Read These Books to Succeed at College/University This Year

I’ve been teaching study skills seminars in one form or another for many a year. I took a study skills course myself when I was a master’s degree student because I felt that my skills weren’t up to the increased challenges at that level of ediucation (and they weren’t). I’ve since read dozens of books and articles on study skills of various sorts and I enjoy passing on what I’ve garnered from them through these seminars, through individual counseling, and now through this blog.

I have two fabulous nieces and one fabulous son starting undergraduate work this fall, so here are my initial recommendations to them.

And then here’s one more, the smallest of the four, and one I wish I’d read much earlier than I did:

(Seminary and graduate students–or, as our British friends say, postgraduate students–can benefit from most or all of these books as well. And sometimes, as in my case, one has to be at this level of schooling to appreciate fully that one’s skills aren’t up to snuff.)

I recommend students buy all four books, so they can mark them up and have them at hand for reference as the months go by. But I also recommend that they read them selectively, using the table of contents as their guide and reading only the chapters that seem important to them at a particular time. (I tell them not to feel that they have to read them all through! That’s one of the most basic lessons of true research: Read only what you need to read in order to get done what you want to get done. No one will give you a prize for reading whole books, so read whole books only when you want to or have to.)

What books do you like to recommend to freshmen–and to others facing the challenge of postsecondary education–and why?

UPDATE: My next Study Skills Seminar will be offered on Friday, November 11, at Regent College: 1:00-4:30 p.m. More information will come as the event nears. But because I’m on sabbatical leave this academic year, I can’t guarantee there will be another offering in Winter Term. This might be it until Fall 2012.

0 Responses to “Read These Books to Succeed at College/University This Year”

  1. John Stackhouse

    Yes, I spelled it that way to help you pronounce it correctly, you untutored minstrel, you.

    (And by “untutored minstrel” I mean “smart aleck.”)

    (And by “smart aleck” I mean…and so on, and so on…)

  2. Dave Swartz

    Budziszewski’s book is great, especially for freshmen. The others look really good and I will be referencing them to students. For my suggestions, check out under “Great Reads”.

  3. Glenn

    Thanks for sending these! I’m working on a thesis, and am interested in software options for logging sources, notes, citations, etc. Have you found any programs in particular helpful?

    • John Stackhouse

      I have used EndNote for years, although it’s not cheap. Some of my students recommend Zotero, which is (free, I think).

  4. calgalpatricia

    Hi John,

    Thank you for the good and timely list. I’ll add these to our gifts cabinet.

    Might I add “University of Destruction: Your Game Plan for Spiritual Victory on Campus” by David Wheaton? This is a book Greg and I have given to high school grads going on to university. We’ve received enthusiastic feedback from most of the students, saying they appreciate David’s own story and the practical ways to not stray from their faith.


    • John Stackhouse

      I’m confused. Is this the book about how to be a Christian at university by a former tennis pro who spent precisely one year at university?

  5. calgalpatricia

    Hmmm…you are right John that Wheaton dropped out after his 1st year at Stanford for the tennis pro circuit. He says it wasn’t until after he dropped out and was on the pro tennis circuit that he accepted Christ. His book serves (pun intended!) those entering college, both Christians and “CINOs” by saying, “Look at what a wreck I made of my time at university but here’s what you can do to avoid my awful mistakes.”

    Sooooo…I’m confused and interested to know if his not finishing Stanford (or any college) should have disqualifed him from writing University of Destruction. How long must one attend to be qualified to write on this subject?

    • John Stackhouse

      Each of us would have to decide for himself or herself what constitutes an adequate base of knowledge, skill, values, and wisdom upon which to offer strong advice about a subject. I have a lot of experience with higher education, and I find it initially implausible–in the extreme–that someone who had a terrible single year of university is capable of offering anything other than the most simple advice.

      And that’s the sort of advice I infer he’s giving–inferred from the Workbook I could download and scan. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say for sure: maybe the workbook badly oversimplifies the book. But what I’ve read is exactly what I’d expect to read: some good basic advice about fleeing evil and pursuing holiness, which any good Christian should be able to offer a young person. What I haven’t read is an understanding of the positive sides of university life nor of the ambiguities of attending a public university–as he writes off “humanism,” for example, which he really oughtn’t to do. (I’m a Christian humanist, and I dislike being written off as a threat to the true faith!)

      The books I’m recommending are written by people who know the university well by living in it and studying it. If I were recommending a book on sailing, I probably wouldn’t recommend a book by someone who had taken a few lessons, screwed around during them, and then later ruefully reflected on what he ought to have done better. That book could be helpful, surely, but others are much more likely to be helpful–say, those written by sailors.

      What do you find so helpful about the book that you recommend it? Perhaps I’m overlooking something.

      • Glenn

        How do you define “Christian humanism”? I’m interested in what it is Wheaton disregards, what you yourself affirm, and how you process that theologically. Perhaps a topic for another post?

  6. calgalpatricia

    Sailing…boats…this makes me think of the apostle Peter. Let’s see, he sat at the feet of the Teacher for three years…oh, wait, that’s for another blog topic…

    Both authors, in their testimonies, say did not live a Christian life while in college (Budziszewski says that as a teenager he “had not been a mature believer, but [he] certainly had been an enthusiastic one.” (16). Wheaton accepted Christ after Stanford at about the age of twenty-two (166). Neither are qualified to write their books if the qualification to write them is based on being a Christ follower while at university. So to make sure I have this right, Budziszewski’s book has gravitas in your eyes because he is in the academic milieu. He is the qualified sailing instructor?

