15 Ways High School and College Academics Differ

by Rebecca Santiago

A quick confession, before I begin to break down the differences between high school and college academics: I actually struggled much more academically in high school than I did in college. I mean, struggled is a pretty relative term, because I did well in both (save for the second quarter of Algebra II Honors circa 2005; I did not do so well there). But I've always been sort of prickly about authority and adverse to rote learning, so for me, the comparative structurelessness and variety of college was like, "Oh, so this is what it's supposed to be like." I still worried about grades, but I didn't have to forsake actual learning or make myself miserable to get good ones.

Of course, that doesn't mean you're screwed for college if you thrived in the high school system. Far from it! You'll probably wind up pulling way fewer frenzied all-nighters than I did. It's just a matter of adapting to the no parents, no rules lifestyle and learning how to implement structure on your own terms. And if you're clued in to some of the biggest differences between secondary and tertiary education — see below — you'll be better prepared to take on all of the crazy hours, changes, and Foucault readings that college absolutely will throw at you.

1. You are the architect of your work week

While it's true that high school schedules come in all shapes and sizes — I had friends who took seven or eight classes a day, versus the four or so I took with block scheduling — when you head off to college, you bid that regimented schedule adieu. This can be pretty cool if you're sly about it: you can avoid having college classes on Fridays, you can sleep in till 11 every day, or you can block out a nap or study block in the afternoon. Just try to be honest with yourself about what will keep you happy, productive and responsible.

2. It's OK to skip some classes

Your parents are going to kill me for this, but it's true — you don't need to go to every class. Here's what you should attend: classes where professors take attendance, classes with 25ish students and under, classes that you struggle with, professors' office hours and TA-led study groups. It's pretty much only OK to skip enormous seminars whose material you could understand without a lecture, especially if the professor posts notes online and/or it's a blowoff class.

3. Your professors might not know your name

The days of being called on out of the blue in class may be over, but so is your existence as a precious snowflake with a unique and known name! If you sidle in 10 minutes late every now and then, this isn't such a terrible thing; sometimes, I found that it worked for me to be an anonymous mess in class who submitted top-notch assignments. (Everything is about branding always.) If you want your professors to get to know you, though, I suggest participating often and stopping by office hours occasionally.

4. Your syllabus is your best friend

I'm not sure I ever read a syllabus after the first day of high school. I feel like they changed often, and besides, teachers always wrote assignments on the board, and I always had a friend I could text or IM for the assignment. In college, lesson plans are fairly static, professors expect you to know what's happening at all times, and you might not know a soul in your Monday night seminar. What helps a TON is scanning your syllabi at the beginning of the semester and saving them somewhere easily accessible — papers crumple, but the Cloud is forever.

5. Your Google Calendar is your bestest friend

A disclaimer: I do not know if a Google Calendar is still the HIPPEST way to keep a schedule. I'm sure there are lots of new exciting scheduling apps or whatever for the more technologically savvy. But for me, nothing helped more than a color-coded Google Calendar: a different color for each class, exams marked in red, extracurriculars in blue, Fun Time in purple. You'll have way more to do than you ever did in high school, and trust me when I say you will not miss your paper planner or your printed schedule much.

6. Most readings take way, way longer than you'd expect

After years of tearing through Sweet Valley books and their ilk, I remember being shocked when I tried to read Lolita for the first time (at an inappropriately young age) and couldn't zip through it in an hour flat. College readings are kind of like that. You think a four-page reading warrants a four-minute skim in the dining hall? No, that four-page reading is going to take you four hours to legitimately comprehend, because that four-page reading was written by Slavoj Žižek, and each letter you read is like one thousand middle fingers jabbing at your corneas.

7. Cramming also takes longer

Inevitably in college, you will leave an assignment till the last minute. In the worst-case scenario, you won't even realize that you have left it till the last minute — two nights seems like enough time to study for a two-chapter astronomy test, non? In high school, this was so. In college? NON. Especially when you're still adjusting to a class, I'd give yourself at least double the amount of time you think you need to prepare for an exam or to complete an assignment.

8. Classes can be a lot more one-sided

They're called lectures for a reason. Expect to see a lot fewer hands in the air and to hear a lot more of the professor's voice. If you have an awesome instructor, this can be so wonderful and inspiring — I've seen friends change majors after listening to an engaging lecturer. If your professor's got a Peanuts "womp WOMP" going, though, just take really good notes and find a study buddy to help you talk things through.

9. You don't get a free pass if your computer crashes

Back up your computer. Once more: back up your damned computer. The best you'll get with most professors is a one-day extension to retype the 10-to-infinity-page-long paper you spent a night/a week/a month/a semester/your whole college career working on. Excuses that didn't fly well in high school won't fly at all with a college professor.

10. Your odds of actually enjoying your work are much higher

Here are some things I learned I was interested in during college: early American literature (17th to mid-19th century), Virginia Woolf, critical race theory, community health, ancient mathematics, and nutrition. Here are some things I learned that were interesting during high school: during my lunch break, I found it was possible to drive to Qdoba, eat a burrito and drive back to school in time for my fourth period class.

11. Graduation requirements are confusing/barely explicable

I don't even want to think about all of the weird math and AP-test counting and advisor-finagling that eventually allowed me to graduate from college with all of my general humanities and major requirements. I took a class called Chinese Ghost Stories during my senior spring semester to fulfill some random world culture credit. Very, very obscure. It's a good idea to meet with your academic advisor regularly to make sure you are getting the credits you need. That way there are no nasty surprises once graduation finally rolls around.

12. All-nighters are really, really real

I guess I did pull a few all-nighters in high school, but they weren't the norm like they were in college. The nice thing is there's always someone else pulling an all-nighter on campus right along with you. Vampire-hour study buddies are the most important kind to nail down.

13. You're expected to fail sometimes — just make sure you follow failure protocol

I never really got the vibe that failure was an expectation or an option in high school. With so few teachers and classes, there wasn't really anywhere to go if I screwed up there. In college, though, I would say that screwing up academically is pretty normal. After all, how the hell are you supposed to know if you're any good at paleoclimatology or creative writing if you've never tried it before? If you find yourself struggling, don't beat yourself up, but do take advantage of the resources available, including professors, tutoring, academic advisory and, as a last resort, withdrawing from the class.

14. Cheating is so, so, so, so serious

All kinds of things count as cheating that you never thought of as cheating before. Turning in something you wrote in high school or for another college class? Cheating. Botching a footnote? Cheating. And even unintentional cheating has dire disciplinary consequences. Be smart and read up on your school's academic integrity policy.

15. Some of your best learning can take place outside the classroom

Argggh cheesy, I know. But in high school, even though I spent my mornings in the library with AP bio nerds and a crapload of flash cards, I rarely felt like I was broadening my intellectual horizons outside of the classroom. At college, you'll be talking to people from vastly different backgrounds with just as vastly different interests and class schedules. For a lack of a better way of phrasing it — I'm a year out of college, kids; vocabulary's all downhill from there — you and your classmates will all intellectually be "on" pretty much always. You'll learn a ton just from hanging out with them, chatting about your days and eating wings at the dining hall. If that's not the American dream, I don't know what is.

All images via Giphy