As You Tackle the New Semester: Some Words of Advice for Students

It’s that time of year again!

That time when students leave the comfy confines of their family homes and head back to college to tackle yet another year of friends, fun, and (maybe) even a little bit of learning. I can always tell when the fall semester is about to begin because the traffic gets a little heavier, the email in my Inbox starts to overflow, and the lines at Chipotle get ridiculously long (I do NOT like waiting to get my guacamole, people!).


Yep, the semester is definitely upon us.

For most students, college is an amazing time, a time to meet new people, a time to learn about themselves, a time to create new experiences that last a lifetime.

But quite often, college is also a time of confusion, anxiety, and stress. Students find themselves saying things like:

“What should I major in?”

“What if I fail my class?”

“What if I don’t get into graduate school?”

“I hate my major, but my parents are pressuring me to be a doctor (or lawyer or professor or nurse or teacher or . . . ).”

“I think I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I want to do with my life.”

And so on . . .

As a college professor, I talk to a lot of students who feel enormous stress as they think about these questions and tackle the vagaries of college life. Now, certainly, they bring a lot of this stress on themselves. For instance, procrastinating—which, for many, is an everyday occurrence—rarely produces long-term positive outcomes. Yet students do it anyway.

Quite often, though, the stress that students experience is brought on by others: for instance, parents who pressure their kids to make certain decisions, professors whose expectations for their students might be just a bit over the top, friends (and other students) who think that college is a zero-sum game where the goal is to “beat” every one else, and a society that defines “success” in very narrow terms.

Unfortunately, these stressors have the ability to diminish students’ college experiences and make their time in college considerably less enjoyable than it really should be. (By the way, I’m not suggesting that college should be stress-free. In fact, I think that learning to deal with stress is great life training.)

I remember feeling this way at times. For example, as I’ve written previously, I remember thinking that I needed to major in electrical engineering because it would look good to others, not because I really had any interest in it.

Unfortunately, my lack of interest was quickly followed by a lack of motivation and an even bigger lack of good grades.

On the bright side, I had supportive parents who urged me to make a change, who gave me the freedom go searching for a major that would give me the interest and the motivation to perform in a way that I (and they) knew I was capable of performing.

I was also lucky enough to have some incredible professors—Gail Peterson and Bruce Overmier at the undergraduate level; Tony Marcattilio, Bob Murphy, and Bill Buskist in graduate school—who, in one form or another, helped me figure out both college and life (although I’m still figuring out that “life” part). For that, I am forever in their debt.

As a college professor, I’m now in a position to help my students the way my parents and professors helped me. (Whether I’m doing that effectively is certainly up for debate.) In fact, much of the reason I chose to become a college professor was because I wanted to have the same impact on my students that my professors had on me.

When students come to my office and ask for my advice about classes, majors, graduate school, jobs, or even life, I find myself thinking back to my time in college, that time 20 years ago (yes, I’m that old) when I wondered whether I had chosen the right major, whether I’d get into graduate school, and whether I really knew what I wanted to do with my life.

And then it hits me: These students are me!

They have many of the same concerns and problems that I grappled with when I was a college student (and some of which I still grapple with today).

In that sense, then, when I’m talking to my students, I’m really talking to my 20-year-old self. And maybe not surprisingly, I find myself giving them some of the same advice my professors gave me.

Even more than that, though, I find myself telling them things I’ve learned over the past 20 years—things I know now that I wish I’d known back then.

(In fact, many of the topics I write about in this blog are those things.)

So, as we embark on this new semester, I’d like to share with you some of words of advice. These are some of the things I’ve learned over the past 20 years—things that (I think) might be useful to my students (and others) ask they tackle a new year of friends, fun, and (maybe) even a little bit of learning.

Find and Pursue Your Passions

We hear this all the time, but not a lot of people do it. And yet, the psychological benefits are undeniably clear: increased happiness, less stress, better relationships, and more optimism about life, to name a few. Moreover, people who approach their careers with passion are persistent in the face of setbacks and, thus, tend to perform better than those who are non-passionate (for a review, see here). There’s even quite a bit of research suggesting that passion and positive emotions might actually cause success (and not the other way around).

Now, if you don’t feel like you’re passionate about anything, then you need to get out and try new things. Passion develops when you try new things and surround yourself with people who support your choices.

If you think you might be passionate about something but you’re not sure, then you need to take some time to “listen to your heart” (I hate that phrase, but it makes my point). Only when I finally slowed down (by engaging in meditation and frequent self-reflection) and started to listen to what my heart and mind were telling me did I come to realize what I’m most passionate about.

Finally, if you know what you’re passionate about but are afraid to give it a go because you think it’s too risky, then you need to remember this: There’s risk involved with everything you choose to do. Quite possibly the biggest risk, though, entails not being true to yourself.

So go and find what you’re passionate about (if you don’t know already). College is a great time to explore and see what really turns you on.

The rest of your life is a long time not to be doing something you enjoy.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

So many students I know are afraid to fail. Now, I certainly understand why: They’ve been told that if they “fail,” they won’t be successful: They’ll never get into college; they’ll never get into graduate school; they won’t get a good job; they’ll never make a lot of money; they’ll never find anyone to love; and, ultimately, they’ll die penniless and alone. (Well, that escalated quickly, didn’t it?) As a result, students think they need to be perfect at everything. But as you might guess, trying to be perfect all the time is a recipe for disaster.

