College Parents Can Help Freshmen Understand the Differences Between High School and College

Both you and your almost college freshman have been looking forward to the start of college for a long time.  Both you and he are excited, emotional, and most likely a bit nervous.  One of the concerns that many students and their parents share is wondering whether the student will be able to succeed in his schoolwork at the college level.  You know that he is capable, he’s done well in high school, he’s anxious to do well, but you still have some concerns.  The world of college is a new arena – with new approaches, new expectations, and new standards.

You can help your college student make a good start in college by helping him to consider some of the differences between high school and college.  College will not simply be “more of the same thing” as high school.  One of the secrets to success in college for some of the best students is that they make the adjustment to the differences.  Here are some of the things that you and your college freshman might think about as she prepares for her first semester.

Class Time

High school students typically spend about six hours per day in class, Monday through Friday, for 180 days.  This means that they spend somewhere around 1,080 hours in the classroom per year.  In a typical college schedule, a student may spend approximately 12 hours per week in class, for two 14-15 week semesters, placing the student in class for between 336 to 360 hours for the school year.  Obviously, if students are spending significantly less time in class, they need to be doing more of their work outside of class, and their day is much less structured than the typical high school day.

Study Time

College students are expected to do the bulk of their coursework outside of class time. High school students typically do a large percentage of their homework during school hours and may spend 1-2 hours doing work at home.  A general rule of thumb for college students is the expectation that they will spend 2 hours outside of class for every hour that they are in class.  A student who spends 12 hours/week in class, then, should be spending another 24 hours working outside of class.  A student who is not prepared for spending a significant amount of his out-of-class time studying may not realize why his is struggling with his work load.


High school assignments are often daily and are primarily to reinforce class work.  They may stress learning information and facts.  College assignments tend to be fewer and of greater magnitude. They may emphasize theory and concepts more than facts.  A student may be assigned a major paper or project at the beginning of the term and will be expected to work independently until it is due late in the term. Reading assignments may be given, but students may not be tested until midterm and will be responsible for many chapters at once. Students will be responsible for breaking larger projects into manageable pieces.


High school students may have frequent quizzes and weekly or chapter-ending tests.  Teachers remind students of upcoming tests often and may spend significant class time preparing and reviewing for the test.  College classes may have infrequent tests, with each test cumulatively covering a significant amount of material.  Instructors may not remind students of upcoming tests (they expect students to read the syllabus) and they may spend little or no class time reviewing material.


High school students have consistent daily interaction with their teachers and receive frequent feedback about their grades and what they might need to do to improve those grades.  Grades often take into consideration attendance, frequent homework assignments, and effort.  Attendance may or may not count in college grading, depending on the instructor.  Instructors may not give frequent feedback regarding grades.  If students want more feedback about grades, the responsibility may fall on them to contact their instructors during office hours to discuss their progress.  In some classes, a final grade may be determined by two or three large assignments or exams.


Because high school students spend so much more time in class, they have more opportunities to interact with their teachers.  High school teachers, who are trained in teaching methods, impart information using varying teaching techniques, work closely with students, and monitor student progress closely.  College instructors are experts in their field rather than formally trained teachers.  They may be less creative in their methods, and they expect students to seek them out if help is needed.  They may not follow the textbook with their lectures, may not take attendance, and may not remind students of incomplete assignments.  This is not necessarily negligence on the part of instructors, it is a difference of approach to teaching and learning.


High school students work in a very structured environment.  Their schedule is arranged for them, they are monitored by parents and teachers, the adults around them take responsibility for keeping them on track and focused.  College students are considered adults by most colleges and are expected to be accountable for their actions.  They may create their own schedule and make decisions about how they spend their time.  Grades and other pieces of information are given to students rather than to parents. They are expected to know graduation requirements and to make decisions about classes and majors.  Students are held accountable for themselves.  Guidance is usually available, but it is up to the student to seek it out.

Although there is a major shift during college to student responsibility and independence, students are not alone on this journey.  Both parents, and the college, want to see students succeed.  The college provides safety nets and guidance – in the forms of residence life assistance, academic advisors, faculty office hours, academic support services and tutoring, counseling centers.  Students, however, need to take responsibility for monitoring themselves and seeking help.  Parents can help students anticipate the changes they will encounter and encourage students to exercise their new freedom and responsibility wisely.

Related Posts:

Who Is Advising My College Student About Academic Issues?

What Should My College Student Consider When Choosing A Schedule of Classes?

The Course Syllabus: Roadmap to Success

It’s Final Exam Time: What’s A College Parent To Do?

Helping Your College Student Find Support on Campus


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