How to make the most of university

What is university for?

For many students, university is an unconscious decision. You finish high school; you’re a competent student and so you do what competent students do – apply to university.

Some students are completing a lifelong career dream of being say, a nurse. For others university is merely a way of delaying further the ‘real world’. These people often become the perennial professional student still hanging around a decade later. Yet for many students their arrival at university is just because. Sure, there were preferences to choose, and universities to select but university is simply what you do after high school.

But have you stopped to ask yourself ‘What is university for?

What are you hoping to get out of your student years? A degree? Honours? Some fun experiences? Lifelong friends?

The Hollywood answer is that university is for partying. It is tempting to dismiss this outright but this social aspect of studying has a surprising historical precedent in the history of modern universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

Most students today would say university is for a job or career. You train in primary education to become a primary school teacher, or medicine to become a doctor. In this realm some students will be honest and confess university is for Mum and Dad who wanted me here.

Perhaps more perceptively some will specify that university is for money; both the higher average wage that university graduates earn, as well as the universities themselves who continue to drink from the well of full-fee-paying international students.

To be sure, socialising, career, and money are unavoidably part of modern university life, but are they what university is for? If you don’t know what university is for, then you can’t make the most of it.

So I’d invite you to consider university with a loftier goal – that university is for learning. What I mean by this I hope will become clear shortly, but I’m talking about learning in a very broad sense. University is for learning. Not merely facts or knowledge or even scholarship, but an education.

As most university students today reduce their studies to a qualification it has become commonplace to mock people who consider university as an education rather than a career. We call them Arts students. And we suspect they’ll attain little practical skills (is ‘English literature’ a skill?) and in all likelihood end up working at McDonald’s. But then again according to recent reports, Law is the new Arts with only about two-thirds of law students finding work in law. In other words, there are many paths to McDonald’s.

However when I say that university is for learning, I don’t immediately mean the type of learning from an Arts major. From my 14 years with students (including two degrees of my own) I have observed that it is the students who understand that university is for learning who will get the most out of their student years. This broader approach to your education will ensure that the job, career, and socialising will form a necessary part of university life without dominating it.

I want you to get the most out of university. And if you don’t know what university is for then you won’t get the most out of university. If university is for learning then there are three attitudes to have towards learning and three key areas to think about as you learn.

Three attitudes to learning

  1. Learn to love learning

It is wrong to assume that everyone at university loves the process of learning. Most humans have a love of learning early in life but it is an attitude that is unlearnt through the later years of schooling once your childlike wonder dissipates. I blame hormones but it’s probably also modern education.

So whilst you’re at university learn to enjoy the process of gaining knowledge. Don’t complain as you write and research every essay and assignment. Perhaps you could argue a position in an essay that you don’t agree with; ask a question in class; disagree with a lecturer. Choose electives based on interest, not what furthers your career. Why not study a subject outside your course area?

Learn to love learning.

  1. Learn to prioritise learning

If these years are given to learning, then you need to give time to the process. The biggest mistake I observe these days is trying to squeeze your lectures into two days so you can spend three days working casual shifts at the supermarket.

What drives this is an ever-increasing standard of living expected by students. If you don’t want to waste your university years here’s the thing to do: learn to live with less. Lower your standards. Make the most of every free lunch on campus. Bring food from home. Live off 2-minute noodles. Live out of home as long as you can stand it. Take public transport. Ride a bike. Don’t get a credit card. Use student discounts. Don’t buy any textbooks (at least until you’ve checked with a final year student)!

Of course you can take this too far; I know a university student who saved money on an ear piercing by numbing his earlobe with ice and then getting a friend to make the hole with a fork.

Some students do need to work, but I advise students to look for a job that uses your nights not your days: work at a cinema, or in hospitality. Or better still outside of university time with seasonal work over Christmas and New Year.

Let me state this as plainly as I can: you have got 45 years of full-time work after university. No one ever gets to retirement and says, gee I’m glad I spent every spare moment during my student years working for $17 an hour at Target. But people do look back on the experiences they had with friends.

Which leads to the third key attitude:

  1. Learn in community

Make the most of learning from others. There is a Christian element to this: we exist to serve others as Jesus too served us. Yet it is almost impossible to serve others when you’re not around them. Showing up serves your lecturers (even if they don’t think so), but also enables you to serve and be served by others. Other students will challenge you, push you further, give exam hints, and share resources. Show up, for your sake and theirs.

Socially this is also helpful for first year students. It can be hard to make friends, but be brave and keep showing up. I recommend sitting in the same spot in weekly lectures to try and get multiple contact with the same people. At most AFES groups many students find a warm welcoming community as well when you show up for a public Bible talk or small group Bible study to get to know a few people really well.

It has never been easier to be an absentee university student. Our university has wonderful technology called Lecture Capture which records lectures for later listening (and we always have good intentions of listening later, don’t we). Listen-later-lectures are a great servant but a terrible master.

