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Freshman files: Academic adjustments

March 3rd, 2020

Transitioning from high school to college can be a big change, especially when it comes to academics. College coursework traditionally involves a larger workload and different ways of thinking than high school students are used to, so how can you prepare before stepping foot onto that college campus?

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Istock photo via USNews

Learning from the experiences of others is a great way to understand the world around us. For this reason we’re sharing another “Freshman Files” post related specifically to academic challenges and successes experienced by our first-year college students. Our students were generous in responding, so please carve out time to digest all that they’ve shared.

  1. They learn the importance of time management and organization

My academic transition to college was fairly smooth but not devoid of challenges or learning hurdles. I have definitely developed new organizational and study skills that have proven to be imperative to my academic success. Despite these needed adjustments, I managed to earn a 4.0 for my first semester at UT. **happy dance** (University of Texas in Austin, Texas)

I definitely found it a bit hard at first to hold myself accountable for my work, especially without these adults in my life there to remind me to put my phone away, or not watch tv on my computer instead of doing homework. But, I quickly found a work environment that worked for me in the library (away from my bed and my friends!), which has been working out really well for me. I would say that everyone has to find what works for them in terms of how much initiative they must take to get their work done …. (Tulane University in Louisiana)

So far, the thing that sticks out to me as being relatively challenging, especially at the beginning of first semester, has been learning to manage my time well. I have learned very quickly how different college is from high school and that although professors are there to help you, they treat you like adults and expect you to handle things yourself. Although this was very different than what I was used to in high school, I have grown accustomed to it, and it is no longer a big deal. (Duke University in North Carolina)

Although the courses are certainly more demanding than what I took in high school, I feel like they’re mostly manageable as long as I put in a good amount of effort. When I arrived, I was expecting to be faced with the archetypal scenario of “student who excelled at their high school ends up being average or below average at their new university,” but so far I’ve found that this isn’t really the case. My experience has been that it is still possible and reasonable to do quite well in classes if enough effort is put in. (Stanford University in California)

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time at Harvard, though I did find the transition surprisingly challenging. The two dimensions of college life that were hardest to adjust to were challenging academics and time management—two things I didn’t expect to be so hard to balance. I found that the days quickly slipped by because there is simply so much happening on campus. … After using my break to reflect on where my time wasn’t very well spent last semester, I’ve been able to adjust my schedule and, so far, have had a much more balanced and relaxed second semester.  (Harvard University in Massachusetts)

  1. They take classes they are interested in

Academics have been challenging, but all my classes have been pretty interesting. Last quarter I took math, engineering analysis (math and coding basically), intro to comp sci, and design thinking and communication (a project course). Math was especially difficult for me. The first midterm took me by surprise, but I was able to pull my grade back up by the end of the quarter. It was my first B+, but it was the proudest I’ve ever been for a grade because I worked incredibly hard for it! Getting straight A’s is also a lot less important now in my opinion. What matters more than the grades in classes is that you’re taking courses in what you’re interested in and actually learning the material. My courses this quarter are also very difficult, but I got a lot more freedom to select my classes this quarter so I’m much more excited about them all. (Northwestern University in Illinois)

I have really enjoyed diving deep into my courses this semester – I am taking Ethics in Business, Global Media Studies, Introduction to Macroeconomics, Writing, and Deviant Behavior. I am definitely facing a heavier workload this semester, but am embracing it and taking the challenge really well so far. (Tulane University in Louisiana)

  1. They become self-advocates

I received learning accommodations and have been extremely impressed with the Student Disability Services (SDS) offices at UT. After submitting documentation and fulfilling my intake appointment requirements, I have come to recognize how important self-advocacy is in college life. Since I have been aware of my learning disability for many years, I am able to articulate my academic struggles and needs as a result of my dyslexia. This proved to be crucial in receiving accommodations and achieving academic success. After communicating my documentation and desired accommodations, the SDS offices not only fulfilled my requested accommodations but also offered me accommodations that I had never received previously. Apart from extended exam time, a low-distraction testing environment, and laptop usage for notes and essays, I now receive early class registration, a spell-check aid, and calculator access. I utilize the SDS offices often and am so happy to report that advisors are always eager to help and easily accessible.  (University of Texas in Austin, Texas)

Getting to know your professors is very easy! Even in a bigger classroom setting, I always try to check in with my professor about my progress via email and sometimes by going to their office hours, especially if I am struggling to grasp a particular concept. … you are expected to advocate for yourself, so you must reach out to your professor first and build that relationship, as it doesn’t always happen naturally, especially in bigger, lecture-style courses, where you may not be able to make a personal connection with the professor right away. But, I have found every professor here to be incredibly helpful and resourceful, as they truly want you to succeed and do your best work, so they will always be there for you if and when you need them. (Tulane University in Louisiana)

  1. They stay positive and adjust to the rigors of college life

Probably the biggest takeaway that I have had from college so far is the way that classes teach you how to think. In my limited experience thus far, my classes have been very limited in the factual knowledge and memorization departments, but rather teach their students how to think. I noticed this especially in a history class that I took first semester. I went into it thinking that it would be like history classes that I had taken previously, but I was very wrong. This class taught me how to see history in a totally different way and to pay attention to how things are all connected, not just memorize dates. (Duke University in North Carolina)

I’ve had an excellent (and very busy) transition. … I took a lighter academic load Autumn Quarter in order to ease myself into the transition, but this quarter I’m taking quite a few more classes, including a few more difficult ones; however, they’re all very interesting and engaging and I appreciate the challenge, despite the stress they cause and amount of time they eat up. (Stanford University in California)

I would say that for the most part, assignments differ from high school in that there is a lot more pressure on you to check in with yourself about your own understanding of a subject matter. … Additionally, assignments typically have more weight in college, so it is crucial that you leave yourself enough time to complete assignments, as procrastination will not earn you a grade that it may have been able to earn you in high school. Lastly, professors hold incredibly high expectations for students … so do not be discouraged if when beginning a course, you are struggling a little bit, the material is supposed to challenge you! (Tulane University in Louisiana)

We always appreciate our students’ willingness to share their experiences with such openness and honesty. These small write-ups can have such an impact on high school students who are about to embark on this journey in the near future, so we thank our former advisees and wish them continued success!

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