact of other people’s lives on your own.
It’s especially important to keep this in mind early on because you have so little say in what you study. In your first year, your schedule will be full of required “gen ed” courses that seem disconnected from what you think are your real purposes, plus introductory surveys to your chosen field that barely scratch the surface of your interests. Trust that there are good reasons for curricular requirements put in place by teachers who can take a longer view of your education, since much of what you’ll study later builds on what you study early on.
And in the process, you might even discover that you love history or ecology more than business administration or mechanical engineering!
3. Be active, but contemplate
Whether or not what you’re learning connects to what you do, college should help you better understand who you are. To that end, let me encourage you to be both active and contemplative.
Active because there are many ways to learn on a college campus, not just in courses like those I teach. In addition to the academic curriculum, you can participate in what’s sometimes called the co-curriculum — everything from athletics to performing arts, residential and spiritual life programming, student government and special interest clubs, service projects and study abroad, and so forth.3 On that side of the college experience, you can learn a great deal about topics as significant as leadership, service, community, diversity, conflict resolution, justice, faith, and… well, yourself.
The first year of college is a time of personal discovery, of starting to come to a clearer understanding of your identity, your values, and your calling.
That requires activity: not just absorbing all the ideas and information, but having experiences in which you experiment with different roles and relationships.
But learning who you are also requires contemplation: intentionally standing back from all that you’re doing in order to think about what it means.
Some of this will be built into your formal learning. In addition to traditional academic writing exercises like book reviews and research papers, I increasingly have my students write varieties of what are often called “personal reflection” assignments. Reflection because they’re supposed to function like a mirror, helping students to see the person they’re becoming by prompting them to think about what they’re learning — and even how they learn.4
But precisely because you’re balancing classes like mine with co-curricular activities and perhaps a job or two, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with busy-ness. Precisely because it’s filled with ideas and experiences and opportunities, college can feel so chaotic that it’s hard to make sense of it all.
So be intentional about carving out time in your day or week for thinking through what you’re learning. Maybe you process best with a conversation partner or two, talking through life with friends over lunch5 or in one of those late night dorm conversations I often hear alumni recall fondly. But you should also find quiet time to be alone with your emerging self: start the day with a run or end it with a journal entry; practice spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation.6
4. Embrace failure
Maybe most importantly of all, know that no one expects you to get any of this perfectly right. Quite the contrary.
I’ve written all this advice in the confident expectation that you won’t always take it. Even if you think I’m right, there will be times in college when you’ll forget to be a student, you’ll catch yourself distrusting your teachers, and you’ll err too much on the side of activity or contemplation.
While you’re at it, this first year you’ll also turn in a paper late or bomb a quiz. You’ll play a wrong note in the Christmas concert or miss a last-second shot in a conference championship game. You’ll say something you can’t take back to someone you respect, and you may even have a relationship come to a painful end.
In one of those moments or another, you will feel like you’ve failed. But you’ll just be learning.
About this time two years ago, as we prepared to come back to campus after the COVID lockdown, I wrote a kind of letter to my students. “We’re bound to make mistakes, get frustrated, and generally feel like we’re not doing the best we can,” I admitted, then continued:
But among the many other things it is, college is a place to fail, to have your reach exceed your grasp. That’s not just true of using technology, managing time, and remembering to wear a mask, but of the things that really matter: you’ll ask life’s most important questions and struggle to find answers; you’ll listen keenly for God’s call and hear noise, or nothing.
But if you can persevere through those moments, let alone a bad quiz or subpar paper, college will also reveal itself to be a place to grow. A place where you don’t just question your own assumptions, but you make me question mine. A place where you discover abilities that even your parents and favorite teacher didn’t recognize in you. A place where you encounter God in new ways and learn to see the world in new ways, with all the compassion and hope of his Son….
With God’s grace and a little help and encouragement from people like me, you can totally do this.
You can, too. Enjoy your first year in college, and thanks for reading.
Thanks for reading The Pietist Schoolman! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
For a fuller reflection on the vocation of being a college student, see Calvin University professor David Smith’s three-part 2021 series at the Christian Scholar’s Review blog, “Students and Vocation in the Present Tense.”
Like, say, “Don’t be such a tool,” the first student comment I ever read on a course evaluation. It’s never come up again, so apparently I got better in that respect.
I’m putting extracurricular and co-curricular together, but there’s an argument for seeing the latter as separate from the former.
One of my teaching mentors, Kevin Cragg, liked to say that college was at its best when students found themselves “discussing Plato or Shakespeare in the dining hall.” He’s the same person who gave me my earlier line about students disagreeing well with their teachers.
I’ve never been able to keep a journal. But throughout my first semester in college, I did write a letter home to my parents once a week — mostly to work through a deep feeling of homesickness.