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20 Ways College is Different from High School

Some high school experiences give kids wrong ideas about college. And some college experiences will differ from anything they’ve seen before.

Kids are eager to graduate from high school and go to college, but do they really know what to expect? Some high school experiences may give them wrong ideas about college. And some college experiences will differ from anything they’ve seen before. The truth is, there are many differences between college and high school. So great college prep includes gaining an idea of what lies ahead.

Some parents might counsel, “Save your breath – they will find out soon enough.” But a College Prep Parent is in the perfect position to give their kid a helpful sneak preview of college, especially because the stakes are so high. What’s more, highlighting that college is very different from the experience they had in high school can bring excitement! They have been prepping for the idea of adventure, after all.

As a little kid, I appreciated when my dad told us we’d arrive at Grandma’s house in time for supper – rather than simply “in a while.” I knew I had something to look forward to, even if the trip was long. Your kid will appreciate the chance to see a few months or a few years down the road, especially since they should prepare now for the many major differences between college and high school.

College Differences in the Classroom

  1. College class time is about one-third of the time expected to be spent on coursework. In other words, colleges regularly note that for every hour spent in class, students should normally spend two hours studying outside of class. This may vary widely between individuals and courses, but high school kids need to expect this kind of effort is necessary to succeed.
  2. In college, assignments given to prepare for the next class session are expected to be completed and understood. The assigned material is necessary to understand the lecture, project, or quiz when the class gathers. In high school, teachers often review assigned material during the next class.
  3. Professors spend class time in a college class moving forward through the subject matter. They may leave little time for questions, reflection, or practice. Instructors usually have office hours to discuss any questions and problems that students discover as they prepare. In high school, kids may have gotten used to a class slowing down until everybody “gets it.” Now, seeking professors’ help will often have to take place outside of class.
  4. Some classes do not take attendance. Skipping a class that cost the student (or their parents) big bucks, will give them a grade, and is probably necessary for a degree is very short-sighted. Cutting class in high school is dumb, but a student may have found making up work “doable.” Whether a student misses class because of sickness or laziness, making up that learning time gets very difficult.

College Differences in Test-taking

  1. Some college courses may take only two grades: a mid-term and a final exam. This means “homework grades” or “project grades” or even additional tests cannot help a student recover from one bad test.
  2. Some courses have a reading quiz every class. This means a student with test-taking skills can’t count on cramming only a few times each semester.
  3. Some professors consider review sheets for college exams – offering each item that might appear on a test – the “training wheels of education.” Students should not expect them. Any material included in a course may appear on a test.
  4. Take-home tests in college prove just as rigorous as in-class tests. The only difference is with one, you can wear pajamas.
  5. If a professor assigns a book for a test, he or she will assume a student has read it… whether or not the book gets discussed in class.
  6. Different classes have different types of tests. But your child likely never took a three-hour-long essay test in high school. They very easily could in college.

College Differences in Outside Preparation

  1. Outside of class, studying usually takes precedence over homework assignments. Keeping up with a college class involves reading, reviewing, and writing –  not simply completing and turning in assignments.
  2. From a course’s first class until the final exam, there is always something a student can do for the class. Unlike in high school, the student drives their own progress and preparation.
  3. Reviewing material soon after it is presented is more effective than letting it “grow cold.” (Then a student must re-learn it before an exam.) In high school, important material tends to be reviewed in class, leading up to a test. Reviews are rarer in college.
  4. Study-time management is even more critical in college than in high school. Every college class has its own demands, and no one adjusts those demands based on how many other classes a student takes. (No principal, guidance counselor, or registrar will watch out for overcommitted students.) Consistently studying for each class in an organized way keeps a collegian from getting behind.
  5. Effective study techniques – the when, where, and how of studying – must develop individually. But what is true for most people is that effective studying takes time. Waiting until the last minute in high school to study makes a student like many of their classmates. Waiting until the last minute in college makes them “that guy” who’s always trying to catch up.
  6. Success in high school homework can be measured. Studying in college is more open-ended, requiring wisdom to know when the preparation is “done.”

College Differences in Personal Freedom

  1. College is the first time many kids will experience not living at home under the direct supervision of a parent. This means everything from various temptations to opportunities to overcommit to situations requiring careful goal-setting become their responsibility alone.
  2. Choices made away from home tend to reveal the student’s true character and what they actually find important. The personal freedom experienced in college puts the spotlight on everyday choices.
  3. Some of a kid’s freedoms are not new. They just involve choices with no immediate accountability: what to eat, when to wake up, where to do laundry, whether to go to church, when to unplug from technology, and so on.
  4. Bad choices in college can have much more severe consequences than in high school. For instance, many of the students forced to return home after one or two semesters have failed the“personal freedom” test. To leave a high school, a student usually must be “kicked out.” To leave a college, most simply “don’t make it.” That’s a big difference.

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