If you’re like I was, you’ll probably feel the excitement of jumping into College or University. It’ll feel like jumping into an inspiring new world.
But it can’ also be intimidating.
What are the differences between high school and college? In this post I’ll take a look at this matchup: High School vs College.
A quick note on language:
- I’m using the words ‘college’ and ‘university’ to mean the same thing here (Sorry British readers, I know they’re different things to you!)
- I’m using the word ‘professor’ here. In Britain, Australia and New Zealand you’ll know your professor as a ‘lecturer’. Basically, they’re the same thing.
Alright here are the top 29 differences between college vs high school. I’ve sorted it by things you’ll find in College that are different to High School:
1. Attendance is not Compulsory
The first strange thing you’ll notice when comparing high school vs college is that at college there isn’t a teacher breathing down your neck. They won’t be hovering there asking you where you were that day you didn’t make it to class?
In fact, as a professor myself, I personally don’t really care if you miss a class or two.
Sure, I’ll start getting annoyed if you don’t attend all the classes and I might drop you an email asking what’s up. But I’m not going to be going out of my way to chase you down.
I’ve recommended in this post that you drop your professor an email if you won’t attend to be polite.
Welcome to adulthood.
2. There is way Less Class Time
This is mostly true, and definitely true if you’re in the humanities or social sciences.
In all universities I’ve taught at, the full-time student course load is around 12 – 18 hours of classes per week.
This means that you’ll probably have classes about 3 days per week for about 4 hours for each of those days. You might have a timetable that has 2 hours in the morning, 4 hours off, then 2 hours in the evening.
The freedom will feel amazing!
I think I’d better add a caveat:
Some courses have a lot of lab work or requirements for 9 – 5 classes. Sorry, you should have done a humanities degree!
3. Independent Study
Even though you’ll probably have a lot more free time in college than high school, you’ll also have a lot of homework!
And it’s not the sort of homework where you do a few assigned quizzes then get on with your life.
It will be reading. A lot of reading. And then you’ll be expected to do even more reading, or listening to podcasts, or watching videos.
Why? Well, because …
Your job is to be genuinely interested in learning. Your job is to go out there and develop your own expertise on the topic.
Then, come to class and share what you’ve learned independently.
Your teacher might assign a few texts to read, but they’re not going to hold your hand. You’ll be expected to just be out there constantly absorbing information.
4. Lectures are Huge
I remember the first time I sat in a lecture I was so excited. It felt like I had made it, finally, to this magical place!
You’ll be in big rooms with between 80 and 200 students all sitting there, starting at the lecturer out the front.
Lectures require you to sit and take notes while an expert stands out the front and delivers a talk for between 1 and 3 hours.
The lecturer won’t be asking you to contribute usually. They will expect you to listen, observe and silently think about their ideas.
To learn more about what learning in a lecture is like, take a look at my post on the differences in learning between lectures vs. seminars.
5. You won’t be Reminded to do Things
In high school your teacher is constantly nagging you about when things are due, what to do that week and even what extracurricular activities to be involved in! While you may find some really involved university professors who do this, many just deliver the content and go home.
So when you’ve got something due or homework to do, don’t expect to be reminded about it! You need to be actively checking your emails and your course’s online portal (usually on a Learning Management System like Canvas, Blackboard or Moodle). That’s where the information about what to do will be posted!
6. Your Parents have Zero Involvement
Don’t expect your parents to have any involvement with your learning!
You’re and adult now – all on your own.
Your parents won’t be meeting with your professor or having any contact with the university at all. They probably will only step foot on the campus twice – on orientation day, and on graduation day!
7. The Professors are Aloof
University professors aren’t only teachers. In fact, many of them aren’t mainly employed for teaching. They’re employed to conduct research!
So your class is just one of many, many commitments they have throughout the day.
They’re also rarely well trained in educational theory. They often fall into a teaching role after long careers elsewhere.
This means you’ll find that your professors are aloof. They’ll come to class, deliver the learning materials, then disappear to their very active research and writing careers.
This means you’ll be doing a lot of independent study (see Point 3).
8. Your Lecturers are Experts
You will likely come across some people who have good reputations in their industry. Your teacher may have written the definitive textbook on your topic. Or, they may have invented something that made them well known!
Most professors also have PhDs which signify their unique contributions to their field of study.
University professors are employed for their expertise. This means that at times it’s a great privilege to be there to listen to people right at the peak of their field.
Sometimes you’ll also get guest lecturers come in because of their expertise.
But the bad side of this is that sometimes they’re not great teachers – being bright is not the same as being a good communicator!
9. You’re Treated as an Equal
In high school you’re often treated very condescendingly by your teachers.
