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Ways in Which College is Different From High School


Students who understand the key differences and learn how to bridge the gap between high school and college should have a greater chance for success.


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by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.


Having taught a first-year seminar class for college freshmen for several years, I have noticed an ever-growing gap between the educational experience in high school compared to the college learning environment. Many incoming college students are simply unprepared to handle differences they find between college and high school.


To assist future college-bound students, here are the top 16 ways college is different from high school.


In high school... While in college...
Your teachers constantly remind you of due dates and upcoming tests and quizzes. Once the professor lists the dates on the course calendar or syllabus, he or she assumes students are capable of obtaining this information on their own without the constant reminders.
Students basically attend school every day for the same hours -- so there is quite a bit of structure and sameness to your days. Classes typically meet only two or three times a week and students have large gaps between classes, leading to very little structure -- and often a bit too much freedom that some students cannot handle well.
Students often spend time in class completing assignments to fill class time -- what some students refer to as "busywork." The bulk of class time is spent taking notes or participating in discussions -- not completing homework or other graded assignments.
Teachers often teach to the test -- typically feeding students all the information needed to study for exams. Professors often lecture about much more material than you'll ever be tested upon -- for the sake of knowledge -- though you will still need to understand both what material will be tested and the best way for you to study it.
Many students could do very well academically by simply studying an hour or two a week -- or by cramming for a test the night before. The best students cite the importance -- and need -- to study and prepare for classes on a daily basis. The standard rule is students need to spend three hours of work outside of class for every hour spent in class.
Your teachers are both subject experts and trained educators and in theory know the latest and greatest methods to teach the material. Your professors -- many of whom hold doctoral degrees -- are experts in their fields and trained researchers (who must continue to publish to stay academically qualified to teach), but their teaching methods and lecture styles may be completely different from anything you have experienced.
Your teachers keep a watchful eye on your progress and will contact you or your family if your grades are faltering. Your professors may well be aware of your progress -- or lack of it -- but most expect their students to initiate discussions about grades and/or seek assistance -- all of which is done during your professor's office hours.
Your reading assignments are fairly light, and some is done in class -- whether through individual reading or lecturing straight from the book. You can expect a very heavy load of reading -- all of it done outside of class. Some of the reading may be discussed in class, but even without discussing it, the professor may choose to test you on it.
Students are often spoon-fed all the information, with a focus on facts and memorization. Students are expected to think -- and learn -- beyond the facts to develop complex understanding of information and theories from multiple sources.
Students who are struggling can get extra credit for completing additional assignments, improving your overall grade. Students who are struggling are encouraged to seek extra help and tutoring, but very few college professors offer any type of extra credit.
Students have to attend classes or get reported absent, often with a telephone call to your family informing them of your absence. Students can choose to attend classes or not, often with no overt penalties from the professor. Some professors DO take attendance, and some also have a strict attendance policy.
Your classes are generally small -- often with no more than 35 students in a class. Some of your general-education classes can range from 100 to 500 students (or more) -- or even be attended online.
Students follow one of several tracks, and your guidance counselor makes sure you are on the path to graduate. Students meet with an academic adviser once a semester, but the burden to take the right classes and be on track to graduate is entirely in your hands.
All your teachers are full-time employees of the school (except for student-teachers) and must be state-certified. You'll have all sorts of teachers, from full-time faculty to adjunct (part-time) faculty to graduate assistants (teaching assistants/TAs).
Clocks and bells are everywhere, guiding you from one class period to another -- perhaps even with warning bells -- and no two classrooms are that far apart. You must manage your time and sometimes travel all the way across campus within a short period to make it to your next class on time -- and there are no bells or clocks, and each professor goes by his or her own time.
For students who are sick or otherwise excused, teachers will often provide make-up exams. Few professors are willing to give make-up exams to students -- regardless of the excuse. If you must miss a test -- for whatever reason -- it's your responsibility to contact the professor to see what can be done.


Final Thoughts on the Differences Between High School and College

The faster you can comprehend -- and adjust to -- these differences between your high-school educational experience and your college education, the faster you'll adjust to the pace of college life, and the better your chances for academic success.



Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary. CEO Dr. Randall Hansen Dr. Randall S. Hansen is an educator, author, and blogger, as well as founder and CEO of, a network of empowering and transformative Websites, including Dr. Hansen has been helping empower people to achieving success his entire adult life. He is also founder of,, and He is a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. Dr. Hansen is also an educator, teaching business and marketing at the college level for more than 25 years. Learn more by visiting his personal Website, You can also check out Dr. Hansen on Google+, as well as Dr. Randall Hansen on LinkedIn. logo Tools to Empower
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