I like to close out the year by giving my graduating seniors advice as they prepare to head off to college in the fall. Here are this year’s words of wisdom for the class of 2014.
1. FRIENDS. Your first semester at college, travel groups of friends freely. The temptation is to cement yourself into the first group you hang out with because they provide you with that much-needed sense of belonging, but they may not be the best fit for you. Be aware that groups will solidify at the end of first semester, and after that, it is hard to switch to a different group of friends. This is an important choice. These people are going to have a significant influence on how much you study, how you spend your free time, even your choices in food, clothing, music, and movies. They will probably be bridesmaids and groomsmen in your wedding. Don’t let this create unnecessary pressure; just choose judiciously. Be conscious about what you allow to influence you and be aware of the influence you have on others. Stay away from drugs and alcohol. Even be careful about limiting junk foods. All of those substances dull your senses and make you lose your competitive edge. If you want to be on top, stay clean and sober.
2. DATING. Date wisely. Dating is a significant investment of your time and money. I encourage you not to date freshman year—there are too many adjustments you’re making. You don’t need extra drama and complications. If you spend a lot of time with a person of the opposite sex one-on-one, they’re going to assume you’re interested. Don’t do it unless you are. People will respect you if you don’t play games.
Don’t date someone you can’t possibly see yourself married to. It’s time to get intentional and purposeful about relationships. No arm candy for the formal, no “just hanging out.” You’re finding out if the person might be a good fit for a spouse. Everything else is a waste time and usually ends up hurting people when you’re this age.
Make sure you date people you can intellectually respect. There are a lot of attractive people at college, and that can be distracting, but you need to take time to listen to what’s going on in their heads before you decide whether or not to date them. Marry someone who is smarter than you are. I did, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m so happily married. A guy or girl may look hot and may be appealingly flirtatious (which boosts your ego), but looks fade, and then you’re left with someone who’s boring to talk to. Marry someone who reads for fun. They will be endlessly interesting.
3. PERSEVERING. Be aware of the late fall “pit of despair” freshman year. After the initial ‘high’ of being free from parental restraints and finding yourself in a setting where you are finally being treated like the adult you are, you may experience a significant low. Assignments are piling up in all your classes, friend groups are still unsettled, you’re not sleeping enough or eating well (because your mom isn’t there to make you sleep and eat well), you’re homesick, and you’ve been wearing the same underwear for a week because you haven’t gotten around to doing laundry. Rock bottom. You will probably feel like quitting and moving home after first semester. Don’t do it. Things will look entirely different to you when you return from Christmas break. Suddenly you’re returning to familiar places, you have friends you didn’t know you had, and that crabby prof from first semester? You don’t have to take his classes EVER AGAIN.
4. ACADEMICS. You will do more reading and writing than you thought humanly possible. It will get easier the more you do it. Also, start reading judiciously. Some profs will intentionally assign excessive reading because they want you to sift and prioritize. Figure out exactly how they’re going to hold you accountable for the reading, and then skim what you’re not being tested on. Read for main ideas and overall structure of the argument. Only read closely when there’s a test or paper over the reading. Don’t attempt to read or write in a distracted environment, like a dorm. The library is your new BFF. Sign up for a study carrel the first week. If you’re an extrovert, this will feel like torture, but it’s the only way you’ll survive and get anything done. Take advantage of every opportunity to get help. Ask dumb questions. Go to the writing center. Email me questions. Get classmates (who get good grades) to edit your papers.
5. SPIRITUAL LIFE. You’re away from your family. It’s time to decide what you believe; this is when your faith truly becomes your own. No one is making you read the Bible or go to church. But I assure you that you are going to feel your need of the gospel more strongly than you ever have before. It’s not just because of the loneliness and homesickness. It’s because you’re entering an environment that is all about performance, all about competition. It’s an institution entirely built on personal achievement and individual merit. The default setting of human beings is working hard to earn human favor, so college naturally fits seamlessly into that mindset. If you’re not continually humbled in prayer, hearing the preaching of the Word, fellowshipping with other believers, the meritocracy that is your intellectual world will begin seeping into your spiritual life. You will be either consumed by pride in your successes or overwhelmed by disappointment in your failures. Neither posture is healthy. So if you are prone to despair, cheer up! You’re a lot worse than you think you are, but God still love you. If you are prone to pride, take heed! A fall is likely imminent. The answer to your spiritual turmoil is not believing in yourself, not pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, not turning inward at all. Spiritual peace comes with the realization that you will never be enough, but Jesus is. He lived the perfect life that you could never live, and he died the death you should have died. It’s only with the gospel as your starting point that you can work hard without striving to prove yourself. You can do all things to God’s glory without worrying if you’ve done enough to placate Him. You can love and serve those around you out of gratitude for what He’s done rather than fear that you might not be accepted. Stay in the Word, go to church, continue in prayer, not because God will be mad at you don’t if you don’t, but because you’re going to need those things like you need food, water, and rest.