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High school vs. college draws a comparison that varies greatly across the country; most students won’t have the same experiences.

The wide range of best practices and the nature of academic discourse create vastly different educational environments, but the structure generally remains the same. Learning objectives are outlined, followed by instruction and studying, and goals are met.

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High school vs. college: What’s the difference?

Let’s compare and contrast the different aspects of the college and high school experience.

Classrooms: high school vs. college

In high school, classes are arranged for the student, and they typically meet daily. Class sizes and structures in high school are generally similar, creating a steady environment for young adults. Course requirements for graduation are largely consistent, and in the case of most students, education and materials are free or low-cost. All of these factors allow high school students to focus fully on learning.

In college, students are expected to schedule and arrange their course load with inconsistent daily schedules and classes that typically meet only once or twice a week. In some cases, students will take online classes for the first time, introducing a level of self-discipline that high school may have lacked. Class sizes vary from a dozen to 100 or more, and tuition, textbooks, and materials are the individual student’s responsibility. Course and degree requirements are program-specific and require navigating an entirely different academic environment.

Instructors: high school vs. college

In high school, teachers can spend longer time with the same students, and learning is often guided. High school teachers are typically more involved in the learning process, from helping students make up missing work to approaching students who may need additional assistance. Teachers are also typically more available for conversation and assistance during and outside school.

While similar in some areas, like teaching methods and their education, college instructors have many more students for a shorter amount of time and therefore place much of the responsibility for success on the individual. Students are expected to keep up with their assignments and tasks, work independently, access help outside class when needed, and reach out to the instructor at specified times with certain questions and concerns.

Social life: high school vs. college

Of all the similarities and differences between high school and college, students’ personal lives may be the most startling contrast for young adults. Besides the obvious differences for most students leaving home and transferring to dorm life, social interactions vary greatly.

In high school, students get used to seeing the same faces every day, sometimes for years. The high school structure, peers’ familiarity, and structured extracurricular activities make socializing easier to participate in.

In contrast, college can be overwhelming for the sheer number of new people each student will meet and interact with. Instructors and leaders aren’t present for every interaction, with students often facilitating their study and student groups. Independence in high school vs. college varies greatly, but students can expect to make more decisions than they’re used to.

Workload: high school vs. college

It’s difficult to compare the amount of time spent on the learning and studying between high school and college. However, they happen in different environments with differing responsibilities for the student. Many activities may be similar, from taking tests and quizzes to writing different essays, but the expectations typically differ greatly. In high school, there is allotted time during school for studying and working on assignments, and at-home work may account for a few hours per week. The material needed for studying is usually provided by the teacher, primarily a textbook.

In a college classroom, time is at a premium. The few hours per week students spend in front of their professor are reserved for instruction and learning activities. Rarely does a college course allot class time for studying or homework? On average, college students can expect to spend two hours outside of class for each hour in the classroom (in person or online). Study materials and assignments may fall outside the standard textbook and require finding materials independently. While this can be a big change, some young adults thrive on it.

For those who struggle with it, most colleges and universities have resources outside the classroom for this reason. For example, college students typically have access to tutoring, writing centers, library and learning centers, and study groups.

Following the high school rules vs. taking responsibility in college

One of the most difficult aspects of the transition from high school to college is the move from following the rules beforehand to taking responsibility for all actions. The K-12 education system is highly structured and overseen by parents and caregivers. Ultimately, high school students spend four years being told what to do, being corrected when they stray from the path, and relying on others to help them proceed to graduation.

After graduation, it’s often the students’ responsibility to start keeping track of their lives, from academic decisions to moral and ethical ones. This absence of guidance can be difficult for many young adults starting, especially since it becomes their obligation to reach out for help and instruction outside of class. The freedom and independence of college can be liberating for most students, interspersed with periods of stress and overwhelming responsibilities.

The most important thing to remember is that it is normal, and resources are available for most situations. The best thing for students entering college to remember is that it’s okay to ask for help.

What success looks like

In high school, grades and expectations are somewhat straightforward and consistent throughout different classes. By contrast, college courses vary individually, and grading scales can differ for each class. Students have much more to keep up with and keep track of to ensure their success.

High schools must teach their students with mandatory enrollment, alternative learning methods, and opportunities to upgrade entire classes. Colleges, however, have no such obligation. They provide a service purchased by the student, and enrollment, attendance, and consequences of failure are the student’s full responsibility.