Alex Chediak is an author, speaker, and associate professor of engineering and physics at California University, and he’s been involved in campus ministries and student mentoring for many years. His 2011 Christian Booksellers Association Best Seller, Thriving at College, explores the ten most common mistakes college students make and how to avoid them in order to successfully transition from high school to college.
In this article Chediak speaks to the parents of college-bound teens and examines practical ways they can prepare their children to have a rewarding and productive college experience. Going beyond the typical advice on financial aid and college visits, he instead focuses on what parents can do to aid their child’s character development, the discovery of their passions, and the recognition of their talents to help identify potential majors and career paths.
College: A Launching Pad into Adulthood
While seven out of ten high school graduates enter college, about 30 percent will never make it to their sophomore year, and about 50 percent won’t have graduated even six years later. Meanwhile the average student who does make it to graduation will have racked up $23,000 in debt. Today the cost of a college education is increasing two to three times faster than the overall rate of inflation.
Besides being expensive, college is also time-consuming and life altering. Particularly for students who move away from home, college is the season of life in which they launch into adulthood—for better or for worse. How they establish relationships, manage their time, spend money, and pursue coursework (or not) will depend largely upon their worldview and character.
Their perspective on the purpose of college is also a factor. Is college just a recreational interlude between childhood and adult life, a time to maximize enjoyment and delay responsibility? Or is it a season of academic preparation and personal growth to propel a lifetime of effective service to God and neighbor—a launching pad to responsible Christian adulthood?
To be prepared for college, a student needs to fully and accurately understand what college is and what it’s not. For starters, college is not an expensive four-year personal discovery vacation funded by Mom, Dad, and student loans. It is a temporary season of academic and professional training—a time to prepare for a life of useful service in a profession which either requires or benefits from college-level training.
Full-time students should also be prepared to approach college as a full-time job. The general rule is two hours of out-of-class work for every hour spent in class, which means the typical course load of 16 to 17 semester units becomes a 50-hour-per-week commitment. College-bound students need to be both motivated and disciplined in order to maintain this level of commitment. Unlike when they were in high school, nobody will check up on them to see if they’re working or even attending their classes.
Character Development: Drive and Discipline
College admissions counselors will tell you that no amount of intelligence can make up for a lack of ambition or discipline. Schools have been known to sometimes reject applicants with high test scores who don’t also have good grades. If a prospective student has a super-charged brain but very little success to show for it, this raises a red flag. There’s much more to succeeding in college than just being smart.
So what are the character traits that predict success, and how can parents help cultivate these traits during their child’s pre-college years? Drive, ambition, determination, and grit, if properly applied, can marvelously fuel the kind of personal discipline required for success in college. It’s that fire in the belly to do something big, to be a part of something great. Christians are called to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14, NKJV), and high school students should be no exception (1Tim. 4:12).
Parents can nurture drive and discipline in their children by teaching the value of diligence, hard work, and faithfulness. Help teens use their time well—to make the most of opportunities and to gracefully say no to some things so they can say yes to the best things. Don’t do their homework for them. Give them enough freedom to fail every now and again—it will teach them the law of cause and effect like nothing else can.
The ability to delay gratification is another necessary fundamental, and it can be developed through activities in which students are already participating, such as school, sports, theater, or music. Parents can help kids set goals, limit the amount of time spent on Internet entertainment to ensure higher productivity, and use social media wisely and with discernment. It’s important for teens to learn that recreation should empower us for our God-appointed work, not distract us from it. This is especially true as they gain greater access to social opportunities, and these will increase dramatically during college with little to no external restrictions.
The pre-college years are also a great time for teens to learn to finish what they start. Sure, there’s a place for brainstorming and idea generation, but once we lay our hand to the plow, we generally shouldn’t look back. Faithfulness in the little things opens doors and prepares us for future challenges. The Proverbs speak regularly of discipline and of the consequences of being undisciplined (e.g., Prov. 10:26; 20:4; 24:30–34). It’s easy to get distracted when something more interesting comes along, but those who succeed in college—and in life—know that faithfulness involves finishing one thing well before going on to something else.
Lastly, parents can help teens cultivate a sense of responsibility for their lives, combined with the confidence that personal change and growth are possible. There will always be obstacles that are beyond our control, but having a victim mentality is deadly—it saps our potential to be strengthened by adversity. Equally crippling is blame-shifting: protecting our pride by holding other people or circumstances responsible for our shortcomings. When kids make mistakes (on a test, in a basketball game, and so on), they must learn not to point the finger elsewhere (“the test was unfair”; “the other players distracted me”).
There are two dangers that parents can teach teens to avoid: (1) Failure to recognize and own the mistake; and (2) Going too far and concluding, “I messed up; I always will mess up.” The first error denies responsibility and thereby makes improvement unnecessary: “Why do I need to make adjustments if what happened wasn’t my fault?” The second renders improvement impossible. We all fall short on occasion, so learning to own the problem and having the courage to get back up are essential.
