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Are you about to start college soon? Are you wondering what changes to expect? How is college different from high school? When you compare high school vs college, you'll find many differences, some of which are obvious, others less so.

It's important to understand how high school and college are different from each other so you know what to expect and can have a smoother transition when you begin college. In this guide, we explain the 15 most important differences between high school and college and give you tips to help make this major life change a bit less intimidating.

How Is College Different From High School?

There's a reason so many movies, shows, and books focus on new college students: many people see the transition from high school to college as one of the most important turning points in their life. You're no longer a kid living under your parents' roof; instead you're an adult living on your own and expected to make real, important decisions about your future.

You'll have a lot more freedom, but a lot will also be expected from you, both in class and out. Read on to learn specific high school vs college differences.

Below are 15 high school vs college differences you'll likely encounter once you begin college. There are pros and cons to both high school and college, but knowing what to expect will make you better prepared for this big change.

#1: You'll Have More Independence

The biggest change for high school vs. college is that, in college, you'll have much more independence than you had in high school. Many people focus on the fact that you'll be living away from your parents, and this is a part of it, but you'll have independence in many other areas as well.

You'll have the freedom to decide what you want to major in, which classes you want to take, when you want to schedule those classes, if you want to go out with your friends, how late you want to stay out, even what you want to eat in the dining hall. (I ate Reese's Puffs cereal every day for four years because my parents never allowed it and I was thrilled to finally be able to have it for breakfast.)

#2: You'll Be Treated Like an Adult

Along with your increased independence, you'll also be treated like an adult in college as opposed to a child under your parents' care. In college, you'll no longer need to bring your parents permission slips to sign, you'll be trusted to make your own choices for what you want to study, and you can arrange meetings yourself, without Mom and Dad helping you.

For many students, it's exciting to finally be viewed as an adult, but it also means an increase in responsibilities. If you have a problem with or question about homework, classes, a grade you got, etc., you are the one who will need to solve it. You can't expect your parents to call the school and fix the problem for you like they may have done in high school.

#3: There Will Be a Wider Variety of Classes to Choose From

In high school, you didn't have a lot of choice in regards to which classes you took. You could probably choose a few electives , but your schedule was mostly filled with the standard math, science, English, and social studies requirements that all students had to take.

In college, even if you attend a smaller school, you'll have many more options. They'll be a wider variety of classes to choose from , and many of them will focus on more specific topics like astronomy, ancient Roman history, French literature, the geography of the United States, and more. Many college students like this increase in class options since it makes it easier for them to choose classes on topics they're really interested in.

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#4: Classes Will Have Different Formats and Sizes

Each class you took in high school probably had about the same number of students and consisted mostly of lecturing, maybe along with some individual or group work. This isn't true in college. Classes can range from two to 500 students, and their format can vary widely as well. Classes may be completely lecture-based, require hands-on lab work, or be discussion-based where you spend most of class time engaged in conversations or debates with your classmates and professor.

#5: Your Schedule Will Be More Complicated

In high school, school started and ended the same time every day, and your class schedule was probably the same for every day of the week. In college, things get a little trickier. Some classes meet three times a week for an hour and a half, some meet five times a week for an hour, some meet once a week for three hours, etc. This means you'll likely be starting and ending class at different times during the week, and you may end up with a different class schedule for every day of the week.

Some people like the variety this gives them, but it's important to stay on top of your schedule so you don't wind up forgetting to attend class.

#6: You'll Have a New Set of Classmates

One of the most jarring things for many new college students is they're no longer surrounded by classmates and friends they've known for years. Instead, you'll be in a sea of strangers (at least at first), many of whom come from different areas and backgrounds than you. Additionally, you'll likely have a different set of classmates for each of your classes. That's a lot of new faces!

This means you have lots of opportunity for making all kinds of friends, but expect there to be some awkwardness and loneliness at first as everyone gets to know each other and figures out their friend groups. Additionally, since in college everyone wants to be there (at least on some level), you may find your college classmates more motivated and dedicated to doing well in school compared to some of your high school peers.

#7: Classes Will Require More Critical Thinking

Is college hard compared to high school? Going to college isn't just like attending four more years of high school. This is a big step up in your education, and your classes will be more challenging and expect you to keep up. You'll be tested less on memorization and basic regurgitation of facts and more on critical thinking skills and being able to apply what you learned in class to other situations.

You may learn a specific math equation and then be asked to apply that knowledge to more challenging types of equations, learn about different historical events and be asked to analyze how they affected future events, learn a scientific process and be asked to describe how it affects the environment, etc.

#8: College Costs More

There's no way around it; c ollege definitely costs more than high school. Tuition is thousands of dollars, and you'll likely be paying for room and board as well. And those are just the main costs. College requires all sorts of smaller purchases too, like special goggles for your chemistry lab or official test taking booklets for final exams. Buying just one college textbook (often over $100) is enough to never let you take for granted all free materials you got in high school.

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#9: You'll Spend Less Time in Class

Most full-time college students spend about 15-20 hours in class a week, which comes out to about three or four hours a day. This is probably much less time than you spent in high school classes every day which means you'll have a lot more unscheduled time to spend how you think is best.

#10: You'll Have More Schoolwork

Don't get too excited about spending less time in class; college definitely knows how to keep you busy. The general rule of thumb is that you'll spend about three hours a week on schoolwork for every one hour of class you're in.

With a standard schedule of 15 credits, that means you can expect to spend 45 hours a week on schoolwork, about as much as a full-time job! This is often much more work than students had in high school, so you should be prepared for an adjustment.

#11: Attendance Will Be Up to You

In high school, you had to go to class every day because if you didn't, you could get in trouble for truancy or (sometimes even more frightening) your parents could find out. In college, there are no requirements for attending class, and no one is going to call your parents if you don't show up. However, don't make the mistake some college students do and think this means you don't need to go to class.

Many professors include attendance as part of your grade, and some will even fail you if you miss a certain number of classes without a valid excuse. Plus, it's often very difficult to do well in a class if you never show up, and you're paying a lot of money for these classes! Make sure you get the most out of them that you can.

#12: You'll Have More Social Opportunities

Even if you were a social butterfly in high school, you'll have tons more opportunities to be social and make friends in college. There will be sports teams to join, parties to go to, clubs you can be part of, and more. Most colleges are large enough to have something for everyone, so you're bound to find an activity you're interested in, whether that's a recreational hockey team, the student government group, a club focused on promoting renewable energy, and more.

There are also likely many more students at your college than there were at your high school, so your opportunities for making friends will multiply as well. However, you do need to make an effort to get the most out of these opportunities. Push yourself to try new things and strike up conversations with new people, and if you're feeling nervous, just remember that they're likely feeling the same way. Standard questions to ask new people you meet in college include: Where are you from? What dorm do you live in? What are you majoring in? Get ready to ask and be asked these questions a lot!

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#13: It'll Be Harder to Stand Out

Once you start college, you won't be a big fish in a small pond anymore, and it'll be harder to stand out from the crowd. While in high school you may have been the star student/athlete/singer, in college you'll be surrounded by many talented classmates, many of whom were also the best at something in high school. Some students struggle with no longer automatically standing out, but there are plenty of benefits to this.

First, you'll be able to bond with other students who are also skilled at your talent. If you were, say, the star drama student at your high school, you may not hold the same position in college, but you can befriend all the other high school drama stars and create some awesome shows together.

Additionally, some students like the anonymity being a new college student brings. If you've been labelled as a jock or theater nerd for all of high school, going to college--where people don't know you--allows you to shed or alter that identity if you wish and try new things (or try the same things with less pressure).

#14: You'll Get Fewer Grades in Class

In high school, you probably had daily homework assignments you had to complete and got a grade for. These, along with some larger projects, quizzes, and tests made up your final class grade. If you got a low score in one, it was usually fine since there were plenty of other chances to make up for the low grade.

Once you start college, you may find that many classes have far fewer assignments, meaning you'll receive fewer grades and each of those grades are worth more. Instead of regular homework assignments and quizzes, many college classes are based only on a midterm grade and a final grade. This means you need to take those exams/papers/projects very seriously because if you mess up on one of them it'll be very hard to raise your class grade back to where you want it to be.

#15: You'll Be Doing Lots of Reading

You know those pictures of exhausted-looking students sitting next to a pile of textbooks they need to get through? That's how many college students feel. Expect to do lots of reading in college, including textbooks, journal articles, and literature. If you're majoring in a field like computer science or math you can expect less reading (and more homework), but you're still guaranteed to have at least a few classes where you're assigned to read a couple dozen textbook pages before the next class. You'll get to know your school's library very well.

body_collegereading

Tips for Making the Transition From High School to College

Going from high school to college can be tough no matter how excited you are to start at your new school. Below are three tips to help make the transition easier.

Know There Will Be Changes

You've already taken one of the most important steps to prepare for transitioning from high school to college: you're expecting and preparing for the differences. When you know that the high school to college transition will bring major changes, you'll be more prepared for anything that comes your way.

Be Prepared for Some Bumps

Many movies about college make it seem like new college students immediately find a group of close friends, know exactly what they want to study, and have an awesome social life. In reality, it rarely works like this. Many new college students have moments where they feel awkward, lonely, and homesick. This is completely normal; after all you're making a major life change.

By managing your expectations of college and not expecting to love it right away, you can better manage the transition from high school to college and not end up disappointed when it takes a little while to feel comfortable.

Put Yourself Out There

When you first start college, there will be a lot of changes, and it'll be easy to hang out in your dorm room and text with your high school friends. However, you should resist this urge.

College is probably the best time you'll ever have to meet new people and try new things, so you should take full advantage. Keep your dorm room door open to meet your neighbors. Strike up a conversation with your chemistry lab partner. Join a club or sport you've never tried before. Not only will this make the transition from high school to college easier since you'll be meeting more people, you may discover a new friend or hobby.

What's Next?

Not sure which college you want to go to? Check out our guide on choosing the right college so you can make the best decision.

Stressing over college applications? We're here to help! Our step-by-step guide breaks down the complete college application process from start to finish.

Worried about choosing a major on your college applications? Learn how to navigate the process and make an informed decision.

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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., 5 ways college application essays and high school essays are different.

Are you a high school junior? Your college application is probably your first experience writing a personal statement. From purpose to audience, here’s a quick run-down of how college essays are different than the essays you write for English class. 

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High School Essay vs College Essay

1. understand purpose.

A high school essay generally demonstrates to your teacher what you know. An application essay should demonstrate who you are. Colleges want to find out what you're passionate about, and what you would add to the campus community.

2. Know your Audience

When your English teacher grades your essays, she puts them into the context of every interaction she’s ever had with you. Your personal statement is your one chance to speak directly to the admissions committee and demonstrate who you are beyond grades and test scores . Help colleges learn something about you that they cannot discover when reading the rest of your application. (Tip: Don’t treat your essay like a resume !)

Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!

3. Show, Don't Summarize

College essay topics are often open-ended. (“Recount a time when you experienced failure.“) But at heart, all college essays are asking you to demonstrate the same things: your ability to reflect and think critically. Summaries are fine for book reports, but when writing your college essay take the opportunity to really examine how an experience taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow.

4. Authenticity is Key

On a high school essay, it's generally not appropriate to use the first-person. Not only is it fine to make “I” statements in your application essays, but colleges expect your essays to sound like you, too!  Always be yourself in your application, not the candidate you think admissions committees want to see.

5. Originality Counts

When your teacher asks you to analyze the causes of the Civil War, he is going to receive a lot of essays that sound basically the same. But your college essay should be unique and individual to you. College admissions officers tell us that they see many essays about eye-opening travel experiences, the death of a loved one, or “The Big Game.” You can still write about these experiences, but the trick is in the details. No one sees the world quite the way you do, so let your personality shine through.

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14 Differences between High School and College

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What’s Covered:

  • Academic Differences
  • Social Differences
  • How to Find the Best College for You

For many, college means transition. Most students who start their new lives as recent high school graduates find themselves in a bit of a limbo state. They’re technically adults, but many are still financially dependent on their parents. (And during the pandemic, they could well still be living with them every day, too.) For some, it’s the first time being away from home for a long period of time. 

There’s no doubt starting college requires adjustment. You probably know that it’s not going to look the same as high school, in terms of your academics, social sphere, and many other aspects of your life. Just what will be different? Here are some of the main distinctions.

1. You have more freedom in choosing your classes (and greater variety).

You’ve probably wondered from time to time why it’s so important for you to take algebra or chemistry or world history. Here’s the good news: when you get to college, you’ll have much more leeway when it comes to choosing your courses. You’ll be able to declare a major and study a field you think you might want to pursue as a career. And you won’t have to spend much time on disciplines you dislike.

That doesn’t mean you won’t have any requirements. Many colleges have distribution requirements, meaning you’ll have to take a certain number of courses in other specified disciplines. Most majors have specific courses or general areas of courses you must take, too. And some colleges have core requirements, meaning all students are required to take specific classes as a term of their degree completion. But even the schools with the strictest requirements still tend to have far fewer than your high school curriculum.

If you really want to direct your own learning and have the fewest requirements possible, you may like open curriculum schools . These schools have no required courses, other than your major requirements and usually a writing seminar.

2. You’ll spend less time in class but likely more time studying.

Typically, a full-time college student takes about 15 credits per semester, with one credit equalling an hour of class time per week. That means you’ll only be in class for 15 hours per week, or an average of three hours per weekday. Some days, you may not have any classes at all.

