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10 Ways That College Classes Differ from High School

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Throughout high school, you’ll probably have the option to take some college-level coursework and even earn some college credit through AP, Dual Credit, or IB courses. Teachers and administrators tend to boast that these courses help prepare you for college, and in some ways they’re right. The curriculum taught in these advanced classes is similar to the curriculum taught in many introductory college courses, and the pace and rigor of these courses is more similar to college courses than any other class you may have taken in high school thus far.


However, these college-level high school courses miss the mark in a big way when it comes to emulating the college class experience. AP, IB, or Dual Credit courses don’t give students a good feel for things like giant lecture halls, office hours, relatively few grades for an entire semester, etc. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at some of the key differences between college classes and high school classes. If you’re interested in learning about what changes to expect in college classes, read on.


1. Lecture Halls vs. Classrooms


Up until this point, your classes have probably been in a classroom setting with one teacher per 25-30 students, give or take a few students depending on your school. This classroom setup allows ample opportunity for students to ask questions and get some one-on-one attention from the teacher.


In college, the class size will differ per university and per class, but you’re very likely to have at least a few college classes that take place in a large lecture hall. This provides a completely different way of learning. There will be a few hundred students per one professor, you’ll only have a small pop-up desk at the side of your chair in an auditorium to take notes and exams on, and there will be less opportunity to ask questions during a class (though professors usually try to answer as many questions as they can).


You’ll probably encounter these types of classes most during your first few years of college when you’re taking introductory and prerequisite courses that most students are required to take. It’ll take some getting used to at first, but you’ll get the hang of it! On the plus side, there is no fear of getting called on to answer a question during class!


2. Professors vs. Teachers


Though at face value professors and teachers may seem to play the same role, they are two very different entities. On the one hand, teachers are professional educators whose passion is to teach the youth of tomorrow. Even if they’re not experts on the subject that they are teaching, they are wholly committed to teaching well and helping their students succeed.


Professors, on the other hand, are not professional educators. They are academics, experts in the subjects that they are teaching. Odds are, they have been doing research and contributing to their field of study for years. Thus, when you’re being taught by a professor, you have the opportunity to learn from someone who knows more about what they’re teaching than most. The downside is that you may not always get an educator who is wholly invested in their student’s success.


3. Strict Classroom Rules vs. Lecture Hall Autonomy


There are strict attendance policies in high school, with administrators constantly trying to keep students engaged and learning. That’s why there are rules like staying in your seat during class, having to ask to use the restroom, only being able to walk outside with a hall pass, etc.


In college, there are no such rules. While in college, you are treated like an adult and are trusted to make your own decisions. Thus, you will have the freedom to come and go from the lecture as you please, and you won’t have to ask permission to go anywhere or do anything. As long as you’re being respectful of everyone else who is trying to learn, you will have a certain level of autonomy that you didn’t have in high school.


4. Attendance Mandatory vs. Attendance Optional


In high school, teachers were probably required to take your attendance every day and during every class. In most college classes, the professors don’t care whether you are in class or not, and it is up to you to decide whether you want to attend class or not.


Though we at CollegeVine always encourage you to attend class, many college students feel like they can learn the material on their own and never attend a lecture. This strategy sometimes backfires on them when they end up missing a concept that was only discussed in lecture.


It is worth noting that some college classes do take attendance, especially the smaller upper division courses with around 25-30 students. Attendance can even be made a fraction of your overall grade if the professor so chooses.


5. Weekly Homework Assignments vs. 2-3 Assignments Per Semester


Even in AP, Dual Credit, or IB courses, you probably have assigned nightly homework and reading that helps to refresh the material you learned that day. That homework and other worksheets will sometimes be graded and can boost your overall semester average if you do it well.


I most college classes, there will be relatively few assignments throughout the semester. Usually, there will be a midterm exam, a final exam, and perhaps a large paper/project. Those will determine your grade for the class. This way, you have less time-consuming busy work, but you always have far more pressure to do well on each assignment since it counts for such a large percentage of your grade.

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6. Year-Long Courses vs. Semester/Quarter-System Courses


A huge difference between high school courses and college courses is the length of time you have to learn the material. In college, you will have to learn the same material (and sometimes more) that you learned in one year in high school in one semester or a few quarters, depending on which system your college operates on.


Thus, with college courses, the pace of learning is faster, every class brings a new topic, and you are responsible for keeping up with the material on your own time.


7. Choose Your Classes vs. Choose Your Schedule


You’re in high school at a set time for a set number of hours every day. The only thing you have to choose is which classes to take during those hours. In fact, many of your classes are chosen for you because they are required by the school, so you only have to make 2-3 class choices when planning your yearly high school schedule.


In college, scheduling classes is quite the task. Classes take place any time from 8 AM to 7 PM, and you’ll often find yourself with hours of gaps in between classes. Sometimes, the classes you want will overlap, so you’ll have to choose another one that fits in your schedule, and quite often classes become fully enrolled before you are able to sign up, and you have to put yourself on a waitlist. Lastly, there are infinitely more classes to choose from in college than in high school.


Due to all of these factors, many college students spend at least thirty minutes to an hour each before their enrollment period each semester to strategically plan out their schedule.


8. No Technology vs. Note-Taking on a Laptop


While some high schools are entering the digital age and allowing students to use their laptops for note-taking and assignments in class, the overwhelming trend in high schools is still to ban electronic devices in the classroom.


While some professors in college may ban electronics during class, most don’t care how you take your notes, as long as you’re paying attention and not being a distraction to your fellow students. For that reason, you’ll often find students taking notes furiously using google docs, word documents, or any other digital note-taking method.


9. A for Effort vs. Greater Expectations


Sometimes in high school, if you’re lucky, you’ll get assignments that are graded on completion instead of accuracy or you’ll get extra credit assignments to help boost your grade. In college, there is usually no such thing.


All assignments in college are graded based on your critical thinking and analytical abilities, and professors expect a much higher level of performance than teachers did in high school. It’s up to you to keep up with the material and perform adequately on each assignment.


10. Learning by Listening vs. Learning by Reading


In high school, it is possible to do well in a class without ever opening a textbook. The material that a teacher went over in class would largely follow the textbook, so as long as you’re focused and engaged during class, you should be able to learn all the material you need to know.


In college, the material changes so rapidly and the concepts are so much more advanced that it’s often difficult to follow a lecture without doing the textbook reading beforehand. A professor will assign the chapters of reading beforehand, and it’ll be up to you to do the readings so that you can follow along with the professor’s lecture during class. You’ll be responsible for knowing the lecture material and the textbook material for an exam.


For More Information


If you’re interested in learning more about what college life is like, check out the following blog posts:


A View Ahead: Thinking About the Skills You Need for the College Student You’ll Become

What’s the Pressure Going to Be Like? A Guide to Understanding the Stresses of College

Tests and GPA Don’t Always Predict Success in College–So What Does?

What Student Tours and Admissions Meetings Won’t Tell You About a College


Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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Sadhvi Mathur
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Sadhvi is a recent graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where she double majored in Economics and Media Studies. Having applied to over 8 universities, each with different application platforms and requirements, she is eager to share her knowledge now that her application process is over. Other than writing, Sadhvi's interests include dancing, playing the piano, and trying not to burn her apartment down when she cooks!