10 Important Differences Between High School and College All Students Should Know About

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Group of students working on a project using a laptop inside a classroom.

10 Important Differences Between High School and College All Students Should Know About

College is a right of passage into adulthood for millions of high school students around the world. Teenagers move from the familiarity and comfort of their high school into the unknown and unfamiliar halls of college. High school is supposed to be preparation for a student’s time in college, but there are some important differences between high school and college.

The freedom is immense, and the responsibilities surmountable. Within just one short summer, students are expected to transform from minor children in their parents’ homes to responsible adults in charge of their own lives. For many, the change is abrupt and surprising.

Knowing the differences between high school and freshman year of college will give students a clear idea of how to strategize for the most success. Here are 10 differences between the high school and college experience.

1. Voluntary Admissions

In high school, states are required to provide an equitable and free education to every child. This means that parents can enroll their students in free public high schools to receive an accessible education at no to minimal costs. Parents may choose to send their students to private schools where tuition and fees are charged, but this is an option for parents similar to college.

College is not mandatory in any state. Students elect to apply to schools and are charged tuition and fees for admission and enrollment. Students have less legal protections in colleges and universities than they had in high school, especially with regard to accommodations for disabilities.

At the high school level, states are required to educate every student. In college, admissions are selective and expensive. The voluntary nature of enrollment in college is a major difference between high school and post-secondary education.

2. Costs and Expenses

High school students receive a free public school education at minimal cost to their parents. Costs in public school might include entrance fees for extracurricular activities and school supplies. In general, high school students are not expected to pay for their textbooks or class books. They are loaned a set of textbooks and books, so parents are not expected to pay for the core of their child’s educational materials.

college student looking gleeful looking at the camera

On the other hand, in college, students are expected to pay for their tuition and fees, room and board, and textbooks along with any other materials their professors ask them to purchase throughout a course. These costs can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

Students may have multiple textbooks for their Science, Math, and History classes along with several novels for English classes.

They might need to purchase an instrument for music classes and an art kit for painting classes. There are ways to lower the costs of college, such as living at home or in an apartment instead of on campus, renting or using digital versions of class texts, and winning scholarships.

The expensive nature of college enrollment is a significant and costly difference between high school and college. Parents may spend years saving for a students’ college education or need to take out loans.

3. Personalized Scheduling

In high school, counselors use graduate plans to provide students with a four-year course load. Students have some choice in the classes they take, especially if Honors, AP, or IB courses are offered.

For the most part, students take a progression of courses planned out for them by their school district or state. The graduation plans specify the number of English, History, Science, Math, Foreign Language, and Physical Education classes students are required to take over the four years. Students must take certain courses, but there are options for modifications for students with learning disabilities.

Once students reach college, the flexibility and option to customize their schedule is much greater. Depending on the major and academic program, students have a variety of pathways they can take to graduation. College freshmen work with their academic advisors to pick their programs and plan out their courses for each year.

Besides this periodic guidance, students have much more freedom and many more options for how they will arrange their courses.

This includes how many classes to take each semester, whether to use the summers to accelerate toward graduation, what days to schedule classes, and at what times during the day.

In high school, students may attend six to eight classes in a day, every day with small breaks in between. Classes may range from 40 to 90 minutes with an average of 60 minutes and span a semester or a full two-semester year.

Like a full-time job, students may spend anywhere from 40 to 50 hours a week at school. From academic classes to electives and extracurriculars, students’ entire day may be scheduled and delegated from start to finish. After school, they may even be shuttled to activities outside of school like tutoring and club sports.

College students’ schedules are vastly different from high school schedules. Students can choose to schedule all of their hours on one to two days or even in the late evenings. Colleges offer the same class at different times with many different professors, so students can research their instructors and choose ones with high ratings from students at their preferred time slot.

Classes last a semester or trimester and may be an hour to three hours long meeting one to three times each week for a total of 12 to 15 hours on average. More ambitious students may even take up to 18 or 21 hours depending on restrictions.

4. Variable Workloads

Unlike high school, there is a major difference between the amount of time high school and college students are expected to spend working on coursework and studying outside of class.

In high schools, teachers follow similar calendars and are aware of the teaching and assessment schedules of other teachers. Teachers post students assignments to a common assignment board, and so they can see the assignments other teachers give along with their due dates.

Many schools have a nightly homework limit to reduce the amount of time students have to spend outside of class. While each student might take the same type of courses, the advanced level of the courses may vary a bit from student to student along with the workloads of those courses.

The workload of a college student is the most important difference between high school and college. The college workload far exceeds that of a high schooler but may be similar to AP or college level courses taken in high school.

College students are expected to do more work for longer periods of time. Estimates range from three to nine hours of study for a three credit hour course.

If a student were taking four courses, that would average twelve to twenty-seven hours of study outside of class hours. Like in high school, students who take more advanced courses may have a greater workload. This time commitment will vary based on the major and program and the number of courses enrolled in.

5. Types of Homework

In high school, students may have many different types of homework that are a part of their grades. These homework assignments are usually graded by the teacher and returned. Homework assignments in high school are most often assignments not finished in class, projects started in class, group work, problem practice, and studying for tests.

In college, students have a greater workload, but these consist of homework assignments that are not typically submitted for grades. Students may have an increased reading load with textbook chapters and articles.