That’s a far cry from high school, which you’ll usually attend for 6-7 hours per day. But don’t get too excited — you’ll also need to invest a lot more time studying and working on coursework outside of class than you did previously, given the rigor of these higher-level courses.

3. It may be surprisingly hard to wake up for that 9 am college class.

You may have found it difficult to get up in the morning in high school, but you probably had your parents telling you you had to. Plus, you had more structure in general. Even though young adults need less sleep than teenagers, according to the Sleep Foundation , the lack of rules and more freedom to make your own choices can make it difficult to get up for classes, even when they start later than your high school classes did.

It’s important to set rules for yourself about waking up on time and attending classes. This is critical for your own growth, as well as your grades. You could try to avoid early morning classes if you know you’re not a morning person, but don’t let the scheduling stop you from taking classes that interest you.

4. Classes may be longer but are usually less frequent.

In high school, your classes were probably around an hour, but you had them 4-5 times per week. In college, be prepared for long, less frequent classes. It’s not uncommon to see courses that meet once a week for three hours. Or, you might have classes that occur twice a week for an hour and a half per session (some subjects do meet more frequently and for less time, though).

You may find it difficult to sustain your attention for that long, so you should experiment with different methods to keep yourself alert. You’ll also need to put in the time to keep the content fresh during your days off from the course since you’ll have your classes less frequently.

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5. Attendance isn’t necessarily mandatory (but you should still go).

You probably won’t have instructors taking attendance, especially in your large lectures. This won’t necessarily always be the case though, particularly in smaller seminars; you may be given a certain number of absences before they begin to affect your grade because your presence is integral to the structure of the course.

Don’t use lack of attendance accountability as a reason not to go, however. For one, it will impact your grade, even if not directly — you’re missing out on learning the material, some of which may not be found in your textbook or LMS. You’re also wasting money, whether or not you’re paying full freight.

6. There are fewer assignments, but they matter a lot more.

Instead of frequent essays, quizzes, and tests, you may only have a handful of assignments per course during the semester. For example, in a math course, you could only have two midterms and a heavily-weighted final, while in a literature course, you might have three or four papers that comprise the majority of your grade.

Because it can be difficult to gauge an instructor’s expectations early on, and many freshmen have trouble adjusting to the new level of academic rigor, some professors will drop your lowest grade on equally-weighted assignments. This will give you a chance to make up your grade with other assignments. It’s also a good idea to visit instructors (virtually or in-person) during their office hours to get more guidance and ask questions.

7. It may be harder to get a 4.0.

You may have been #1 in your high school class, but when you get to college, you’ll be learning alongside hundreds or thousands of other excellent students, many of who also earned 4.0s. This will serve as a rude awakening for some, who are used to being the best in the class. And, because there’s no extra credit for advanced classes, you could dip below a 4.0 for earning a couple of A-’s and B+’s. That’s okay! It’s extraordinarily difficult to earn a 4.0 in college, especially if you’re attending a highly rigorous one.

8. It’s even more important to build relationships with instructors.

Developing strong relationships with teachers was important in high school for several reasons, including the fact that they’re the ones to write your college recommendation letters . In college, it’s even more critical to get to know your instructors.

For one, if you apply to graduate school or for fellowships, you’ll need faculty recommendations. Even you don’t, faculty can serve as lifelong mentors to previous students. And research shows that having an encouraging mentor increases your chances of engagement and success in work and life.

9. You will need to seek help on your own.

In high school, you may have had teachers reach out to you when you were struggling. But in college, you’ll need to be proactive about reaching out for help on your own. Sure, some professors might notice that you’re having trouble, especially in small classes, but usually, you’ll need to be the one to make the effort, whether that means going to office hours, emailing a question, or setting up a separate time to talk.

The good news is that many instructors will readily help you when you ask. They may even look more favorably upon you for being proactive and acknowledging that you need support. This is also a good way to share reasons why you’re having trouble, such as extra pandemic-related responsibilities at home. Your professor could be more willing to cut you some slack once they understand.

Social Life

1. you’ll have greater independence living away from home..

True, some students commute. But if you live on-campus, you’ll enjoy plenty of newfound independence, from what you eat to when you go to bed. 

Be careful, though. You’ll likely find that you’ll need some kind of structure in your life, and it will have to be self-imposed — no one else is setting limits for you. An alarm is your friend. So is a schedule. Plus, you’ll also be responsible for doing more chores, such as laundry and cleaning.

2. There will be frequent events.

From speakers to club meetings and events to parties to concerts, there will be plenty to do on campus. While you may not have had to scramble to find ways to spend your time in high school, in many cases, there will be far more options in college.

3. You won’t have to travel far to see your friends.

Some of them might live in your dorm — or even be your roommates! Even those who don’t live in your building will be closeby, and you’ll share meals, activities, and more with them.

4. You’ll have more options for clubs and organizations to join.

Many colleges and organizations have clubs and organizations for practically any interest: arts, sports, religion, politics, activism, journalism, cultural heritage, and much more. And if you can’t find the club you’re looking for, you may even have the option of starting it yourself.

5. You’ll need to remind yourself to take time to enjoy yourself sometimes.

College is hard. With all the work you have to do, it can be easy to get caught up in studying. Of course, you should study — but don’t forget to enjoy yourself, too. College goes by quickly, and you don’t want to miss out on a great experience.

How to Find the Best-Fit College

Adjusting to college takes time and effort, but it helps if you find the right fit school for you. This depends on numerous factors, such as size, location, and the availability of your unique program.

Once you find the perfect fit, how do you know if you have a good chance of getting in? CollegeVine’s free chancing engine will estimate your real odds of admission to hundreds of colleges and universities all over the country — and offer tips to improve your profile. Give it a try to streamline your college strategy!

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In this Chapter

What is College Composition?

Why the academic essay.

  • Purposes and Goals

Teachers vs. Professors

Students often enter college writing courses expecting an “English” course that requires students to read literary texts, write creatively, and/or complete endless grammar exercises. But First Year Composition (FYC) does not usually focus on these topics.

Rather than focusing on literature or grammar, First Year Composition (FYC) courses introduce students to academic writing. Specifically, they teach students about writing and composing processes at the college level. In FYC courses like EGL 1010, students think critically, use rhetorical knowledge to evaluate sources, and integrate original research into formal argumentative essays.

FYC courses build on the skills and knowledge students already learned from high school writing instruction and/or pre-credit courses in reading and writing. But the work done in this course and the skills you develop over the course of the semester may be different from your previous writing classes.

FYC courses help students to develop the skills necessary to write successful academic essays at the college level. By the end of this course, you will be able to write a complex, research-based argumentative essay that uses appropriate sources from the college library databases.

The academic essay is a genre , or form of writing, specific to academic situations. It is a structured piece of formal writing that presents a central, argumentative idea and supports that idea with clear evidence. Academic essays are shorter than scholarly articles, though they share many of the same features.

Though the academic essay is usually found only in educational settings, the genre of the essay allows students to practice writing and communication skills that transfer to other writing situations outside of the college classroom. The skills you learn to create strong academic essays are the same skills you’ll need to write clear and effective documents for any workplace situation.

Academic essay requires students to demonstrate deep critical thinking skills and mastery of a specific topic.

The goal of most essay assignments in college courses is to measure student learning.Therefore, essays require students to think logically about complex topics and order their thoughts and ideas effectively. When students write essays, they must carefully analyze available evidence and make careful choices about how it can best be used to support an argument. These are all skills students might need for writing and communication tasks in their future careers.

Essays also allow students to demonstrate their mastery of multiple course objectives or competencies in a single assignment:

  • Knowledge : the breadth and depth of how much a student has learned about a specific topic or idea
  • Critical Thinking : the student’s ability to evaluate sources and synthesize information effectively and accurately
  • Logical Thinking:  the student’s ability to logically and coherently organize their thoughts
  • Writing Skills: how clearly and effectively a student can communicate information to an audience

The genre of the essay may not be new to you. You were probably asked to write essays in high school and/or pre-college courses. You may have been taught the five-paragraph style of essay and feel relatively confident in your use of it.

The essays you will be required to write for this course and for future courses throughout your college education will share many similarities to your previous essay writing experiences. But the essays required and expected at the college level have a few important differences from the work you completed for high school. This chapter will discuss some of the important differences between your previous experiences and what will be expected of you in college courses.

High School vs. College: An Overview

Before we look at the difference between the writing you might have done in high school and the writing you will do in college, it might be useful to look at the difference between high school and college in general .

Perhaps the most important difference between high school and college writing is that in high school, you probably learned a single essay model that was supposed to be applied to every essay you wrote in any class.

In college, however, there is no one-size-fits-all essay structure that works for every assignment and every course. Instead, you will need to be able to meet the requirements of each course or discipline and use rhetorical understanding to meet the needs of individual writing situations. We will discuss the importance of rhetoric in a later chapter, but first, let’s look at some of the general differences between the situation and context for writing in highs school classes and the writing tasks your college courses will require.

Purpose and Goals

High schools and colleges have different purposes and different goals. Those purposes and goals are important to understand, because they have an impact on classroom experiences and expectation.

High schools are institutions designed to provide compulsory or mandatory education in order to create an educated population. Students are legally required to attend high school until a certain age. Teachers and schools are legally responsible for ensuring that students learn a certain level of information, usually one determined by individual states. Teachers and schools that fail in that goal and purpose can be held accountable by government institutions at the local, state, and even federal levels.

Where high school is required, college is optional. The decision to get a college education is a choice. Most students elect to attend college in order to attain the education and certifications need for their future career.

Colleges and universities have another purpose, however. While post-secondary institutions do exist to educate students, they have another, possibly an even more important role: the discovery and creation of knowledge. Professors in 4-year colleges and universities, especially, have a responsibility to discover new ideas, confirm new hypotheses, and add to their discipline. When you hear about new discoveries and breakthroughs in science, culture, or medicine, it is usually the result of work done by professional scholars working in college and universities.

Your high school teachers were trained in pedagogy, or the art and science of teaching. They usually are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in Education and pass licensing requirements for the state they teach in. They likely have taken multiple upper-division college courses in the specific subject(s) that they teach, or they may have a college degree in that subject. Their job is to make sure students learn the required material, and their responsibility is first and foremost to students and their learning.

Professors in colleges and universities have more education and expertise in their chosen field. They usually do not have degrees in Education and are not always trained in pedagogy. Rather, they are experts in their field. College professors at two-year schools will have at least a Master’s degree, and professors at four-year colleges and universities will usually have a Ph.D., which requires six or more years of school beyond a Bachelor’s degree. They have devoted a large part of their life to difficult, in-depth learning about the discipline they teach, and because of their education they have deep, complex knowledge about it.

Your professors will often have different expectations than high school teachers. Because post-secondary education is optional, your professors will assume that students are in their classes by choice. They will expect students to take an active and engaged role in their own learning. In addition, college professors are not responsible for making sure that students learn. While they have a responsibility to present material clearly and provide support for their students, it is up to the students to take responsibility for their own learning.

Finally, an important part of your professor’s job is to continue their own work as learners. Professors are expected to continue contributing to their field of study as active researchers and writers. Even as they teach their classes, they are often researching new questions in order to write new articles and books.

Because of these factors, your college professors usually will view their students not as customers but as scholars in training . The general differences between high school and college contributes to the specific differences between writing in high school and college.

Writing: High School vs. College

Most high school classes depend upon the genre of the Five-Paragraph Essay. Your high school teachers may have taught you that essay writing has certain rules. You were likely taught to start your essay with a “hook” or “attention-getter” and to create a thesis with three points. You may have also been taught specific rules about how many sentences a paragraph has. High school students are usually expected to follow those rules and are evaluated on how well they met those requirements.

Common “Rules” from High School Writing Courses

  • Essays should have five paragraphs.
  • Paragraphs are between five and eight sentences long.
  • The thesis statement is a single sentence at the end of your first paragraph. It should contain the three points that you’ll discuss in your three body paragraphs.

There is nothing inherently incorrect about these rules, and they probably made essay writing systematic and clear. These rules probably helped you to learn about organization, logic, and structure. These rules also help students do well on the standardized state tests that are required for public school students.

These rules might have served you well on the shorter, less complicated essays required in high school, but college students often quickly realize that the Five-Paragraph essay is too limiting for the longer and more complex assignments required in college.

As we go through the semester, we will build on the ideas the Five-Paragraph essay taught you about organization, logic, and structure, but rather seeing essay writing as a series of rules you must follow, we will learn about how to use the ideas as strategies that are flexible enough to be applied to many writing tasks.

First, let’s take a look at the expectations of college-level writing.

Expectations of College Writing

The work that undergraduate students will do in college classes reflect a higher level of thinking and learning than what was often required in high schools . Because colleges are spaces for discovery and knowledge creation, they train students to participate in these endeavors.

Your professors will want you to do more than repeat facts back to them. No matter the discipline or course, your professors will expect you to think deeply and critically about the subject at hand and to begin developing your own unique ideas and perspectives about the topics. This is why learning to write clear and effective arguments is so important to college success.

Reports vs. Research Essays

In high school or pre-credit courses, most of your writing tasks probably focused on reporting the information.

College-level writing assignments will usually require you to go further. Rather than reporting the facts you learned or discovered, college-level essays require you to insert yourself into the conversation and make original arguments . College-level writing also asks you to make decisions about how to best present the information for the specific context or audience.

There are four basic areas where you can expect differences between the writing you did in high school and the writing you will do in college: Structure, Argument, Research, and Format.