    Do you think that you might be giving Wheaton the short shrift when you say that Wheaton’s can only offer what you call the “most simple advice” because of just one bad year at university (without Christ)? Perhaps it’s his lack of “professor” at the beginning of his name based on your criteria for your book recommendations? How many “bad” years (without following Christ) did Professor Budziszewski have at university? According to his testimony, would it be around ten years, counting most of his undergrad, his grad, and his doctoral years, but not counting his teaching years?
    Both men are now followers of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit. We cannot negate the Holy Spirit’s leading and inspiration for the content of any book they may write, no matter how much or how little academia the author is or was exposed to. Wow, if Peter had only gone to college and maybe had even been a prof he could have written better…oh yeah, that’s for that other blog topic…

    We’ve established that neither of us have read both of these books. Might I suggest we read them, placing ourselves as seventeen year olds just before entering college as we read, then continue this conversation? I offer this suggestion with some trepidation because only one of us has “professor” before their name and a Ph.D. after it.

    Perhaps we could give both books to someone about to enter college, without prejudicial comments, and see if they find things in each book that are helpful and useful to them (or unhelpful and not useful). After all, both authors had the same goal in writing their books—letting young people know how to stay Christian in college.

    • John Stackhouse

      The question here is relevant expertise. If you think David Wheaton is qualified to tell young people how to make the most of university, then you think that. I can’t understand why you think that, but that’s your call.

      I’ve taken some tennis lessons and played some tennis over the years, and perhaps I have some good advice to pass along to beginners. But if you were going to choose between my book on how to succeed in tennis and David Wheaton’s, I would strongly urge you to buy his book, not mine. I still have “Prof.” in front of my name and “Ph.D.” after it, but now those don’t matter in the slightest. They only matter when they matter, and J. Budziszewski’s career in academia seems to me to qualify him to talk about life in academia in a way superior to that of someone who had a single bad year and dropped out to play tennis.

      Sure, the Holy Spirit can inspire anyone to say anything. But acknowledging that fact doesn’t give us anything to go on when we’re trying to discern which of various sources is most likely to convey to us what God wants us to have. And we are responsible to make those choices: to consider the information we have and make the best choices. If, having considered what Professor Budziszewski brings to the discussion and what David Wheaton brings to the discussion, you honestly can’t pick between them, then I don’t know what else to say.

      And if, having read David Wheaton’s book, you think it’s a fine book to recommend, then of course you have to recommend it–although you haven’t yet responded to my invitation to say just why you do recommend it.

      From what I’ve seen, however, of both his preparation to write this book and the workbook that he endorses as helping people understand it, I can’t conclude that it’s worth my time to read–when there is so much else to read. Please be clear: I”m not saying it’s worthless. The issue isn’t binary: good or bad, yes or no. The issue is relative worth, since none of us can read everything. And in this case the issue is particularly this: which author is most likely to know what he’s talking about and therefore have the most helpful counsel to offer.

      Again, if the book is about sailing, I’d rather read a book by a sailor. And nothing you’ve written so far really answers that point, except to say that maybe the Holy Spirit gave supernatural insight to a landlubber about sailing–but then the question would be why you think that in this particular case the Holy Spirit did do that. And you haven’t answered that, either, so far as I can see.

      I’m pursuing this point on the blog (rather than privately) only because it addresses a crucial Bigger Issue among us, namely, are we going to take credentials, authority, and expertise seriously, or are we going to succumb to the anti-elite, anti-excellence, anti-authority, anti-anything-that-makes-me-feel-like-my-opinion-isn’t-just-as-good-as-yours attitude that is dumbing down our culture noticeably more each year? And churchpeople can be just as bad for this resentment of genuine authority and expertise, flatly disobeying the Bible’s own instructions about properly recognizing and regarding teachers in our midst.

      Of course being a professor and earning a Ph.D. doesn’t qualify you to be an expert on everything. It doesn’t make you infallible even in your own subject. But it means SOMETHING, and when the question at hand is academic, having academic qualifications–or having very few–should matter to us. Otherwise, we’re in a nightmare in which everyone’s opinion matters just as much as everyone else’s–on medicine, or law, or car repair, let alone truly important subjects like truth and spirituality!

  7. calgalpatricia

    Hi John,

    I have only a moment to reply to your post now, but if you would leave your comments open until after the long weekend, I would be happy to respond to your invitation to respond on your various points.

    Please accept my humble apology and please forgive me if I came across minimizing the value of what many academics, such as yourself, bring to the world. Please know that was not my intent AT ALL. I agree on all your points regarding the lamentable state of the dumbing down of our society in various ways. Reading your response makes me believe I did not articulate myself in a way that would help the discussion.

    Most sincerely in Christ,


  8. BrianT

    John, thank you for recommending “Writing under Pressure” in this post. I have benefited from your recommendations before, so I went and bought it straightaway.
    It has given me a practical method for writing under pressure and it has inspired me to write more and better (under pressure)!


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