Letter to My Students

By Alex Chediak Published on May 1, 2023

Dear Students,

I just turned in your grades. It took hours of analysis. I probably poured as much time into test writing and grading as you spent on test taking and studying. If you’re like I was at your age, you probably find great meaning in your grades. I once sat under a tree for 10 minutes in frustration over an error I made on a calculus test that day. Time will heal many such wounds.

A wider perspective helps. According to a study I found while researching this book, 68% of students think a high GPA is very or extremely important for landing a job. But only 48% of hiring managers agree. I’ve seen Cs get degrees, degrees get jobs, and GPAs get washed away in the ocean of forgetfulness. I’m not suggesting you stop caring about your grades. Just keep it in perspective. It’s one input among many. Soon, folks are going to care far more about what kind of person you are and what you can do than what a piece of paper says.

There are things about yourself that you can only learn in the crucible of experience, through deliberate, rational experimentation.

I want to challenge you at a more fundamental level. Coming out of the pandemic, professors are seeing much higher levels of disengagement from their students. Absences, tardies, surfing the web during class, checking out, minimal effort. I urge you to resist this mentality with every fiber of your being. In February 2022, the Archbridge Institute reported that “a minority (39%) of American adults under the age of 25 agree or strongly agree that they have the power to live a meaningful life.” Meaning 61% are tragically misguided. God calls us to more. You were made to be an agent: To affect change, to improve yourself and your surroundings, to not be a mere victim of circumstances.

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The assumption here is that we’re talking about activities that are consistent with how God designed for us to live. Do those things with vigor. In whatever you’re doing, be fully engaged, living entirely in that moment. Not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. That only saps energy from the opportunities right in front of you.

There’s a time for planning, for setting an agenda for where you want things to go, and considering potential roadblocks. If A, then B. If not A, then C. That’s not worrying. It’s rational preparation, which will free you to be in the moment for all those moments when you’re not planning.

Grades are a byproduct of learning. So, let me offer some thoughts on growing as a learner, and then suggest a few ways to make college more transformative.

Active Learning

Educators talk about passive vs. active learning. It’s a mindset more than anything. Think of the phrase “you can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.” You’re the horse. At most, your professors can tell or show you cool things. You’re the one who has to engage that material with all your mind, to wrestle with it, to try doing it yourself. We get better at math, science and engineering by reviewing the concepts and then trying problem after problem ourselves and with others. We get better at reading and writing-intensive classes by reading and writing more. As with a sport or musical instrument, there is no short-cut to mastery and skill.

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During class, listen aggressively. Carefully, but not too carefully. Meaning, don’t lose the forest for the trees. Don’t try to write down everything the professor says. Look for key words, ideas, and definitions. Be aware of any resources the professor makes available — PowerPoint slides, notes, examples, etc. By knowing what you can look at later, you can adjust your note-taking strategy accordingly.

Take advantage of opportunities to improve. I’ve lost track of how many students say they’ll come in for help, but never do. I’ve had students forget assignments, ask for more time to complete them, and still never do them. That’s not the kind of impression you want to leave with your faculty.

Consider a Minor or Second Major

Flow charts are great for ensuring that you can graduate in four years. But don’t assume those are the only courses you should take. If there’s a class you end up loving, consider taking more classes in that same area. You could minor in that subject or even pursue a second major. Getting the most out of college means developing a breadth of skills and not just depth in one area. The future of work is interdisciplinary. The flow chart can’t anticipate your unique blend of talents and interests. That’s something you’ll figure out as you go.

The point is: Don’t just do the bare minimum. Anticipate the interviews where they’ll ask you why you took a particular route through college. They’ll want to know what you’ve learned about yourself. An awareness of what you enjoy and do well, as demonstrated by things you’ve done and successes you’ve experienced, will show them your potential as a lifelong learner and someone with a track record of going the extra mile (the best kind of employee).

Undergraduate Research

Another way to go deeper is to pursue research with a professor. It’s not just for graduate students. You don’t even need to have a specific project in mind. Chances are your professors have several interests and problems in their field that they’d like to pursue — if they only had the time and the manpower. You represent both. If you’ve done well in a class they’ve taught, or in their discipline, approach them with your interest in learning more and contributing towards discovery. Or just ask them what they’re working on or would like to pursue.

A research project will give you the chance to develop technical knowledge as well as presentation skills. The summer after my freshman year I worked in a research lab with graduate students. I learned how to conduct a few simpler measurements, keep data in a lab notebook, and find technical articles in the library. At the end of the summer, I gave an oral presentation and turned in a written report. That job set me up for the next job. In fact, every summer thereafter, I got paid to do something related to what I was learning in college. Why go back to the same kinds of jobs you had in high school?

Aim High

Many students sell themselves short. They don’t realize what they can do even after just a year of college. Talk to the career center at least once a semester. Be intentional, take initiative, hone your skills, and let those who can help you know of your interest to do more. Who you’ll become a year from now depends on the choices you make today.

If a minor, second major, or research don’t sound appealing, consider serving in an academic club (or starting one), attending guest lectures, running for student government, or writing for the school newspaper. Tutoring and later working as a teaching assistant were huge for me. All these things that you don’t really have to do, but that you should consider, deliver an unexpected payoff: A greater sense of who God made you to be. There are things about yourself that you can only learn in the crucible of experience, through deliberate, rational experimentation. You don’t figure out who you are by simply checking the boxes or going through the motions.

I look forward to seeing your story unfold. It’s been an honor to have played a small part in it.

God bless you,

Dr. Chediak


Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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