As previously noted, in high school, you likely learned and relied on the Five-Paragraph essay structure, or a similar form with highly specific and strict rules. In college, those basic forms will usually be too simplistic or restrictive to be useful for effective and successful college essays.

College essays may follow the same basic organizational structure (Intro, Body Paragraphs, Conclusion), but each section is more flexible and complex than high school essays.

  • Strong arguments don’t require a predetermined set of 3 points. They may need more or less.
  • Essays have as many paragraphs as needed.
  • Paragraphs are usually between one-third and two-thirds of a page in length and vary depending on the needs of the point being made.
  • Introductions are usually one paragraph, but might be longer if the situation requires.
  • Thesis statements should be complete and preview the argument, but are not required to include any set number of points.

In high school, you might have been asked to write research reports. You may have also been asked to give an opinion or create a thesis, but often high school thesis statements are little more than a restatement of the facts you learned. In college, simply restating what others have already established will not be enough to count as an argumentative thesis.

College essays also use thesis statements , but they require students to make arguments that present a deniable claim that can be supported by evidence.

  • College-level essays must do more than restate or report on facts. Instead, they create, identify, or push toward new ideas.
  • Essays must include an argumentative (deniable) claim.
  • Arguments must be supported by evidence that is appropriate for the specific discipline.
  • Personal anecdotes or narrative is not usually sufficient to support an argument, and often is inappropriate for academic audiences.
  • College-level thesis statements should be specific and limited.

In high school you may have used general internet sources, Google Scholar, or other online references. While many internet resources are usable for more basic reports, college writing will often require resources with more authority and complexity. In high school, you may have taken ideas from sources without completely citing them or quoting accurately. Often high school students will lift key words and phrases from a source without completely reading or understanding the source in its entirety.

College essays require research from reputable, academic (library) sources. Because your professors are experts in their field, they will likely know when you’ve misunderstood or misrepresented a source, so reading and analyzing sources completely is an expected part of research.

Guidelines for Research in College Essays

  • General internet-based research (Google, Wikipedia) is usually not considered appropriate for college-level research.
  • Scholarly sources from the library and library databases are required to adequately support your arguments.
  • Sources used must be thoroughly read and understood. It’s expected that the writer has mastered the ideas in the source before using or citing it.
  • All evidence must be cited carefully by using whichever citation format is required for the class or discipline. Different courses might require different styles. (APA vs. MLA, for example)

In high school your teachers might not have demanded any specific format, or they might have all used a version of MLA essay formatting. It might have been acceptable to use decorative flourishes and designs.

College essays are usually formatted very simply, without decorative elements. Each discipline and class will have specific formatting guidelines that need to be followed.

Guidelines for Formatting in College

  • College essays follow the formatting most appropriate for the discipline. Usually this is MLA or APA.
  • Formatting should be clear and readable without extra decorative elements. Colors, large fonts, or decorative fonts are not usually acceptable.

Overall Differences

Reflect on Your Reading

  • What experience do you already have with writing essays? With research? What skills are you most comfortable with or confident in? How do you think that you can use those skills in your college classes?
  • What information about the differences between high school and college is new to you? How does understanding the difference between these two school environments help you to better understand what your college professors might expect?

References:

Carroll, Lee Ann. Rehearsing New Roles: How College Students Develop as Writers. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. Print.

Thaiss, Chris and Terry Zawacki. Engaged Writers & Dynamic Disciplines: Research on the Academic Writing Life. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2006. Print.

For Further Reading:

The Difference Between High School and College Writing

The Transition from High School to University Writing

Remixed from an essay by Lennie Irvin

To the extent possible under law, Lisa Dunick has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to Readings for Writing , except where otherwise noted.

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The Difference Between High School and College Essays

Jessica rutland.

Writing essays for high school versus college involves differences in depth and writing quality.

The transition from high school to college can be challenging in many ways. College professors frequently complain about the lack of college readiness that entering freshman have, specifically when it comes to writing, says Stanford University’s college success blog, The College Puzzle. The high school essay differs from the college version in several ways, and learning those differences is key to writing successfully in college.

Explore this article

  • Structural Differences
  • Making an Argument
  • Writing to the Audience
  • Length Matters
  • Rewriting to a Different Standard

1 Structural Differences

Instruction on how to write high school essays usually involves adapting a topic to a basic essay structure: an introduction where the thesis is stated, a number -- usually three -- of paragraphs that each give an example that argues for the thesis, and a conclusion where the argument paragraphs are summarized and the thesis is restated. In college essays, the trick isn’t adapting a topic to an essay structure, but developing structure around the topic. Content is king in the college essay, and the structure of the essay should be adapted to the topic rather than the other way around.

2 Making an Argument

High school essays usually feature a one-sided presentation of a topic, where examples are given to reinforce the side chosen, and the conclusion to the essay is much the same as the intro, where the thesis is restated. College essays tend to be more like a conversation. The essay does not have to be as one-sided. Two arguments on the same topic may be examined for their strengths and weaknesses.

3 Writing to the Audience

High school essays tend to be written with a general audience in mind. These essays are usually written so that almost anyone could read and understand the essay and its topic. College essays, however, are written for a specific audience -- usually the professor. When writing an essay for a college class, the writer can make basic assumptions as to the knowledge that the essay’s reader, the professor or teacher’s assistant, already has rather than explain all concepts for a general audience. But this isn’t always the case, and the best way to figure out what kind of audience to write for in college is simply to ask your professor.

4 Length Matters

One of the biggest differences between high school essays and college essays is length. High school essays generally range from 500 to 1,000 words, or two to four pages. College classes may ask for essays more than 10 pages in length. This may seem like a challenging transition, but college essays also allow for a number of sources to be used, and the arguments found in college essays generally go into much more depth, which requires more writing.

5 Rewriting to a Different Standard

Many writers have said that writing is rewriting. High school essays are usually rewritten with the intention of clearing up grammar and punctuation mistakes, but rewriting a college essay is a bit more complicated. When rewriting a high school essay, students should look for basic errors and ways to clean structure where unclear. When rewriting a college essay, students should try to make the pacing and flow of the essay as consistent as possible, check for weaknesses in their arguments, examine word choices and sentence structure, and make the essay as readable as possible. Rewriting the college essay isn’t just a spell check -- it’s a reworking of the essay to make sure the writing is at its best.

  • 1 Stanford University: The College Puzzle -- Secondary School Writing Teachers Need A New Job Structure To Enhance College Readiness

About the Author

Jessica Rutland lives in Austin, Texas, where she has worked as a copywriter and editor for two years. She received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Texas.

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8.1 What’s Different about College Writing?

Learning objectives.

  • Define “academic writing.”
  • Identify key differences between writing in college and writing in high school or on the job.
  • Identify different types of papers that are commonly assigned.
  • Describe what instructors expect from student writing.

Academic writing refers to writing produced in a college environment. Often this is writing that responds to other writing—to the ideas or controversies that you’ll read about. While this definition sounds simple, academic writing may be very different from other types of writing you have done in the past. Often college students begin to understand what academic writing really means only after they receive negative feedback on their work. To become a strong writer in college, you need to achieve a clear sense of two things:

  • The academic environment
  • The kinds of writing you’ll be doing in that environment

Differences between High School and College Writing

Students who struggle with writing in college often conclude that their high school teachers were too easy or that their college instructors are too hard. In most cases, neither explanation is fully accurate or fair. A student having difficulty with college writing usually just hasn’t yet made the transition from high school writing to college writing. That shouldn’t be surprising, for many beginning college students do not even know that there is a transition to be made.

In high school, most students think of writing as the subject of English classes. Few teachers in other courses give much feedback on student writing; many do not even assign writing. This says more about high school than about the quality of teachers or about writing itself. High school teachers typically teach five courses a day and often more than 150 students. Those students often have a very wide range of backgrounds and skill levels.

Thus many high school English instructors focus on specific, limited goals. For example, they may teach the “five paragraph essay” as the right way to organize a paper because they want to give every student some idea of an essay’s basic structure. They may give assignments on stories and poems because their own college background involved literature and literary analysis. In classes other than English, many high school teachers must focus on an established body of information and may judge students using tests that measure only how much of this information they acquire. Often writing itself is not directly addressed in such classes.

This does not mean that students don’t learn a great deal in high school, but it’s easy to see why some students think that writing is important only in English classes. Many students also believe an academic essay must be five paragraphs long or that “school writing” is usually literary analysis.

Think about how college differs from high school. In many colleges, the instructors teach fewer classes and have fewer students. In addition, while college students have highly diverse backgrounds, the skills of college students are less variable than in an average high school class. In addition, college instructors are specialists in the fields they teach, as you recall from Chapter 7 “Interacting with Instructors and Classes” . College instructors may design their courses in unique ways, and they may teach about specialized subjects. For all of these reasons, college instructors are much more likely than high school teachers to

  • assign writing,
  • respond in detail to student writing,
  • ask questions that cannot be dealt with easily in a fixed form like a five-paragraph essay.

Your transition to college writing could be even more dramatic. The kind of writing you have done in the past may not translate at all into the kind of writing required in college. For example, you may at first struggle with having to write about very different kinds of topics, using different approaches. You may have learned only one kind of writing genre (a kind of approach or organization) and now find you need to master other types of writing as well.

What Kinds of Papers Are Commonly Assigned in College Classes?

Think about the topic “gender roles”—referring to expectations about differences in how men and women act. You might study gender roles in an anthropology class, a film class, or a psychology class. The topic itself may overlap from one class to another, but you would not write about this subject in the same way in these different classes. For example, in an anthropology class, you might be asked to describe how men and women of a particular culture divide important duties. In a film class, you may be asked to analyze how a scene portrays gender roles enacted by the film’s characters. In a psychology course, you might be asked to summarize the results of an experiment involving gender roles or compare and contrast the findings of two related research projects.

It would be simplistic to say that there are three, or four, or ten, or any number of types of academic writing that have unique characteristics, shapes, and styles. Every assignment in every course is unique in some ways, so don’t think of writing as a fixed form you need to learn. On the other hand, there are certain writing approaches that do involve different kinds of writing. An approach is the way you go about meeting the writing goals for the assignment. The approach is usually signaled by the words instructors use in their assignments.

When you first get a writing assignment, pay attention first to keywords for how to approach the writing. These will also suggest how you may structure and develop your paper. Look for terms like these in the assignment:

  • Summarize. To restate in your own words the main point or points of another’s work.
  • Define. To describe, explore, or characterize a keyword, idea, or phenomenon.
  • Classify. To group individual items by their shared characteristics, separate from other groups of items.
  • Compare/contrast. To explore significant likenesses and differences between two or more subjects.
  • Analyze. To break something, a phenomenon, or an idea into its parts and explain how those parts fit or work together.
  • Argue. To state a claim and support it with reasons and evidence.
  • Synthesize. To pull together varied pieces or ideas from two or more sources.

Note how this list is similar to the words used in examination questions that involve writing. (See Table 6.1 “Words to Watch for in Essay Questions” in Chapter 6 “Preparing for and Taking Tests” , Section 6.4 “The Secrets of the Q and A’s” .) This overlap is not a coincidence—essay exams are an abbreviated form of academic writing such as a class paper.

Sometimes the keywords listed don’t actually appear in the written assignment, but they are usually implied by the questions given in the assignment. “What,” “why,” and “how” are common question words that require a certain kind of response. Look back at the keywords listed and think about which approaches relate to “what,” “why,” and “how” questions.

  • “What” questions usually prompt the writing of summaries, definitions, classifications, and sometimes compare-and-contrast essays. For example, “ What does Jones see as the main elements of Huey Long’s populist appeal?” or “ What happened when you heated the chemical solution?”
  • “Why” and “how” questions typically prompt analysis, argument, and synthesis essays. For example, “ Why did Huey Long’s brand of populism gain force so quickly?” or “ Why did the solution respond the way it did to heat?”

Successful academic writing starts with recognizing what the instructor is requesting, or what you are required to do. So pay close attention to the assignment. Sometimes the essential information about an assignment is conveyed through class discussions, however, so be sure to listen for the keywords that will help you understand what the instructor expects. If you feel the assignment does not give you a sense of direction, seek clarification. Ask questions that will lead to helpful answers. For example, here’s a short and very vague assignment:

Discuss the perspectives on religion of Rousseau, Bentham, and Marx. Papers should be four to five pages in length.

Faced with an assignment like this, you could ask about the scope (or focus) of the assignment:

  • Which of the assigned readings should I concentrate on?
  • Should I read other works by these authors that haven’t been assigned in class?
  • Should I do research to see what scholars think about the way these philosophers view religion?
  • Do you want me to pay equal attention to each of the three philosophers?

You can also ask about the approach the instructor would like you to take. You can use the keywords the instructor may not have used in the assignment:

  • Should I just summarize the positions of these three thinkers, or should I compare and contrast their views?
  • Do you want me to argue a specific point about the way these philosophers approach religion?
  • Would it be OK if I classified the ways these philosophers think about religion?

Never just complain about a vague assignment. It is fine to ask questions like these. Such questions will likely engage your instructor in a productive discussion with you.

Key Takeaways

  • Writing is crucial to college success because it is the single most important means of evaluation.
  • Writing in college is not limited to the kinds of assignments commonly required in high school English classes.
  • Writers in college must pay close attention to the terms of an assignment.
  • If an assignment is not clear, seek clarification from the instructor.

Checkpoint Exercises

What kind(s) of writing have you practiced most in your recent past?

