College isn't just high school without your parents around

The university isn't just another school; it's fundamentally different from what you've been used to. The sooner you recognize the differences and learn how to take advantage of them, the more successful you'll be.

We know that no high school has every characteristic we describe here, nor will every aspect of college match this description. Still, we find that most of these comparisons apply to most students' experiences, so we hope they'll be valuable.

In high school ...
At the university ...
There were students who weren't headed for college; college-bound students were an elite group.

Everyone's already in college. The level (of discourse, of work, of independence we expect) is higher.

As a successful student, you expected to "get" everything right away.

You should expect to find many topics challenging and not immediately clear. Your instructors expect this, too: A good student is one who asks interested, insightful questions, not one who thinks he or she already knows everything.

The things you were good at were things that came easily to you. You may feel that if something is tough for you, you can't be good at it and you should study something else. That's wrong. If you're interested in a topic, stick with it, even if learning it is tough. Most experts in any field work very hard at what they do. "Natural talent" is at best one component of expertise, and not the most important one. Curiosity and tenacity also play a big part.
If you didn't understand a topic right away, you could study it and figure it out yourself. There will be some topics that you can't figure out by yourself. This can be an unfamiliar and uncomfortable feeling, but expect it in many classes and be prepared: Don't worry that something's wrong with you or that you can't handle the work. An important part of college is the opportunity of working with your classmates and instructors; that's why you don't just buy the textbooks and read them by yourself. In each class, know what avenues are available to you (office hours, discussion sections, e-mail questions, …).
Only the weaker students needed to ask questions.

We expect everyone, especially the stronger students, to ask questions (often out loud or on line; sometimes of yourself). It's part of engaging the subject matter and being an active learner; it shows that you're thinking about the topic and it helps you learn.

When someone asked a question, your reaction was sometimes, "Oh, isn't that obvious? That questioner isn't so smart." There may still be some students in some classes who react that way. But those people should probably be in the next class. Most students should have questions, and should not let a classmate's imagined reaction stop them from asking. (Instructors don't think questions are annoying; nearly always, they expect and welcome questions. What's annoying is a student who "doesn't want to bother" the instructor with questions and then has trouble with the work. Some instructors prefer questions during lecture, some at the end, some by e-mail or in office hours. What's your instructor's preference? Ask!)
When someone asked a question, you felt you could tune out; if you understood what the teacher said, you didn't need to pay attention to further questions about it. You should listen to your classmates' questions. Sometimes they will just be for clarification, but maybe they'll clarify something beyond what you already understood. And sometimes, they will bring out new aspects or implications or concepts. Many instructors introduce new material in response to students' questions; you'll miss things if you think you can ignore other students' questions and the instructor's responses.
You spent six hours a day in class, plus homework. You spend fewer hours in class, but you should expect to work more hours overall.
You could ease off for a couple of days, even a week, and catch back up. A week is 10% of the quarter, a significant chunk. Readings and assignments keep coming. You need to try your hardest to keep up in every class all quarter, because working double-time to catch up is really hard.
If you didn't show up to class, someone would notice and you'd get in trouble. Most classes don't take attendance. Instructors don't want to take time with bookkeeping or with hearing excuses; they usually presume that students are mature enough to take their education seriously. But "not required" does not mean "not important." The textbook, a classmate's notes, even an audio or video recording don't capture everything that goes on in class.
Everybody had to be in school. For twelve years, everyone was resigned to it. It was, "I have to do this," not "I get to do this." Your presence is voluntary. You're in college because you want to be. You should get your money's worth. Be glad when you're given more reading, more assignments, more class time!
Sometimes you felt as if you were assigned work just to fill up the time. But when you finished an assignment, your work was done. Instructors think carefully about how each assignment will help you learn the material; "busywork" is almost nonexistent. Instructors and TAs dislike grading more than you dislike doing the work; if anything, they're likely to assign less work than you may need to master the material. Be prepared to quiz yourself to see if you need to do more; your work isn't done until you can actually do what the instructor expects.
You could finish your work more quickly than most students; teachers' advice about how to work effectively didn't really apply to you. Follow your instructors' advice about how to work effectively; they gear that advice towards college students, not towards the high school average. In most cases, they want to convey the way professionals in their field operate. If your instructor suggests that you read certain material or try certain problems, do those things, even if there's not specifc course credit for it. Don't think, "In high school, I never needed to do these supplementary things."
A lot of the learning involved memorizing facts and spitting them back. Getting "the answer" was the goal. There are still facts to learn, but that's only the first step. Most courses expect you to apply the facts to solve problems. The dates of historical events help you determine the reasons for a war; the characteristics of certain components help you design a system to meet a specific need. Learning the process of solving new problems is the key.
The only important material was the material that appeared on the exams. Learning what you need so you can do well on exams is still important, but it's not the only important thing. Instructors often provide additional material in lectures or the reading, material that may not be tested directly but that will help you in your later classes or in your career. That's a major part of the value of your college education, so don't skip class because you think the topic won't be on the test. This is not "just school"; it's preparation for real life.
Teachers sent home "progress reports" and intervened when students got off track. You need to monitor your own progress, based on the feedback and scores you get on assignments and tests. The syllabus of each course should describe the quality of work that's expected. If you're concerned about your performance, speak with your instructor or TA; they won't come to you.
Doing well mainly required putting in the effort to complete the assignments. You have to put in effort and complete assignments, but effort alone doesn't guarantee success. Some topics will be difficult for you (and if none are, then you're not taking the right courses and you're not getting your money's worth). When that happens, just thinking about it harder may not be enough; form a study group, speak with the TA or instructor, use LARC. When the going gets tough, the tough get help.
Your parents were around to help keep you fed, clothed, and organized. You're on your own. If you're over 18, the university isn't allowed to tell your parents anything about you without your permission. That's not because keeping things from your parents is necessarily good; it just means that now you have primary responsibility for your own health, welfare, and education. The university provides a lot of support—food services, health services, counseling services, tutorial services—but you have to take the first step to seek it out and you shouldn't wait until a problem gets out of control.
You had student clubs, athletics, service opportunities. You have more student clubs, athletics (participatory and spectator), and service opportunities. You also have concerts, plays, and art exhibits. You have academic talks by visiting scholars and distinguished speakers. You have a variety of social events. You have conversations with your dorm-mates lasting late into the night. You should take advantage of these opportunities; they're part of the college experience. But you can't do everything that looks interesting; you have to leave enough time for your academic work, because that's your first priority.

If you like, read more advice about how to thrive in college.

Your time in college can be the best time in your life (so far); make the most out of it!

(Written by David G. Kay with suggestions from Shannon Tauro, Angelo Pioli, and Gabriela Marcu. If you have suggestions or comments, send them to kay@uci.edu. Copyright © 2006–2015 by David G. Kay. All rights reserved.)