High School vs. College: 5 Key Differences You Should Know

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In elementary school, you likely heard about how much better life would be in middle school. Once you were in middle school, you longed for the freedom of high school. And now, as a high school student, you are ready, once more, for change.

During your first year of college, change will certainly be at the forefront of your daily experience. While, in many ways, this change is positive and exciting, it does come with increased responsibility.

In this guide, we will highlight five key differences between high school and college.

High School vs College: 5 Key Differences

Click above to watch a video on the differences between High School and College.

1. Living Away from Home

One of the most challenging differences between high school and college is living away from home.

  • Need to wake up at a certain time? Set an alarm (or two or three) because mom’s not going to wake you up.
  • Hungry? Make something to eat or head to the cafeteria.
  • Need clean clothes? Go to the laundromat.

Depending on how many chores and how much freedom you already have at home, the scenarios above may or may not faze you.

However, if you don’t know how to cook simple dishes or do your own laundry, now is the time to learn.

These are responsibilities that will be fully on you in a few short months, and it’s better to be prepared than to be Googling “How to Wash Clothes” while putting on your last pair of clean underwear.

Being away from home also means a lot of freedom.

  • You can stay awake as long as you want, hang out with your friends, and clean your room (or not).
  • This all happens on your own schedule and you don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission.

In college, living away from home means that you must create a whole new structure for your life.

  • Classes will not take up 100% of your day.
  • Therefore, you will need to manage classes and time to eat, socialize, do homework, organize chores, work (if applicable), determine how much sleep you need, and find time for relaxing activities.

You might be thinking, “Woah, I didn’t sign up for all of this.” While it might seem overwhelming at first, you’ll have established a “new normal” before you know it, and going home for break will feel like an adjustment.

2. Daily Class Schedules and Structure

Classes are structured much differently in college than they are in high school.

  • Right now, you are probably used to having the same classes every day, whether they be a few classes for an entire semester or a larger number of classes for an entire year.
  • You likely have daily homework in addition to preparing for quizzes, tests, and reading in all of your classes at once.
  • In high school, classes are also consecutive and usually only have one break in the middle of the day for lunch.
  • If you’re lucky, you might even get an entire thirty minutes to eat before the bell rings. Your lunch schedule also depends on your teacher, and you have a designated area where you are allowed to eat.

The difference in college class schedules is one of the most exciting and wonderful differences you will encounter. 

  • Most colleges work off of a semester schedule where you will have a certain number of classes in the fall and then a new set of classes in the spring.
  • There is also the option to take Summer classes if you want to finish your degree early or are doing other programs such as study abroad.
  • Many of your new classes will either be on Monday-Wednesday-Friday or a Tuesday-Thursday schedule. There are other variations as well.
  • This is beneficial because you will not always have class two days in a row. This will have more time to complete assignments.

Another change is that not all classes will be structured in the same way or even taught by the same professor.

  • If you take a science class like Chemistry 101, you might have one professor teaching lectures for some of your class days and a teaching assistant (a graduate student helping the professor) teaching a lab.
  • While lectures could be two hours long, your lab class might take five hours.

There are usually gaps between your classes every day in college – nobody to tell you what to do with them. If you have time to kill, you could study in the library, do homework, go to the bank, meet friends for lunch, take a nap, etc.

You’ll have endless opportunities to do what you want.

Depending on your university, the size of a class could be drastically different than what you are used to. While small liberal arts colleges could have classes in the 30-and-below range, big schools might have hundreds of students per class.

These classes are sometimes taught by teaching assistants, and you may have little individual interaction with the professor. In large classes, attendance might not even be taken.

3. Choice in Curriculum

In high school, you have limited choice in the curriculum you take.

  • For example, you might choose to take Latin instead of French or take AP Psychology and give up an elective.
  • You also have a set number of required classes that you have to take in progression.

At your university, you will have the opportunity to take classes that work toward your major, as well as a few “just for fun.”

  • You will still have to take courses in progression, but college takes academic choice to a whole new level.
  • Let’s be clear: Almost all schools have a general course of study, and you will likely have to take some classes in college that you don’t want to.
  • However, you do get to decide on a major related to your interests and career goals.

