Making the Most of College: How Personal Purpose Colors the University Experience


Every year, I see thousands of students enroll at the University where I teach and study. In the spring, they go on campus tours, wander into the library and visit academic buildings. In the summer, they start college early or attend special orientations for new students. Then in the fall, they begin their academic careers in earnest. And at this place rich with possibilities, many of them struggle.

This isn’t just an issue at my university—it’s a national problem. While many, of course, do well, the data suggest that the majority of new students across the country struggle with starting college. According to the Department of Education, close to sixty-percent of students take six years to complete a four year degree. (With each additional year spent at a four-year institution costing in excess of twenty-two thousand dollars.) So what’s causing students to loiter in school?

Some, understandably, face unexpected financial or personal difficulties that require them to take time off. But many others have only themselves to blame. I see students caught up in party culture. I see others repeatedly change their majors and continuously have to start over. Still more just lose steam, and end up taking a semester or two off—often never to return.

I see these students and I recognize in them the symptoms of a common underlying problem: lack of purpose.

Part of the problem is that college just isn’t for everybody. As we’ve argued before, students should think long and hard about their motivation for attending college, in order to be absolutely sure that it suits their own personal goals. Some people are simply better off pursuing other opportunities—and that’s quite alright.

But if you do decide to attend college, you should take some time to appreciate that you’re  stepping onto the threshold of a unique opportunity. Although the college experience is far from perfect, it still offers you a unique chance to study something you love, to meet people who share your values, to cultivate your character and to begin sowing the seeds of a career—but only if you approach it with purpose.

Your own purpose might be to write novels or work as a journalist; it might be to become a teacher or a professor; it might be to design buildings or cure diseases; it might be to study philosophy or mathematics. Whatever your purpose is, it must be personal. That is, it must be “something you independently choose to value and pursue.” You have to love it enough that you’re willing to spend four years of your life actively pursuing it.

Think back (or ahead) to your first semester’s student organization fair, which most colleges have at the beginning of the year. Consider how two different students, one with a purpose and one without, might approach the fair. Pat walks into the fair with a list of organizations to visit. First, she stops by the campus newspaper’s booth—she’s interested in writing and wants to see if she likes doing journalism. Aidan though, goes to the fair because “everybody else is going.” With no plan, Aidan wanders around aimlessly before eventually joining a group of fraternity brothers playing beer pong on their table.

What you do at your own fair won’t make or break your college career, but the wider lesson is important: if you go to college for the same reasons that Aidan went to the fair, you’ll end up wasting time and achieving very little. And perhaps more importantly, you’ll miss out on the deep sense of enjoyment that comes from spending four years doing something that you love. But if you go into college with a clear sense of what you want from the experience, you’ll enjoy the work you do and use your time productively. So it’s important, early on, to identify and prioritize a personal mission for your college career.

Assuming you have such a mission, your earliest challenge will be to decide on a school. With so many possible colleges to choose from, you may find this process daunting—unless you approach it with your mission in mind. For instance, while Pat might not have known exactly what she wanted to do when applying to schools, she knew she was interested in writing. So she took a purposeful approach: she applied mostly to schools with the kinds of programs that would help her cultivate that interest, such as journalism and creative writing.

Once you’ve arrived at school, still more choices await you. From your interests, you must choose one subject—your major—which you enjoy and which will serve your broader college mission. Selecting your major for the right reasons is crucial.

Consider two alternative approaches. In his freshman year, Aidan declares a major in engineering because “it seems lucrative.” But it was tough going, and he quickly swaps to English because, he explains, “it seems easier.” We all know an Aidan: that student who always reads the SparkNotes instead of the novel, writes his papers at the last minute and studies for exams the night before. Fighting his own disinterest, mastery of English as a discipline comes only at great difficulty to Aidan—if indeed he ever really achieves it.

But unlike Aidan, Pat chose to major in English because she enjoys it, and it will help her pursue a career as a writer. As part of her program, she takes a class on British literature in the fall of her junior year. While Pat doesn’t find all of the literature compelling, she develops a careful method of reading each author in order to help her become a better writer herself. Instead of reading the SparkNotes, she reads Shakespeare (and other authors in the course) very closely to observe how he developed villains and heroes in his plays. Her purposeful approach to reading other authors prepares her for her own goal of writing novels and plays.

Like Pat, and unlike Aidan, you have to deeply enjoy the subject you study so that you can relish the work required to master it. You should not be content to simply memorize the content—a soulless approach to learning. And if you’re working toward something you love, you won’t have to simply memorize—you’ll remember the content because you’re absorbed by it, because it’s helping you toward your personal purpose.

With this sort of focus, eventually you’ll start itching to use the knowledge that you’ve acquired. Fortunately, college life is teeming with opportunities to try out activities you might find interesting and enjoyable. Often, you can also use extra-curriculars to begin practicing some form of valuable, creative work. If a club or group isn’t for you, you lose little. But if you enjoy it, you stand to gain valuable experience in a low-risk educational context, further developing yourself into that person you set out to become by attending college.

For instance, Pat tried writing for the campus newspaper, but in the end, decided that journalism wasn’t for her. Instead, she became an active participant in the campus literary magazine, publishing short stories and essays in successive editions, and even becoming the editor of the magazine during her senior year. From her foray into extra-curriculars, not only did she learn that she didn’t enjoy journalism, but she forged a love for literature that brought a new level of excitement and passion to her college career—an enrichment that might have passed her by if she’d drifted aimlessly through her years in school.

Another of the great prospects of college is the potential for meeting friends. Whether you meet them in class, through extra-curricular activities or otherwise, building relationships with others is part of what makes the college experience so thrilling. The most fruitful friendships can even push us to be better people, as new minds give rise to fresh introspection and growth, perhaps even impacting the direction of your college career.

For instance, suppose that Pat has a friend, George, a senior writer for the campus literary magazine. Starting out, Pat often disagreed with the suggestions of one of her editors, but found herself passively accepting his changes anyway. She asked for George’s advice, who, after weeks of conversation, finally convinced her to trust her judgment and to voice her disagreement—a character trait that would be key to her taking on a leadership position at the magazine as an upperclassman.

But our friends can also hold us back. For instance, Aidan tends to spend most of his time with a group of people who are similarly aimless. Drifting through their time in college, they habitually begin partying on Thursday nights and don’t finish until they wake up at noon on Monday with a hangover. These “friends” don’t help Aidan become a better person. If anything, they reinforce his weaknesses.

Another exciting feature of college life is the opportunity to engage with the wealth of other people on campus whose ideas can often enrich your own. Through venues like the campus newspaper or lecture events where students can ask questions, you can promote your own views, discover how they relate to the views of other people and maybe even develop new ones. If you’re someone like Pat with an interest in writing and literature, you might look to publish book reviews or poetry in your campus literary magazine. But in order for this sort of productive dialogue to exist, you and your fellow students will need to be prepared to discuss and experiment with controversial ideas—even when they offend you.

This is the sort of campus that we should all want to be a part of—a campus filled with purposeful classmates, each with a unique mission for their college careers, and each working their hardest to fulfill them. While some might think this perspective on college is overly regimented and “takes the fun out of it,” in my experience, approaching college with purpose will animate your university years with color and infuse them with deeper meaning. You won’t be resigned to living for the weekends because every day will present you with an exciting opportunity to discover the best within you and to harness it in preparation for an accomplished life.

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