As I am writing this blog, I am in the fall semester of my senior year at Duke, so I am pretty far-removed from my high school days. That said, it is a bit fuzzy for me to think about what my greatest concerns were prior to coming into college. However, the perspective that I am going to use as the basis for this blog is that of the high school junior and high school senior who is joined by their parents on the weekly tour I give of Duke on either Tuesdays or Thursdays. Those college-bound students—and dare I say, potential Blue Devils—are the closest glimpse I get into the anxiety-ridden days of my past when I was a bright-eyed, bushy tailed high schooler worried about whether going to college would eat me up and spit me out.
The most common question I get asked on my tour is the one I am going to answer in this blog: Is college a lot harder than high school? Yes college is hard, especially if you are going to an academic institution named in the Top 20 of U.S. News & World Report’s Best National University Rankings List. You will be on a serious grind for four years, and there will be times that you aren’t running on much sleep, you feel overwhelmed and stressed, and you are just clawing your way to the weekend to catch a break. But the thing is, at least for me personally, none of those feelings were foreign to me. Trust me, my High School days were filled with plenty of sleep-deprived, anxiety-filled moments.
So, what’s the verdict? Is college harder after all? Honestly, I would say that I haven’t found college to be harder than high school (and I think you will feel the same way, especially if you are at a high school that is known for its rigor where students are exposed to AP courses, Honors courses, IB courses, dual-enrollment, etc.); college is just a different type of hard. What I mean by that is this is what makes college hard. One, for the first time in your academic career since kindergarten, you are not in school with back-to-back classes for 7-8 hours with a 30-minute to 1-hour lunch. In college, your M-F schedule is a lot more “open” in that your courses are spread out over the course of the week during times that you intentionally chose when you were registering for your semester courses. Perhaps on Mondays, you are booked and busy with a class from 8:30am to 9:45am, a class from 1:25pm to 3:55pm, and a class from 6:15pm to 8:45pm. But what if on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, you only have one class for an hour and 15 minutes each day. And then imagine no classes to report to on Fridays. That could be what an actual M-F schedule looks like for you for an entire semester. Notice all of the free time you have in your schedule where you have nowhere that your university professors require you to be.
And that’s where college’s biggest pitfall lies…in the free time. College students get stressed when they feel that they have more work than they have time for. But usually, we only find ourselves in that predicament when we have overcommitted ourselves with non-academic extracurriculars (which are still important to have, for the sake of balance, but you cannot and should not overdo it) or when we have lost a lot of our time to socializing and having fun. So, here’s what you do to avoid that predicament: never lose sight of the primary reason you are in college, that primary reason being to walk across the stage and get your degree at the end of four years. This means that academics come first, before socializing and before jobs, clubs, and other extracurriculars. Just like life demands of me in the real world, I like to evaluate my schedule at the beginning of every semester and build between 8-10 hours of school-related work (whether that be attending class, meeting a project group, studying, etc.) per day into my Monday through Friday routine at the times that I know my productivity will be highest. And then I plan extracurriculars and social time around that.
Here’s the moral of the story: college is hard in that you have the illusion of having so much time on your hands, but if you don’t manage that time appropriately and actually use your daylight hours for productivity on your academics, you will live in a constant state of elevated cortisol levels. After three years of college, here’s one of the most reassuring things I’ve realized, you won’t be given more work than you have time for, but you won’t be able to experience the truthfulness of this statement if you aren’t (1) managing your time well, (2) working smarter, not harder, and (3) remembering that your schoolwork is the priority.
Oh, and just as a P.S. before I sign off this blog, if you are worried about how hard your actual work will be at a Top 20 Institution, don’t let that worry consume any more of your mental space. Here’s why. First, you have to be confident in the fact that you were admitted to a Top 20 university because the admissions committee recognized your intellectual gifts and your ability to be successful at the university. So, trust yourself, and trust the fact that it was not a mistake that you end up at whatever college you end up at. It won’t be a matter of, Can you handle the work? Rather, it will be a matter of, Will you handle the work?
Will you study throughout the semester (ensuring that every lecture makes sense to you), instead of solely on the day before the exam? When you are not understanding something, will you schedule appointments to meet with your professor and/or the teaching assistant, will you organize a study group, will you ask a peer to tutor you—all so that you can get gaps in your knowledge filled? Will you go meet with learning specialists at your university’s version of what Duke calls the “Academic Resource Center” so that you can become better at time-management and note-taking? Will you have your friends (or perhaps even a writing consultant) review you essays before you turn them in so that you can be held accountable to writing at a high quality and following the prompt? These are the choices and the questions that every college student is faced with, and if you remember why you are in college and what you are there for, the answer to these questions should be an easy yes, and your fate of success in college should be guaranteed.