In Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Alice realizes she's lost in an unfamiliar forest. She comes to a crossroads and has no idea which way to turn.
Then, Alice sees the Cheshire cat in a tree and asks him which path she should take. He replies, "Where are you going?"
"I'm not quite sure," she says.
"Well, then, it doesn't matter which road you take," the cat notes.
Like Alice's journey, the transition from high school to college brings a lot of decisions, challenges and opportunities. The Cheshire cat's question doesn't just apply to our choice of schools. "Where am I going?" also makes us think beyond college. It makes us think not only of what we want to be, but also who we want to be.
You grow and learn during your college years in ways that are more dramatic and significant than in any other period of your life. It all starts with your freshman year. Here are five tips for making the most of it.
Start with the end in mind
Have you heard the story of the three bricklayers who were all asked what they were doing? The first man answered gruffly, "I'm laying bricks." The second man replied, "I'm building this wall." But the third man could see more than the bricks or the wall. He declared, "I'm building a cathedral."
Like the third bricklayer, knowing what you are building will determine your blueprints. When you develop a clear vision of who you want to be, you can better focus on how to get there. It also gives you increased energy and fulfillment since you know what your work and choices will lead to. You have something specific to work toward. You are doing more than "taking a class" or "getting through the semester." You are, brick by brick, building your future.
Decide where you're headed. Do you have a clear picture in your mind of what you will need to do to get there?
Define your plans
As you choose your goals for the future, be sure that you go beyond just having goals, such as:
"I want to have a degree."
"I want to have a job and a car."
Those goals are fine, but there is more to life than just having certain things. Real goals include action:
"I want to exercise regularly."
"I want to travel."
"I want to attend a weekly Bible study."
"I want to serve."
Real goals are also about developing your character. Who you are (much more than what you have or do) will determine the quality of satisfaction of your life. Effective goals ask, "Who do I want to be?"
This question takes a lot of thought, but it also requires prayer. Proverbs tells us if we lean on God for direction—and not our own understanding—he will make our paths straight (3:5-6). Through prayer, we can spend time with God figuring out who he wants us to be.
Planning doesn't put you in a straitjacket. It's OK to change your plan as time passes. Setting goals doesn't lock you in for life. In fact, just the opposite happens—you begin to experience a new freedom that comes from a clear picture of why you are attending college and what you want to accomplish.
You can always adjust the plan and choose new ways to reach your goal. As you grow, God may show you a new path. By preparing now, you can be ready for what God has in store for you.
Make choices carefully
As you make a plan to become the person both you and God want you to be, your ability to make wise choices improves and decision-making even becomes easier. You can make decisions about how to spend your time, what classes to take, and what activities to join by asking questions about your long-term vision. How does this ready me for the future? How would doing this strengthen or hurt the person I want to become?
You won't be able to control everything that happens during this first year at school, but you can choose how you will respond. A big part of that response will depend on your beliefs and values. As you leave high school and head to college, take time to reflect on who you are, what you believe, what you want from life, and what you value. These things will determine your answers to the numerous choices you'll be presented with.
Pray that God will lead you through your choices and use the transition from high school to college to help refine who you are, what you believe, and what you value. Talk with close Christian friends, your parents, or a pastor about choices as they come. When you pray, ask God for a good attitude and for a support system of friends who have the same values.
Take advantage of your "resources"
Colleges have everything students need to reach their goals. When the alarm clock goes off on the first day and you head to class, you will find scores of professors who have earned academic degrees from colleges and universities around the world. These men and women teach all kinds of amazing courses in subjects ranging from marine biology to 18th-century literature.
In addition, the heart of every campus is a library or a learning resource center stacked with thousands of books, periodicals, electronic search services and hundreds of computers. You will never be in an environment with so much knowledge and learning right at your fingers. Take advantage of these things from day one. Explore diverse and interesting subjects. Learn to use all of your library's offerings. Meet with your professors. Ask questions.
Let God guide the journey
Focusing right away in college on what you want for yourself is important, but more important is discovering the path that God has in store for you. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11).
God wants you to succeed and wants you to be happy. His intentions for you are good. Sometimes we might think that God just puts a lot of rules on things we want to do or spoils all of our fun. That couldn't be farther from the truth. Jesus said, "I have come that [you] may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Abundant living—that's what God wants for you.
Luke 5 gives us some words to think about as we move from high school to college. As Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret one day, he saw two boats left by the fishermen who were washing their nets. He got into one owned by Simon and asked him to stop the boat a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch." Peter obeyed and was amazed by an incredible miracle: a net overflowing with fish.
There is a message in there for a new college student: Don't hesitate to launch out, as Jesus says, into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.
Why deep waters? Shallow water presents no challenge and therefore yields no reward. God wants us to dig deep into him and also to discover who we are. Deep water brings an abundant catch and produces men and women of depth and character—men and women fit for life. So dive in.
This article was adapted from the book Packin' Up and Headin' Out
by John and Jill Bowling (Beacon Hill Press). This hands-on guide to making the most out of college covers what to expect as you walk into classrooms and move into the dorms.