College is NOT Just a Bigger High School: Preparing First-year Students for the Academic Expectations

February 18, 2022

College-bound students in the U.S. have learned a few things about classroom transitions. For most of them, the move from elementary school to middle school meant more classes, new challenging academic content, and harder homework. In turn, the move from middle school to high school brought a similar transition: additional classes, more complex academic material, and even harder homework. It’s logical, then, that students would expect the college classroom experience to be just like the high school one, only bigger. But that is not the case – the college academic experience is entirely different, filled with new routines, policies, and expectations for professionalism and self-sufficiency. 

1. Time inside the classroom: more freedom, new responsibilities

High school students spend approximately 35 hours per week in a classroom, shifting every 40 to 90 minutes to different classes in up to seven varied academic areas. When extracurricular activities and family responsibilities are added, high school students have very limited unscheduled time.

In college, these same students will spend only a fraction of that time in class—most commonly 12-15 hours per week, distributed over four or five different academic courses. New college students are often pleased by the number of non-classroom hours they have each week, allowing time for socializing, clubs, jobs/internships, volunteering, and athletics. It also means that there are many more unaccounted free hours to spend scrolling social media, sleeping, or binge-watching. Well-managed free time in college is crucial for student success.

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2. The weekly academic schedule: transitioning from routine to varied

A high school schedule changes little from one day to the next: classes begin and end at the same time, a bell indicates a change in identical-length classes, and a lunch time is assigned. Students usually have little control over their academic schedule or the teachers to whom they are assigned. 

In contrast, the college student’s schedule looks very different from one day to the next. The student has enormous control over their course selection as well as autonomy to select meal times and extra-curricular activities. College classes will meet between one and five times per week for varied lengths of time. Some days may be quite busy, filled with back-to-back classes, while other days might be class-free. 

3. Studying and reading: shifting from assessment to knowledge

In high school, studying usually means preparing for a test. Much of the academic focus in high school is on grades, as a student’s GPA is a crucial element of their college applications. In high school, studying and reading are a means to an end: study to do well on the test; read to find the correct answer. Sadly, many students graduate from high school without the study skills they will need in college.

In contrast, studying and reading in college are about acquiring knowledge, not just to prepare for assignments. Professors will teach classes with the assumption that students have kept up with the assigned materials; they rarely use class time to explain readings or homework. While it is true that college students attend fewer hours of class time than they did in high school, they are assigned many more pages of weekly reading, encouraged to routinely study on their own, and are expected to seek help from professors, teaching assistants, or other campus academic reources if needed.

4. Assignments: fewer reminders, higher stakes

Although a high school student is technically responsible for completing their own assignments, high school teachers frequently send reminders through email or post upcoming assignment due dates in the classroom. Many high school parents also remind their teens about upcoming deadlines. In addition, high school teachers typically assign many different graded projects throughout the marking period, giving a high school student ample opportunities to raise their course grade if they are faltering.

In contrast, college professors will distribute a class syllabus on the first day of the semester and expect students to be responsible for submitting all assignments by the due dates without reminders. In college, there are far fewer graded assignments in each class. Every project, paper, and test is therefore weighted more heavily, which will likely mean fewer “easy A’s” than in high school. Although professors may curve students’ final grades for the semester, a single assignment can sink a student’s grade much more easily in college, and extra credit opportunities are rare.

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5. Communicating with instructors: an independent assignment

Many parents serve as advocates for their high school children, communicating with teachers, counselors, administrators, and tutors on behalf of their teens. In turn, high school faculty and staff might reach out to a parent to voice concern about their student’s academic progress or classroom behavior. These interactions are an expected part of the K-12 system in both public and private schools. 

Once a student is enrolled in college, however, they are solely  responsible for all contact with the professors, administrators, and academic resource staff on their campus. In fact, parents are prohibited from contacting the school on behalf of their child unless their student signs a waiver. It’s important for new college students to develop productive relationships with their professors and feel comfortable communicating independently by writing professional emails, leaving voicemails, and meeting in person during office hours about academic content or for professional advice.

What can high school seniors do NOW to prepare for a smoother academic transition to college?

•get up and out to school on time, packing all that they need for the day

•find a system to record their assignments and use it consistently

•choose a study environment that works best for their learning style

•ask teachers and tutors for help when needed, before an academic crisis

•keep up with their coursework in a consistent manner, avoiding cramming

•manage their daily schedules and academic work independently with few reminders from parents

Moving from high school to college academics can be challenging for many first-year students. However, knowing the expectations and skills required of college-level academics will make the transition an easier one. For college-bound students, managing their own academics is a big step toward adulthood.

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Andrea Malkin Brenner, Author

Dr. Andrea Malkin Brenner is a college transition educator and author who brings years of experience as a “college insider” to her talks and workshops for high school students and parents. Andrea is the creator of the Talking College™ cards, the original card deck of discussion prompts for college-bound students and their parents. She’s also co-author of How to College: What to Know Before You Go (and When You’re There,) a student-facing book that guides high school graduates through their transition to college life. Andrea worked at American University in Washington, DC for 25 years as a sociology professor and administrator. She created the university’s nationally recognized first-year experience program and directed the largest freshman living-learning community. For more information, see AMBrenner.com.

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