• The Road to College
  • Thinking It Through

Six Ways College Is Different from High School

It's hard to know what college is really like until you get there. But comparing it to high school begins to paint a picture.

"Who's in charge?" The answer to that question is the biggest difference between high school and college. The answer is "you."

1. Time in college is managed by you, not the school.

One of the biggest changes for new freshmen is the amount of "free" time they have. In college, you may have three classes one day, and none the next. You might be tempted to kick back, but it's up to you to allocate time for study and time for socializing and other pursuits you want to follow.

2. College professors expect you to learn and think independently.

Another shock for new freshmen is being responsible for learning all course material on their own, even assigned material not covered in class. Students are also expected to speak up in class and debate key points. They may even be graded on class participation.

3. Cramming at the last minute doesn't work.

Many high school students are used to succeeding with last-minute studying. But exams in college occur less often and are more difficult. They demand more written answers, and you must demonstrate your mastery of the content. As many freshmen learn the hard way, this means you need to set aside time for studying throughout the week. And not skip any classes.

4. Your social life is wide open.

You may feel like a bird let out of a cage when you arrive on campus. You'll meet many potential new friends—and you can hang out and stay up as late as you want. Dozens of clubs will be bidding for your attention. College may even seem to be as much about fun as work. But successful students learn to balance school work and fun, with the priority on work.

5. You'll be sharing a (very small) personal space with a stranger.

Even if you're used to sharing a room with a sibling, living with someone you never met can be a challenge. You'll need to negotiate everything from "lights out" time to what's considered "neat." That person may not become your best buddy, but a roommate can be good company as you settle into college. He or she may even expand your horizons by introducing you to new cultures, academic fields, and recreational experiences.

6. From money to moods, you'll be responsible for taking care of yourself.

In all honesty, you might hit rough patches in college. You may be shy about making friends. You may be disappointed in your grades. From over-spending to over-indulging, many students get to a point where they need to make some changes. Fortunately, professors hold office hours to assist students, and most campuses have health care centers and counselors to provide help and a listening ear. But taking steps to get back on your feet will be up to you.

Many freshmen report that all this independence takes a few months to get used to. But college soon becomes immensely rewarding, from solid new friends to stimulating new experiences inside and outside the classroom.

What's Next?

Find out what college life is really like. Explore our Road to College Student Stories, which follow real students through their years at college.

Find practical advice for freshman yeat at College Money Matters, which offers tips on managing your financial life.