First Year of College is Not Grade 13

I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking “Where has the summer gone?” even though it is only the second week of August. For those familiar with the cadence of higher education, mid-August means the start of the fall term for many colleges and universities. Toward that end, this post focuses on a few of the significant differences, in the academic realm, between high school and college and some advice for students about how to handle them. Wishing all students (new and returning) and their families a great start to the year…and an enjoyable rest of the summer!

Grade inflation is much less likely in college. Some students attended a high school where if they followed directions, demonstrated significant effort, and wrote pretty accurate and thorough answers, they earned A’s and B’s. Such students will need to learn what it takes to earn these same grades in college because a student’s effort will not be factored into grading. Rather, students’ grades in college will be based largely on their understanding, critical thinking, and application of course material. While attending and engaging in class, working hard, and completing the assignments accurately and on-time are all important (and will likely lead to greater learning), none of these are commonly factored into the grading. Similarly, extra-credit opportunities are not often given in college- so it is important that students understand the following for every class: the contents of their syllabus, the weight of various assignments and tests, due dates, and how grades are calculated (both individual assignments and final grades). 

Students must figure out what it means to be a “learner” in their new environment. Each student needs to determine both the type and level of mastery that is expected for different assignments and assessments in each of their courses. Then, students will need to determine what this means in terms of their “studying.” For high school students who paid attention in class, studying likely involved doing homework and reviewing material the night or two before a test. For most students, studying in college involves much more. And, unlike in high school, most of what a student needs to know for a college course will be learned through studying that takes place outside the formal class. Students are likely to find that skimming material before class, reviewing and enhancing class notes, annotating readings, working extra problems and applications will be key. Additionally, creating a plan to review course material and take practice tests several days in advance of an exam will be key components for most students to their “studying” in college. Students will be required to go above and beyond their efforts in high school,  shift their concept of what it means to “know” material, and commit to new study methods if they want to become an effective learner in college.

There will likely be a significant decrease in simply having to  memorize information. Rather, there will be a shift toward students being able to synthesize, apply, and integrate information in a variety of ways. Students may be asked to compare and contrast, discuss implications of a concept for several situations, or identify common themes among several topics covered in a course. Additionally, they may have to derive formulas, develop hypotheses, or write persuasive essays, all as a way of demonstrating a level of mastery of course material. Knowing facts, dates, and definitions will be the foundations for more advanced demonstration of understanding and application. Forming study groups is often helpful to students in college. It allows students to ask questions about course material that they may not fully understand. Additionally, it gives them an opportunity to reinforce their learning and understanding by explaining information to others.

Spending time with instructors, staying after class, and going to office hours is strongly encouraged in college. It seems that often in high school students who stayed after class or stayed late at school were either in trouble or were perceived as “kiss-ups” or nerdy. Getting to know faculty and discussing course material is a great way to get clarification on the information and  assess one’s level of understanding. Additionally, during such conversations it is also likely that instructors will directly or indirectly reveal how they  “think” about the material, as well as what aspects of the material they think are most important (and therefore likely to be on a test or emphasized on an assignment). This information will assist students in mastering the material more efficiently and effectively, as well as help to focus their studying. Additionally, connecting with instructors outside of class to learn about their teaching, research, career path, and other aspects of their lives can foster a relationship such that the instructor may become a mentor, advisor, and an integral support to a student’s educational journey.

Avoid being behind in the “wrong thing at the wrong time” and do not fall too far behind in any one course. Most students are likely to find themselves behind in one or more of their courses at any given time throughout the semester. When a student finds themselves behind, they should not panic (i.e. “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging” Will Rogers).  Students need to know their syllabi, how much each aspect of each course counts toward their final grade, and the collective semester schedule of assignments, papers, projects and exams for all of their classes. This way, students can prepare ahead of time for the most demanding weeks, ask for extensions or flexibility in advance, and prioritize assignments and assessments of greatest value that are due the soonest. By understanding the various components of each course and how important they are in the grand scheme of the course, students will have a better idea of when and where to “cut their losses” on assignments that have very little impact on the overall course (as long as they make sure to learn the necessary information for future requirements of the course), should it become necessary. 

Students are responsible for monitoring their academic progress and performance. Students should regularly assess how their classes are going. They should talk with their instructors and an advisor as soon as they feel they are falling behind or doing poorly in one or more courses, especially if they are unable to develop a plan to stay in control of their learning or are feeling overwhelmed. And, if it is an option, students may want to talk with an advisor about the possibility of dropping a course…something that was likely not possible in high school.  Dropping a course may be a good option if a student is approaching or has passed the point of diminishing returns in trying to catch up or improve their failing performance in a course, particularly if the amount of time and energy needed to catch up or perform significantly better is unrealistic or will negatively impact their success in other courses or their well-being. Students should not think of dropping/withdrawing from a course as “giving up,” but rather as a learning opportunity. Equally important is for the student to invest the resources they would have put into the course they drop into their remaining courses to perform as best as possible.. 

It is important that as students engage in the fall term that they are reminded that not only are expectations from high school different, but also that they do not have to figure out how to make adjustments on their own. Remind them of your unwavering support and of the many resources at their institution to help them get acclimated and adjust to the various changes they may encounter, in and out of the classroom.  Most importantly, continually remind them that transitions can be both exciting and challenging, that every student will experience the transition from high school to college differently, and for them to be themselves.  Best wishes to everyone for the start of the fall term!


Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC. Check out Beth’s previous posts about college student success.

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