College Kids: Time to Get Real About How to Succeed

Five smart reminders of what today's university experience demands — and why character counts

I’ve sent one son back to college this month and am about to send off the second. And despite the lump-in-the-throat emotions my husband and I feel about the boys’ departure (even as we celebrate the sudden, stunning lack of laundry) — I know college is where they need to be and that this is what they need to do.

But there are certain things they and all college students, ideally, should do during their years at university to make this time period the most effective for their personal growth and development — and their ultimate career success.

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South-Carolina based Dr. Alex McFarland, an author, radio host, and religion and culture expert, has outlined five critical skills college students should “pack with them” to ensure success for themselves during the college years and beyond. These tips are smart, sensible, and worth some reflection by parents everywhere.

McFarland, an occasional contributor to LifeZette, has spent over a decade in both church youth ministry and college academia — and has helped many young people succeed. He has seen “not especially gifted students do well in college and also witnessed extremely gifted students fall by the wayside,” he says. How so? Success is much more attached to choices and character than raw talent, he says.

In “Stand Strong In College,” one of his 18 books, McFarland discusses the intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual dynamics of university life. He’s interviewed hundreds of students and developed a list of five traits that every student must cultivate, he says, to thrive at college. He also shares some terrific advice for parents. 

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Here are five smart points from him for our kids’ college success.

1.) Discipline. “In both college and in life, you must supervise yourself,” says McFarland. “There comes a time when you have to take ownership of certain things in life, such as being responsible for getting up on time, arriving punctually for commitments (like class), and meeting deadlines.” He suggests students keep an ongoing to-do list on a legal pad near them; they should also write post-it notes to themselves and put alarms in their phones. “Whatever it takes, become a disciplined, ‘get-it-done-right’ type of person.”

2.) Decision-making. “All college students should see themselves as leaders — at the very least, a leader in terms of their own personal development and future. The student should carefully, and prayerfully, make decisions about class load, desired major, time management, relationships and activities outside of class.” He adds, both in a piece for Fox News and in his own books, “Life is about knowing where to invest and what to jettison. College is a training ground to hone this ability.” 

3.) Discernment. There’s risk involved in the college life — parents know this quite well, especially as they write the tuition bills. But kids need to steer clear of dangers on their own and navigate this territory carefully. “Most campuses and college towns can be a wonderland of opportunities to wreck one’s life,” says McFarland. “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.”

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4.) Direction. “Success at college depends on a clear and realistic vision for oneself,” he says. “Repeated changes of major and even too many ‘drop/adds’ of classes get expensive. I encourage parents to get their child to help pay their own tuition. Let the student have some financial skin in the game, and watch their responsibility level increase.”

5.) Dedication. McFarland wisely reminds parents that at some point during the college experience, many students indicate they want to walk away and quit. Instead, students should “approach college, and even each class, with a mindset of commitment,” says McFarland. “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,'” he advises for college kids. “Most importantly, do more than just ‘phone it in.’ Invest. Hanging in there and just not quitting — these things are crucial in life, and certainly so during the college years.”

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McFarland also says that when students give their best today, they will thank themselves tomorrow.   

“College is not a time to merely learn stuff,” he advises. “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.”

meet the author

Maureen Mackey served as editor-in-chief and managing editor of LifeZette for nearly five years. Before that, she held senior editorial positions at major publications, helping The Fiscal Times win a MIN Award for Best New Site as managing editor and Reader's Digest win an American Society of Magazine Editors Award for General Excellence as book editor. Her work has appeared in Real Clear Politics, CNBC, A Fine Line, AARP Magazine, Yahoo Finance, MSN, Business Insider, and The Week, among other outlets. She is a member of the Newswomen's Club of New York and the American Legion Auxiliary.

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