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What to Expect in Your Freshman Year

The walk across the stage to receive that long sought-after high school diploma is over. You and your parents have selected the right college and it is time to leave home to begin your move into a college dorm and your year as a college freshman.

You have prepared for this since the beginning of high school. It will be the beginning of your life as a young adult: instead of reporting in to your parents every day, you will make the decision as to when you study and when you will socialize. This is your first taste of freedom. However, there is a part of this new personal freedom that has a bit of mystery to it.

What should you expect in your freshman year at college? Generally, the differences between college and high school will fall into the following categories:

  • Making responsible choices
  • Understanding how to succeed in college classes
  • College professors
  • Test taking and grades

Making responsible choices begins as soon as you enter your first class. "A student may expect a lot of apparent free time in their first year," says associate professor of chemistry Joseph S. Ward III, PhD. Ward is a coordinator of first-year advising and chief health professions advisor at Rockford College in Illinois.

"Typically a student is in class about 15 hours a week, with sometimes hours between classes. Some students think this is an opportunity to expand upon their partying and social life or maybe take on a job working nearly full time to make extra money."

This is a misconception that becomes clear very soon in the first semester of your freshman year in college. "It is a common rule of thumb that for every hour you are in class, you should spend two hours outside of class," says Ward. "So 15 hours in class and 30 hours outside of class make for a 45-hour week of just classroom-related work. This is more than a full-time job. This is not including special projects and extra studying for exams."

The misconception of free time is just one of the major differences between high school and college. You are generally following rules in high school; when you reach your freshman year in college, you are required to make the right choices independently. According to the article, How College Differs From High School, from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Texas:

"In high school you can count on parents and teachers to remind you of your responsibilities and to guide you in setting priorities. [In college] you must balance your responsibilities and set priorities. You will face moral and ethical decisions you have never faced before.... In high school most of your classes are arranged for you. [In college] you arrange your own schedule in consultation with your advisor. Schedules tend to look lighter than they really are.... High school guiding principle: You will usually be told what to do and corrected if your behavior is out of line. [College] guiding principle: You are expected to take responsibility for what you do and don't do, as well as for the consequences of your decisions."

As a high school student, if you attended regularly and made an effort to do minimal homework and participate, you could expect reasonable success. In high school, even if you did not complete the reading assignments, the material would usually be discussed in class the next day. The requirements for college success are vastly different from those for high school, however. Attending on a regular basis is not enough. The SMU article points out the following college requirements:

  • You need to study at least two to three hours outside of class for each hour spent in class.
  • You need to review class notes and reading material regularly.
  • You are assigned substantial amounts of reading and writing which may not be directly addressed in class.
  • It's up to you to read and understand the assigned material; lectures and assignments proceed from the assumption that you've already done so.
  • Classes may number 100 students or more.

High school teachers and college professors are both interested in teaching, but the approach to teaching is very different. The differences may come as a shock to college freshmen.

Dr. Drew Appleby, PhD, a professor and director of undergraduate studies in psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis, gives his students a 16-page syllabus at the beginning of the semester. In his syllabus, Appleby writes:

"Many of the freshmen I teach tell me that their high school teachers taught them what was in their textbooks (i.e. in the words of the ancient ... proverb, 'gave them a fish'). Whereas, their college teachers provide them with an environment in which to learn (i.e. in the words of the ancient ... proverb, 'taught them how to fish'). [College level] teachers assume students are mature and responsible enough to learn by themselves. That is, teachers don't teach students; they create and provide opportunities for their students to learn."

Tests and grading in the freshman year of college are vastly different than in high school. According to Appleby:

"I have found that many of my freshmen expect to be graded on the basis of the effort they expend. They believe they deserve high grades if they work hard, follow their teachers' instructions and complete all assignments, even if they do not perform well on tests or papers. At this stage, students believe the quantity of their work is more important than its quality.

"[College level] students slowly begin to understand that their grades will be based on their actual performance on tests and papers, not on the effort they expend studying for their tests or writing their papers. At this later stage, students know and accept that they will be graded on the quality of the products they produce, not simply on the quantity of work they have expended."

You will experience many differences in your freshman year at college. Your teachers' expectations may seem great. But by learning how to navigate this year successfully, you will ease the transition to college life and set yourself up for greater success in subsequent years.


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.