For the most part, I loved my college years. My parents’ faith became my own, and I experienced greater joy in Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism than I ever thought possible. I also made mistakes and have regrets that I’ve had time to reflect on these past 10 years.
Some of the following tips may not be helpful to you; some may change your life. That’s the fun of the college years—things happen so quickly, you often don’t realize how decisions you make in college will steer the rest of your life.
I pray the following tips will keep you from wasting your college years.
1. Put the Lord first in all you do.
God doesn’t have grandchildren. That means your parents’ faith (if your parents are believers) needs to become your own – and that doesn’t just happen at a Christian school. You can follow Christ at a secular school, you can reject Christ at a Christian school, and vice versa.
Prioritize the spiritual disciplines by studying your Bible, meditating on its truths (Psalm 1), and dedicating yourself to prayer. Knowing Jesus is infinitely more rewarding than any possession, relationship, experience, or temporary pleasure. That may sound crazy, but it’s 100% biblical: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Read also: Matthew 6:33; Proverbs 3:5–6).
2. Make sure your best friends love Jesus.
Who are you spending time with and why? Are they leading you to Christ or away from him? Are they good influences?
Many claim to follow Christ, but live as the world lives. Follow 2 Timothy 2:22’s exhortation: “Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
What does it mean to pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with other believers? Seek God together. Read the Bible together. Pray together. Wake up at 6am and seek the Lord through prayer and meditation on the Word together. You will grow deep friendships and rejoice together in how the Lord is changing you.
3. Quit complaining about busyness.
I say this for two reasons:
- Many college students keep themselves way too busy.
- Many college students complain about busyness when they actually waste time.
If you’re honestly too busy (like my brother was the semester he ran track, took 23 credit hours, led a campus ministry, and worked a part-time job), it’s your own fault. Prune your schedule to leave margins, or you won’t enjoy anything you’re doing.
If you’re the second person, don’t stay up till 3am binge-watching TV and complain about being tired or busy the next day. Post-college lives are busy too, and students need to learn to use their time wisely.
4. Get involved in a church.
Going to a campus ministry or attending a Christian school can be great for your faith, but they are not enough (see Hebrews 10:24-25). The gospel of Jesus is bigger than you and your friends who are just like you; it encompasses people of all ages, ethnicities, languages, and nations. The church – not a campus ministry – is home-base for the Christian.
Escape the artificial bubble you live in and enter the real world by getting to know people in your church. You might be surprised how your appreciation of Christ deepens as you see faithful believers enduring hardship, serving others with their gifts, and shining the light of Christ in the world.
5. Defend your faith.
Each day our culture seems to grow more opposed to Christianity. That means we must be prepared to make a defense of the hope we have (1 Peter 3:15). Don’t shy away from doubts or questions on today’s issues (sexuality, gender, biblical authority, etc.), but engage trustworthy resources to separate truth from lies. I recommend The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, Stand to Reason, Breakpoint, and Got Questions?. Don’t be afraid to share the Christian perspective on issues—the world desperately needs the truth and hope of Christ in a sea of life-destroying and eternity-damning lies.
6. Value your education, but don’t overvalue it.
Contrary to what I always used to say, classes do not get in the way of your college experience—they are the purpose of it! Get off of social media in class and do your reading. Be serious about your studies and future career prospects. Ask those older than you for recommended professors and classes so you avoid duds. If you don’t care about your education, you probably shouldn’t be in school—you could be wasting tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life.
While you should value your education, it isn’t everything. Don’t make your education (or college experience) the reason you live and breathe. Yes, get good grades, make memories, live wisely in all you do. But life goes on after college, and it is better for many reasons.
7. Choose an interesting major that will lead to a career.
Educate yourself on what majors have good career prospects after graduation. Ask professors what most people do after graduating. Seek internships early in your college experience to give you real-world experience in your field to ensure you like your major. (It will help with future career prospects.) I know people who went back to school after graduating because they couldn’t get a job with their major, or they hated the job they did get.
8. Don’t get buried in debt.
College is crazy expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Reduce your costs by getting creative:
- Apply to several schools, and see which gives you the best financial aid package.
- Take a year or two at a community school.
- Live with your parents or relatives.
- Take off a semester or more.
- Get a job.
I had at least seven on-campus jobs in college: I worked in the call center, served as an RA, worked in the dining commons, and even made decent money as the dorm garbage man. Tame your spending on extra things like trips, entertainment, eating out, parties, etc. For some, the smartest move might be skipping college and entering a trade. This not only reduces debt, but you might make more money in the end with some experience under your belt.
9. Be teachable.
Professor David Murray calls being teachable “The Most-Essential Life Skill” for good reason: so much flows from this simple trait. Let every person and situation in your life be an opportunity to learn and grow. Never think you have “arrived” or that you are some genius because you are taking college classes. (FYI, if you think that, you are painfully naïve.)
