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How Different Are College and High School? (Hint: Very)

Can college really be that different from high school?

I mean, there are classes, textbooks, extracurricular activities, and other students. It sounds a lot like high school to me.

These were the thoughts that ran through my head in the weeks leading up to my departure from my hometown of St. Louis, MO, for Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. I didn’t know a soul at my future school, nor did I have an older sibling to tell me what to expect in college. So, when August rolled around, I pulled up to campus with lots of boxes and no idea what to expect.

Fast forward four years: I survived college, graduated with honors, and landed a job. Now, I want to pay it forward to the next generation of college students (you) with this primer on the differences between high school and college. Maybe you don’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of. Or maybe you’re just looking for a fresh perspective. Either way, this is for you.

I divided this article into two main sections: academics and lifestyle. Each section contains five important differences between high school and college. By the end, you’ll be prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

High School vs. College: Academic Differences

Nobody said college would be easy, but knowing what to expect during your first semester of classes will give you an edge over the students going in without a clue. Here are five major academic differences to expect when you make the transition from high school to college.

1. Time Spent in Class

Your high school class schedule is probably comparable to a full-time job: you’re in the building for about seven hours each day. In college, however, you can expect to spend half that time in class. As a full-time college student, you’ll only spend three or four hours each day in class, which comes out to about 15-20 hours per week.

This might seem like a vacation at first, but there’s a catch: your professors will cram as much material as they can into each class (which can range from 50 minutes to three hours). What’s more, those time gaps will force you to manage your time effectively. You might think you have all the time in the world, but deadlines in college creep up quickly.

2. Workload

I’ll be the first one to admit that I skated by in high school without doing a ton of work. I could squeak out decent grades by skimming books and cramming material the morning of a test. If an assignment was due on a Wednesday, I’d have no problem knocking it out on a Tuesday night.

That all changed in college.

I quickly learned that 15 hours of class time each week doesn’t mean 15 hours of work. You’ll spend a fraction of the time in a physical classroom in college compared to high school. But that extra time takes the form of homework, essays, research, and group projects.

The good thing about college is that you’ll receive a syllabus outlining each assignment and test for the entire semester. So while the workload increases exponentially, you also have plenty of time to prepare yourself.

3. Textbooks

In high school, your textbooks are provided to you at little to no cost. The only decision you have to make is whether you’ll read them or not.

College, on the other hand, is the Wild West of textbooks. Your professor will tell you which books you’ll need, and then it’s up to you how you get them (unless they require you to buy one of those horrible books with a digital access code, forcing you to buy it new).

Let’s be real: textbook publishers don’t care what you learn—they want to make money off book sales. That being said, there’s a variety of ways to outsmart the industry, saving you hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the course of your time in college.

Luckily for you, we have an entire article dedicated to textbook hunting: The Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Textbooks.

4. Opportunities to Boost Your Grade

One of the worst feelings in college is having to knock on your professor’s door during the last week of the semester to ask for extra credit. Maybe you’re 0.2% away from an A or even 0.2% away from passing the class. Either way, the best way to avoid this dilemma is to get ahead of your GPA as early as possible in the semester.

In high school, there are many opportunities to keep your grade afloat: daily homework assignments, weekly quizzes, extra credit, test revisions, maybe even credit just for showing up to class.

Unfortunately, most of these opportunities don’t exist in college.

I took several classes where I could count the entire semester’s assignments on one hand. I even had a philosophy class where the only grades were a midterm and a final exam. At first, this was a relief: no homework! The catch was, of course, I only had two chances to earn a good grade.

I knew plenty of students who didn’t realize this, and they were the ones knocking on the professor’s door around finals time. There’s no easy solution to this other than showing up every day, taking notes, and studying effectively.

Struggling to choose a college? This guide will help you out.

High School vs. College: Lifestyle Differences

You’ll spend the vast majority of your time in college outside the classroom. Accordingly, here are five important lifestyle changes to be prepared for when you make the transition from high school to college.

1. Dorm Life

As an only child, I was hesitant to live with three guys I’d never met in my entire life. But as I look back on my four years, I can’t help but notice how dorm life was one of the most fun and transformative parts of my college experience.

Of all the differences between high school and college, living in a dorm is definitely the most drastic—but it’s a change for the better.

