On Campus

Five ways university is not like high school

Advice for first-year students from our resident professor

Photo courtesy of Tulane on Flickr

Ever heard the story about the university student whose paper was too long, so his professor tore off the extra pages and graded the remainder? It’s just an urban legend. But there are some big differences between high school and university that freshmen should prepare themselves for.

1. How you write matters. In high school, your teachers were likely happy if you wrote anything at all, and were probably ecstatic if you wrote something clear and gave an opinion or two. That won’t cut it at university. Professors expect essays to be formally structured and to provide analysis backed by evidence. They expect papers to be properly formatted, and they expect you to cite sources according to professional style guidelines. Dashing something off at the last minute — no matter how smart you are — won’t cut it.

2. Class is only a quarter of your course. New university students often make the false assumption that if they attend most of their classes, they are doing the course. But at university, the sitting in class is only a small part of the work. Most of the course is reading the assigned material, doing research for assignments, preparing presentations, meeting with your prof in her office, and writing essays. You should be doing at least three hours of work outside of class for every hour of class time.

3. No one is checking up on you. Unlike high school, no one will come after you or notify your parents if you are falling behind. In fact, in one way, some professors like students who don’t do the work because that leaves them with fewer assignments to grade. So, on day one, scour your course outline and figure out how exactly your grade is going to be calculated. Know when things are due and get them done on time. Keep track of everything you hand in and what your current grade is in every course at every point in the year. Avoid unpleasant surprises at the end of term.

4. Expectations are based on the standards of the discipline. Your high school teachers have probably been taught that they need to do whatever they can to make sure you have success, even if it means changing what “success” means.  At university, standards tend to be more rigid. You have done well if you have met the standard that your prof thinks is reasonable for a first-year student in that discipline. Whether you did well relative to your own potential is irrelevant. As far as we’re concerned, your personal potential may not be university material.

5. It’s not about you; it’s about the work you do. Many new university students are used to getting credit for “having really tried hard.” But professors aren’t grading you or your effort or your sincerity. They are grading the work you do. Many of your professors will never know your name.  If you are at a large university, they may not recognize you in the hallway.

All of this may make university seem intimidating, but summon your courage. It’s about to begin.

Todd Pettigrew (PhD) is an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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