Within your degree program, you will have many choices to make.

  • If you’re majoring in English, you might have to take one global literature class.
  • To meet this requirement, you might have ten different choices, such as West African Literature, Latin American Literature, Middle Eastern Literature, etc.
  • Part of your decision will be based on your interest, but you will also have to consider the time the class occurs so that it doesn’t affect your other classes or ability to graduate on time.

In higher education, each course you take earns a certain number of credit hours. For your degree, you will have requirements on how many credits you must earn in each subtopic.

If you are a film major, you may have to take five credit hours studying animated film.

On the course catalog, you see that there is a daily class worth five credit hours that you could take or two classes that you could take separately over two semesters (one worth 3 credits and one worth 2 credits).

You will have to decide which schedule you prefer and/or would be most beneficial on the path to earning your degree.

4. Academic Organization and Responsibility

Above, you have read about the different responsibilities that come with the new freedoms found in college.

This is no exception when discussing academic organization. In college, you will need to be meticulous about organization in order to achieve your full potential.

  • If you have homework assignments, professors will not be sending out a reminder text the night before it’s due.
  • You will need to write assignments in a planner and carve out time to complete them.
  • If you have a test coming up, it’s up to you to form a study group and make flashcards. You will not have time during class to do this.

In high school, teachers frequently allow students to make up assignments when you are sick or away for a sports meet or art performance. This may not be the case in college, so you’ll need to be prepared for this reality.

  • If you are sick, you need to get in touch with your professor right away (particularly if they take attendance).
  • Send your homework in with a peer and ask them to take notes for you on the day you miss class.
  • If you are going to be away for a school-sponsored event, you should speak with your professor at least a week in advance.
  • Plan to take tests or turn in assignments earlier than their due date.
  • Sometimes you may not be able to make them up at all.

There is no handholding when it comes to academics in college.

  • If you are failing, nobody is going to call your parents or guidance counselor.
  • If you choose to skip class, nobody is going to wake you up.
  • You have to take full responsibility for your success.
  • College is not free, and if you don’t take your academics seriously, you will suffer both the financial and opportunity costs.

However, that’s not to say that there are no resources if you are struggling in college.

Many universities offer writing labs and math centers where you can work with tutors (for free).

There are mental health specialists and counselors on staff to help you work through problems and overcome any challenges you might face.

The difference is that you must seek out these resources yourself.

5. Opportunity for Extracurricular Activities

In college, the opportunities you will have to explore interests outside of your classes are vast. Most of these programs are organized by students for students.

You will be able to participate in sports (either school-sponsored or intramurals), arts programs, clubs, fitness programs, community service organizations, and much more.

If you don’t find what you are looking for, you can always gather together like-minded individuals and create your own activity.

The schedule and structure for extracurricular activities are much different than high school, due to college’s varying schedule.

  • You could have meetings in the middle of the day, late in the evening, or even on weekends.
  • Depending on the activity, you might not have to commit to a group but could instead drop by whenever you have the time.

Many activities in college also have the potential to turn into job and career opportunities.

For example, you might be interested in environmental science and work with a group of students to create a community garden on campus. While doing your work on creating the garden, the organization might seek out donations of seeds from a local vendor.

  • This relationship is a part of what is known as “networking.”
  • Later, when you are looking for your first post-college job, you may get back in touch with the contacts that you have made over the years and find a great position.
  • Since you are already familiar with the company and staff, they are more likely to hire you because they already know your work ethic.
  • In this way, many parts of college are interrelated.

Not all activities in college are designed for careers.

You may join the knitting club because you find it relaxing and a great way to socialize with new people.

These types of activities are important to achieving a type of school-life balance that you may not have had to design previously at this point in your life.

Next Steps: High School vs. College

While all of these new changes can be scary, they can also be transformative in a positive way.

In approaching your college journey, be proactive and responsible. You’ll thank yourself in the future.

Create a schedule, and try to achieve school-life balance. We know you’ll do well.

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