____________________________________________________________________

Name two things that make academic writing in college different from writing in high school.

Explain how the word “what” asks for a different kind of paper than the word “why.”

College Success Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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What’s The Difference Between High School And College Essays?

When students transition from high school to college, they encounter many differences, including the writing assignments they’re given to complete. Essays are a common type of assignment in both high school and college, but there are several key differences between the two. Being aware of them, especially if you’re in high school preparing to go to college, can give you a massive advantage. 

Below, we’ll take a look at some of the most significant differences between high school and college essays. We’ll look at things like  complexity, length, the amount of research required and all important critical analysis. 

Let’s dive in.

Level Of Complexity

difference between high school and college essays

High school essays are often designed to test students’ knowledge of a topic or subject matter. These essays are often shorter and less complex regarding the ideas they present. While you tackle complex topics, you may not be required to go into great detail.

In contrast, college essays require a higher level of complexity and sophistication. They are designed to challenge students’ critical thinking skills and usually require an analysis of multiple sources. Students are also expected to draw their own conclusions and present a well-reasoned argument.

Achieving good grades comes with practice. Transitioning to college essays takes time and effort, and one of the most important parts of the process is editing to make sure you tick all of the boxes.

One notable difference between high school and college essays is length. High school essays are typically shorter, frequently only a few pages long. These essays usually ask you to summarize facts or respond to particular queries so students can’t really play around with a large word count to develop more detailed arguments.

College essays, on the other hand, are typically longer and more detailed.

These essays, which might be several pages long to over ten pages, usually stretch over a few thousand words and require students to perform their independent research and present their views more complexly. Speaking of research…

Research and preparation

Another significant difference between high school and college essays is the level of research required. While high school essays may not require extensive research, research is often crucial to college essay writing . College students are expected to seek and analyze information from various sources, including academic journals, primary sources, and scholarly books. They then have to cite and reference these sources in their pieces.

Students must locate credible sources, evaluate their reliability and relevance, and effectively incorporate them into their essays. Sometimes, this can be very challenging, mainly if essay writing is not your forte. You can discover how to complete your homework without challenge by visiting https://writepaperfor.me/pay-someone-to-do-my-homework . This process can be much faster when compared to the independent and time-consuming process, which requires students to have excellent research skills and the ability to evaluate sources critically.

Writing Style And Grammar

High school students are often taught to write in a formal, structured style emphasizing clarity and organization. College students, however, are encouraged to experiment with different writing styles and develop their unique voices.

High school essays are often graded primarily on content and structure, with less emphasis on grammar and mechanics. In college, however, papers are expected to be polished and error-free, with attention given to grammar, punctuation, and style.

Time Management

Time management is another significant difference between high school and college essays. College essays often require more time and effort than high school essays, and students must learn how to manage their time effectively to complete assignments on time.

High school students often have structured deadlines and schedules for completing assignments. These tasks may not be as complex and require less time to complete. In contrast, college students may have a month to complete an essay, so structure is vital to ensure enough time is spent researching, writing and editing.

Critical Thinking Skills and Sources

While critical thinking skills are essential in high school, they are often more emphasized in college essays. College students must analyze information with a sharp critical eye, drawing upon a range of different sources to explore different arguments and perspectives. They then must offer their own input— their critical opinion of each source and the arguments they make, and their opinion as a whole . 

In high school, students may receive the necessary information to complete their essays and may not be expected to conduct extensive research independently. In college, however, research is often a crucial component of essay writing, and students are expected to seek out and analyze information from various sources.

Originality

Another significant difference between high school and college essays is the emphasis on originality and creativity. In high school, essays may be more formulaic and focus on following a specific structure or format. In contrast, college essays often require students to demonstrate originality and creativity.

College essays may require students to develop their unique arguments, ideas, and perspectives on a given topic. College instructors expect students to challenge conventional wisdom, think critically, and demonstrate intellectual curiosity.

Bottom Line

In conclusion, the differences between high school and college essays are significant, and students must prepare for these differences to succeed in college-level writing assignments.

By practising writing and other skills in this article, students can improve their writing mastery and thrive in college.

Learn More About Essay Writing

Below, you can find more resources on essay writing and creating content as a whole:

  • Tips On How To Make An Essay More Engaging
  • What Can You Do With A Degree In Creative Writing?
  • Head Here To Discover Some Essential Essay Writing Tips

To learn more about the difference between high school and college essays, please don’t hesitate to get in touch .

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College Application Essays Vs. High School Essays

Rob Franek

High school typically does a great job preparing you for college. But when it comes to applying to college, there's one thing that will greatly differ from what you've been taught thus far: the college application essay. You've spent years perfecting how to build an argument or efficiently convey a thought in your high school essays. That's not necessarily what admissions officers want to see when they read through your application. Here are three differences between essays for your college applications and essays for your high school classes.

Different Purposes

When you write an essay for your high school teachers, your goal is to show that you've mastered a concept in that class. You will use various forms of evidence to concretely convey that subject back to the teacher. But with a college application essay , you are the subject.

Admission officers want to see what you can bring to the table as a member of their campus. To do that, you'll describe your passions and strengths, or even past experiences and challenges. This isn't a means for them to gauge your academic performance, so don't try to impress them in that way. They already have access to your high school resume — test scores, grades, classes, etc. — so use this opportunity to show them your personality.

Different Audiences

The people grading your essays in high school are your teachers: They know what you're capable of and can, in some places, guess what you may have meant. That's not the case for those reading your application essay! (That's why we recommend taking the time to try and meet these folks during school visits .) This may be their first impression of you, so you'll want to focus more on revealing yourself than on regurgitating outside information. Don't squander this one opportunity to stand out from all the other grades and essays that each other student is submitting. Speak directly to the admissions committee through your paper, and make sure they know who you are as a person.

Different Tactics

The rules of a high school paper don't apply here! You still need to make sure your essay is clear and readable (I suggest avoiding slang or language admissions counselors may be unfamiliar with), but don't feel boxed in by the academic style of a five-paragraph essay. Be your authentic self here without worrying about fitting a formula.

To help with authenticity, you should get used to writing in the first-person point of view here — not only is "I" okay, but it's actually preferred in these essays, and you should avoid using the third person to refer to yourself throughout. That can come off as detached, and you don't want your essay to read like someone else wrote it about you. (If you aren't an expert on yourself, after all, who is?)

Keep these differences in mind while you brush up on some tips for writing a top-notch essay . From there, you'll be well on your way to impressing admissions officers and scoring a spot at your dream school.

College Admissions and Test Prep Expert

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6 Differences between High School and College Writing

  • Last modified 2023-12-05
  • Published on 2021-03-27

differences between highschool and college essay

There are differences between high school and college writing. While in high school, teachers provide extensive guidelines and rules to guide students throughout the writing process. However, when writing in college, professors don’t generally provide a set structure that students should follow when planning and writing their essays. It is important to unlearn the rules from high school to meet the expectations of university writing. This allows students to be successful in developing strong argumentative writing skills and a more mature style of writing.  

1. Essay Structure

High School: In terms of essay structure, high school teachers recommend students to follow the five-paragraph or five-point essay structure including: an introduction, three main points, and a conclusion. The essay begins and ends with something general, with the introduction leading to the discussion of specifics, and then branches out to more general comments at the end. A typical five-paragraph essay normally allows the form to control the content, rather than letting the content control the form. As each paragraph is assigned a purpose, and students are required to fit their content into each and every paragraph. This structure indirectly guides students to limit their analysis to only three main points, leading to an effort to tailor and reduce other important points that might be critical to the development of the essay.   

College: For college essay writing, there is no predetermined number of points the essay must include. Since the topics of discussion in college writing are more complex compared to high school essays, students can have as many paragraphs as needed to express their opinions and viewpoints. The reason why five-paragraph essays don’t typically work in college writing is also that they lack flow. The style of listing the arguments allows the writer to treat each paragraph and its main idea as a separate entity, rather than connecting them together while forming an argument. College writing assignments focus on analyzing and interpreting the topic, so the professors will expect you to know the facts and make an argument. This style of writing is vastly different from high school writing.  

2. Paragraphs

High School: In high school essays, when the main arguments are narrowed down to specific paragraphs, students are recommended to begin with a topic sentence that reflects the thesis statement and introduces the intended idea. Then, each paragraph should end with a conclusion that reiterates the point in the topic sentence or end with a transitional sentence introducing the next paragraph. The following paragraphs follow a similar structure.  

College:   Compared to high school essays, college professors expect students to not limit themselves when expressing their ideas . Depending on the idea and evidence provided in the essay, paragraphs can range anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of a page. College writing typically has fewer restrictions on paragraph length and content, because college writing’s sole purpose is to ask students to provide analysis, evidence, highlights, etc., to satisfy their points. The only similarity in paragraphs between high school and college writing is that the beginning of the paragraph comes with a topic sentence that summarizes the main point of the paragraph, then moves on to provide arguments and supporting claims. This new structure in college writing allows for more coherent and clear paragraphs.  

However, it’s unusual for college essays to have a concluding sentence in considering the structure. Because college instructors have extensive experience in reading long research papers and complicated essays, students shouldn’t repeat the topic sentence at the end of paragraphs. Instead, students can use this space to complete their evidence and analysis to support the topic. Great writing abilities allow students to complete the analysis and ease the readers to each paragraph, without writing a transition. 

high school and college writing

3. Thesis statement

High School: As discussed above, in the thesis statement for high school writing, students are strongly encouraged to end the opening paragraph with a thesis statement that should be one sentence in length.  There are some nuances between thesis statements and topic sentences; therefore, students normally form a general thesis statement that may resemble a topic sentence. Moreover, the thesis statement should be supported by three main points. A typical example of “listing” of the argument in high school writing is

“I will show how the Romans lost their empire in Britain and Gaul by examining military technology, religion, and politics.” ( UNC )

College: In college writing, the opening paragraph can end with a thesis statement, but this is not a hard requirement for college writing. Due to the complexity of topics, the thesis statement isn’t usually supported by three main points, since there can be more than three when discussing the topics covered in the paper. Furthermore, a thesis statement can be two to three sentences long, because it needs to be developed and complex rather than restating the topic sentence. An example of a typical thesis statement seen in college writing is

“The Romans lost their empire in Britain and Gaul because their opponents’ military technology caught up with their own at the same time as religious upheaval and political conflict was weakening the sense of common purpose on the home front”.  ( UNC )

4. Introduction and Conclusion

High School: Remember when your high school teacher said your introduction should be general and broad to hook the reader in, before narrowing it down to specific points? The teacher may also have said the conclusion should provide a summary of the main points discussed in the paper. This style of writing an introduction and conclusion is quite common in high school, because the teachers are trying to help students think in a more structured and logical way, since you can easily fall into the rabbit hole of discussing arguments that may not be relatable to the topic.  

College: However, in college writing, professors prefer you to be straight to the point. Once receiving the writing prompt, students are expected to specify their arguments in concrete terms, rather than just simply paraphrasing the topic and the facts. The conclusion is there for a reason. Rather than summarizing what was earlier in the essay, which the reader is already aware of, students should spend more time refining the conclusion to reflect the topic to a personal story, raise a question of curiosity, or offer important insights for further discussion, etc.  

5. Arguments

High School: We’ve seen for argumentative essays, even on the SAT, teachers recommend students to stick to one side or the other when making an argument, in order to best provide examples and evidence to support their claims. The ability to bring up two opposing points and counter argue is challenging for students who did not receive extensive writing training. Additionally, arguments high school students make are frequently based on personal experience or opinion, since they may not know enough about the subject to make a strong and convincing argument.  

College: In college, evidence is key. Professors expect a claim that encourages them to keep reading.  Argumentative essays should be supported by strong evidence from scholarly and journal sources, as students have spent a considerable amount of time learning about facts and also research sources that support or oppose their arguments. As the legendary engineer Edwards Deming said “’Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.” In addition to requiring students to provide specific arguments with claims, college professors also expect students to think about “limits and objections to [their] claim” since all interesting claims can be “reasonably challenged.” An essay that addresses counter-arguments along with the supporting arguments is considered strong and persuasive. The University of Chicago’s guide to writing mentions students should think of presenting arguments similar to “ an amiable and lively conversation with someone whom you respect and who respects you; someone who is interested in what you have to say, but will not agree with your claims just because you state them; someone who wants to hear your reasons for believing your claims and also wants to hear answers to their questions.”

difference between high school and college writing

High School : Formatting is required for many high school essays, especially with research or argumentative essays. High school teachers normally introduce the style guide standards such as the MLA and APA, because they are simpler and easier to instruct compared to other style guides.  

Style guides are loosely required in high school, because the focus of the essay is to teach students how to form arguments, how to provide evidence, and how to write an easy-to-follow essay . In addition, topics in high school are typically less complicated than in college; therefore, students are not required to do a profound research for understanding the subject matter.  

College : However, in college writing, formatting and citations take up a significant amount of the grade for a research paper . Different professors may have different formatting requirements, varying from Chicago to AMA to APA. Otherwise, papers may be marked down if formatting guidelines are not met. Professors will provide this information in the syllabus, or before each research paper project. There are numerous websites and resources online and in your college’s library that will make the citation and formatting process easier and faster, such as Citation Machine . 

Preparing students for college writing is a vital method to succeed in college, and beyond college. Teachers in public high schools normally have a hard time providing appropriate and accurate feedback for each student, due to the big class size. Aralia Education is here to help students who want to succeed in college writing, by providing multiple writing classes that push students to be the best version of themselves.  Aralia’s tutors are inspired teachers and professors who are committed to student success. They are recognized in their field or are currently teaching at top high schools and colleges/universities in the US. 