I went to a high school where I had to wear a uniform right up to the very last day.
It’s a surprise when you’ll come across professors who don’t discipline you or look down their noses at your behavior.
It’s an even bigger surprise when they become your friends!
Something else nice about this more equal relationship is the professors don’t feel like they need to babysit you. If classes end early, they’ll just tell you to go home! There’s no waiting around for the bell to ring here…
10. You Control your Timetable
This is definitely one of the best parts about university.
At high school, you don’t really have much of a choice about how your timetable is set out. It’s also usually packed with learning.
But at university you’ll usually be able to cater your own timetable. There will be a range of seminars and you’ll be able to select the one that suits your life best.
Similarly, you’ll often be able to elect which subjects you want to learn.
Of course, this depends on your course: some courses are cohort-based. Some of my friends had these courses and they didn’t have a choice: they had to do classes 9-5 Monday to Friday. Sucks to be them. But, for the most part in BA and B.Sc degrees, you’ll get to pick and choose your timetable to create your own unique degree.
11. Your Papers are Very Long
Say goodbye to a 500-word essay that you can write quickly the night before it’s due.
You’ll probably start out with an essay that’s at minimum 1000 words, but this will rapidly grow to 3000, 4000, and even 5000-word essays on your topics!
This means you need to start your essays early and dig deep to keep on writing drafts on a regular basis if you want good grades.
Or … you know, pull a few all-nighters.
12. You have to use Scholarly Sources
Say goodbye to Google!
Instead, you’ll have to look through a ton of ‘scholarly sources’ to get your information.
Scholarly sources are:
- Journal Articles
- Reports by Think Tanks
There’s a few more than this, and you can read about all 7 Scholarly Sources in my post on them here.
But, the fact of the matter is that you need to show that you got your information from an expert. You can’t reference blogs or websites anymore!
To learn how to find scholarly sources, check my post on 9 Places to find free Scholarly Sources Online.
13. You’ve got to use strict Referencing Styles
Most of my students come to university having done a little bit of referencing, but in high school they don’t take it quite as seriously as we do at university.
At university level, we don’t use bibliographies either. We use reference lists. Here’s a post on the differences between reference lists and bibliographies from the official APA Style blog.
But basically, you need to reference scholarly sources (see Point 12) in just about every paragraph of your essays to show where you got your sources from!
Here are the most common referencing styles:
- APA Style
- MLA Style
- Chicago Style
- Harvard Style
I have a detailed article on how to reference at university here if you’re curious about what’s expected.
14. You Get a Sweet Student ID Discount
Week 1, Day 1 at university, make sure you get your hands on your Student ID. It gets you discounts all around the world! It’s definitely not something you should be missing out on.
From movie tickets to train rides to clothes, you’ll get to soak up big savings. Retailers love to attract university students into their stores with special offers and discounts just for you.
15. No One Cares if you Fail
Nope. No one cares.
Your professor won’t come up to you and try to offer you one-to-one tutoring and mentoring. They’re too busy!
The simple idea is this: It’s your job to succeed. And if you’re not succeeding, well, you need to find a way to solve that problem yourself! (Which is why many people quit in the first year).
16. You’ll be Kicked Out of your Class if you’re a Nuisance
There’s nothing stopping your professor from turning to you if you’re chatting to much and saying “get out.” And that’s it. You’ve got to leave, buddy.
I have done this on many an occasion.
It’s usually during lectures that I do this. Students are chatting when I’m talking? Heck no I’m not going to tolerate that. I don’t do ‘classroom management’. You’re adults now! It’s your responsibility to self-regulate.
17. It’s your Job to keep Class Discussions Going
Some seminar discussions can be really awkward!
Because the teacher will often just sit there and wait for someone to say something. Yep, they’ll say “Over to you. What are your thoughts?”
This is really intimidating at first. I see my students sitting there like … ummm … are you going to teach us anything?
But a seminar is about student-led discussions. It’s your job to come to class ready to share your ideas and opinions.
And if no one in the class is willing to talk, then you’ll be sitting in silence. Fun.
18. Classes Start at Random Hours
I mean random.
I remember when I was timetabled for a 6pm class once and I was like … what!? Isn’t there a 9-5 deal?
8am class? You’re there. 7pm class? You’re there, too.
Most classes fortunately are at reasonable times. But man, I hate early class. I try so hard to avoid classes that start before 11am. I need my sleep, damnit!
19. You can Work for your Professor
Keep an eye out for on-campus jobs.
There are a lot of jobs that are offered in the libraries and cafes on campus.
But there are also jobs offered directly by research professors. They’ll hire you to conduct research and literature reviews on their projects. In fact, they’re given funding to hire you!