Students are expected to read the reading assignments before class and come to class ready to discuss the readings and connect them to the lectures. Professors do not usually check the homework, though in some cases, students can use the homework to clarify understanding on a topic.

an unidentified student taking an exam

In some math and science classes, homework practice is graded and submitted as a part of the course grade. Students complete problem sets in math or write lab reports in biology that are counted toward the course grade.

In English classes, students may have to submit their outlines and research notes for a grade along with submitting a completed essay. The number of homework grades that count toward the course grade is a significant difference between high schools and college.

6. Types of Assessments

Besides the homework, students in high school will take several tests in each class. Students usually take a test at the end of a unit, and they may have four to six units in a class. These tests may range from multiple choice to timed essays.

Students may even be assessed on oral presentations and digital media productions.  Each course grade usually ends up consisting of many grades, sometimes more than 20.

But, it is not uncommon for homework assignments to count for more points than tests and other assessments. This is to ensure that high school students can still be successful based on their work throughout the course.

College courses give students fewer assessments, sometimes as little as two tests. Students may have a mid-term exam halfway through the semester and a final exam at the end of the semester. The entire course grade may be based on just a few assessments.

This sparseness doesn’t give students that many opportunities to demonstrate how much they’ve learned. Other college courses may have multiple papers, weekly quizzes, a final portfolio of weekly writings, or a final presentation.

Some courses may even use a combination of all the types of assessments, and this will be clearly laid out in the syllabus. The type of assessment will vary by subject as well.

If a student takes AP courses and AP exams, they may have a familiarity with college-level assessments and not notice any differences between high school and college. They may already be familiar with the assessment style through their advanced college prep work. This is one of the benefits of taking AP courses in high school.

7. Free Time

High school students’ free time is usually controlled by school leaders assigning their free periods during the week and their parents during every other time. Students may have little time to themselves or little say in how they spend their days outside of school.

Extracurricular activities and part-time employment may take up a significant amount of time outside of school.

Beyond that, social activities may fill up some student time on weekends. Students in multiple sports or competition sports may have even less free time. Their day is maxed out by classes during the school day, and there isn’t much time outside of that busy schedule.

a female college student looking at the camera

College students may seem to have more free time in their schedules because of how their classes are scheduled. They may only have three hours of classes in a day.

This kind of freedom requires a sufficient amount of time management skills to be successful and free of distractions. Outside of class, students might think they have more time for fun activities than they do. Instead of studying after class, they may be tempted to hang out with friends or spend the day relaxing.

While these activities are important in a well-rounded schedule, students in college should seek a balance while still prioritizing their academics.

8. Social Activities

In high school, most social activities are limited to school lunches, after school, and on weekends. Students are usually too busy during the week to spend much time hanging out with friends.

Having fun with friends is important, but high school students are usually limited to their parents’ permission, especially with regard to expenses and transportation. High schools are often sources of social activities with clubs, assemblies, dances, grade level gatherings and trips, and birthday celebrations.

Like high schools, colleges provide students with ample social opportunities. This includes residence hall gatherings, intramural sports and clubs, and cohort programs.

At the same time, college students have more people to form their own social circles based on discovering new interests and making friends with classmates. Even though college students may not know as many of their peers as high school students, they form friendships with other students based on a variety of self-selected interests.

A difference between school and college life is that college facilitates participation in social activities as students are more likely to live together in college than in high school. Unless a high school student attends a boarding school, living with classmates is an advantageous and important difference between high schools and college.

9. Housing and Transportation

For the most part, high school students live at home and are driven around by their parents or caregivers. At the legal driving age, high schoolers may be able to get licensed and drive themselves around. In some circumstances, high school students may live on their own.

Despite these more independent high school students, most high school students live with their families and depend on them for transportation.

Once a student reaches college, they have more of an option for deciding where they will live and how they will get around. If a student lives at home, they may still depend on their parents for housing and transportation.

But students who live on campus may get to choose between several residence halls and off-campus apartments. They may have the option to bring a car on campus or use public transportation. Students have more independence and freedom with their living arrangements and their ability to get from place to place.

10. Employment

High school students may hold part-time jobs working up to 30 hours outside of school hours. Students in high school may need to earn money for themselves or their families.

These working students may work after school, on weekends, and during summers in different part-time roles. These roles may be related to their future career paths, or they may be simple ways to earn money as a teenager.

College students also hold jobs, but unlike high school students, they can work more and different hours. They can schedule work hours during the work day rather than only after school. They can even work a full-time job if their classes are offered in the evenings.

A student with classes from 6pm to 9pm Monday through Friday can work a full-time job from 8am to 5pm. A high school student would struggle to work a full-time job.

College students have more expenses with college tuition and room and board. College students may be tempted to juggle more hours than they can fit in their schedule realistically. In this way, students should think about their workload when planning their work schedules.

College employment may also include student work study as a part of their financial aid package. In this case, student hours worked are limited even more to reduce distractions from their course load.

AdmissionSight Propels High School Students

AdmissionSight offers high school students consultations to prepare for and plan for the differences between school and college life. High school will need to level up and grow exponentially to meet the challenge. At AdmissionSight, we help students navigate that challenge with success. Contact a counselor today to start preparing the next step in higher education.



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