Students will learn the nuances of language, including figurative language, effective structuring, and specific forms to apply to their own piece(s). Students will work directly with both literary and media texts to plan and write their piece(s). This class will also help the students write with an aim for an audience as their submission for nation-wide and international writing competitions that are timely with the course schedule.

This course helps students develop and improve their writing skills to prepare students for higher education courses. The methodology emphasizes the ability to read critically, think critically, and write critically. Students will learn informative, narrative, descriptive, creative, and persuasive essay writing skills. Students will learn how to brainstorm, structure and outline, form an argument, defend it, incorporate academic sources, and develop a clear, articulate writing style. The focus will be on the writing process, intended audience, consistent tenses, point of view, correct grammar uses, building vocabulary, appropriate style, and proper research and citation protocols.

This course introduces students to significant movements in literary history. The course will begin with a brief introduction to the study of literature. The bulk of the course functions as a survey of literary movements throughout history, focusing primarily on the Western Canon. Students will learn about the history, background of movements like Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Victorian, Realism, Surrealism, etc. Students will reflect on what they are reading through discussion in class, with their teacher and peers, and writing in biweekly assignments.

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The Difference Between High School And College Essays

  • March 14, 2023
  • No Comments

The Difference Between High School And College Essays

Writing essays is one of the most common types of academic assignments in high school and college. Although the requirements for these academic papers might look similar, there are plenty of differences between a traditional college and high school essay. In this post, we’ll clarify the major differences between these two and will help you create a perfect paper within the shortest terms. Know more in detail about The Difference Between High School And College Essays.

Before You Start Writing 

Completing academic assignments, especially when it comes to writing essays, is often a complicated process. Many students face serious difficulties when investigating the requirements, collecting arguments, and structuring essays. If you are one of those who want to overcome learning issues in a fast and reliable way, you can always order essay online on speedypaper.com . This service is an academic writing website that helps students complete their homework of any difficulty level. 

If you would like to explore the market of services that provide academic assistance online to choose the most trustworthy and budget-friendly solution for your essay, it might be great to read the reviews shared by other learners. What is the cheapest service you can trust? Is it a good idea to write my paper with writepaperforfor.me ? Compare the prices, conditions, and benefits to select the best service according to your needs and academic level. If you still decide to create an essay by yourself, it’s time to explore the real differences between a high school and college essay below. 

Identifying The Structure 

When it comes to choosing a structure for your paper, you need to be extremely attentive. The reason is that a high school usually has a five-paragraph structure. If you ask any high school teacher, they will likely recommend you follow a traditional essay structure with an introduction, three paragraphs (points), and a conclusion. 

Each of your paragraphs will have a clear purpose and 1-3 examples to support an idea. This approach is developed to improve the analytical skills of young learners and encourage them to choose only the most important facts and parameters.

This rule is not fully applicable to college essays . In most cases, you will have a certain number of predetermined points your essay should contain. It’s up to you to decide the number of paragraphs, key ideas, and examples for your assignment. This type of essay is more complex and requires analyzing and interpreting the main idea of your writing. 

Working On Thesis Statement 

To compose a winning high school essay, you will likely need to finalize your opening paragraph with a powerful thesis statement. Most professors believe it should be the one and only sentence. It is also important to note that it should be complemented by three main points. 

Composing college essays has some other rules. Finishing your paragraph with a thesis statement is not obligatory. You can either choose to add a thesis statement or miss it in your paragraph – this parameter doesn’t have any impact on the final grade for your essay. Moreover, you can create a thesis of 2-3 sentences long without any hesitation. 

Collecting And Representing Arguments 

As a rule, in high school essays, you are expected to choose one side or another, as well as support your choice with the arguments. The fact is that describing two opposite points simultaneously often appears to be too complicated for high school learners. What is more, their choice of argument is usually closely connected with their personal experience, ideas, and preferences. 

College essays are focused on evidence. All the facts described in your academic paper should be supported by relevant and up-to-date evidence from various sources. As a result, students usually need to spend hours and even days on effective research to prove their ideas. If your essay contains various supporting and counter-arguments, it will likely be considered a successful one. 

Editing And Formatting 

On the one hand, school essays should be formatted using traditional APA or MLA standards. These are easy-to-implement and understandable standards any student can apply. 

On the other hand, college essays might have various formatting types. Moreover, you need to strictly follow the professor’s guidelines and formatting requirements to get an excellent grade. Implementing most formatting styles used in college essays requires plenty of time and effort. Still, there are some professional writing services that can help you cope with your formatting much faster and easier. You can also use automation formatting tools to polish your academic paper. 

All in all, college and high school essays have many differences. This list includes formatting, choosing a proper structure, collecting and representing arguments, as well as working on the thesis statement. The number of arguments, examples, and paragraphs can be slightly different in these two types of academic assignments. The only thing you should always remember is complying to the requirements shared by your teacher or professor. This will help you complete your homework faster. 

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Writing in High School vs. College

Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine Karydes

Lead admissions expert, table of contents, high school vs. college.

Stay up-to-date on the latest research and college admissions trends with our blog team.

Writing in High School vs. College

Learning how to write well for college is fundamentally the most challenging dilemma students will face, in my experience. Academic writing in high school vs. college differ in key aspects. Let’s talk about how your writing must change when transitioning from high school to the university.

We get it. The night before a deadline, some high school students procrastinate instead of re-reading their copy of One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest . It is a very common urge, to put off the high school essay–and it can be a very easy thing to pull off.

This is due in part to our high school education’s emphasis on summary as opposed to analysis. Most high schools want students to master the material instead of truly analyzing it. But when embarking on their college planning, students should also prepare for a major shift in writing standards.

Besides taking a writing workshop or working with a tutor recommended by a college planning adviser, a student should practice writing in a college format.

College writing will differ in these three key aspects :   

1. Diversified Topics in your College Writing

Think about where a student spends the most time on writing. Is it science? Art? History? The most common answer is English. In college, what subject will demand the most writing?

The answer? Every subject. Even in a science or math class, students will be expected to read their textbook, read scholarly articles, and write extensive research papers. A student may choose to take subjects they’ve never been offered before, like philosophy, linguistics, archaeology, sociology, and more. In all college courses , a student will be expected to have strong writing skills and write a lot .

Tip: When a student is doing their college planning, they should research what subjects their ideal colleges offer and which ones appeal the most to them. If they’re feeling ambitious, they should read some of the writing published in those disciplines. This will give you a firsthand example of how writing in high school vs. college can differ.

2. Analysis Emphasized More Than High School Writing

Most high schools do not emphasize heavy research, analysis, or innovation in a given topic. University courses will usually demand a lot of depth. This can be very challenging for some students who were not effectively taught how to analyze or break down what’s in front of them.

The big difference is a shift from what to why. High school teachers will often ask what happened or what someone did . In college, since most professors are expected to make innovations in their own field, students will be asked why something happened and encouraged to look at the deeper significance of something.

Tip: Students should learn to ask themselves why more often, and early on. They should do their best to try and discover hidden motivations and theories for what surrounds them.

3. Thesis Based Writing in High School vs. College

In college, the thesis is the holy grail. Most students will know what a thesis is by the time they’re in college. If they don’t, not to worry–most universities will emphasize its importance very early on.

A thesis has many important elements (that should be discussed with a writing tutor or in a student’s first college writing course), but it is in essence an argument or conclusion made based off of research and evidence . In other words, it’s not simply what we know to be true already (“Under the presidency of Bill Clinton, NAFTA was passed”). It is not yet proven or could be challenged with another point of view, as in: “NAFTA made the Mexican economy overly dependent on the United States and had dangerous ramifications for their citizens.”

In fact, a student’s entire essay will surround their central argument. Anything that is irrelevant to their main claim should not be included in their paper.

Tip: Learning what a thesis looks like is essential to a student’s college planning. First, they should learn what it is by trying to identify it in articles or writing worksheets. Then, they should learn how to come up with one of their own. They can do this by reading about a subject they are passionate about and creating an argument based on the evidence they found.

Learning how to write well for college is fundamentally the most challenging dilemma students will face when transitioning from high school to the university. Whereas they used to be able to put off assignments until the night before and pull it off with grace, in college, they are expected to research outside of the text in front of them, analyze all of the material, come up with a strong thesis, and write clearly and concisely all in one go. It is not easy stuff.

If a student wants to come prepared, they should work on these skills now rather than later!

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6 Big Differences Between High School and College

  • by Teja Dusanapudi
  • March 19, 2021

students move in to dorm at uc davis

Although the journey from my hometown to UC Davis only takes 30 minutes, walking onto campus for the first time was like entering a different world. Thousands of new faces, eclectic traditions, sleek architecture, wild turkeys, and a sense of freedom — it was unlike anything I experienced in high school.

And college is different from high school — filled with different experiences, resources, and opportunities that will shape who you are. Every student has been where you are now, myself included. And although UC Davis and its staff are more than prepared to guide you through this next chapter, I want to offer you some of my personal experiences, so you’ll find yourself familiar with the campus you step onto in the Fall.

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Life away from home

Life in college dorms is fun: Think about all the euphoric montages you’ve seen in movies and television, the get-togethers, and the iconic nights. You can find those at UC Davis. No matter where you end up living on-campus , you'll quickly find great Aggie spirit in every dorm.

While you’ll be ready to take on the tasks of independent life, college life means thinking about what your needs are outside of school.

If mom used to make your lunches in high school, then you might consider the Tercero Residence Hall, which boasts two separate dining commons, including one specializing in international cuisine.

Has a gym routine been a constant part of your high school life? Segundo boasts a close distance to the Activities and Recreation Center as well as the basketball courts and the Student Health and Wellness Center .

If independence is what you seek, Cuarto Hall might be for you. Residents live in suites with adjoining single rooms, located closest to downtown Davis.

It’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the new responsibilities you have, whether to yourself or to your new roommates. A time-honored stress reliever for students all over campus is petting the Tercero cows. It’s easy to let your worries get washed away petting a curious heifer. Caution: They do drool.

students raft down colorado river

Academic freedom

Adjusting to the UC quarter system can be a change, especially if you're used to block and semester systems.

Separated into Fall, Winter, and Spring quarters, each ten weeks long, with Summer split into two optional smaller quarters, you’ll have ample opportunity to explore a wide variety of classes.

Among my favorite classes from the last few quarters have been Shakespeare in Popular Culture, Environmental Justice, Healthcare Economics, and Climate Change Fiction. And that’s not even counting unique general education courses like Coffee-Making, Wine Tasting, or Tractor Driving.

It can be surprising how much faster time passes by in college. Completing three to four classes in ten weeks means the first day of class blurs to midterms, and the midterms quickly blur into finals. Doing the assigned work at the pace of the quarter system can be challenging, but let me tell you, cramming it all in at the last minute is far more painful.

Luckily, as a college student, you have more academic freedom than in high school ; the syllabus handed out in every class lists all the upcoming homework and test deadlines, hugely helpful in planning which week to study in the Shields Library and which week to take a camping trip with friends. And if you find yourself on the heels of a busy quarter, you always have the option to pick a smaller course load.

Time management in college

Instead of back-to-back classes with your free time measured in minutes, what you do between college lectures is entirely up to you. It’s a double-edged sword: more time means having to balance the things you want to do with the things you need to do, and sometimes I mistake an extra slice of pizza from the CoHo right before class as the latter.

Whether you need to decompress or study, the sheer quantity of available spaces for students on campus means that planning your day the way you want is easy. I might take a moment to sunbathe on the lawn of the Quad, surrounded by circles of students chatting or playing spikeball, before dropping into the Student Community Center to print out an essay at the Computer Lab, and then pause by Lake Spafford to watch the wildlife.

And unlike high school, your choices aren’t just limited to campus, either; downtown Davis is just a few minutes walk away from the heart of campus, with a host of coffee shops that pepper the Davis streets. I prefer Mishka’s, but every college student finds their own preferred place to study and sip. But be warned: you will be judged on your favorite.

Working in your field

Many high school students come into college with part-time job experience. But being on a top-tier research campus means that opportunities for jobs and research can be paid as well as helpful in exploring the career field you’re interested in.

As a student studying English, I was able to work as a student writer at UC Davis’ Energy and Efficiency Institute, as well as Strategic Communications, learning to apply the writing skills I’ve polished in classes.

And academically, UC Davis offers fellowships and scholarships intended to get students familiar with the research in academia, whether you’re a STEM student or a humanities student like me. I’ve been able to travel to the Huntington Library in Los Angeles and present an academic paper at the UC Davis Research Colloquium thanks to the funding and advice available to me and every student interested in research.

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Seeing the world

Chances are, college already presents you a chance to be away from home.

College offers you another chance to be away from home; to visit another country entirely! Every department offers students a chance to enroll in UC Davis classes at universities around the globe , such as Design in Japan, Biological Sciences in Ireland, and English in London. Additionally, the Global Learning Hub is dedicated to sending students to pursue internships, research, and other academic opportunities across the globe, specializing in placements for students studying International Relations or Political Sciences.

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Transitioning from High School to College Academic Writing

Christina Crampe

You've done it — you've been accepted to college! Those countless campus tours and application essays have finally paid off. While this is undoubtedly an exciting milestone, it can also bring uncertainty and worry. College education can saddle you with a more significant workload, and you'll be taught by professors with higher expectations.

