Faruk Aydin's picture

College vs. High School: Academics

Anyone remember transitioning from middle school to high school? I was told that high school was going to be much harder; more advanced classes, SATs, APs, searching for universities, waiting for acceptance and as if it wasn’t enough, teenage problems. Entering high school sounded pretty stressful but even then, I did not have to worry too much about getting good grades, time management and study habits.

As you might expect, moving from high school to college is in fact much harder.  At this point, it will not get any easier. College is significantly more competitive and challenging than high school. Think of a young basketball player’s transition to the NBA. He might have been the star in his school team but now he is just like any other player with potential. College is like playing at a major league. Do not let those words scare you though, you are capable of being successful in college. However, it will not happen the same way as in high school. A lot of that success will come with a change in your attitude and habits. My high school self who was successful back then would clearly struggle in college. Thankfully, change is a law of nature. Here are some of the differences I notice between my high school and college-self:



  • High School Student: “Oh no! I got a 91 on the test. I should’ve got an A!”
    It is more acceptable to get a lower grade than you might expect in college.
    College Student: Looks at the average score of the class and standard deviation. Satisfied if it is slightly above average.
  • High School Student: “I will study one day before the test and get a good score.”
    Studying one day before the test is too risky. You will not be able cover all the material for a midterm in one day. Same rule applies for assignments, lab reports and essays. Do not leave them till the last day. You might get a week with two or more midterms and then another midterm in the following week. The pace is much faster than it was in high school.College Student: Starts studying 3-7 days before the midterm.
  • High School Student: “This teacher doesn’t know how to teach. I am not learning anything. His class is pointless.”
    You might have good or bad instructors in college. Most of the learning must be done on your own, outside of class. Do not expect to learn the things covered in lecture right away. Professors like getting into more complex topics and challenging your knowledge. If you have any questions, you can ask the professor or teaching assistant by e-mail or talk with them during their office hours.
  • High School Student: “Study time: 30 minutes to 2 hours. Okay, that’s enough.”
    College Student: “Maximum study time: … hours.”
    For a college student, you might study 6-10 hours but might still miss on things. There isn’t really a limit to how much you can study.
  • High School Student: Procrastinates…A Lot. Time management is not a problem.
    College Student: Time management is a REAL problem. It is better to be organized. Create a calendar for all the things you need to do.  Try to avoid procrastination.


High School: Monday through Friday, 8 am-3 pm. Four 70-minute classes every day given in a classroom with 15-30 students.

College: Flexible schedule. Some days you might have as many as 6 classes while in another day you might have one or none. You can search the day, time and professor for your classes and pick the ones that fit your schedule best.


Most classes are divided into three parts; lecture, discussion and labs.

Lecture is given by professors in a hall with 100+ students. Attendance to lectures are not mandatory but highly recommended for your understanding of the course. But what are discussions and labs?

Discussions and labs are taught by TAs (teaching assistants) who are pursuing a graduate or doctorate degree. Attendance to discussions and labs is mandatory. In discussion, you usually go over the material covered in lecture and get a task to work on in groups. They are 50 minutes long. Discussions are given in classrooms with 15-25 students similar to high school. Labs are mostly for science classes. They may be 2-3 hours long. This is when you apply the theoretical knowledge to real life. In other words, you experiment and examine things you learned in lecture. You will have different lab assignments each week. Before labs, you are expected to complete the lab warm-ups which help your understanding of that week’s lab. You will also be assigned a few lab reports throughout the semester, which will count as a major portion of your lab grade.

  • Midterms: Tests that usually count for 35% of your final grade. Number, format, and length of midterms vary from class to class. For example, for Physics I have to take 4 50-minute long midterms. Each midterm covers one to three chapters. Note: Chapters in a college textbook are longer but are taken at a much faster pace. 
  • Finals: In the end of the semester, you will have a cumulative test for each class (some Liberal Education classes might not have it) which cover all the things you have learned. Finals usually count for 35% or more of your final grade and are curved. Doing good on the finals is very crucial for success.

Best way to prepare for college is by challenging yourself in high school. Take more advanced classes like APs or IBs. It will really help you get the study and reading habits you need in college. If your high school doesn’t offer those, learn new things on your own! Develop a passion for learning.