The secret to success in college

6 mins read

The next four years will shape the course of the rest of your life.

Whether or not you consciously have realized it, there is some part of you — probably the part that is both thrilled and terrified to be heading to college — that recognizes how true that statement is. Of course, many students understand the impact college can have on their future career paths but, at this stage, it can be hard to appreciate how much the choices you make over the next four years will determine the attitudes, beliefs, relationships and general sense of who you are and who you want to be for the rest of your life.

If you haven’t passed out yet, take heart. Here are a few thoughts based on the psychology of success that will help you claim victory over the next chapter you’re entering.

Vision: The key to successful adulting

Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that one of the most significant factors in determining college-student success (both in academics and life in general) was having a vision. They said that vision is a combination of three critical skills: the ability to have a mission, to set effective goals and to have high expectations for your own behavior. The good news is, even if you aren’t particularly good at any of these things yet, that’s OK. Studies show that anyone can learn these skills. Once upon a time, you probably weren’t very good at tying your shoes either, but through practice and effort, you figured it out.

The first step to creating a vision for success is developing your mission. A mission is a set of deeply held values or beliefs that enable you to see what is possible for your life, that you truly are capable of becoming much more than what you see when you look in the mirror. Second, your mission must help you believe that you are capable of achieving your hoped-for ideals in every part of your life. Finally, a solid mission has to open your heart to accepting help and gaining new skills. You have to be humble enough to realize that although great things are possible, you’re going to need to grow a lot, learn a lot, develop a lot of new skills and get a lot of good help in order to get there.

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Interestingly, this last point coincides with a separate study by Arizona State University that identified humility as an underappreciated quality in both business and life success. Humility doesn’t mean beating up on yourself. It means being happy to accept useful advice and help from other people, even when your ego says you’d rather do it yourself. Humble people are able to celebrate their own strengths and talents, but they also recognize the strengths and talents of others. Humble people recognize that, as good as they are, there is always room to grow.

The second key to having a vision for success is knowing how to make concrete goals. A lot of people make wishes, not goals. What’s the difference? A wish is just a fantasy without a plan, but a goal is a dream divided into achievable steps. You might wish for terrific grades, but it’s the student who sets a goal of getting good grades and then makes a plan for carving out regular time to read the assigned chapters, study the notes, ask good questions and go the extra mile who gets the A. Wishers attribute success or failure to luck. Goal-setters know better.

The third key to creating a success-oriented vision is having high expectations for yourself. It’s easy to have high expectations for life. Again, that’s just wishing. Wishers just hope good things will happen to them. By contrast, people with high expectations for themselves know that it is their job to make good things happen — especially when everything around them isn’t going as planned. Wishers see failure as a door slammed in their faces. But people with high expectations for themselves look at failure as an opportunity to make new plans, learn new skills and get better help.

You can probably see why psychologists and educators who study success think that vision is such an important part of winning at life. But you have another resource you may not have considered. In fact, it’s something that secretly has been training you to have a mission, create solid goals and have high expectations for yourself your whole life. Namely, it’s your Catholic faith.

Why faith?

If research about college students and church is to be believed, you might not be too sure what to do with your faith. In fact, you may have been harboring serious doubts about God or Catholicism since you were about 13 years old (or younger). That’s the age that most unchurched adults say they really stopped believing, even if their parents didn’t notice until they got to college and had the freedom to choose other ways to spend Sunday mornings.

In order to hold onto their faith through the teen and young adult years, studies show that young people need help discovering how their faith can both help them find their place in the world and build healthy, rewarding relationships. If no one helps them do that, most teens and young adults come to believe that faith is just a bunch of nice stories and strange rules that either don’t apply to them or make life a lot harder than it needs to be. If this describes you, I’d like to help you connect some dots that just might spell the difference between success and failure in the next few years.

The truth is, without faith, it’s awfully hard to have a vision for success, to think that you were created to do anything beyond surviving. Sure, there’s plenty of media that preaches “anything is possible if you follow your dreams” and “you can do it!” But when you’re feeling down on yourself, it’s hard to get away from the sense that those lines are as phony as the actors who parrot them.

But if you have faith, if you know that God is real, that he loves you more than you could imagine, and that he believes in you even when you don’t believe in yourself — that makes a difference. I’d like to invite you to start talking to God like he was the person who knows you best and loves you most — because he is. If you haven’t met that God yet, you can start by saying something like, “God, I don’t really know you very well, but please show me how to love myself as you love me, to believe in myself as you believe in me and to become everything you made me to be so that I can glorify you in everything I do.” Catholicism gives us many beautiful ways to connect with the God who knows us best and loves us most, but even if you aren’t sure how you feel about all that, start with that simple prayer. Say it in the morning and before you go to bed everyday. It will change your life.

Second, go to church. Why? Not because “it’s the rules” but because you need to know you aren’t alone. Remember what the studies said about humility? God wants you to go to church first because he wants to give himself to you in the Eucharist so that, wherever you go, you know that he isn’t just with you in your imagination. He fills every cell of your body with his love. That’s how close he wants to be to you. God also wants you to go to church so you can be with all the other people struggling just like you and remember that you’re there to help each other. Face it, when you’re feeling down or scared, it’s just too easy to hide in your room under a blanket — or worse — but that doesn’t get you anywhere. Going to church — especially when you have to make yourself do it — reminds you that God is never going to give up on you and that he is giving you a lot of other people with whom to laugh, cry, struggle and succeed, if you’ll just make a little effort.

Finally, your faith can foster your vision by helping you set more effective goals and having higher expectations. How? When you pray, don’t just ask God to “fix this” or “change them” or “bless that.” That’s an OK place to start, but more often, try praying like this: “God, give me the grace to respond to this situation/person in a way that gives you glory and makes me the loving, strong, formidable person you created me to be.” Then really think about how to use that challenge to become that person, and do it — even if its hard. That’s what Christians call “cooperating with grace.”

Romans 8:31 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us.” I can guarantee that the next four years will be a wild ride. You’ll have amazing highs and horrible lows and times you don’t know which way is up, yet, through it all, if you allow yourself to cultivate a faith-filled vision, God will give you everything you need to be “more than a conqueror” (cf. Rom 8:37) of everything that stands between you and the life he made you to live.

Dr Greg Popcak is the host of More2Life on SiriusXM and author of The Life God Wants YOU To Have (Crossroads).

Dr. Greg Popcak

Dr. Greg Popcak is an author and the director of