TURNING POINT: The Move from High School to College.

by Bob Mulvey

Moving on from High School to College?

Moving from high school to college, especially the first semester, can be challenging for many students, even those who have attended live-away summer programs.  The change will have many students experiencing both excitement and anxiety at the same time.  Enjoying the excitement and controlling the anxiety are keys to first-semester success.

Making Adjustments:

One major change that requires some adjustment is the timing of classes and managing the time between them.  College class schedules rarely bear any resemblance to a high school class schedule.  High school students who are used to 30 to 40 hours per week in classes may feel disoriented by a 15-to-20-hour week of in class time in college.  A daily time schedule that was administratively managed in high school now needs to be managed by the student.  That change requires students to develop skills in calendaring, time management, and using personal technologies to improve self-discipline and independence.

Changes that all early semester college students experience are both the size of classes and access to faculty.  College classes can range from 15 students to large lecture classes that can number up to close to 100 students.  College faculty may not get to know or even meet students beyond a name on a class roster.  Teaching assistants may handle student questions and concerns, especially if faculty office hours conflict with students’ class schedules.  Where high school teachers may have been accessible through email or texts, most college faculty will not respond to students’ personal technology contacts.  These differences in faculty contact and keeping up with assignments puts academic responsibility in the hands of the students.

High School graduates need to be aware that Colleges and Universities require more from them, and changes need to be made to ensure sustained success.

Testing and Grades:

If classroom or testing accommodations are needed because of a diagnosed learning issue or physical limitation, it is the student’s responsibility to access the college resource office that can provide these accommodations.  Students will need to provide recent documentation to validate a need for the accommodations and meet regularly with resources services staff to arrange to have faculty notified about “reasonable accommodations” in class work and testing.  In high school there may have been parental involvement in the planning of class and course accommodations; but, in college, it is the sole responsibility of the student to maintain regular contact with college resource staff. 

Grading is also a very different process between high school and college.  Students who receive multiple grades, almost weekly, throughout a high school course may now be evaluated on only a midterm grade that measures progress in the first half of a college course and a final exam that will significantly impact the overall semester grade. 

Social Lives and Technology:

First semester college students also need to be prepared for changes in their social lives.  Where high schools bring together students based on the geography of the town or neighborhood, colleges accept students from places all around the world.  Understanding the diversity of culture, language, customs, and social norms can be a challenge.  College students will, hopefully, see this integration of classmates as an exciting opportunity to learn about diversity and experience an expansion of their world view.  Some college relationships last a lifetime and even blend into career collaborations, while some relationships only last through the college years.  Both should be valued as an exciting opportunity for learning and growth. 

As valuable as “personal technology” can be for time management and social connection, it can also interfere with quality study time, classroom focus, and social awareness.  If students are interrupted by cell phone notifications during class and study times, there is a gap of time that occurs before a student is reoriented to full attention and focus.  Research has shown that it can take a full 15 minutes to return to the level of focus before an interruption.  This delay is known as a “switch cost” revealing that a switch in focus can cost valued time. 

Researchers have recommended that students attempting to improve college studying skills should always quiet personal technologies in classes and for 30 to 45 minute study periods.  Personal technologies, specifically cell phones, can hinder the opportunity for social introductions and interactions.  Students are less likely to make eye contact or react to social opportunities if they are looking at their phones and others are less likely to approach someone who is staring at a phone. 

In Conclusion:

The overriding challenges to first semester college students are the identification and maintenance of personal responsibilities, individual decision making, and investment in academic achievement.  The authority and overseeing of daily schedules and academic progress are now in the hands of students themselves.  Maintaining an established but still flexible time management system is of prime importance in the first semester of college.  Understanding what professors expect in individual classes, in terms of preparation and attendance, and how those expectations determine grades is important to help students prepare an effective time management system.  Awareness of campus support services is also key to students who may need assistance and accommodations. 

Though there will likely be some uncertainty in moving to the new experience of college, that anxiety should be tempered by the excitement of new academic and social challenges and the discovery of self-direction into young adulthood. 

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Bob Mulvey

Bob Mulvey serves as a special consultant and advisor for Inside Music Schools, especially in the areas of learning and organizational skills. Bob has many years of experience as an educator, college administrator, and clinician. He taught in secondary settings, including public, vocational, and alternative schools. Bob held the position of Instructor in the Graduate School of Lesley College and the English Department at Bunker Hill Community College. Over 32 years at Berklee College of Music, Bob was Associate Director of the Counseling and Academic Advising Center, Director of Disability and Accommodation Services, and an Associate Professor. Bob holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature and a Master’s in Education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.