Spiritual Formation

3 Qualities of a Successful College Student

It’s August, people! How did that happen?

I’ve been a college professor for 20 years now, yet somehow this particular month still manages to sneak up on me. Every. Single. Summer.

Our family will be cruising along, enjoying the sights and the sun. Then suddenly, as we turn the calendar page, I am once again startled to discover that School is crouching around the corner—counting down. 10. 9. 8….Ready or not. Here it comes.

Many of you who are getting ready to go to college—and many of you, parents, who are getting ready to send off your student—might relate. Suddenly, you have just a few more weeks, maybe days, to prepare.

That might mean shopping trips and packing parties and “farewell” gatherings with friends and family. Or it might simply mean reorganizing your bedroom and your work schedule, so you can take a class or two at a local community college.

Regardless of your particular plan, I think we can all agree that going to college is a significant transition, and it’s important to be prepared.

On a recent road trip, my husband Peter (also a professor) and I were talking about you, sharing and comparing our observations about what it takes to succeed in college. We came up with a long list of characteristics, but they fell clearly into three categories—three key qualities of successful college students.

So here they are, with several specific action points thrown in. We hope you’ll find them helpful.

Successful college students form strong BONDS.

In other words, they connect with people. You can’t do your best in college if you’re living as a lone wolf, and Peter and I aren’t the only ones who think so. According to several studies, one of the greatest predictors of student success is your involvement and engagement with others.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? As human beings, we were created for community. We need one another—by design. And meeting that need for community is never more crucial than when we’re facing into a new challenge.

Practically speaking, this might mean that you…

Reach out to your roommate. Be kind and considerate and easy to live with. Talk about your expectations and set some “house rules.” Intentionally invest in this relationship, so that your new room or apartment becomes a pleasant place to call “home.”

Ask a new acquaintance to coffee. Be willing to make the first move in friendship. Show genuine interest in those around you, and cultivate caring conversations. Ask quality questions, and share a bit about yourself.

Don’t leap into a romantic relationship. Jumping too quickly into the dating scene—with all of its heightened emotion and potential pitfalls—can make matters unnecessarily messy. So take your time, and focus on friendship first.

Join a student organization or a sports team. Find a good group who shares similar interests and gifts, and don’t just sit on the sidelines. Offer your skills. Get involved. Some of your greatest learning experiences in college could happen outside of the classroom. Of course, remember that moderation is important. Don’t spread yourself too thin, and save sufficient time for your studies.

Try (or form) a study group. Connect with other students in your classes, and if some of them are meeting to study for an exam or pound out a project, join them. Or even be the one to initiate such a gathering. It’s more enjoyable to study with others, and—if you stay on task—it’s more effective and efficient as well.

Don’t forget your faculty. We are there for you too! Most of us keep and post regular office hours, and we want to see you. Contact us for an appointment—to talk about school, or even just life.

Ask for help. If you find that you’re faltering—in any way—reach out to the appropriate people. Your campus undoubtedly has counselors and tutors and employment guides and more. So utilize them! And don’t wait until your concern becomes a crisis. Asking for assistance early can prevent much bigger problems down the road.

Find a church. Your community shouldn’t be limited to your campus. Finding an area church can be a wonderful way to connect to your new city and to people in other stages of life. A church can provide for you both a place to worship and an opportunity to serve. Your church can help to feed your soul.

Successful college students foster certain ATTITUDES.

Success in college doesn’t only depend on what you do. It also matters how you feel, and how you think, and how you handle both your emotions and your thoughts.

The angle from which you approach your college experience, and the lens through which you view it, will make all the difference to what you see.

Practically speaking, this might mean that you need to…

Own your education. If you haven’t already done this, decide today that your education is your responsibility. Not your parents’. Not your professors’. But yours. It isn’t something that society owes you. It won’t just happen to you while you are busy distracting yourself with other things. So be proactive in the process. Develop a love for learning. Go the extra mile, and get excited to grow.

Face into fear. New challenges can understandably evoke anxiety. Transitioning toward adulthood can sometimes feel terrifying. And unfortunately, our fear can cause us to flee or freeze. Instead, when we face into our fear, we take one step at a time and trust. We call upon our God-given courage and do the next right thing.

Grow your grit. You may have seen Angela Duckworth’s TED talk called “Grit.” It’s one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. Duckworth’s research in education has revealed that passion and perseverance are two of the most powerful predictors of success. So cultivate these characteristics. Work hard toward your goals. Keep your eye on the prize. And get back up again whenever you fall down.

Make God’s glory your goal. If you are a follower of Jesus, you know that your education isn’t ultimately about you anyhow. Your college experience isn’t primarily about having fun or getting good grades or preparing a great career. It’s about giving glory to your God.

Lastly, successful college students practice good MANAGEMENT.

Annie Dillard famously wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

It may seem obvious, but it’s also important to remember that your college career doesn’t happen in the future or in the past. It doesn’t simply exist in your dreams or your memory or your mind.

Rather, your college career unfolds through the choices you make—small and large—every moment of every day. So steward well the resources you have been given.

Practically speaking, this means that you will need to…

Make good use of your money. Create a concrete budget, a place where you can document what comes in and what goes out. There are easy apps and websites that can help. (Our family currently uses youneedabudget.com.) Then, find ways to be frugal. Say “no” when necessary. Resist the urge to splurge. Remember to do what you won’t regret!

Keep a calendar. If you aren’t already accustomed to using some sort of scheduling system, now is the time to start. One of the biggest life changes that most college students encounter is the reality that you are now more responsible to structure your own time. Classes will now consume fewer hours of your week. Professors will probably give you less prodding. Parents might not be present to keep you on task. So you will need to plan ahead. Record due dates, break larger projects into pieces, and pace yourself.

Establish healthy habits. Start right at the beginning of your college career to set some regular rhythms and routines. Include on your calendar when you will eat and exercise, sleep and seek solitude with God. And don’t gorge on junk now, just because it’s available (you know what tempts you and can suck up your time); rather, take the responsibility to feed yourself well—body, mind, and soul.

So, BAM! There you have it. Bonds, Attitudes, Management. (Did we mention that using silly acronyms can also aid with memory?)

Anyhow, over the years, we’ve seen hundreds of successful college students foster these three qualities. We are excited for you to join the ranks. Consider us among the crowd of supporters who are cheering you on!

What would you add to this list?


Peter and I have written a whole book for young adults:

20 Things We’d Tell Our Twentysomething Selves.

It’s a helpful companion for every college student to take to school,

AND it’s ON SALE right now on Amazon!

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