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You may already have considered how college is different from high school. Perhaps you’ve talked to relatives or friends about their experiences. Chances are you’ve seen lots of college scenes in movies and on television (trust us--college really isn’t like Animal House or even Old School), so you have a mental picture of what college is like and how it differs from your previous school experiences. To get you thinking a little more about this, here are six ways in which you can expect college to be different from high school. (You’ll probably think of more from your own personal experience, but these six generally apply to just about every college student.)
1. Greater Freedom and Responsibility
In high school, most of your time is usually planned by others. Someone is always bossing you around--telling you when to go to class, when to do homework, and maybe even when you can go out with friends. In college, you not only set your own class schedule, but you also manage your own free time. You can no longer count on your teacher or your parents to remind you when something is due or when you have to be somewhere. Even if you have so-called helicopter parents (does this sound like your parents--always “hovering” over you, doing everything for you?), they won’t call you to wake you up in the morning to be sure you get to class on time--at least we hope they won’t. You set your own priorities and manage all your new responsibilities. It may also be the first time you have lived away from home; this means you have the additional responsibility of fending for yourself--eating properly, doing laundry, managing money, getting medical attention, and studying when you should. Even though mom and dad are only a text or call away, more responsibility will definitely fall on your shoulders.
For Adults Only
If you are returning to college after some years away from schooling, instead of experiencing the new freedoms of college, you may find that you are experiencing just the opposite of what many freshman go through: it may have been quite a while since anyone told you what to do and how to do it. You may find the deadlines and bureaucracy of college frustrating, especially if you are juggling a full-time job and family responsibilities as well. We suggest you meet with your professors or your advisor to speak about these concerns.
2. Different Class Structure and Instruction
Unlike high school classes, college classes generally don’t meet every day. Usually college classes meet on either a Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday schedule, and you don’t necessarily go from one class directly to the next. You will also spend less time in class each week--usually just twelve to fifteen hours, depending on how many courses you’re taking. This is quite a change from the thirty-plus hours you spent in high school classes.
You will also find that class sizes are much different in college. You may be in a class with as few as five students (although this is extremely rare, it does happen occasionally), or you may find yourself in a classroom with more than three hundred fellow students. If you are in one of the large lecture sections, you will find that the professor probably will not even attempt to learn students’ names.
The way you are taught may differ as well. Your professors will often give assignments (such as reading the text or completing practice problems) and then not check them. They assume you are responsible and you are eager to do the work. On top of that, they assume that, if you don’t ask any questions, you must understand the information. Unlike your high school teachers, your college professors usually won’t approach you if you are experiencing trouble in the course. Instead, they expect you to seek them out if you need any extra assistance (which, in most cases, they are happy to supply during their office hours). Nor will your professor approach you if you miss a class. In high school, your teachers probably gave you the information you missed (handouts, notes, assignments), but in college you will need to get notes from a classmate and ask the professor for any other assignments or important information you may have missed.
We must add another word about assignments. More than likely, professors won’t remind you about impending due dates. Instead, they expect you to consult your syllabus regularly and turn in assignments on the proper dates.
3. Faster Pace
You will soon notice that instruction moves at a much faster pace in college. The amount of material you may have covered in a year in high school may take up only one semester’s worth of college work. Not only that--some professors lecture at warp speed for the entire class time, especially in the introductory courses that first-year students have to take. Your professors have high expectations of you; they expect you to be able to keep up with what they are saying and to take good, comprehensive notes. Whew. Also, any professors worth their salt don’t lecture straight from the text. Instead, they expect you to be able to relate text information to the lecture topics without discussing it in class. Of course, this activity is always done on your own time. Finally, it’s also reasonable to expect to cover three or more text chapters in one week. At first you may feel like one of those little hamsters in a wheel, running faster and faster and not getting anywhere, but eventually you will adjust to the pace.
Do Your Homework
Actually, that’s our advice: do your homework. If your precalculus professor tells you it would be a good idea to do certain problems and you know for a fact that she will never in a million years collect them, do the problems anyway. It will help you in the long run as you prepare to take the exam.
4. New (and Improved) Kinds of Studying
Many students begin college thinking they just need to study more. This is not particularly surprising, since according to a recent study, the average high school student studies less than two hours a week. Are you surprised? Although it’s correct to assume that you will need to study longer, it’s also important to understand that you need to study differently. You need to be able to connect new information with what you already know and with other content. You are also responsible for learning large amounts of information with very little guidance. We will talk about this issue in greater depth throughout College Rules! For now, know that you will have to spend some time each day studying for your classes and that the way you approach studying will change.
5. Fewer Exams
In college there are fewer exams--often only two or three per semester, per course. Although this initially sounds like a good thing, it actually makes learning a little tougher. Because there are so few exams, each one covers a great deal of information. Do the math. If you have only three tests in a fifteen-week semester, each test covers five weeks’ worth of reading and lecture notes. In a heavy reading course such as psychology or political science, that can translate into reading several hundred pages and remembering even more information presented in lectures. In addition, many college exams are cumulative, which means that the test covers all the information taught in the class during that term. If you make a poor grade on an exam in high school, it’s not a particularly big deal because you have a lot of other opportunities for grades and your teacher is likely to drop (or just not count) a bad grade if the rest of your grades are good. In college, however, grading works a bit differently.