One subject that significantly differs between high school and college is writing. You might have become accustomed to the 5-paragraph essay model in high school, which served you well then. However, college requires a more advanced level of writing that does not rely on an outlined structure. How can you successfully make the shift from high school to college writing?

Breaking away from the 5-paragraph essay

We learned this format as early as elementary school and applied it throughout middle and high school. Here is the basic structure:

  • Introduction
  • 1 st body paragraph: Main idea #1
  • 2 nd body paragraph: Main idea #2
  • 3 rd body paragraph: Main idea #3

The 5-paragraph essay is a simple and effective way to organize your writing into distinct sections. The introduction introduces your thesis statement. The three body paragraphs each represent one main idea. The conclusion is a summary of what you've written. Although this is a great way to learn to write papers, this format is too formulaic and isn't functional beyond high school. Let's break down the differences between high school-level and college-level writing, paragraph by paragraph.

What makes a great college-level introduction

fishing hook against a black background

The introduction is the first paragraph of the essay. It introduces your argument or thesis statement and creates a roadmap to prove your thesis throughout the rest of your paper. It is essential to make your introduction clear and detailed, so your readers know what to expect. In fact, this is probably the most important part of your essay, so it's important to familiarize yourself with the different techniques you can use at the beginning to grab the reader's attention. If you still don't know how to start your essay, check out the various study materials on the Studocu educational platform.

Here's what a high school-level introduction entails and how a college-level introduction departs from that model.

High school…

  • Hook : The hook is the first sentence of the introduction. Its purpose is to draw readers into your paper — to entice them to read the rest of it. A hook can be a question, quote, anecdote, or even exclamation. The hook does not need to correlate directly to your argument.
  • Thesis statement : The thesis statement is introduced toward the end of the introduction. It is typically one sentence with three main points — each representing one of the essay's body paragraphs — that will prove the thesis. The thesis should be argumentative, but it can be broad and general.

Versus college

  • No hook : College essay introductions do not require a hook. Since many college papers have word count and page requirements, a hook will take up unnecessary space. It's better to dive straight into your argument than to pander to your reader with an eye-catching statement.
  • Thesis statement : The thesis statement is still included, introduced toward the end of the introduction. It can vary in length between one to three sentences, depending on the complexity of your argument. Your thesis does not require three main supporting points; you can use as many or as few supporting details as you need to prove your thesis. Most importantly, your thesis should be specific and argumentative.

Building strong body paragraphs

student using a laptop, textbook, and tablet to complete school work

Once you've got your introduction down, it's time to begin your body paragraphs. These are where you're likely to see the most significant differences between high school-level and college-level writing.

Under the 5-paragraph essay format, high school essays contain three body paragraphs. There are no strict length requirements for each of the body paragraphs. Each body represents one of the three main ideas chosen to prove the thesis, and each main idea has three points of evidence to support it.

Let's consider an example. Your essay thesis centers on the importance of helping to reduce climate change. Here is an outline of the contents of one body paragraph:

Body paragraph #1 : Alternative transportation methods can help reduce your carbon footprint.

  • Evidence #1 : Carpooling
  • Evidence #2 : Bike riding
  • Evidence #3 : Walking

These three pieces of evidence support the main idea of your first body paragraph.

Here are some other ideas to consider as you write your body paragraphs:

  • Research and sources : High school papers don't usually include much — if any — external source material, so you don't have to do any additional research. For example, an essay on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath will include evidence solely from the book. Likewise, a lab report or scientific paper will contain information from the lab you have completed. Some high school research papers require external research but not to the same degree as a college paper.
  • Analysis : In high school papers, analysis of evidence is present but not extensive. It may point out more general ideas that are pretty obvious to readers. One piece of evidence can include two to three sentences of analysis and stop there.
  • Transitional statements : You will most likely include transitional phrases such as "in conclusion" or "in addition" in your writing. They serve to move you from one point to the next, but they don't provide much context for your argument. Each body paragraph will have an opening sentence relating to its respective main idea.
  • Connection to the thesis : Each body paragraph focuses solely on its main idea. There is little to no connection back to the thesis because it is assumed that the bodies serve the thesis.

College papers can have as few or as many body paragraphs as you need to prove your argument. The amount of body paragraphs you have is also influenced by the page length restriction or other requirements for your paper.

Body paragraphs should never exceed one page in length. They are each typically one to two-thirds of a page. If your body paragraph is longer than one page, you likely have enough evidence and analysis to split that paragraph into two separate bodies. Double-check to ensure you are not combining two points into one body paragraph. Each paragraph should have its own main idea.

Some other things to consider as you write your body paragraphs are:

  • Research and sources : College papers will often require external research and sources. This isn't always a requirement, but the extent of external research is more common than in high school. For example, an essay on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath may include direct quotes from the book as well as external research on the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl . Likewise, a scientific research paper might include results from your own experiment and external statistics from past published experiments.
  • Analysis : Aside from the thesis statement, your analysis is the most important part of the paper. The analysis is extensive and specific, aiming to bring light to an unexplored topic. You will point out small details readers may have considered unimportant and draw conclusions about them. You'll bring a fresh perspective to evidence and teach your readers something new.
  • Transitional statements : You'll likely use transitional statements in your college writing, but they will serve a more significant purpose. Each body paragraph will begin with a transitional sentence connecting one body paragraph to the next. They should be specific — not general — and outline what you'll be discussing in the paragraph. You do not want any of your paragraphs to be disconnected. After all, they each serve the same purpose: proving the thesis statement.
  • Connection to the thesis : Every body paragraph refers back to the thesis. While each paragraph has its main idea to discuss, you can't forget the purpose of each one. You should actively discuss how your analysis of evidence proves your argument.

Ending with a strong conclusion

one orange head and one blue head made of puzzle pieces and exchanging a puzzle piece

The conclusion is the last paragraph of an essay. Like the other elements, the content of the conclusion differs between high school writing and college writing.

  • Summary : High school conclusions summarize what you've discussed throughout your paper. You restate the thesis and the three main points you've made supporting your argument. There is no further analysis included in the conclusion.
  • Drawing connections : These conclusions draw no connections between disciplines. For example, an English paper conclusion solely discusses what was written in the essay. Using The Grapes of Wrath as a topic example again, the conclusion focuses only on the book and its literary implications. You do not draw connections between the book content and its historical connections.
  • Summary : While you usually restate the thesis at the end, college conclusions are not merely a summary of what you've written. Rather, these conclusions answer the "so what?" question. Why should readers care about your argument? Why is your paper important? What does it add to the existing research on this topic? What's its relevance? These are just some of the questions to consider as you craft your concluding statements.
  • Drawing connections : One way to answer the "so what?" question is to draw interdisciplinary connections between what you've said and what's already been written. For example, if you're writing a sociology paper on the foster care system in the United States, you could connect it to what you've learned in an economics or history class. How does a child's socioeconomic status impact the likelihood of ending up in the foster care system? How has the creation and role of the foster care system evolved over time? These are the kind of questions to consider as you make connections across disciplines in your conclusion.

Other things to keep in mind

photo of the definition for citation taken from a dictionary

Now that we've discussed the differences in formulating your papers, let's consider some of the other key distinctions between high school and college writing.

Quality over quantity

High school writing assignments do not tend to have minimum word counts to meet, so you can write as much as you want to prove your argument. However, college writing assignments usually have strict word count requirements so that you focus on the quality of your writing instead of the quantity. You must write good, compelling arguments and analysis. Your writing should be concise so you can communicate your ideas clearly and effectively without filling your paper with fluff.

Summary vs. analysis

While high school writing does require some analysis, the summary does not introduce new ideas. You can summarize a source as evidence and summarize your paper in the conclusion. In contrast, college writing requires strict analysis. Any summary you provide should be no longer than one or two sentences to introduce a source or provide context.

With college writing, you need to provide quality analysis. Consider everything — even the most minor details — including punctuation marks, speech patterns, and motifs , because sometimes the smallest, most inconsequential-seeming points make for the most significant analysis.

Word choice and specificity

You might be tempted to use complicated language in your college papers to impress your professors. Spoiler alert: they probably won't be as impressed as you might have thought. Instead, use field-specific terminology throughout your paper. If you're writing a biology research paper, it will make sense to include words like "polypeptides" and "anabolism." When writing your paper, take care to use simple language that fits the context of your argument. This will keep your writing clear and concise, prioritizing understanding over complexity

Specificity is similar to word choice, but it refers particularly to overstatements . You should avoid using overstatements in your college writing. Generalized phrases like "society," "throughout history," and "many people believe" are examples of terms that signify generalizations and assumptions. Remain focused in your writing and use terms specific to the community, institution, or field you're writing about.

Tone, voice, and tense

In college, your writing should maintain an active voice. This gives your writing more clarity. Your tone depends on your argument, but it should mostly remain neutral. Your tone matters most when you include external research in your argument. For example, if you're paraphrasing a scholarly article with a positive tone, your paraphrased version should also convey a positive tone.

The tense is also largely dependent on what you're writing. For example, English Literature papers use the present tense. Meanwhile, some disciplines – like the sciences – do not have a strict tense requirement and might include a mix of past, present, and future tenses. You should always be aware of what tense your discipline requires.

High school papers almost always use MLA for citations, if they require citations at all. College citations depend on the disciple in which you are writing. For example, English Literature essays follow MLA format, which includes the use of parenthetical citations in your paper. However, history or political science papers require Chicago Style citations — this includes the use of footnotes, not parenthetical citations. Psychology and behavioral science disciplines use APA style .

The distinction between style guides might be confusing, but there are many informative sources online, such as Purdue Owl , that can teach you how to properly cite a source in any citation style.

Making the transition

We've thrown a lot of information at you about making the move from high school to college, so take your time learning your new expectations and go easy on yourself as you learn new ways to write. Don't forget that practice makes perfect, so practice writing as much as you can.

If you find yourself continuing to struggle in this transition from high school to college writing, don't be afraid to ask your professors for help. They hold office hours for a reason! You can stop by to discuss your thesis, and some professors will even read drafts of students' essays and give valuable feedback. Remember that you're not the only one trying to make this shift. You have plenty of resources at your disposal — use them!

Header photo by Mangostar .

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Home — Essay Samples — Education — College Life — Comparing High School and College: Similarities and Differences

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Comparing High School and College: Similarities and Differences

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Words: 591 |

Published: Feb 12, 2024

Words: 591 | Page: 1 | 3 min read

Table of contents

Introduction, similarities, differences, works cited.

  • Cass, David. Successfully Transitioning from High School to College Academics. New York: Uvize Inc, 2011. Print.
  • Shulman, James, and William Bowen. The Game of Life: College Sports and Education Values. New York: Princeton University Press, 2002. Print.
  • Ricchini, John, and Terry Arndt. Life During College: Your Guide to Success. New York: Life After Graduation, 2005. Print.
  • Lawn, Duncan. The Unofficial High School Freshman's Handbook to Success. New York: Lulu.com, 2014. Print.

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differences between highschool and college essay

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Difference Between High School And College Essays

Difference Between High School And College Essays

Undergoing the transition from high school to college brings with it many changes, one being academic writing. Essays – one of the cornerstones of academic expression – undergo a profound transformation as students move from high school to college education. We will investigate the nuanced differences between high school and college essays as we investigate the expectations, structures, and challenges students will encounter upon entering higher education.

Structural Complexity

High school essays typically follow a standardized format–introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. Teachers emphasize clarity and coherence while helping their students master thesis statements and topic sentences. When entering college however, professors expect them to create essays displaying more intricate forms of critical thought than what high school instructors allow, often including argumentation techniques, research incorporation as well as an emphasis on original analysis.

Depth of Analysis

High school essays often emphasize summarizing information and demonstrating comprehension. Students are expected to present an accurate interpretation of assigned material with limited analysis limited to surface interpretations. On the other hand, college essays necessitate more in-depth explorations of ideas; professors require their students to critically engage with concepts, question assumptions and add to existing academic discourse – challenging students to present more nuanced and sophisticated views about a given topic.

Research and Citations

While high school essays often consist of basic research, college essays require deeper scholarly inquiry. College professors expect students to consult various academic sources before incorporating these perspectives into their essays. Citation styles like APA, MLA or Chicago also become important parts of college essays – having the ability to synthesize information from multiple sources accurately becomes invaluable in college essay landscape.

Independence and Self-Directed Learning

High school essays tend to receive more guidance and structure from teachers; teachers often prescribe topics. Conversely, college essays demand a greater degree of independence from the student. Here, it’s expected they select topics on their own, conduct independent research independently, formulate arguments independently as well as take responsibility for their academic pursuits by choosing topics, conducting independent research themselves as well as making these choices themselves. Essentially self-directed learning encourages students to explore their interests more fully while taking control of their studies and taking ownership of their academic pursuits.

College life can be demanding, and essays often contribute to this stress. While high school assignments might have longer deadlines and tighter grading standards than their college counterparts, college essays often come with tight deadlines that necessitate time management to meet. Students juggling multiple assignments, exams, and extracurricular activities must learn to balance multiple courses while maintaining quality essay production in their college years if they hope for a fulfilling experience.

