How are College Academics Different from High School?

Be Prepared for the New Challenges of College

College students in lounge

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The transition from high school to college can be a difficult one. Both your social and academic life will be remarkably different from high school. Below are ten of the most significant differences on the academic front.

No Parents

Life without parents may sound exciting, but it can be a challenge. No one is going to nag you if your grades are slipping, and no one is going to wake you up for class or make you do your homework (no one will wash your laundry or tell you to eat well either).

No Hand Holding

In high school, your teachers are likely to pull you aside if they think you are struggling. In college, your professors will expect you to initiate the conversation if you need help. Help is available, but it won't come to you. If you miss class, it's up to you to keep up with the work and get notes from a classmate. Your professor won't teach a class twice just because you missed it.

That said, if you take the initiative, you'll find that your college has many resources to help you: professors' office hours, a writing center, a center for academic support, a counseling center, and so on.

Less Time in Class

In high school, you spend most of your day in classes. In college, you will average about three or four hours of class time a day. You may even end up with a day or two that has no classes. You'll want to schedule your classes carefully and recognize that using all that unstructured time productively will be the key to success in college. A significant number of new (and old) college students struggle with time management.

Different Attendance Policies

In high school, you are required to go to school everyday. In college, it's up to you to get to class. No one is going to hunt you down if you regularly sleep through your morning classes, but the absences could be disastrous for your grades. Some of your college classes will have attendance policies, and some won't. In either case, attending regularly is essential for college success.

Note Taking Challenges

In high school, your teachers often follow the book closely and write on the board everything that needs to go in your notes. In college, you'll need to take notes on reading assignments that are never discussed in class. You'll also need to take notes on what is said in class, not just what is written on the board. Often the content of classroom conversation is not in the book, but it may be on the exam.

From day one of college, make sure you are prepared with pen and paper. Your writing hand is going to get a lot of exercise, and you're going to need to develop an effective strategy for taking notes.

Different Attitude Toward Homework

In high school, your teachers probably checked all your homework. In college, many professors won't check up on you to make sure you're doing the reading and learning the material. It's up to you to put in the effort needed to succeed, and if you fall behind, you're going to struggle at exam and essay time.

More Study Time

You may spend less time in class than you did in high school, but you will need to spend far more time studying and doing homework. Most college classes require 2 - 3 hours of homework for every hour of class time. That means that a 15-hour class schedule has at least 30 hours of of out-of-class work each week. That's a total of 45 hours—more than a full-time job.

Challenging Tests

Testing is usually less frequent in college than in high school, so a single exam may cover a couple months worth of material. Your college professors may very well test you on material from the assigned readings that was never discussed in class. If you miss a test in college, you will probably get a "0"—make-ups are rarely allowed. Similarly, if you don't finish in the designated time, you probably won't have an opportunity to finish later. Finally, tests will often ask you to apply what you have learned to new situations, not just regurgitate memorized information.

Keep in mind that extra time and special testing conditions are always available for students who qualify for these accommodations. The legal protections for students with disabilities do not end in high school.

Greater Expectations

Your college professors are going to look for a higher level of critical and analytical thinking than most of your high school teachers did. You're not going to get an "A" for effort in college, nor will you usually get the opportunity to do extra credit work. Be prepared for grade shock during your first semester when that essay that would have earned an "A" in high school gets you a "B-" in college.

Different Grading Policies

College professors tend to base final grades largely on a couple big tests and papers. Effort by itself won't win you high grades—it's the results of your effort that will be graded. If you have a bad test or paper grade in college, chances are you won't be allowed to redo the assignment or do extra credit work. Also, consistently low grades in college can have serious consequences such as lost scholarships or even expulsion.

A Final Word About College Academics

Even if you went to a rigorous high school and took lots of AP classes and dual enrollment classes, you're going to find college different. It's possible the amount of academic work won't change dramatically (although it may), but the way you manage your time is going to need significant adjustments to deal with the freedom of college.

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Grove, Allen. "How are College Academics Different from High School?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Grove, Allen. (2021, February 16). How are College Academics Different from High School? Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "How are College Academics Different from High School?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).