Exploring Academic Interests and Developing Passions
Parents can maximize college preparation by identifying and cultivating academic inclinations during the precollege years. What activities has your teen pursued without being prompted? If the answer is endless video games or movies, brainstorming can help provide a direction. Ask, “If the salary were irrelevant, what would your ideal job look like?” Would they work outside? With their hands? At a computer? With books, people, machines, or equations? In a classroom, library, theater, or laboratory?
You can also light ambition’s fire by introducing them to the needs of the world and the many ways to serve God. Are there social problems that grab their attention, such as human trafficking, extreme poverty, or crisis pregnancies? Cultivating a concern for larger global issues will expand their horizons beyond the myopia of the typical high school social scene. They might even discover connections between their professional interests and real-world needs.
As teens express their interests—in writing, math, science, music—parents can look for opportunities to help them flourish in a particular area. Maybe it’s a writing contest, the math team, a robotics club, an orchestra, or a school play. If possible, expose them to historical examples, particularly of Christians, who’ve excelled in these fields—Madeleine L’Engle the fiction author, William Wilberforce the politician and activist, Michael Faraday the scientist, and so forth. This will help them see that God can be glorified in a myriad of professions, while also motivating a kind of holy emulation. Point them to contemporary role models in your church as well. They’re not too young to volunteer or shadow someone at work.
Each young person has a unique God-given set of gifts, and with diligent effort, he or she has the capacity to increase these abilities. Mere aspiration—like faith without works—is dead. Desire and ambition must be paired with persistent application in order to accomplish anything. Bill Gates put in thousands of hours programming computers before he even graduated from high school. Mozart practiced the keyboard relentlessly even as a child, composing scores of musical pieces in his teen years. Our kids, too, must consistently apply themselves—in the paths of their God-given interests and passions—in order to reach their full potential.
Discovery of Talents
As your teen explores his interests, be on the lookout for objective markers of talent. In what academic subjects or extracurricular activities has he done particularly well? Do teachers, relatives, or friends ever say, “I could really see your son doing X”? If so, ask them why. Then share that feedback with your teen and see how he responds.
It’s important for parents to help their child balance the subjective experience of a particular activity (the teen’s enjoyment of it, her desire to do more of it, and so on) with the objective feedback of others, but particularly that of a teacher, coach, choir director, and so forth—the person whose expertise merits serious consideration. I’ve met students who’ve taken calculus and physics three times each before concluding that engineering wasn’t for them. A better initial evaluation of talent and ability would have made this realization apparent much sooner.
Today’s parents must also contend with the consequences of the “high self-esteem culture,” in which teens may have a tendency to feel too special and lose sight of the proper objective basis for justified self-confidence—actual accomplishment. A common misperception is that high performance follows high self-esteem. In reality, high performance follows high expectations. The 2006 Brown Center Report on American Education reported that 39 percent of American eighth graders were confident of their math skills compared to only 6 percent of their Korean counterparts. But guess which group vastly outperformed the other?
So while teens should be encouraged to aim for the moon, parents must help them be realistic about their current level of ability. Imagine that your daughter really wants to sing in the school’s concert choir, but she can’t carry a tune. Instead of confronting the choir director after a failed audition or spending a ton of money on private voice lessons, talk with her about the pleasure of singing in the shower.
One vital note about helping your teen discover his talent: While it’s important to assist your child in finding that intersection between passion and ability, desire and giftedness, it can also be risky to give a verdict on someone’s potential when he’s only 16 or 17 years old. And if he isn’t exhibiting success in something he’s passionate about, could other factors be involved—such as a lack of discipline or maturity, an uninspiring teacher, biting off more than he can chew in a semester, or a relational difficulty? These problems can be addressed and corrected. So while we should avoid rushing to conclusions, we ought to be realistic and recognize that current success is often an excellent predictor of future success.
Many parents fear their child’s college transition. They wonder, Will my daughter make it? It’s totally understandable—the dangers are real and multifaceted. Teens will be tested spiritually, morally, academically, financially, and relationally. The good news is God faithfully sustains his children—he longs for our holiness and progress more than we do. Thriving at college IS possible.
What I’ve seen during my seven years of working with college students is that those with godly character who embrace responsibility, take initiative, know their weaknesses, pursue excellence, and come in with at least some academic ability and interest do just fine in college. Yet problems arise when one or more of these traits are missing.
While pre-college preparation is crucial, even if you’re a bit late to the game, the good news is that it’s never too late to start. I’ve had the joy of seeing a student worker I once fired graduate four years later with tremendous competence and character. I’ve seen students change majors and take off like a rocket because they finally found their niche. I’ve even seen goofoff freshmen become mature, responsible seniors.
As parents, what can we do to help prepare our children to succeed in college?
1. Love them enough to set high expectations and give them a vision of Christian excellence: Living fruitfully for God’s glory in the strength that he supplies (1 Pet. 4:11), and in a manner consistent with our gift set. Keep in mind that they’ll live up—or down—to our expectations.
2. Find that delicate balance between protecting them from major harm, yet allowing them to stumble so they can learn from their mistakes and misjudgments.
3. Encourage them regularly but also help them accurately recognize their weaknesses.
4. Live what we preach: Pursue Christian responsibility and excellence in our own lives, apologize when we fall short, and be transparent and authentic with them.
God has great plans for our children. May their journey be a blessing to us all.