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Six Ways College is Different from High School

High school and college are two very different things, and most incoming freshmen realize quite quickly that they're not in Kansas anymore. But how different is the life of a co-ed to that of the high school student, and what makes college such a unique and memorable experience? No two college students have the same experience, but we've isolated a few of the biggest changes and adjustments you'll face as you leave secondary school and head into the wide, wide world of undergraduate studies.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Education
Six Ways College is Different from High School

If you believe everything that Hollywood and television present, college is a wild, party-driven montage of world-changing social campaigns, debauched spring breaks, and Greek shenanigans. But the reality is that while the base elements of college aren't that different from high school – classes, homework, socializing with friends, clubs and sports – the expectations and responsibility for these things have shifted dramatically from guidance to self-determination. Here are six of the biggest differences between high school and college.

1. You'll be more autonomous/independent

Father and Son in back of car in front of dormitory

Most high school students look forward to college because they imagine that it will give them independence – from high school schedules and parental rules and curfews. And the truth is, college will give you a lot of autonomy – more than you expect and possibly more than you can handle. That's the catch – college is great because to some extent you get to organize your schedule, decide when to sleep and what to eat, where to live, and with whom you'll live. But that means you are also responsible for...everything. Sure, you can schedule all your classes for afternoons, eat pizza for every meal, spend your weekends partying or playing video games, and no one's going to call your mom if you don't show up to class or fail to turn in assignments. But remember that skipping even one lecture could mean the difference between a passing or failing grade on the exam if you miss vital information, and no one will care except you (and anyone who's helping you pay for tuition).

2. You'll spend a lot more money

Which is why skipping classes or slacking on homework isn't an option. Unless you went to a private high school, it's likely that your education was free – free public schools, free textbooks, maybe even free lunches. A university education is not free – not even if you get full scholarships or live in a country without tuition fees. And if you're paying for tuition....well, you'll figure out quickly that every minute spent in class is slowly, but surely eating away at your savings. College tuition can run tens of thousands of dollars, and that's before you factor in room and board and the most expensive part of it all – books. College textbooks are pricey, and some students pay more than $1000 per year. So, before you decide to sleep through your 9:00am chemistry lab or skip the reading for your gender studies class, do the math – you're paying a lot for your education and the university isn't going to refund you your tuition fees just because you failed a class. In fact, if it's a degree requirement, you'll probably have to take (and pay for) it again next year.

3. You'll (think you) have lots of free time

Young hipster male in modern office with hands over his head with laptop

High school students are used to an 8:00-4:00 scheduled routine, but college class schedules are more varied, and most degrees require only 12-15 credit hours per semester. That means you'll probably spend just 12-15 hours in class per week, and if you're particularly skilled at playing the course-schedule lottery you could arrange those hours however you choose – free Mondays and Fridays? No classes before 11:00? No problem. But just because you have what appears to be an open and flexible schedule, doesn't mean you have a lot of free time. In high school, much of your coursework was completed in-class, and homework could be completed in an evening or two. In university, each hour of class time will probably equate to two or more hours of homework, and you'll quickly find that those long afternoon gaps you planned for naps or coffee with friends will be spent in the library. This doesn't mean that your college life will be all work and no play – it just comes back to the idea of independence and responsibility. No one will tell you when or how to do your work, but they will expect you to do it.

4. You'll meet people from different backgrounds

Digital Connection Technology Networking Team Concept

College is all about experiencing new things and going outside your comfort zone. Most high schools are fairly homogeneous – you might think your friends are diverse because you have different ethnic backgrounds or interests, but if you attended the same high school you probably have a lot more in common than you think. In college you will, possibly for the first time, meet and interact with people who have completely different world-views and life-experiences. Universities attract students from all over the country and world, and you'll find that just because your classmates have the same academic interests doesn't mean they're just like you. Even your roommate could be someone with whom you would never have imagined sharing a cup of coffee, let alone a toilet and bunk bed. But diversity is also the reason that college is such a life-changing time – you get a chance to meet so many people and hear so many stories, and in the end, you get to make up your mind about the world based on your experiences, rather than those of your family or neighbors.

5. You'll have less contact with your instructors

Education process at professor`s lecture in audience

Remember how we said college was all about independence and autonomy. Well, that applies to your classes and instructors. In high school, your teachers probably knew you by name, and you may have had classes with them over multiple years, so they knew how you worked and learned. Your classes were also likely small – maybe thirty students. In college, especially in general education and first-year courses, you are just one face out of dozens and maybe hundreds. Don't expect your professors to know your name, recognize your handwriting, or cater to your needs. If you require more help or want clarification, you'll need to go to your professor's office hours and arrive prepared. College professors are not teachers – they're experts in their fields and expect you to take responsibility for your learning. But most college professors are also passionate about the subjects they teach, so if you show interest and dedication, they will be happy to help.

6. You'll learn in different ways

Just don't expect your professors to spoon-feed you or tailor lessons to your particular learning style. You'll need to adapt to the variances of college instruction – some professors recite long, dense lectures and expect you to distill the important points. Some give lots of busy work, but then never grade it. Some turn classes into vibrant, but unstructured debates. And you can forget about learning facts and dates and short answers. A university education is more about learning how to understand and relay information. You'll still find the occasional multiple choice quiz or a short-answer section on an exam, but most of your college course-work (and grades) will be based on things like essays, research projects, experiments, and in-class discussions where you'll have to demonstrate that you grasp