High school vs college draws a comparison that varies greatly across the country and 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.

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. Classes 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 fully focus on learning.

In college, students are expected to schedule and arrange their own 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, which introduces a level of self-discipline high school may have lacked. Class sizes vary from a dozen to 100 or more, and tuition, textbooks, and materials are the individual students’ responsibility. Course and degree requirements are program-specific and require the ability to navigate an entirely different academic environment.

Instructors: high school vs college

In high school, teachers have the opportunity to spend longer amounts of 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 of school.

While similar in some areas, like teaching methods and their own education, college instructors have many, many more students for a shorter amount of time and therefore place much of the responsibility of success on the individual. Students are expected to keep up with their own assignments and tasks, make up work on their own, access help outside of 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 at a time. The structure of high school, the familiarity of peers, 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 own study and student groups. Independence in high school vs college varies greatly, but students can expect to make more decisions on their own than they’re used to.

Workload: high school vs college

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

In a college classroom, time is at a premium. The few hours per week students spend in front of their professor is 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 spent in the classroom (in person or online). Study materials and assignments may fall outside of the standard textbook and require finding materials independently. While this can be a big change, it’s one some young adults thrive on.

For those who struggle with it, most colleges and universities have resources outside the classroom for this very 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

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of the transition from high school to college is the move from following the rules set out 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 rely on others to help them proceed to graduation.

After graduation, it’s often the students’ responsibility to start keeping track of their own life, from academic decisions to moral and ethical ones. This absence of guidance can be difficult for many young adults starting out, especially since it becomes their own 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 in these times is that it is normal and there are resources 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 be different for each class. Students have much more to keep up with and keep track of to ensure their success.

High schools are obligated to teach their students, with mandatory enrollment, alternative learning methods, and opportunities to make up grades or entire classes.

Colleges, however, have no such obligation. They provide a service that is being purchased by the student, and enrollment, attendance, and consequences of failure are the students’ full responsibility.