overcommitment in college

Your Kid Should Guard Their Signature from Day One (Or Earlier)

An unguarded signature can sink your student.

Not long after my college career ended, I reflected on my senior year of high school:

I distinctly remember the signs of busyness: The caffeine-rich two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew I carried to class. Driving home after 11 o’clock on school nights, with still much to do once I got there. The stress I felt when my alarm woke me up each morning. Missing lunch most of the time. When I did eat, doing it as I finished up homework, never in the lunchroom with my friends. Finding random places to catch a quick nap as I waited for the next item on my agenda to come. (Underneath desks was a great place for that.)

It was my senior year in high school, and my plate wasn’t just full—it was overflowing. Football, student council, yearbook, theater, National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, friends, family, work, church and schoolwork all made for a very busy Ben. (from “Stressed Out!: Confessions of a High School Workaholic“)

Of course, nowadays I go by my full name, Benson, and my drink of choice is Diet Mountain Dew. But the more important transition, one I made as college began, was learning to guard my signature.

Guarding My Signature

I forget where I heard the term, but the encouragement to “guard your signature” stuck with me. The term described being very intentional about each commitment someone makes when they step onto a college campus. Every freshman is encouraged to sign up for a zillion opportunities; this idea means they make those choices very carefully.

The article I quoted above was written for high schoolers, and it’s all the more applicable for high schoolers today. But even more importantly, you’ve got the chance to help your kids avoid overcommitment in college, when the stakes are even higher. Temptations to “join in” without much thought will bombard your student from the first week of school. The opportunities will be wide-ranging and quite interesting: from spelunking to skydiving, from fraternities to French Club, from Mock Trial to mocking fellow students in an improv comedy group.

Each demanding “just a little time.”

Of course, any one of these activities may provide the fun, relationships, impact opportunities, and extracurricular education that are the heart of the collegiate experience. It’s through commitments like these that your daughter or son might develop new skills, make career connections, build lifelong memories, make lifelong friends, or find a lifelong hobby. But each of these things could also become a burden, a distraction, or significant time spent that can’t be recouped. An unguarded signature can sink your student.

What They’ll Lose

First and foremost, a college student that doesn’t guard their signature risks the very reason they’re in school.

Many a collegian has failed classes or flunked out because “the collegiate experience” took more of their focus than the education. Even though your kid (probably) won’t flunk out, he or she certainly might learn a really painful lesson. If they don’t guard their signature from day one, they’re likely to get behind academically in their very first semester. And it’s much harder to “catch up” in a college semester than a high school semester!

A college kid without the ability to guard their signature misses some other things, too. My article included thoughts on that, too:

As I look back on my junior and senior years, I now realize I really didn’t accomplish all that much. The problem was, I was spread so thin that I really didn’t do anything all that well. … I never had a firm enough grasp on anything to really see all God wanted me to do with it. … As I think about high school, I can’t help but wonder what might have happened if I’d let God lead me in just one or two big things throughout my time there. What kind of impact could I have had then? I could have concentrated more on my relationships, instead of just my next job, meeting or assignment. I could have lightened up and just enjoyed life a little more.

A student who doesn’t choose the best among the many “good” options won’t have the success or significance they would have had. Sure, a kid who flits from activity to activity (or simply has several commitments at the same time) will graduate with a variety of memories… but not a depth of experience, or the satisfaction of really making an impact. And they’ll enter the “young adult world” without having learned to focus.

They Could Start Today…

Perhaps your kid has already realized the consequences of over-scheduling. But note: Even though I lived with a terribly depleted time budget in high school, I didn’t realize my mistakes until it was too late. So if you notice your kid is stressed out or maxed out (even if they can’t see it), you should talk with them. Help them learn to do things differently the next time – whether that chance comes in high school or as a college freshman.

But I know what you may be thinking: Shouldn’t my college-bound kid fill their schedule will all sorts of great things? Won’t that look great to college admissions people? And didn’t you guys write about building a great “resume” for college?

Yes, we did! But does a “great resume” mean quantity… or quality? I asked my dad about this tension (he’s the expert on getting into college, after all). He responded,

Activity for the sake of activity shows only one thing: It shows your energy. Even the term we sometimes use on this site, “building a resume,” may imply that kids’ activities are like generic bricks in a wall. But staying busy in random activities can steal students from the things that are important to them.

Focused activity over a long period of time shows something different: It shows a person’s passion. I think that a resume, especially when used for college admission, is most of all a portrait that reveals the key aspects of someone’s life. Is this person intentional? Is this person focused? Are they motivated to engage in the world around them? These are questions that are important to an admissions committee, and the answers come from a resume that reflects the quality of involvements in an applicant’s life.

Remember, my biggest regret wasn’t that I filled my schedule – though I think a little more margin would have been healthier. My biggest regret was that I didn’t involve myself deeply in two or three BEST things, rather than spreading out my involvement and influence among many good things. You can help your student avoid taking that same road.

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