And here’s one more thing for you to chew on: Even if you try, you’re not going to be perfect (or even good) at everything!

I’m not. My wife isn’t. My kids aren’t. My parents aren’t. My brother isn’t. My friends aren’t. My colleagues aren’t. NO ONE IS!

And you know what? Most of us are doing just fine.

So, stop trying to be perfect! Instead, embrace the notion that you will probably fail at some point. Remember the old saying: “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.” Also, understand that if you fail, it’s going to be alright. The world isn’t going to end. You’ll find a way to bounce back.

In fact, let’s stop calling it “failure.” Instead, think of it as “finding what doesn’t work for me.” When you embrace this idea, you won’t be afraid to try new things. You know that some will work out and others won’t. You learn more quickly what your strengths and weaknesses are. And you’re more likely to discover what you’re passionate about. So take a shot and see what happens. As Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”

Finally, if you do “fail,” simply get up and try again. As this video shows, even the most successful people had to encounter failure (often over and over again) before they found what worked for them. You should do the same.

Define “Success” for Yourself

While we’re on the topic of successful people, let’s talk a little bit about that ever-so-momentous word: SUCCESS. What does it mean to you? For most people, it means making a lot of money. Or maybe it entails a “successful” career as a doctor or lawyer or engineer or whatever. Students might define it as having a high GPA (which creates its own problems).

But have you ever taken the time to think about where your definition came from? Often, we define “success” based on what others tell us it is (our parents, our professors, our friends). But here’s the deal: You’re not them! What they want out of life probably isn’t the same as what you want out of life. Nor should it be! You’re different people, with different experiences and different motivations.

This is your life and no one else’s. Take the time to come up with your own definition of success and to set your own goals. Don’t let others tell you they’re good or bad. They’re yours, and that’s all that matters. Then ask yourself whether you’re doing the important things that will put you on the path to your success. If you’re on the path, keep going. If you’re not, change course. Now.

Slow Down Every Once in Awhile

We live in a world where we’re constantly on the go. I know I feel that way much of the time: wake up early, get the kids ready for school, rush out the door, go to work, rush to the next meeting, pick up the boys from school, try to fit in some exercise, make dinner, get the boys ready for bed, try to fit in a little “me” time, go to bed, and get ready to do it all over again.

You know what I’m talking about, right?

The problem is that when we’re constantly on the go, we have little time to slow down and pay attention to what’s actually happening around is. And when we don’t pay attention, before we know it, our kids are playing Little League, going to middle-school dances, getting their driver’s licenses, and leaving for college. And we’re left wondering where the time went.

For students, this is especially true. You’re constantly on the go, and your time in college flies by (as some of you already know). If you don’t slow down every once in awhile, it’ll be over before you know it. And you’ll wonder where it all went.

To remedy this, take some time every so often to slow down and smell the roses. I’m not talking about lying around on your couch all day doing nothing of use. Or blowing off your classes and going drinking instead (although I’m sure that’s what some of you probably had in mind).

No, I’m talking about things that make you think and reflect: things like reading a book (one that’s not assigned for a class) or making dinner for yourself or having a nice conversation with friends or simply sipping some coffee and looking at the beautiful blue sky.

Most importantly, I’m talking about taking some time to be alone—in your room (or some other quiet location) with nothing but your thoughts. Without your phone (god forbid!). So you can “listen” to yourself and see what your heart and mind are really saying. Because only when you slow down a bit and listen to yourself will you ultimately get unadulterated insight on what you want your life to be.

Realize That You Don’t Need to Have Your Life Figured Out Yet

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have your life plan laid out by the time you’re 22. (And if you think you do, then you really need to read this.) Your life is going to unfold in ways you can’t even fathom right now. As such, if you’re not sure what you want to “do” or “be” at this point in your life, that’s totally okay (even if others are telling you it’s not).

Look, here’s the truth: You’re not alone. In my experience, many college students like to say they have their lives figured out, but they really don’t. Rather, they say it because it makes others (like their parents) feel better.

So, don’t worry. You’ll figure it out. Give yourself some space, and things will come together, even if it takes awhile for that to happen. I’d rather you take 5 or 10 years now to figure it out so that you’re happy when you’re 55.

Be Grateful for Your Opportunity

When I look around, there’s a lot of complaining going on (I’m guilty of it, too). But here’s the real deal: We all have a lot to be thankful for.

Family. Friends. Food on our plates (preferably from Chipotle, if that frickin’ line ever gets any shorter). Roofs over our heads. Nice weather every so often.

And the chance to go to college.

Please, please remember this: Not everyone has that chance. In fact, for the large majority of people in this world, higher education isn’t even an option. You are one of the incredibly lucky ones.

When you’re sitting in your class, listening to your boring-ass professor go on and on about some crazy psychological theory (as I’m prone to do), or when you’re sitting in the library studying for your big exam, or when you have 100 pages of reading to do by tomorrow (because you’ve procrastinated too much), just remember how good you have it. Seriously. Just remember all those people who wish they were in your shoes (and trust me, there are a lot of them).

This is an amazing time for you. Stop complaining, and be grateful for your opportunity and for everything you have.

Go Forth and Have a Great Year

So, there you have it: some words of advice for students. From me to you. I hope you find something I said to be at least a bit useful. If not, that’s okay.

Regardless, have a great semester. Enjoy your friends (but make new ones), have fun (but without into too much trouble), and maybe even try to learn a little bit.

I’ll see you around.


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