Professor Jones looks out over his three hundred students taking their biology final exam. His eye catches a student in the upper-left-hand side of the classroom who is sneakily looking at the floor beneath his desk, then quickly bubbling in an answer on his test. Gee, thinks Professor Jones, this student must have some kind of cheat sheet.
When the student brings his test up to the front to leave it in the pile accumulating on the lectern, Professor Jones shakes his head. “You can’t turn that in,” he says. “You were cheating. I saw you.”
The student looks the professor directly in the eye and demands, “Do you know who I am? Do you even know my name?”
Professor Jones replies, “Of course not. There are over three hundred students in this class.”
The student smiles, shoves his test into the middle of the pile, and runs out of the room.
6. Fewer Grades
In high school, it might have seemed as though you were being graded on every move you made. But in college you are often assigned work that is not graded. Usually, only the scores on exams, papers, computer assignments, projects--the big things--make up what counts in your overall course grade. There are also far fewer opportunities to receive extra credit in college, so you need to do well on the few graded assignments you have.
In addition, in high school you may have been rewarded for “effort”; in other words, as long as the teacher thought you were trying hard to learn, at a bare-bones minimum you would pass. In college, however, not only is your professor largely unaware of the effort you make, but she also actually expects you to be working hard and working smart. Therefore, when computing your final course grade, most professors rely solely on your exam scores, papers, and other major projects.
Start Off Strong
Starting off on the right foot is important for your future success in college. You really can’t “blow off” a semester before you get serious about your academics, no matter what anyone tells you. Students who take too long “adjusting” to the demands of college learning and studying can find themselves in a deep academic pit that’s very difficult to get out of. That’s why it’s important to start out strong. As with other challenges in life, you can always lighten up, but it’s much more difficult to tighten up.
Getting off on the right foot isn’t too difficult if you understand some fundamentals. Think of it as basic training for newbies. If you can get through the first few weeks by following the advice of our former students, you should be on your way to smooth sailing.
If you have a diagnosed learning disability (or think you may have a learning disability), getting the help you need also works differently in college. Chances are you won’t have special tutors or teachers, and your instructors probably won’t call you at home. You are responsible for working out the accommodations you’re entitled to with your professors. However, be sure to check with the disabilities services office on your campus to find out what you need to do. Sometimes there are deadlines for accommodations such as requesting extended testing time, and colleges will provide the accommodation only if it is requested before the deadline. Colleges are ready to give you the support you need, but you must seek it out and ask for help.
We often ask our students at the end of a term to give advice to the next class concerning what it takes to be successful in college. The number one answer each and every time is . . . keep up with your work. Most college students find themselves behind in their work at one time or another. This isn’t much of an issue when it happens occasionally, but you can get into big trouble if it becomes a way of life. You can avoid the stress that goes with getting behind by establishing a reading and studying schedule and following it each day.
Go to Class
Our students also say that it’s important to attend class every day. You may have heard the rumor that professors don’t care whether you are in class. Or you think that because they post their lecture notes on the Web, they are giving you the message that class attendance isn’t important. However, in our experience this is simply not true. In fact, some professors--even those with more than two hundred students in a class--take attendance every day. Even professors who don’t take attendance want you to be there. So get off your duff and go to class. Get all the information that you are paying for.
Take a Balanced Course Load
Taking a balanced course load means taking a range of courses that are a combination of subjects you are interested in and subjects that don’t require too much of the same type of task. In other words, don’t take four (or worse yet, five) courses that all require tons of reading (such as history, biology, sociology, psychology, literature) or writing (such as English, political science, comparative literature) or problem sets (such as mathematics, statistics, chemistry) all in one semester. Mix it up a bit--take a heavy reading course, a course that requires writing, another where you are problem solving, and a course that interests you that you can use as an elective.
Be Aware of Your Status
Another good piece of advice that we hear from students is the importance of monitoring your status in every course. Know where you stand and be honest with yourself. If you have made a C– on your last two chemistry tests, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can get an A in the course when you have only one test left. It’s not going to happen! If you have already missed three English classes and your grade is docked points if you miss any more, be sure to roust yourself out of bed and get to class. Many of your classmates will be in denial about where they stand. Don’t let it happen to you.
Use this advice from our former students to get started on the right foot. Remember, once you enter college you are, for the most part, in control of the experience you will have.
Sad But True
Many students hear stories of what college is like from friends and family, but some of these tales contain misinformation that can actually hurt your college performance. For example, Andrew, one of our students, recently missed class because he was running late and heard from his brother that you shouldn’t bother to even go to class if you will be more than ten minutes late. He told Andrew that professors don’t let anyone in when they are so late. Although this may be true for some classes, it was not for ours, and Andrew missed some very important information (and was not able to turn in an assignment due that day, so he also lost some points). The moral of this story is to find out your professors’ rules for attendance and follow them--don’t take for granted that the rules are the same in all cases, and don’t rely on another student’s “expertise.” Go to the source of the information you want.
If You Read Nothing Else, Read This
Prepare to make some changes in how you think about school, learning, and studying. Doing college right means thinking about (and maybe improving) your motivation, self-discipline, and strategies for learning.
College requires greater personal responsibility.
To stay strong, start out strong. Keep up with your assignments and (please) go to class every day.