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4 Myths Your High School Teacher Told You About College


There are myriad witticisms and pieces of sage advice that seemingly every high school teacher loves to share with their students. High school teachers stress that college is nothing like high school and that all the leniency and free time students enjoy in those years goes out the window the second they step onto their college campuses.


Despite their ubiquity, these adages are questionable in their accuracy. While no two schools are identical in policy, faculty, or general attitude, the differences between high school and college are exaggerated in many cases.


In this blog post, we’re going to break down the 4 most common myths your high school teacher taught you about college — and how they stack up to the real thing.


Myth #1: The All-Knowing Syllabus

The importance of the syllabus is fervently emphasized by many high school teachers. Some claim that professors won’t even remind you when major projects or tests are due — they’ll simply expect you to be aware of them, given that they’re listed on the syllabus. Teachers also state that professors stick to the syllabus religiously, and that curriculum and scheduling is never altered in accordance with student desires.


The truth is, for the most part, syllabi aren’t as important or as set in stone as many teachers make them out to be. Just as they did in high school, professors fall behind on material, contract illnesses, adjust the curriculum; changes to the syllabus are not uncommon. This isn’t true for all classes, of course, as many can stick carefully to a tight schedule, but even the most regimented classes can offer some flexibility with due dates or assignments.


Furthermore, professors will almost always remind you, either in class or in an email, about any upcoming major assignments, tests, quizzes, etc. They want you to be successful, get the work done, and review them favorably in end-of-term reviews and online professor rating sites. More often than not, this translates to reminders for important dates and some degree of leniency.


This isn’t to say professors will coddle you for every deadline and homework assignment. It is true that in college, professors expect a degree of self-sufficiency and responsibility from students that high school teachers don’t. It’s easy to let little things slip through the cracks if you’re not well-organized, and referencing the syllabus for assignments and upcoming tests independently is crucial to success, but for the major tests, projects, and papers, professors generally won’t deliberately let you forget.


Myth #2: The Futility of Extension Requests

It happens to all of us; unexpected illness, a family emergency, issues with travel plans, and more can prevent you from finishing your work on time. In high school, most teachers are fairly generous about granting extensions or waving late penalties if the student has a legitimate excuse. However, such leniency is often accompanied by a warning like, “I’ll grant you an extension, but just know, you can’t get away with this sort of thing in college.”


So is it true that college professors categorically don’t grant extensions? No. While it depends largely on the professor, and the reason for requesting the extension, many professors will fairly consider any requests for extensions and won’t deny them on principle.


Of course, it’s never smart to rely on your professor granting you an extension, and you’ll probably find little success if your only reason for requesting an extension is that you put your assignment off until the last minute. In any case, it definitely doesn’t hurt to ask if necessary. Professors are humans too and understand the challenges that accompany student life.


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Myth #3: The Remarkably Austere Grading Policy

At one point or another in your high school career, you’ve probably heard some variation of this: “In college, your grade is made up of your performance on the midterm, the final, and nothing else.” Retaking tests, easy points from classwork, homework, and participation, group projects — all of that, gone forever once you graduate high school.


Such a minimalist grading policy is exceedingly rare in college. Granted, finals and midterms are probably worth more than any test you took in high school and do represent a significant portion of your grade, but they’ll almost never make up its entirety. Class participation is often a major factor in determining grades, especially in seminar-style classes where most class time is spent discussing readings. In addition, small homework assignments like problem sets in math or science classes and brief writing assignments in humanities courses often offer points that can cushion less-than-ideal scores on major tests.


For major papers, professors (or TAs) almost always hold office hours where students are welcome to come in and receive feedback on their work. Some professors even allow students to rewrite major papers for a higher grade. The emphasis in most colleges is placed on learning, not on being perfect the first time around, and many professors reflect this philosophy through relatively generous grading policies and opportunities to improve upon former work.


In addition, the college grading system isn’t beholden to percentages and points in the same way that the high school system typically is; professors often only give letter grades on papers or assignments rather than percentages, and there is more room for holistic judgement in determining final grades. For example, if a student struggles with timed writing and performs poorly on a final, but consistently provides thoughtful analysis to class discussion, a professor might ultimately award that student a B despite less-than-stellar test scores. This is more common for classes in the humanities, but applies to some STEM courses as well.


Myth #4: Stone-Cold Professors

High school classes rarely exceed 40 students, and many teachers teach multiple subjects, meaning they have the same students for several years. This oftentimes leads to the formation of close relationships between high school teachers and their students. However, teachers love to remind their students that “in college, your professors will have 500 other students, and you won’t get to know any of them well.” This is sometimes more frankly stated as, “in college, your professors won’t care about you personally.”


Admittedly, it is much more difficult to forge close relationships with professors who teach large lecture courses of several hundred students in college. However, most students won’t be taking only large lecture courses. At most schools, the average class size varies from 20-50 students, and even these large courses often include an additional discussion section where students have the opportunity to engage with their professor, another faculty member, or a TA in a more intimate setting.


In addition, all professors hold office hours during which students are encouraged to speak with the professors about the course and any areas they may be struggling in. Office hours pose an excellent opportunity to get to know professors better and utilize their expertise in the subject they teach.


Even if a class is so big that the professor isn’t able to learn every student’s name or get to know every student personally, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about their students’ success. Instructors of classes of 5 and 500 students alike are invested in and passionate about the topic they’re teaching and their students’ performance — that’s why they became professors! The idea that college professors rebuke any attempts to develop relationships or have little regard for their students is almost never true.


There are plenty of reasons to be nervous on your first day of college classes: new people, a new city, and new challenges await you. You shouldn’t have to fret about the horror stories you’ve heard about college on top of that. Of course, college is extremely different from high school — starting college represents a new stage not only in your academic career but in your life as a whole, and there’s a plethora of responsibilities and challenges that accompany the transition.


Despite that, much of the “common knowledge” about the foreboding world of heartless professors and rigid grading policies is largely baseless. If you make an effort to understand the individual identity of each professor and class rather than entering your classes expecting the worst, you’ll be in a position to succeed from your first day.


If you’re starting to consider how you’ll transition from high school to college, consider the benefits of the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students.

Anamaria Lopez
Managing Editor

Short Bio
Anamaria is an Economics major at Columbia University who's passionate about sharing her knowledge of admissions with students facing the applications process. When she's not writing for the CollegeVine blog, she's studying Russian literature and testing the limits of how much coffee one single person can consume in a day.