Academics in College vs. High School

Anirudh Kumar
Anirudh Kumar

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Reading and writing in your free time are excellent hobbies for college-bound students. Best of all? It helps prepare you for academics in college, knowing that they will differ from high school level. Let’s talk about the differences for academics in college and what you can do!

Classrooms

Classrooms in high schools are all more or less the same; small, square-shaped rooms with approximately 30 desks relatively close to each other, all facing a decently sized whiteboard or chalkboard.

In college, the structures vary wildly. The biggest determinant of your room will be class size. Some classes will have less than 10 students and will occupy small rooms with a single large table; others with around 30 students will look a lot like high school classrooms. Classes with approximately 100 students will be in auditoriums and small halls. Classes with 500 (yes, that’s possible!) will take place in massive gymnasiums and large lecture halls.

Major Resources

Your major may also slightly cater into the types of rooms you get to work in. For example, science majors will frequently be in labs; engineering/computer majors will be in rooms filled with computers and screens.

Lectures in college will almost always remain at an observatory level (meaning you just listen and take notes for an hour or two). Don’t expect your teacher to hand out worksheets and make sure you aren’t on your phone! At college, nobody plans to hold your hand. Expect to work in highly independent settings, and be prepared to collaborate with strangers for classes that require in-class activities (such as coding or chemical analysis).

Exams

You’ll either love it or hate it: college classes tend to give very few exams. Unlike in high school where you may be acquainted to weekly or monthly tests, in college you’ll usually take two big exams (midterms), followed by a significantly longer final exam (which can last up to 3-4 hours). The good side of this is obvious — less frequent studying, yay!

Unfortunately, there are severe downsides to this as well. For one, the fewer tests you have, the more important each single test becomes. Failing one test in high school may have been negligible if you got A’s on all the others. But in college, any deviation will result in a noticeable change in your grade. Some students find the massive pressure of any given exam to be stressful; while others worry about one bad performance leaving a permanent mark.

Another downside is that less testing means your understanding of the material isn’t kept in check as often! Tests usually motivate students to keep their grasp on material. With less frequent tests during academics in college, it can be easy to “forget” about a class for weeks at a time.

Test Prep

What can you do? Get used to setting your own regimen, and don’t depend on your teachers to lay out your schedule for you. Set strict timings each week to dedicate to studying for each class, and take past exams (which you can find online) or do extra homework problems to make sure your understanding of the material isn’t fading away. Midterms and finals can cover huge amounts of material, so make sure you’re caught up with your schedule and don’t let yourself fall behind so you don’t have to pull a miserable all-nighter the night before an exam.

Grades

Grading in college differs quite a bit as well. Although some schools have their own systems (very few), most universities employ the traditional GPA system. The one caveat: the “minus” and “plus” in your grade now also matters.

In many high schools, getting an A- or an A for all your classes maintains a 4.0 GPA regardless. However, in most colleges, only straight A’s dictate a 4.0. Anything less and you’ll find your GPA in the three’s; not only that, but “pluses” will also matter for grades in the B through D range, where a B+ will affect a GPA differently from a B.

This can be a good or bad thing, depending on the kind of student you are. If you find yourself often getting B+’s and thinking you weren’t rewarded for being better than a B, that changes for the better. If, on the other hand, you were barely clasping onto a 4.0 GPA by getting all A-’s in high school, you’ll find that a 4.0 is no longer attainable.

Beat the Curve?

How can you best adjust to this? To be honest, there’s nothing to do except continue to do your best. Getting used to a tighter grading system is just a part of many universities’ learning experiences, and if you’re putting in all your effort, there’s not much you can do to make a difference anyway. That’s just part of academics in college.

Expect Pass/Fail

Another thing unique to many colleges is the “pass-fail” system, known as the “pass no-pass” system as well. What this allows is for students to take a course “pass-fail” instead of taking it for a letter grade; if you get a C- or better, you “pass”, and anything else means you fail (and regardless of what you get, your GPA will be untouched).

Schools introduced this to encourage students to take courses outside of their comfort zone that may come off as too new or too difficult. For example, a business student may be interested in a physics course but may not want to take it because it’s really difficult. Now, this student can simply take the course “pass-fail” and only needs to worry about getting a C- or better; this takes off the pressure of performing well while also allowing students to gain experiences in domains they may not have initially considered.

Note that the courses required for your major usually can’t be taken “pass-fail”, and you shouldn’t take too many “pass-fail” courses as well (there are limits set by the university, and any employer that takes a look at your transcript won’t think you challenge yourself enough).

The Need for Good Grades

Probably the question that most university students consider: “Do I even need good grades now?” This is a hard question to answer, and it largely depends on the individual’s major, extracurricular experiences, and future goals (whereas in high school, a good GPA was a key determinant of a good college applicant).

Grad school

Students planning to go to medical school, law school, or any other type of postgraduate institution should always strive for the best possible grades.

On the other hand, majors like electrical engineering and biochemistry are known to be difficult; as such, employers care less about good grades and more about your understanding of the material and your ability to utilize it.

Hands-on careers

Majors in the finance/business area have slightly higher expectations for GPA from employers, mainly because their courses tend to be less hands-on than courses for engineering students; in other words, grades become a more important measure of student performance when other measures are less available.

In general, a GPA of 3.0 is considered just-barely acceptable, and anything below that should be addressed (for example, if you had any particular circumstances). GPA’s above 3.5 are generally considered fairly good, those above 3.7 are considered excellent, and as you remember from high school, a 4.0 usually indicates a top notch student (but if you’re taking the easiest classes to pad up your GPA, it may be easy to notice). These are just rough guidelines; for the most part, expect employers to care more about your communicative ability, motivation, outside experience, understanding of material, and your ability to challenge yourself.

Conclusion

Overall, the differences in academics in college vs. high school are many. You’ll find classes filled with hundreds of students; lectures where absolutely nothing happens except the professor’s speaking; a refined grading system; fewer exams with high stakes; and a redefining of the importance of your GPA. These differences tend to catch students off guard. But if you’re prepared for them, there’s really nothing to worry about. All college students will experience some changes like these, so you’re certainly not alone! And now, you’re a little better prepared for academics in college.

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