At the college level, professors expect students to contribute unique thoughts and insights to academic discussions. Thus encouraging students to think beyond prescribed curriculums by adding personal perspectives to their essays and developing more sophisticated and independent intellectual identities. High school essays usually test comprehension while originality takes a backseat role; in contrast, professors expect their students to contribute unique viewpoints as part of academic discussions – something high school essays do not do well at assessing. To do well in college essays requires cultivating unique voices – encouraging students to think beyond prescribed coursework while cultivating unique voices becomes essential – encouraging independent thought beyond curriculums by contributing creative thoughts that add personalization into academic discussions that enhance intellectual discussions – something high school essays cannot do; these expectations of originality forces students towards creating more sophisticated and independent intellectual identities – something high school essays do not do well at testing knowledge gained.

Feedback and Revision Process

In high school, feedback for essays tends to be immediate and direct. Teachers will usually offer constructive criticism to guide student improvement. As students transition into college life, however, professors require students to engage in more extensive dialogue about their work while defending arguments and responding to criticisms of it. Revisions become integral components of the writing process, and understanding how best to interpret and implement feedback becomes increasingly crucial throughout college years – aiding deepened comprehension of subject matter while sharpening critical thinking abilities.

College Essays Require a Multidisciplinary Approach

Writing college essays typically requires taking an interdisciplinary approach that challenges students to create connections among various fields of study and make connections across them all. While high school essays were typically limited to specific subjects, college essays require synthesizing ideas from various fields – encouraging a holistic understanding of complex issues while helping develop well-rounded and versatile academic skill sets in students.

Navigating the transition from high school to college essays is a pivotal moment in one’s academic career. There are distinct differences in structural complexity, depth of analysis, research methods used, time-management needs, and originality expectations that demonstrate this evolution of academic writing; students must embrace them if they wish to succeed in the college environment.

As students embark on their academic adventure, it’s essential that they recognize support is readily available – essay writing services offer invaluable help but should always be approached with caution and with due consideration. To assist your choices when considering such resources as essay writing services, refer to honest reviews such as www.linkedin.com/pulse/honest-paperhelporg-review-jennifer-williams-na4ic/ where real experiences shed light on their reliability and effectiveness.

Understanding the differences between high school and college essays is the first step toward mastering academic expression. Acknowledging both the challenges and opportunities presented by college-level writing can facilitate intellectual growth, critical thought development, and an appreciation for words as powerful instruments of expression.

Supporting Students in the Transition from High School to College Writing

The transition from high school to college writing can be important and challenging for students and teachers. In my experiences teaching high school and college-level English classes, I have noticed both commonalities and differences in the expectations for writing at each level. While students are taught to analyze and synthesize ideas in both high school and college, college instructors often expect students to produce deeper, more sophisticated textual interpretations and to not only synthesize existing views but also contribute new perspectives on a topic. Below I offer suggestions to help high school teachers prepare students to more confidently transition from high school to college writing.

Teach Students to Adapt Their Writing to Various Purposes, Genres, and Audiences

In college, students are often asked to write in different genres for a variety of purposes and audiences. To prepare students for this work, high school teachers can encourage them to write for audiences beyond the teacher and peers, such as community organizations or local officials, and to adapt their writing to various situations. For example, while many high school English classes emphasize literary analysis, teachers might also integrate rhetorical analysis, or the interpretation of rhetorical appeals such as ethos. An essay focusing on ethos, for instance, might examine an author’s credibility and use of evidence in advancing the essay’s claims. In particular, rhetorical analysis, a genre that is valued in many college composition classrooms, not only invites students to adapt their writing to a different situation but also teaches students to become aware of how authors write for different purposes and audiences. In addition, while writing in high school may mainly occur in English and history classes, incorporating writing across the curriculum can prepare students to compose across academic disciplines in college.

Furthermore, high school teachers can expand students’ genre awareness. Students may, as a result of standardized curricula and testing, categorize a piece of writing as an argument or an analysis, as a personal narrative or a research paper, rather than as a combination of these genres. Teachers might help students think more flexibly about genre. For instance, while teaching a research-based argument essay in a first-year college writing class, I invite students to combine elements of personal narrative, primary-source data collected from surveys and interviews, and scholarly research to construct an argument about a topic of their choice related to the local or campus community. Even though I ask students to consider the personal motivations behind their research questions, students are often surprised to find that they are allowed and even encouraged to interweave personal and textual evidence and narrative and research elements into one essay. Asking students to integrate different kinds of writing in one paper can inspire them to expand their conceptions of genre. In this way, teachers can help students recognize that instead of the form dictating the content, an essay’s purpose and audience shape its evidence, structure, and style—and hence its genre.

Inspire Students to Enter and Respond to Larger Academic Conversations

The composition scholars Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz describe the transition from high school to college writing as a “paradigm shift” in which students cross a “threshold” from learning and restating information toward questioning ideas and entering larger conversations (125, 139). Beyond summarizing secondary sources, students are expected to advance their own claims that may differ from or extend established views. One way high school teachers can introduce students to the notion of the academic conversation is to make the concept come to life in the classroom. While teaching first-year college writing, I ask my students to read Mark Gaipa’s essay “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for their Writing.” In the essay, Gaipa illustrates the academic conversation using the metaphor of a ballroom in which critics are discussing a topic. He offers strategies such as “piggybacking,” or applying critics’ ideas to a new aspect of the conversation, and “leapfrogging,” or identifying gaps in existing ideas, as ways for students to extend critics’ claims (428, 429). Using Gaipa’s essay, I incorporate a class activity in which students walk around the classroom, or “ballroom,” and consider their classmates’ and their own views on the question, What is the moral of “Superman and Me,” by Sherman Alexie? Students then consider how their own essays might contribute new ideas to the conversation on the topic they have chosen. High school teachers can incorporate similar activities as a way to help students develop original claims based on analysis or research. For example, as Alice Yang writes in her Style Center blog post, “Making the Transition from High School to College Essay Writing,” students are expected to engage critically with scholarly sources while writing literary analyses in college. To support students’ critical thinking, teachers can encourage students to determine how their interpretations of a text might expand existing arguments. More broadly, inspiring students to enter the conversation can stimulate their critical thinking and invite them to explore issues of interest.

Encourage Students to Reflect on Their Writing Choices, Processes, and Goals

Finally, it is important to offer students time to reflect on their writing progress. By reflecting on their writing at various stages of a draft or unit, students can become more aware of their writing choices and processes, and this awareness can then inform their future writing as they learn to monitor and evaluate their work and adapt it to various contexts. Teachers can incorporate purposeful reflection through journal entries or portfolios. For example, while teaching high school and college writing, I ask students to write in their journals at the beginning of each class as a way to reflect on their writing progress and goals. Encouraging reflection can enable students to develop their understandings of texts and to stimulate further progress in their own writing. In this way, writing and thinking can interact with each other in shaping students’ growth.

In offering these suggestions, I recognize that these strategies might be hard to implement, since high school teachers are often faced with demands, including preparing students for standardized testing. Moreover, schools may have their own particular goals, resources, and needs, making it difficult for teachers to change the curriculum. Nevertheless, I hope that these ideas offer teachers a step toward supporting students to navigate the differing expectations of secondary and postsecondary school writing. Ultimately, our grander aim is to support students’ continued development as writers throughout their academic, professional, and personal journeys across time and space.

Works Cited

Gaipa, Mark. “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition,  and Culture , vol. 4, no. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 419–37.

Sommers, Nancy, and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College  Composition and Communication , vol. 56, no. 1, Sept. 2004, pp. 124–49.

Yang, Alice. “Making the Transition from High School to College Essay Writing.” The MLA Style  Center , 18 Sept. 2018, style.mla.org/high-school-versus-college-writing/.

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differences between highschool and college essay

Difference Between High School and College Essays

Transitioning from high school to college can feel like an empowering experience. You may go to a distinct country to pursue your studies. You will meet new people, but also delve deeper into subjects you have a genuine interest in and want to find out more about. So, as a high school student who started preparing for college, you might think about the difference between college and high school essay.

You might wonder how you could discover more about what follows in your life. Teachers from high school are not the same as the ones you will meet at college. Their expectations and requirements are distinct. So, want to find out more about college writing vs high school writing? Continue reading below to discover the main differences that will help you manage your expectations when you start college.

Difference Between High School and College Essays

  • 1 The Hallmarks of Highschool Writing
  • 2 The Hallmarks of College Writing
  • 3 Differences Between Highschool and College Writing
  • 4 Final Thoughts

The Hallmarks of Highschool Writing

As a high schooler, you are probably familiar with the tasks you get. You have to write essays on topics already provided by your teacher. You also get a list of detailed requirements and guidelines that help you write the essay. High school writing is among the first experiences you have with academic writing at a basic level.

You are taught how to create an outline, follow a structure, and write a clear and compelling essay. High school writing might seem complicated at the moment, but having all the guidelines from your teacher helps you form your skills. These are the first experiences you get with writing, experiences that might feel challenging but put the basis of your skills. Skills you will expand and hone during college.

The Hallmarks of College Writing

The transition from high school to college can feel complicated for some, especially when you take a look at the tasks you get. Indeed, college is the time when you deepen your knowledge of a specific subject. And for this, you need to explore it in depth. College essays are more demanding than high school essays and if you are a first-year, you might feel stressed and overwhelmed to write powerfully. Indeed, expectations change a lot and during college, you need to write more and more complex essays. Even students who excelled at high school writing consider to buy essays online for college . To buy college essays comes with benefits, such as showing you how a compelling and powerful college essay is written.

You see what a plagiarism-free essay looks like, one that is suited to many academic degrees. Online, you can easily buy college essays that will inspire you to start your own. They teach you how to convey the message and they also come with the motivation you need to start working on your tasks.

Differences Between Highschool and College Writing

College vs high school essay? What is the difference between them? Do they have something in common? Let’s discover together. As with any piece of paper or type of writing, there are both differences and similarities between them. The differences reside in the structure of the papers. While in high school papers, the structure is quite simple and it follows a simple and basic outline, papers in college are more complex.

You do not have to adapt the topic to the structure of the paper, as is the case with high school papers. You have to adapt the structure depending on the topic which may change your approach a little bit. There is also a difference when it comes to the audience of your paper and also the language and vocabulary you use.

While in college they are more complex and addressed to the professor, in high school they have a broader audience in mind. And maybe one of the greatest differences is the length of the essays . In high school, they are shorter than in college. A high school essay might have a maximum of 1000 words, while a college one can reach 10 pages.

Final Thoughts

The transition from high school to college can feel challenging, overwhelming, and stressful. It can scare many high school students as they were not expecting to have such complex tasks. And indeed, college essays vs high school essays are pretty distinct. They are similar as they are both written papers, but the requirements, essay structure, and length differ.

The Difference Between High School and College Writing

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This isn’t 13th grade: Getting ready to succeed in college with the help of NevadaFIT

Learn about 5 key differences between college and high school and get tips on how you can navigate the transition and be prepared to succeed in college..

Wolfie and two individuals on the lawn at a welcome BBQ

Congratulations! You did it. You successfully completed your K-12 education, and you are on to the next step: college. College is different from high school and to be successful in this new environment, it is important that you understand the differences.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, you do not have to navigate this on your own. The University is here to support you, beginning with your first required class called NevadaFIT . The program begins with a move-in and a weekend of events and activities called NOW Weekend (NevadaFIT Orientation Welcome), which includes an Opening Ceremony at Mackay Stadium on August 15. NevadaFIT classes take place August 16-20 and the experience is meant to ease your transition by addressing the five key differences between high school and college below.

#1. Academics are accelerated

In high school: A class was typically spread out over the entire school year and frequent assignments allowed for continuous feedback before final grades were assigned.

In college: The pacing and rigor of your classes is accelerated, and a year-long high school course is equivalent to a college semester. In many cases, a few big projects, essays or exams make up your grade, and preparation and attendance in your classes is left up to you.

During NevadaFIT, students attend classes with tenured faculty, complete homework, take exams and get feedback on their progress. By the end of the week, you will know what to expect from some of the most difficult classes you will have during your first semesters.

#2. You set your own schedule

In high school: You followed a daily routine that included meal breaks, sports or P.E., and frequent class meetings to help you stay on top of your workload.

In college: You must organize your own schedule. This means finding time to fit in well-balanced meals, study, work a part-time job and get enough sleep. Many students must find ways to exercise without the guidance of a coach or instructor. Classes meet two or three times a week. It is easy for college freshmen to let an aspect of their wellness slip when life gets hectic, which is why it is so important for you to think through your daily schedule in advance.

During NevadaFIT, students are busy from about 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day. This includes meals at the Wolf Den , study breaks with peers in your major at the Knowledge Center , fitness classes at the E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center , and social events at the Joe Crowley Student Union .

While you won’t have a schedule designed for you once the school year begins, NevadaFIT will expose you to a routine and connect you with resources that can support you in these efforts. NevadaFIT students will also get an iPad at NevadaFIT this year and will learn how to use this technology to stay organized and engage with campus.

#3. You will meet many new people

In high school: Cohort sizes were typically in the hundreds and any given classroom did not usually have more than 30 students. You may have known your classmates well because you grew up with them.

In college: Cohort sizes are typically in the thousands, and you may have a lecture or two with over a hundred students in attendance. Students come from many different cities and many different backgrounds and experiences. While you may come to college with friends and acquaintances, you might not have classes with them because you do not share the same major.

During NevadaFIT, you will be organized into groups of seven students in the same college called “Packs,” led by an upper-class mentor in the same field of study as you. You will attend classes with your Pack, do projects and assignments together, and reflect and discuss your experiences. Because you are in the same college, you will likely have shared classes with your Pack group during the school year, and these new friends can continue to be a resource for you.

#4. You are responsible for you

In high school: You had significant parent/guardian or teacher supervision, especially when you started to struggle in your classes or needed additional support.

In college: Good news: You are on your own! Bad news: You are on your own. If your grades are slipping, your parents/guardians will not be notified. Your professor will not chase you down for your missing essay. Your advisor will not save you a spot in that class you were really hoping to take next semester. It is your responsibility to seek out support when you are struggling with your classes, when you feel overwhelmed, when you need to take care of campus business or when you want to get involved in student organizations.

NevadaFIT connects you to the people and resources that can support you both inside and outside the classroom. You will attend skill sessions on financial literacy; diversity, equity and inclusion; and wellness. You will learn how to make appointments with tutors and academic advisors . You will get to know campus and locate all the facilities that you will need to interact with during the school year.

#5. You will have many opportunities to grow

In high school: Course offerings were limited.

In college: You will get to learn so much about yourself, your interests, your goals and your passions.

By the end of NevadaFIT, you will be more confident in your major selection and you will have formed bonds with faculty and classmates who share similar interests. Many NevadaFIT participants are still friends with the peers they met in NevadaFIT and have returned every year to work as a mentor for the program.

Since the program is required for all incoming freshmen, students will be automatically enrolled in the bootcamp that corresponds with their major. NevadaFIT is just a taste of the kind of experience we hope you will have as a member of the Wolf Pack family. We can’t wait to meet you this fall!

Felicia DeWald

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High School Students Think They Are Ready for College. But They Aren’t

differences between highschool and college essay

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There’s nothing worse than approaching a challenging situation grossly unprepared—except, perhaps, believing that you’re well-equipped for the task only to find that you’ve overestimated your preparedness. It’s a scenario that’s becoming increasingly common for college-bound seniors.

At last count, 62 percent of 2022 high school graduates enrolled in either a two- or four-year college immediately after graduation. But students’ college readiness has reached historic lows, according to several metrics—including the lowest scores in 30 years on the ACT and declining scores on the SAT , the two primary standardized tests used for college admissions. And yet, more than 4 in 5 high school seniors report feeling “very” or “mostly” academically prepared for college, according to a 2023 ACT nationwide survey .

They’re not, say experts.

“Fewer students leaving high school are meeting all four college readiness benchmarks [on ACT tests]. Just 21 percent of high school seniors are meeting all of these benchmarks; 43 percent of students meet none of them,” said Janet Godwin, CEO of the ACT, referring to English composition, social sciences, algebra, and biology. “Our research suggests that students meeting so few of these benchmarks are not going to perform as well in their ccredit-bearing freshman classes.”

While experts agree that the pandemic exacerbated declining academic performance across all demographics and stages of K-12 learning, signs of falling college readiness began earlier. In 2023, the average ACT score was 19.5 out of a possible 36, and the 6th straight year of decline. Test takers also are coming to both tests from more diverse backgrounds, in part due to programs like the SAT School Day program, which allows students to take the SAT during the school day, often free of charge. But experts say scores are dropping across demographics.

The trend of high school students’ declining college readiness, in tandem with their widespread perceived preparedness, may lead to a perfect storm of sorts for countless incoming college freshmen—possibly resulting in immediate bewilderment, followed by frustration or even dropping out of college altogether. Below, find some other signs of declining college readiness, as well as academic patterns at the secondary school level that may at least partly explain the decline and students’ obliviousness to their predicament.

At the college level, reports of more remedial work and fewer academic skills

Students’ academic ill-preparedness can become evident as soon as they reach college campuses.

In 2019-20, 65.4 percent of first-year undergraduate students took a remedial course in math; 42.1 percent did so in reading or writing, according to the most recent data on the subject available from the National Center for Education Statistics . That’s a big jump from just four years prior. In 2015-2016, 14 percent of first-year college students took a remedial course in math; 8.8 percent did so in reading and writing.

The decline in academic skills hasn’t gone unnoticed by college professors. Adam Kotsko, who’s been teaching humanities and social sciences at various small liberal arts colleges for well over a decade, noted significant changes in students’ grasp of basic skills within the past five years. Previously, he would typically assign around 30 pages of reading per class—what he once considered a baseline expectation.

“Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding,” opined Kotsko, now an assistant professor at North Central College in Illinois, in an essay for Slate . “Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.”

Reports of rising grades and loosening academic rigor in high school

Ironically, research has shown a concurrent, steady increase in high school grades—grade inflation—during the pandemic, as educators and students tried to push on with instruction through school shutdowns, remote schooling, illness, and grief.

“We think people were trying to be more kind, perhaps,” said ACT’s Godwin. “We saw a spike in grade inflation.”

A sweeping study by the ACT that tracked high school students’ grades between 2010 and 2022 found that students’ subject GPA increased year over year from 2010 to 2022 in core subjects. For instance, during this 12-year time frame, students’ average adjusted English GPA increased from 3.17 to 3.39; for math, adjusted subject GPA increased from 3.02 to 3.32. By 2022, the overwhelming majority of high school students—more than 89 percent—received either an A or a B in math, English, social studies, and science, according to the ACT study.

As high school grades improve, some districts and states have sought to revise their grading systems in ways that critics see as leading to grade inflation. (For their part, school system have argued that the changes are intended to make grading more equitable and boost students’ motivation.)

In 2016, Montgomery County, Md., public school officials removed high-stakes midterms and finals in their high schools. To calculate semester grades, teachers had to combine quarter letter grades and, at times, round up, according to a local news report . The change meant that a student could earn an A in one quarter and a B in the other while still receiving a semester A, critics said. As of press time, several attempts to reach district officials went unanswered.

Other school systems have moved to “50 percent rule” grading systems, which prohibit teachers from giving zeroes for missing work.

Most states in recent years have stopped requiring high school students to pass certain exams in order to graduate, and some of the nine remaining holdouts may be moving in this direction soon. In Florida, for instance, a bill to eliminate a requirement that students pass an Algebra I end-of-course and 10th grade English/language arts exams in order to graduate recently cleared the Senate’s education committee.

Lack of standardized tests for college may further cloud student profiles

During the pandemic, due largely to restrictions on in-person testing, the number of colleges and universities with test-optional admissions policies swelled to a majority. Many have yet to reinstate the tests as a requirement. Experts suggest that currently, only about 20 percent of higher education institutions are requiring them. Lacking standardized test results may make it challenging for admissions officials to accurately gauge students’ college readiness, say experts.

“The last thing we want to see happen to our students getting into college is perhaps getting placed in the wrong courses freshman year, perhaps not having their academic advisers have all the information they need to properly advise them and to make sure they have the proper supports in place,” said Godwin. “We want students to be successful. That means having a good understanding of where they are for college.”

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What’s the Difference Between Colleges and Universities?

differences between highschool and college essay

As you consider whether higher education is right for you and your career goals, your research may uncover new questions. Should I go to a college or a university? Are they the same? And if not, what’s the difference between colleges and universities ?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics , there are around 6,000 higher education institutions in the United States. Of this total, 45% are four-year programs, and 55% offer two-year (or fewer) programs.

Many people are unaware of the differences between colleges and universities; most use the two terms interchangeably. You may think it’s all in the naming choice – for example, Harvard University vs. Charleston College. However, there are more notable differences between colleges and universities, such as the variety and size of programs offered.

  • What’s the difference between colleges and universities?

Duration and Academic Structure

Types of programs, small vs. large institutions, private vs. public institutions, admission and enrollment, beyond the classroom: specialties and programs, what’s the difference between colleges and universities.

The terms college, university and school all generally refer to postsecondary education or education after high school. Using the three terms interchangeably is appropriate when referring to general postsecondary education or degree programs. However, how you refer to each institution depends on a few different characteristics.

College is a two-year or four-year educational institution. Typically smaller than universities, colleges can be public or private and tailored towards populations such as religious groups, genders or ethnicities. Regarding their educational paths, colleges offer certificates, associate’s degrees or bachelor’s degrees.

Well-known types of colleges include:

  • Community college
  • Liberal arts college
  • Vocational college (or trade school)
  • Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)

A university is a four-year educational institution offering both undergraduate and graduate degrees and can be private or public. Universities have more students enrolled than colleges, often in the tens of thousands; however, private universities tend to have smaller enrollment figures. Many universities are known for their research and advanced degree programs such as law or dental schools.

Colleges Within Universities

You may discover specific colleges within a university, such as The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. This type of college is a part of the greater university, though it focuses on a specific field of study, like business or law.

You’ll find that most colleges offer two-year programs (often called an associate’s degree). In contrast, universities offer four-year degree programs and higher graduate programs. Therefore, you could spend between two to four years at a college but may spend four to six (or more with a Ph.D.) years in a university.

Traditional, Four-Year Program

In a traditional four-year program, whether at a college or a university, the academic years are divided among four classes from the first to the fourth year: freshman (or first year), sophomore, junior and senior. Generally, the first two years are spent studying core education classes, such as English, math, history and science, while the final two years are spent studying in their chosen field.

Two-Year Program

In a two-year program at a college, academic years are generally called first year and second year, and the curriculum is programmed to focus on broader studies.

One of the significant differences between colleges and universities is the types of programs offered. Generally, colleges focus on undergraduate programs only, while universities provide a wide range of undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. programs.

Undergraduate Programs

Colleges may offer two-year programs called associate degrees (A.A.) or four-year bachelor’s degree programs. The associate degree focuses on providing a broad education with classes such as math, computers and communications to prepare students for specialized training or moving on to a bachelor’s degree in their chosen field.

Graduate Programs

Graduate programs at universities (including master’s and doctorate degrees) are intended to follow the earning of a bachelor’s degree for those who wish to develop their knowledge, specialize in particular fields or focus on in-depth research. Graduate programs exist for science, business and education students (to name a few), and some programs are necessary for particular careers such as doctors, lawyers and dentists.

As you’re researching educational options after high school, you’ll find that the size of the school is often discussed during the college vs. university discussion. Colleges tend to have smaller enrollment, while universities tend to enroll tens of thousands of students.

The institution’s size can impact the learning experience, both in the classroom and out. For example, large universities may offer many courses within your field of study, while a small college may offer introductory courses. In a university, these classes may be massive lecture courses during which you don’t have the opportunity to truly engage with the subject and the professor. On the other hand, small colleges with more intimate class sizes allow you to ask questions, participate in conversations and get to know your peers and professors better.

Outside of the classroom, large universities may have opportunities for research, internships, extracurricular activities and social clubs readily available for students, whereas small colleges may not have the same offerings. Depending on your preferred study methods and personality, one of these learning and social environments may seem more attractive to you.

Both colleges and universities can be public or private institutions.

Public Institutions

Public institutions are primarily funded by state governments and tend to be larger, enroll more students and offer more resources than private institutions. Examples of public institutions are the University of South Carolina and UNC Chapel Hill.

Private Institutions

Tuition, endowments and donations from individuals, foundations and corporations fund private institutions. They tend to be smaller in enrollment and have higher tuition fees to offset the lack of government funding but offer more expansive financial aid packages for those who qualify. Examples of private institutions are Furman University and Harvard University.

Community Colleges vs. Four-Year Colleges

Another distinction between educational institutions is community colleges vs. four-year colleges. The significant difference between the two is that community college is a smaller, more local-focused institution offering one- or two-year programs. In contrast, four-year colleges tend to be larger and offer four-year and graduate programs. Many students attend a community college for their core classes before enrolling in a four-year college for their final two years before earning a bachelor’s degree.

Though many differences exist in the academic programs for colleges and universities, admissions and enrollment are similar. High school students often submit applications for colleges and universities in the fall or winter of their senior year. 

The process is similar across many colleges and universities. Most applications are hosted online. To complete the application, you must gather the following information and documentation:

  • Basic personal information, such as residential address and demographic information
  • High school (and/or college) transcript
  • Standardized test scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Extracurricular activity information
  • Admissions essay (if applicable)

Applications for enrollment also typically require a submission fee between $50 and $100.

Admissions criteria can differ between trade schools, colleges and universities. Community colleges and trade schools may not have a GPA minimum or high school diploma requirement to apply. However, most, if not all, colleges and universities require a high school diploma at the least, and many require at least a 2.0 high school GPA to be considered for admission.

The benefit of attending a university is the wide range of opportunities in the classroom and beyond. Compared to trade schools and community colleges, colleges and universities offer various programs and curricula. This extensive offering is one of the advantages of attending a four-year college or university. Many offer multiple departments in the most popular fields of study : business, social sciences, health sciences, engineering, communication and journalism, visual arts, education and information sciences.

In addition, universities often offer multiple graduate and doctorate programs to further your education and experience in research . 

For example, The Furman Advantage is an outstanding program unique to Furman students that prepares them and develops their skills for success in the real world. Rather than simply providing education through classes and coursework, the Furman Advantage, along with Furman institutes , goes one step further to give the students knowledge and skills to add positivity to society while furthering their experiences as they transition into the next stage of life.

Similarly, colleges and universities encourage students to gain career knowledge through internships and worldly experience through study away and study abroad programs. Many of these programs are unavailable through smaller two-year schools and community colleges.

Final Thoughts

When deciding whether to apply to a college vs. university, you must consider your career and educational goals first. Your desired field of study may dictate which postsecondary institution you attend. Next, consider how class size and extracurricular opportunities will affect your experience. Finally, when choosing between a college and a university, remember that both types of schooling will provide the education you need to advance your career. However, your lifestyle and preferences for class format will impact you the most.

Enjoy the search!

The views and opinions expressed in the Furman Blog are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Furman University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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