College vs. High School

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What’s college like? That’s the million dollar question.

College vs High School

There are plenty of articles out there that will help you write a killer application essay or fill out the FAFSA with ease, but what you really want to know is… what is college actually like? Is college better than high school? Is college easier than high school?

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These are tough questions to answer, but we’ll give you our take, and then share 9 major differences between college and high school and let you decide.

Is College Better than High School?

Group of high school students doing exam at classroom

We think so! In college, you will have more freedom and opportunities. You’ll be able to choose classes that interest you and set your own schedule. You will decide when to study, sleep and socialize.

You will also be able to start off on a new foot socially, choosing who you want to be rather than having it dictated by your past. But, keep in mind, all that freedom comes with a lot of responsibility.

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Some college students, especially freshmen, make poor choices when it comes to setting their schedules, and they prioritize their social lives over academics. The newfound freedom can be a lot to handle and it can be tough to make the right decisions.

Is College Easier Than High School?

highs school students during recitations

In many ways, yes. College is easier than high school because you will know exactly what’s expected of you. At the start of the semester, your professors will give you a syllabus outlining all of the reading assignments, exam dates and paper due dates for that class. You will also be told how your grade will be calculated. If you miss a class, you will know what happened in your absence, and, generally speaking, there won’t be any surprises.

You will also be juggling fewer classes and fewer assignments in college. You won’t have busy work to complete for each class, each night. And finally, it’s easier because college classes are actually really interesting! No more rehashing the Civil War each fall (well, unless you actually want to). Instead, choose from classes like:

Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse: Disasters, Catastrophes and Human Behavior, Michigan State University, Thinking About Harry Potter, Lawrence University The #selfie, Duke University, Wasting Time on the Internet, University of Pennsylvania. The list goes on and on. And you get credit for these classes!

Once you dive into your major, you will be even more excited to go to class, to learn, to talk about the subject matter with your peers. That passion is what it’s all about! But on the other hand, college work is very demanding.

As a college student, you will need to devote a lot of time – hours each night – to your studies in order to get good grades. You will actually have to do the assigned reading, and you will have to prove you have a thorough understanding of the course material, not just that you have it memorized.

Does High School Prepare Students for College?

high school students studying for exam

Many would argue that no, incoming freshmen are not prepared for the academic rigor of college. According to The Condition of College and Career Readiness report by ACT, Inc., among 2017 graduates, 33% met none of the 4 ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, suggesting they are likely to struggle in all 4 core subject areas during their first year of college. Thirty-nine percent met 3 or 4 of the benchmarks.

The data shows slight improvements from the previous year, but there is a long way to go, particularly with regards to Hispanic and African American students whose scores lag behind those of their white and Asian counterparts. Recent state-level initiatives to boost STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning, as well as adopting Common Core Standards, could have a positive impact on college readiness.

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But to really answer the question – does high school prepare students for college – it’s best to consider your own personal high school experience. If you have taken or are currently taking honors, AP, IB or college-level courses, you are doing yourself a favor. You will have a better understanding of the academic expectations of college.

Remember that a lot of students struggle in their first semester of college, but most are able to turn it around. Whether you need to seek tutoring, withdraw from a challenging course or reconsider your major, be sure to reach out for the help you need. Every college offers support that is meant to help you succeed. That’s everyone’s goal!

You Be the Judge

hs students solving arithmetic sum

We’ve told you what we think about college versus high school, now it’s your turn to decide. Here are 9 important ways in which college is different than high school.

1. Studying / Effort

In high school. Each night you may have some busy work, such as outlining a chapter or completing worksheets. And before a big test, you may spend an hour or two cramming. But for the most part, you don’t have to put in a ton of real effort to get good grades.

But in college. You will need to dedicate a lot more time and effort to your studies! While you won’t have busy work or nightly homework to complete, expect to do some intense reading and then spend some time processing the material on your own. Before a big exam, you may spend 10+ hours studying, and it may take weeks to put together a 10-page term paper.

2. Comprehension

In high school. Oftentimes, if you can memorize the info and regurgitate it properly, you will get an A on exams, papers and projects.

But in college. Memorization isn’t enough. Your professors will require you to demonstrate a deeper, more genuine understanding of the course material. You are there to learn, after all.

3. Opportunities / Grades

In high school. Your final course grade may take into consideration test scores, project grades, homework, class participation and even attendance.

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But in college. Most professors don’t take role or review homework. Your final course grade may only come from a midterm, a final exam and a term paper. That means you’ve only got 3 opportunities to prove that you know the material!

4. Responsibility

college student preparing for the exam

In high school. You spend a full day at school, in classes, 5 days a week. Teachers – and sometimes your parents, too – will remind you about upcoming assignments and exams, and are regularly available to answer questions or offer feedback. You may even have a chunk of time (e.g. study hall) carved into each day for schoolwork. There are a lot of people holding your hand, monitoring your time, and helping ensure your success.

But in college. It’s all you! You may only be in class for a few hours each day, and how you manage the rest of your time is up to you. You will be responsible for remembering assignments and exams, and choosing how much time you should allot to studying. If you’re struggling, it will be up to you to get things together or reach out for support.

5. Personal Identity

In high school. There are the jocks, the nerds, the hipsters, the class clowns, and so on. Once you’re labeled, it’s nearly impossible to cross over without ridicule. You may also feel pigeon-holed by the reputation of an older sibling, another family member, or rumors from your past.

But in college. You get a fresh start, a clean slate. You can decide who you are, what you’re involved in, and who you hang out with. and you can change that and evolve along the way. People around you will be more mature, and less inclined to gossip or stir up drama.

6. Peers

In high school. Everyone is more or less required to be there. Some of your peers may blow off classes, not care about their grades, etc. You may find it difficult to find study partners who share your drive.

But in college. Most of those around you will be there by choice, and will likely be paying to be there. You will find that more of your classmates are motivated and passionate about their future, and they will excite and challenge you academically.

7. Diversity

group of college students during break

In high school. For the most part, the people around you have similar life experiences. They grew up in the same area and have similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

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But in college. There will be a lot more diversity. You will meet people who grew up in towns with no stoplights and dirt roads, people who are accustomed to the hustle and bustle of New York City, and people who have lived in all parts the world. Everyone will bring to the table different life experiences, and unique opinions and perceptions, which can really enhance conversations in and out of the classroom.

8. Extracurriculars

In high school. You can try out for sports, audition for the school play, or run for student government. If you attend a larger school, you may have access to some niche activities, like a diving team or an environmental club. All of these are great opportunities to figure out what you’re good at and what interests you.

But in college. There are so many more ways to get involved! There are clubs and organizations for all kinds of interests – cigar enthusiasts, ballroom dancers, improv comedy troupes. You could test your skills at broom ball, ping-pong or rock climbing.

You could volunteer to give campus tours to prospective students, or help build homes for the homeless in your community. You could get out of your shell by joining a cultural or religious group. There are so many possibilities to explore new interests!

9. Recognition

In high school. Your success is celebrated. If you attend a small school, you may receive awards or even scholarship money for your academic or extracurricular achievements. You may be the big fish in a small pond, as the saying goes.

But in college. You might become a small fish in a big pond. There will be more students, and those students will have a more diverse range of experiences and education. Rather than focus on competing for accolades, take the opportunity to collaborate and learn from each other.


Teacher teaching economics to his college students

College is a lot different than high school! For the most part, we think college is easier and better than high school. And while you may not be 100% prepared, you will definitely find your way.

Just keep reminding yourself that you are there for YOU! College is an opportunity to grow and learn, to shape your future, and to become who you want to be.

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.