This is a pretty good way to get to know your professors and get a good job listed on your resume.
20. College will Cost you Money
University is expensive. Real expensive.
And it’s not just the degree itself.
It’s costs that go on and on.
You’ll likely have to pay for your own rent, transport, etc. when at university unless you’ve got kind parents! You’ll also probably be forking out cash for textbooks.
But there’s more.
Most university students go into debt. And that sticks around for a long, long time.
I’m still in college debt in my 30s. And the interest keeps racking up.
Yep, college is EXPENSIVE!
21. You Actually Have to do the Readings
When your teacher in high school says to do your homework, they’ll nag and nag you to do it.
And if you don’t do it, well maybe you’ll get a slap across the wrist. Maybe even you’ll get a punishment like a detention.
Not at university.
I mean, firstly, the idea of giving a student at college ‘detention’ is laughable. You can’t do that to adults!
But secondly, if you don’t do the readings, well you’ll just fall behind and your punishment will simply be that you’ll likely fail your degree.
You’ll also be pretty embarrassed in class when your teacher asks you questions and you’ve got nothing to contribute.
22. You’ll Fail for Plagiarizing. Straight Away.
Plagiarism is when you copy someone else’s work and pretend it’s your own.
And is a big deal at university.
We have some pretty complicated software nowadays to catch people out for plagiarizing. And if you’re caught out a few things will happen:
- You may have to sit in front of a committee of professors to explain yourself;
- You may fail your subject (and not get your money back!);
- You may be kicked out of the university.
So, simply, don’t do it. You’ll need to learn to paraphrase.
23. Don’t Ask to Go to the Bathroom. Just Go.
Okay this one’s pretty funny.
Sometimes students in their first few classes put their hands up to ask to go to the bathroom.
It always shocks me and reminds me just how young my students are – they still don’t see themselves as adults!
So, don’t ask to go to the bathroom. You’re an adult. Just find a quiet moment to shuffle out for 5 minutes. Everyone will be fine that you had to pop out for a moment, because you’re an adult and it’s not anyone’s job to micromanage you. You can do that. It’s fine.
24. You’re with Random Strangers A Lot
You’ll often find that the people you’re with in one class are totally different to the people you’re with in the next.
This can be fun sometimes: there’s always a new cute girl / guy for you to chat with. But it can be exhausting, too, being in group conversations with complete strangers a lot of the time.
Embrace your inner extrovert!
25. The Students around you are Aged 18 – 55
In high school, you’ll be in groups generally sorted by age groupings.
But in college, anyone can sign up for a degree.
There are nice things about being with people of a lot of different ages. One is that you’ll learn a lot from people from different backgrounds. You’ll also learn a lot about people who have had career experiences and then come back to university for a while.
But, be prepared for the constant debates about whether older or younger students are more annoying.
26. People Live on Campus
No, people aren’t going to be coming to class in their pyjamas.
But you might see groups of students who live in the college dorms hanging out in the greens as if it’s their own backyard. And well, that’s because it is.
When I was in university my dining hall was in the middle of campus. So there were the ‘on-campus’ students always walking by your classrooms in big packs on their way to lunch and dinner!
27. Self-Motivation is Necessary
You really need to be doing the degree out of some sort of intrinsic interest.
In other words, you’ve got to be self-motivated!
The excitement of the degree drops away pretty fast. And then you’re back to digging deep and finding that motivation.
You need to remind yourself that you’re here for a reason: to get that dream job or career. Or, because you’re actually really passionate about that topic you’ve selected for your degree!
I recommend you check out my detailed post on how to stay motivated at college for some tips and advice.
28. Your Professors have Drop-In Office Hours
This is such an under-used resource at many universities.
I have drop-in office hours and I very rarely have students attend.
What are drop-in office hours?
Simply, it’s a few hours a week when the professor leaves his door open for students to turn up and ask you any questions you want on your topic.
It’s a great resource to get to know your professor, get them to look over your drafts, and get insider tips on how to succeed.
29. No Standardized Test
In high school, there is a very strict curriculum that teachers must follow. It’s usually set by a board or government body.
And it’s true, some degrees like a medical or law degree will be designed to prepare you for a final standardized test that is strictly regulated.
But at least 80% of university degrees have courses written and designed by your teachers themselves! That means that no one degree is the same as another. What you learn is really dependant on the expertise of your professor a lot of the time!
Summary: High School vs. College
If there’s one key takeaway from this article it’s this:
At College, you’re treated like an adult. It’s less structured, and learning is only one person’s responsibility: Your Own.
If you have any more ideas you think I should add to this post, please leave a comment below and if I like your idea I’ll add it to the list!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.