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning (Proverbs 9:9).
10. Find a godly mentor.
If you only hang out with people your age, you will be caught in an echo chamber of unexperienced voices. Seek godly mentors who are older than you and have real-world experience. Sure, they may not be as “cool” as your peers, but they can help think long-term. Learn how to distinguish wise advice from foolish advice.
11. Develop your mind.
A university education used to be about wrestling with ideas and critical thinking. For many today, it’s a few (expensive) boxes to check off in pursuit of a better career, or a place of secular indoctrination. Our culture has devalued critical thinking and rewarded emotional, bumper-sticker arguments that don’t always stand up to logic or science.
Learn to think like an adult, separating truth from emotion. Don’t just parrot back popular catch-phrases you hear from others, but engage in ideas. Think hard about life’s big issues. Develop a Christian worldview by testing everything against Scripture. Go deep on a few subjects that interest you.
12. Try new things.
The college years present some opportunities you will likely never have again. I tried being the school mascot – and realized I didn’t have the right personality or the heart to scare so many little kids. (The costume seriously freaked kids out.)
I also decided to study abroad with the logic that everyone I knew who studied abroad said it was amazing. My four months in Ecuador taught me Spanish, showed me a different part of the world and helped me fall in love with Latin America. (The Lord now has me returning to Ecuador every six months for missions work!)
13. Be realistic about marriage.
I graduated college single and missed the ring-by-spring train (every Christian college kid’s dream). Let me make something perfectly clear: That’s okay. In fact, in many cases, it’s better.
While I didn’t officially date anyone in college, I did get to know a number of women and learn the type of woman I was looking to marry. Don’t spend all your time obsessing over finding a significant other; this could drive you into a bad relationship or keep you from enjoying your life. And if you do find your soul mate in college, great! Proceed in wisdom (and don’t forget tip #9).
One more thing: Develop a biblical view of marriage. Even though I had godly parents and came from a great church, hindsight tells me that I didn’t totally understand the purpose of marriage. Read a book like The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller (an amazing idea for singles).
14. Make wise entertainment choices.
What we fill our minds with shapes us. That’s why spiritual transformation comes through meditating on God’s Word (Psalm 1). Our entertainment choices should not be separate from our faith, but rather be informed by it. Ask yourself these “Ten Questions About Your Entertainment” for help thinking through entertainment biblically.
15. Don’t let technology consume you.
Our technology is changing us. There’s a good chance your constant browsing of social media and checking notifications is making your life worse or making you depressed. Be intentional to keep technology in its proper place, and don’t be a shallow thinker or tech-addict. Most of all, don’t let technology impede your relationship with God (Psalm 46:10).
16. Deal with sin in your life.
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” While college presents a new level of freedom, it also presents a new level of temptation, serving as an incubator for destructive sin. If you struggle with drinking, sexual issues or pornography, gluttony, laziness, drugs, or anything else, put it to death (Romans 8:13). If you can’t break free from the bonds of sin on your own, read #17.
17. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling.
A new context can present new struggles. If you find yourself struggling with depression, anxiety, pornography (or other sexual sins), eating disorders, your faith, technology addiction, or anything else, seek help. Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness.
We all struggle with a number of things and need the body of Christ to help us apply the healing power of the gospel to our situation. Getting help sooner rather than later will keep an issue from causing more damage.
18. Serve others.
Our secular culture tells us to live for ourselves, but doesn’t tell us how doing so often leaves us miserable and broke. We were created for more than to please our senses; we were created to love God and others (Matthew 22:37-39).
That’s why serving in diverse ways is crucial. Service might be volunteering at church, helping organize a food drive for the poor, being a friend to someone in need, going on a missions trip, or any number of other opportunities. We all need to remember we aren’t the center of the universe. In doing this, you will learn what your gifts and passions are, and you may even be called into full-time ministry (I was!).
19. Take care of your body.
The “freshman 15” is not a myth for many students. (Neither is the “freshman 40”, although I’m sure it’s a lot rarer!) You need to take care of your body now that you no longer have gym class or high school sports to do it for you. (And realize those late night Taco Bell runs mean you’re putting the worst food into your body at the worst time.)
Eat as healthy as you can, watch your portion sizes, exercise regularly, and you should be in good shape (pun intended). If I could hop in a DeLorean and tell my college-self one thing on this point, it would be to control my portions in the all-you-can-eat mayhem of the dining commons.
20. Work hard and trust God for your future.
Don’t worry about your future; work hard, and entrust it to God. Most people don’t graduate to their dream job, and many don’t know what they want to do with their lives 10 years after graduating, and that’s fine. Let the promise in Proverbs 3:5-6 encourage your heart: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”