Highlighting 5 Big Differences Between High School and College

About a month ago I was talking to a class of rising freshmen, and I asked them if anyone had a question about how things work in college classroom. A hand went up and I was asked a question I had not heard in my 28 years of teaching: “What do you do when you need to go to the bathroom?” It was such a simple question, but it was the ideal question for a student trying their best to be prepared for the new world of college. At first, all I could think to say was “Great question!”. Then I proceeded to talk about this question and introduce several other issues that college students and faculty alike take for granted but are not usually known by students who three months ago were still in high school

Here are 5 critical issues (there are more) that I feel every incoming freshman needs to be clear about:

1) In college there is nothing like a hall pass, let alone a bathroom pass. You are free to go to the bathroom whenever you like. However, there are always classroom rules of etiquette. For example, if you get up in the middle of a lecture (large or small) do it quietly, walk to the door in a way that does not cut across the Instructor or makes you more salient than you already will be. That is, whenever someone gets up in class or comes into the classroom late everyone is going to look. The key is to be the least disruptive to the class as possible. I will add that this kind of free movement in and out of class may not only be for a trip to the bathroom, but if you do not feel well, to get a drink, or other reasons you may have for entering or leaving a classroom.

2) It is important to know what to call your Instructor in person or in an email. The way you know what to call them is either because they specifically tell you or you understand to follow certain unwritten rules. With regard to the former, some Instructors will tell you to call them by their first name. That’s fine, but quite honestly I do not feel you’ll get that too often. With regard to the latter, keep in mind that unlike high school your Instructor will typically have a doctorate degree (e.g., a PhD). If they have their doctorate degree it is generally the case that you will call them “Dr.” as in “Dr. Golding”. Some students say “Professor” (“Professor Golding”), but either is acceptable. Let me add that if a student called me “Mr. Golding” it would really be no big deal. However, I know that being addressed this way would appall some of my colleagues. If an Instructor does not have their doctorate degree you should call them “Mr.” (e.g., “Mr. Smith”) or “Ms.” (“e.g., “Ms. Jones”).

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3) In each class, you will need to take a seat—somewhere. It is almost always the case that you can sit wherever you want. I would caution you to try and sit near the front to (a) allow you to interact with the Instructor and (b) to keep more focused on the lecture (i.e., you can’t look around the room as easily.) However, I am finding that more and more classes have assigned seating. The Instructor may assign the seats from Day 1, or (as I have done) you choose a seat by Day 2 and that is your seat for the remainder of the semester. You may think that assigned seating is taking you right back to high school, but assigned seats allow an Instructor to more easily learn the names of students and can be very helpful to an Instructor in bookkeeping as far as grades are concerned. Also, the reason I feel OK about my Day 2 plan is that I have found that most students choose their seat and then keep it through the semester even when I do not make it a class policy.

4) The days of constant exams and homework in every class are generally over. There are some classes that will have a lot of graded work (e.g., Math, foreign language), but in general graded work is way less than you had in high school. For example, your classes will typically have 1-4 exams. It is possible that you may have a class with only a midterm and a final. Also, a lot of classes have no actual graded homework or assignments. That is, your exam grades are your only grades. Finally, be prepared for semester-long projects that are worth a significant portion of your grade. Let me add that the fact that you will likely have less graded work is not necessarily a good thing. It means that everything that is graded is worth a lot more. Therefore, you really have to put major effort into everything that gets graded.

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5) In general, your grade is your grade. What I mean by this is I typically get students who did not do well on a graded assignment or exam and ask me if they can do something extra to raise their grade. I have learned (partly from my own kids) that teachers in high school will offer extra credit on an individual basis. However, it is my experience that this kind of individualized extra credit rarely occurs in college. There may be extra credit opportunities, but these are usually points that can be earned the entire class.

As is often the case, the differences between high school and college are quite large. Remember, you are in a whole new world. You need to understand what is expected and how the college system works. Sure, there will be times when you are confused and frustrated. Keep calm and know that you, like countless others before you, will learn the ropes and will end up being a successful college student. Good luck!

Please note that the comments of Dr. Golding and the others who post on this blog express their own opinion and not that of the University of Kentucky.

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