transition from high school to college

Guest Post By Steven Tolman, Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Higher Education Administration, Georgia Southern University

As a college professor, I have had the privilege of teaching undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students. Through these experiences, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I would like to tell you that I was an exemplary freshman in college. To the contrary, I was on academic probation and my advisor encouraged me to consider career paths that did not require a college degree. Like many freshmen, my failures were not due to a lack of academic ability, but rather to my inability to navigate the transition from high school to college. Based on my own experiences and those of my students, here are my suggestions for how to avoid the common mistakes of freshmen.

  • Manage your time: You’re not in Kansas anymore. The course expectations in college are not only at a greater level, but have a different focus than high school. In college, the focus moves away from the memorization of content, to the demonstration of critical thinking through application of content, often in the form of projects and extensive written assignments. For some freshmen, high school academics came easily and did not require (much) studying to do well. This simply is not the case in college. You should expect to spend several hours per course on homework each week. It’s common to take five courses as a freshman, which means committing a minimum of 15 hours of studying, in addition to the 15 hours you are already spending in class that week. Much like my golf game, know that effort doesn’t always equal performance. This can be a frustrating change as you transition from high school to college, but it’s one you have to adapt to by changing your approach to learning and studying.
  • Go to class: While absence may make the heart grow fonder, it will also unfortunately impact your academic success. Perhaps the most common mistake, which is the easiest to avoid, is failing to attend class. While your professor may make attendance optional, your hope for success in the class makes it mandatory. Do not fall into the trap of missing class and simply getting the notes from classmates. Even if you’re able to decipher their handwriting, you will miss out. Trust me, go to every class. If for no other reason, you are paying for it! When you break down what you and your family are paying, it can easily come to $100 or more for each class.
  • Interact with your professors: Visit your professors during office hours and help them put a face to a name. You want them in your corner rooting for you to succeed as they are grading your papers and exams. Get to know them and build a relationship. This will pay dividends now and in the future. Beyond getting help on something you’re struggling with in the class, you may want this professor to later write you a letter of recommendation or serve as your advisor. While your professors can be your champions, don’t forget they’re not necessarily your close pals, so you should address them and interact with them appropriately in person, as well as in any correspondence. Here’s a great cheat sheet for writing emails to your professors.
  • Get involved, but not too involved: The first six weeks of college are the most pivotal. During this time, freshmen either find their niche on campus and get a solid footing, or they feel disconnected and spiral downward academically. During your first semester, it is important to find ways to get involved on campus, whether through student organizations, employment, or leadership positions. However, don’t overcommit yourself by trying to get involved in EVERYTHING. Find a good balance between classes/studying and campus involvement; just one or two activities should be ideal for freshmen.

Your college journey is an exciting time! I guarantee your freshman year will be full of moments you’ll cherish. However, there will also likely be some lows: botched exams, disagreements with roommates, parking frustrations, etc. The highs and lows are all part of the college experience, and your time there should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. Begin this journey on the right foot by following the advice above. And if you remember nothing else from this blog, remember the importance of GOING TO CLASS.


Written by College Coach
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