As we learn to love learning, learn to live with less and learn in community, this will provide the foundation for deeper reflection on life itself, which is where the real learning comes in. This is how to make the most of university.

Three areas to think about whilst you’re learning

  1. Think about life’s big questions

When is the best time to stop and think about life, the universe and everything? When you have a mid-life crisis? Retirement? To get the most out of university you need to use this time to ask big questions. This is the time for it. You’re out of the bubble of school, taking a step into adulthood away from your parents.

Have you interrogated your beliefs? And this is true regardless of your religious background. Which beliefs have you inherited – both good and bad?

For without self-awareness in this area, you will imbibe someone else’s worldview. It is rare that lecturers will make their worldview explicit. So you will swim in it subconsciously. If you don’t ask the big questions about life, the universe and everything, you’ll accept someone else’s answers by default.

Our Christian group Gospel Students wants people to ask big questions. Questions that matter. Because whether you realise it or not you’re already on the treadmill of life. And life will go on whether you ask the big questions or not. But we want you to know what you’re living for. We want you to know that what you’re investing your life in is worthwhile.

  1. Think about yourself

University is the perfect time for an existential crisis or two. Consequently universities are a people-watchers delight as students try to reinvent themselves. Perhaps you could try a hipster phase: new haircut, skinny jeans, and start drinking lattes. This is a great time to work out ‘Who am I’? What am I like?

You may find your strengths and weaknesses, but also your limitations: If you aren’t going to be the girl who gets 7’s for every subject, can you be content with 5’s?

But there’s deeper thinking to be done about yourself to help you make the most of your student years.

One of the things that we do as a Christian group as we teach the Bible is we interrogate the view of humanity that is presented in university. We do this by seeing what the creator says we are like.

There are competing approaches to humankind that you’ll come across in your studies. Students in education, psychology and legal subjects will come across an optimism about the direction of humanity. Hopefulness that through education we will solve the world’s problems. A hope that through science we are reversing the effects of sin and making progress in life expectancy on the slow march towards immortality.

There are other visions of humanity too: a kind of reductive humanistic naturalism –which sees nothing beyond the physical realm, and so reduces most of existence to hollow philosophies of pleasure-seeking and the pursuit of happiness. Or in its darker forms becomes nihilistic and sees life as pointless and inherently selfish.

But the Scriptures paint a picture of humanity that is realistic, both recognising the deep inherent worth of life as those loved by God, and tempered by the reality of a fallen world which has rejected God. Rebellious, selfish, fallen, yet loved.

Think about yourself.

  1. Think about Jesus

Most university students are culturally illiterate. Because if you don’t know a reasonable amount about Jesus and Christianity then you won’t understand Australia. This country is not a Christian country — I don’t believe it’s possible to be a Christian country — but Australia is profoundly shaped by our Judeo-Christian heritage. Our legal system, our history, our art, many of our formative artists – are infused with Christian thought and influence. Not to mention our major holidays and entire calendar are determined in relation to the major events of Jesus’ life. Without some knowledge of Jesus you are culturally illiterate. Yet from a Christian perspective there is a more important reason to think about Jesus.

As someone who has shaped history so profoundly, it is important to consider the claims of Jesus. The way to do this is not by taking my word for it, or your parents, or your lecturers, but through opening the historical documents from the first century. This is how you make an informed decision, as you hear from those who witnessed these events. Jesus is worth rejecting as an adult.

Not only that, Jesus himself makes some pretty amazing claims about how important he is. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He makes a claim to being different, to being the one way, the only way to be right with your maker. And it has been my experience that as students think about Jesus they can be strangely and frustratingly drawn to him. Oftentimes inconveniently convinced that he is who he says he is. We simply read the Bible so people can make a decision to trust in Jesus — or at least an informed decision not to. Think about Jesus.

And to Christians, make the most of university by giving your intellect to putting down deep roots in Christian belief. We won’t treat you like a child. Our Christian group is not a youth group all about playing games — although we do have plenty of fun — and there are times for games. We want you to become an informed, mature, adult believer.

Unapologetically give all your intellect to pursuing the things of God – his unfolding plan to bring all things under the rule of Jesus. Being a Christian student is not an oxymoron. Don’t buy the lie that secular universities means no place for Christian thought – it means the opposite not to privilege any one religion over another. Christians are students of history because we believe in the God who is over world history, students of science because we believe this is God’s ordered world, students of the humanities because we believe humans are the high point of God’s creation.

This is what university is for. Not money, not the piece of paper, but to learn. Don’t waste your student years by merely graduating.

Rather learn to love learning, learn to prioritise learning, and learn in community. And whilst you’re learning, to think. Think about life’s big questions, think about yourself, and think about Jesus.


For Griffith students:

For other universities: