Why Is the Transition to College So Difficult?

“I got A’s on all of my high school writing assignments, but now I feel like I don’t even know what I’m doing.”  I’ve heard this lament or a variation on it for many years in my college writing classes.  The transition from high school to college can be daunting for many reasons (being away from home, adjusting to new levels of responsibility, feeling anxious or insecure, getting lost on the way to classes), but the most difficult are the increased expectations for writing.

Writing is one of the key determinants of success in college because so much of graded material is in the form of writing, even in classes like accounting or biology, where students expect to dodge writing assignments altogether.  Most traditionally designed college courses base grades on one or two papers each semester, along with a mid-semester exam and a final exam—and many of the questions on exams are short essay questions.

The sheer volume of writing can be scary, and most students lack the time management and planning skills to juggle numerous writing assignments in different classes. Additionally, the level of critical thinking expected by college professors is beyond that faced by most students in high school.

From the beginning, though, reading probably poses the most overwhelming demand for most new college students.  Many students are surprised to turn up on the first day of a college class and learn that they were already expected to read the first chapter or two of their new textbooks—they start off behind and struggle to catch up.  It isn’t unusual for students to have to read textbook chapters along with supplemental texts, as well.  Plus, if students have to do research papers, they must read the sources for those—often several articles and chapters or entire books.

If you read this and think the demands appear impossible, then you should also know that students spend significantly less time doing work in college than they did twenty years ago.  And students twenty years ago did significantly less work than the students who preceded them by twenty years.  When I was an undergraduate, I was told to expect about 4 or 5 hours of work for every hour spent in class.  I could only expect about 2 hours for every hour spent in class from my students—and many of them did less than that.

It seems possible that we should just lower our expectations and give less work, rather than have students always feel like they are falling short.  On the other hand, when the U.S. is facing dismal results on international educational studies, there might be another way to go—we could prepare high schoolers to manage the workload necessary for in-depth learning and success in college.

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