The freshman year for any college student is one of adjustment. Getting used to the college system, learning how to live with your roommates, understanding what each professor expects, and just figuring out what offices like the “bursar” do are all expected challenges for freshmen. But, as a first-year college student, what are some of the hidden things that might take you by surprise once you go to college? I’ve discovered some possible surprises based on my work with students who are already in college. Five common ones are:
You don’t feel like you’re in school
One of the immediate changes from high school to college is the environment itself. In high school, you have to stay in the building and the “adults” are present practically all the time. In college, this doesn’t happen. Yes you do have to show up at certain places at certain times for classes, but the rest of the time is yours. This level of free time can be deceptive, and creates the illusion that you’re hardly in school at all.
Classes move faster than you thought
Colleges use different systems to give credit values to full-time classes, but the average I’ve seen is that a full-time class is three credits (in a semester system). Some classes can be four or five credits, like math or science courses, and these can be a lot of work. Falling behind in a four credit calculus or biology class can quickly ruin your semester since it can be very hard to catch up. Many freshmen underestimate the pace of some classes that can move much faster and have a lot more independent work than they ever faced in high school. Also, the college’s term system is important for setting the pace. The quarter or trimester system will move much faster than the semester system, and the latter can allow you more time to catch up if you have problems.
You underestimated the required work
There is an old adage for college: For every hour in class, expect to spend two to three hours doing work outside of class (for each class). This is absolutely true. The translation in to actual time is that for a regular three credit class, expect to spend about six to nine hours each week reading, studying, working on projects, or otherwise preparing for that class. Multiply that by four regular classes, the minimum full-time enrollment at most colleges, and the amount of work becomes classes plus up to 36 hours of outside work. This is exactly why it’s called “full-time” attendance. Most freshmen have either never heard this rule or didn’t believe it, and they suddenly are completely unprepared when the first round of exams come.
You’re capable but just not getting it done
The majority of students I’ve worked with were the star pupils in high school. They graduated with high GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, so their academic potential was clear, but they just couldn’t get things to work in college. Once I spoke with them, the reasons became clear, at least to me. There are multiple factors that can affect college performance, including many unique issues specific to bright but failing college students. Both parents and students want to find the “one thing” to do to solve underperformance in college, and it’s usually not that simple. It’s often it’s multiple reasons, and simply being capable because you did well in high school is not a guarantee of good college performance.
You don’t understand why you’re having problems
Probably the most frequent statement I get from students at first is “I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong.” Whether they realize it or not, these top high school students weren’t truly prepared for college. They did what the high school system says will prepare them, but not on what the complexities of college actually requires. Doing well with grades and standardized test scores during high school is more about getting in to college and says little about what it takes to do well once you’re there. Recognizing what it takes to do well in college requires knowing what college will actually demand of students, and this is the only accurate measure of how to prepare for college. Since there are many additional challenges once a student enters higher education, high school performance is too often a flawed yardstick for predicting college performance. Identifying college problems often takes more knowledge of college performance than what one was led to believe during high school.
Each year about 1.5 million high school students go to college in the U.S. The expected problems revolve around learning the college system, dealing with roommates, or adjusting to professors. The hidden problems can often blindside freshmen. Believing that non-class time is free time, underestimating the workload, and not understanding what they’re doing wrong are only but a few problems that students face. Planning an effective college transition that helps prepare students based on actual college requirements is the only way to help bright students continue their strong performance during college.
Jeffrey Ludovici, M.A., is a national-level higher education consultant based in Pittsburgh. He has worked with students, families, colleges, and other professionals for more than 10 years. He specializes in understanding why students can end up doing poorly in college, as well as what can be done to address the issues.