Much like you’ll learn all sorts of challenging material in the classroom, living among your peers in close quarters helps you learn the art of social intelligence (which is arguably more important for long-term success than academics).

You may have heard horror stories about unbearable roommates or less-than-sanitary communal bathrooms. There is no foolproof way to prevent these issues. But if you do end up having to deal with them, keep this in mind: it’s all a learning experience.

Dorm life will teach you all sorts of things you didn’t know about yourself, such as your organizational preferences and how well you deal with domestic conflicts. It’s like a practice round for the real world. This might sound stressful, but after a few weeks, you’ll be settled in. All you need to do is enjoy the ride.

Just don’t set the fire alarm off. Especially not at 2 am on a Sunday. People hate that.

For more advice about how to live in the dorms, check out our guide to living on your own.

2. Social Life

Think of making friends in college like an athlete making the transition to the pros: people can talk all day about what the athlete accomplished before the pros, but all that matters is what happens on gameday. Similarly, college is an opportunity to create the social life you want. It doesn’t matter who you were in high school — in college, everyone starts from scratch.

The friends you make in college will be some of your best friends for life. I cringed while I typed that because it’s so cliche, but it’s 100 percent true. I don’t believe in formulas for making friends, but I do have one piece of advice to help you navigate the social scene:

First, establish your core group of friends: those three or four people that you can count on to have your back no matter what. Once you do this, start forming friendships with people from as many other social groups as possible: athletes, computer scientists, and everyone in between.

These friendships don’t need to be as deep as your core friendships — it’s simply the exposure to different types of people that will make you more well-rounded than the students who confine themselves to social bubbles.

I ran track during my first two years at Xavier (until I stepped away due to injuries) and found my core friends on the team. But I also made friends with writers, partiers, and athletes on other teams. Not only did this enrich my social experience, but it  also broadened my worldview.

Side note: don’t forget about your high school friends — be grateful for them and nurture the connections worth keeping. But don’t let your ties to them limit your opportunities in college.

3. Time Management

Time management in college is a catch-22: you’ll have more independence than you’ve ever had, but you’ll also need to shoulder more responsibilities than you did in high school.

Right now, there’s a good chance your daily schedule is largely decided by your parents, coaches, or teachers. In college, however, all of that control shifts over to you. That includes scheduling classes, meals, workouts, grocery shopping, and even your sleep schedule.

To make this transition easy, create a simple weekly calendar that outlines all of your to-dos. This way, you’ll be in control of your time instead of having to react to all of your tasks on an hour-to-hour basis.

4. Money, Money, Money

Being broke is one of the most common stereotypes associated with college students, but I’m here to tell you: it doesn’t have to be that way.

The most reliable job I had in college was working as a valet at a local hotel: part-time hours, tips, and the opportunity to meet plenty of fascinating people. Did it require a couple 5 a.m. wake up calls? Sure, but sacrificing a few hours of sleep always beats having to borrow money from friends or family.

One of the most exciting parts about transitioning from high school to college is that your opportunities to earn money expand significantly. In fact, we created this guide that outlines more than 100 ways to make money in college.

Unless you have an endless stream of money coming into your bank account, you need that resource.

5. Health

You may have heard about the freshman fifteen: those extra pounds that students pack on during their first couple semesters in college. While some students think this is unavoidable, it’s really more of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Students will hear stories about how difficult or expensive it is to stay on top of their diet and exercise. Next thing they know, they accept that gaining weight is just part of their transition into college.

I beg to differ.

Getting fit in college may require a different approach than you’re taking in high school, but that’s certainly not an excuse to throw in the towel on your health (which is equally, if not more, important than your studies.)

In terms of exercise, club sports, intramurals, or group exercise classes are effective substitutes for the ways you stayed active in high school. They’re also a surefire way to meet new people.

As far as diet goes, you’re not limited to pizza delivery or cafeteria food. In fact, making your own healthy meals is almost always cheaper than a university meal plan or eating out. For more on that, check out this guide to affording healthy food in college.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

As you can see, there’s no shortage of differences between high school and college. But understanding what’s on the horizon will give you the perspective you need to prepare and put yourself in a position to succeed. Sure, you’ll face challenges — but that’s all part of the process.

Soon enough, you’ll be sharing your own experiences with soon-to-be college students.

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