Transitioning from High School to College

"Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but they can bring feelings of loss. To get somewhere new, we may have to leave somewhere else behind." - Fred Rogers

A Focus on the Mental Transition from High School to College

The mental transition from high school to college is, in many ways, more important than preparations for the physical transition or move. It is common to focus on residence hall room essentials, class schedule, and the excitement of making new friends. Many students and families / supporters do not spend as much time thinking about the mental preparation needed to transition successfully. Consider some of the major differences between high school and college highlighted in the table below. Talk about these with your student; doing so will help them (and you!) mentally prepare for the shifts in responsibilities expected as they step into further into adulthood.

Area High School College
  • Students may be able to earn "good grades" with minimal effort.
  • Students often have a strong sense of their teachers' expectations and can meet them. 
  • Often, class work is evenly distributed throughout the semester.
  • Teachers automatically give detailed instructions on class assignments. 
  • Support for major papers or projects is automatic from teachers.
  • Students often find that courses in college are more academically rigorous and minimal effort is reflected by poor grades. 
  • Students need to learn a new set of (often higher!) expectations from their faculty.
  • While there are certainly exceptions, course work tends to be lighter at the start of the semester, pick up at midterms, and be extremely heavy towards the end of the semester as final projects/papers/exams are due.
  • Faculty expect students to read their course syllabus for instructions on class assignments and likely will not describe every assignment verbally. Faculty spend a lot of time detailing course learning outcomes, assignments, readings, and more in their syllabi - it is critical for students to read EVERY course syllabus completely!
  • Students need to proactively ask for assistance and clarification if they don't understand major assignments.
  • Students work with guidance counselors and/or families / supporters to plot their four-year academic plan.
  • Students are responsible for making appointments with their faculty advisor and the Academic Advising Center every semester. Students have primary responsibility for mapping their course of study and major, but advisors help.
  • Families / supporters, teachers, and counselors all advocate for individual students.
  • Families / supporters frequently intercede in problematic situations and are able to bring about resolution on behalf of the student. 
  • Self-advocacy is key. Students must learn to advocate for themselves by asking for help. During orientation and beyond, students learn about key resources they can use at any time - FOR FREE - if they need support or guidance. 
  • When families / supporters intercede, it takes away an important learning opportunity for the student. College students need to learn skills to problem solve and self-advocate. While there might be some individually unpopular policies, IC creates structures to best support student's learning, growth, safety, and engagement. We also have friendly and helpful staff to support your student.
Faculty-to-student Relationship
  • Most classes meet at least four or five times a week with significant teacher contact.
  • Students are generally encouraged or welcome to ask questions before or after class. 
  • Course work is teacher-directed. This means that students receive frequent reminders from teachers about upcoming deadlines. 
  • Most classes meet either two or three times a week (i.e. Tues/Thurs for 75 minutes or Mon/Weds/Fri for 50 minutes). 
  • When students have individual or extensive questions, they are expected to meet with faculty during "office hours." (Office Hours are designated times that faculty set aside for student meetings every week. Office hours are almost always listed at the top of the course syllabus.) 
  • Course work is self-directed. This means that students are responsible for creating a study /project schedule to complete work on or before the due date. 
Family & Supporter Involvement
  • Families / supporters have access (and sometimes even encouragement) to monitor grades, assignments, and attendance.
  • Families / supporters can contact teachers or counselors directly with concerns. 
  • Communication is open and information is freely shared. 
  • By federal law, families / supporters can only access academic and financial information if the student grants them access.
  • Professors, academic advisors, residence life staff, etc. are not permitted to share information with families / supporters without a student's written consent. 
  • Typically, information shared from college administrator about a student is intentionally sparse to protect the student's rights. 
  • Families / supporters usually monitor or dictate "free time" vs. scheduled activities vs. study time, etc. 
  • Students make their own choices about how to use their time.
  • There are no curfews at IC.
Time Management / Schedule
  • Schedule is structured and sequential.
  • There is a regular, daily routine. 
  • Families / supporters assist hold students accountable to a schedule (waking up, going to school, studying, social time, personal wellness, going to bed, etc.). 
  • Schedule is unstructured. 
  • Each day has a unique routine and it is up to the student to manage their time.
  • Students are personally responsible for waking up, going to class, studying, managing priorities, eating, managing their personal health and wellness, going to bed at a reasonable time, etc

Adapted with permission from SUNY Purchase, (2020). Big differences. Retrieved from