As the precursor to college, it seems logical that high school should adequately prepare students for success in college; however, there are many differences between the two, and it’s important that students be well-informed, so they aren’t surprised by the abrupt transition. The biggest differences between high school and college are the amount of freedom and responsibility given to students.

High school is a much more parent and teacher-guided experience, while college is most students’ first true glimpse of independence and adulthood. Understanding the changes students will face in college is the first step to preparing for success post-graduation, and a successful transition into college will make for a smooth transition into the real world. In fact, students who are made aware of these changes can give themselves a big advantage by developing their independence, time-management skills, and accountability in high school, so they step into their freshman year of college like a pro.

Related: Tips for Aspiring High School Entrepreneurs

Grading Scale

While grades aren’t everything, they are important, and the philosophy behind grading in high school is very different from what most students encounter in college. High school classes are usually made up of daily lessons, a high volume of homework, projects, quizzes, and a few tests, plus some optional extra credit here and there. Point being, with enough effort, most students can maintain a pretty high GPA in high school, even if they don’t fully grasp the most complex material. Between homework, participation, group projects, and extra credit opportunities, students often have about 70% of their grade based off their pure effort and task completion.

College is very different from this: while some college courses do include a participation grade or a group project here or there, the vast majority of college grades are made up of final exams or final papers. There are rarely opportunities for extra credit, and just showing up or doing the bare minimum work won’t get you an A. In fact, even a solid grasp of the material won’t necessarily get a student an A.

Top grades in college are usually reserved for the students who understand the material so well that they can apply the concepts they learned in class to different or more complex scenarios, and that’s exactly what professors expect students to demonstrate on exams. Students equipped with this knowledge can prepare to pace their studies early on in the semester and ensure they have a very solid understanding of the topics at hand in order to ace their exams.

Graduation Requirements

student with documents in his hand

Though students shouldn’t aim for the bare minimum required to graduate, it is important to know your graduation requirements, and they definitely differ between high school and college. In high school, it’s usually possible to graduate as long as all required classes have been passed with a D or higher.

College is a very different ballgame, especially since students are expected to choose a specific major. Depending on the college you attend, there will be different core classes required for all students, such as math, science, history, and language credits, but based on your major, there will also be departmental requirements. In order to graduate college, students typically need to have completed all of their required core credits and the minimum required credits for their major, and they typically need a grade of C or higher to obtain the required credit for these classes.

Living Expenses

Perhaps the biggest difference between high school and college is a financial one: students are on their own, possibly for the first time, and may be responsible for their own tuition, room and board, books and school supplies, and food. That said, many parents do help students pay for college, but that may mean a much smaller budget for discretionary expenses.

For students who plan to pay their own way or who just want to earn some spending or saving money, college is a great time to get a job or start a business. College students have much more free, unstructured time than high school students, and there are tons of part-time jobs available to them, especially on or around college campuses. For those who are a bit more entrepreneurial or have a specific idea or passion, starting their own business can be a great learning experience and a valuable source of income. The great thing about starting a business in college is that campuses offer tons of free resources to their students, plus the campus network can be a great place to launch a business and find team members or customers.

Creative Opportunities

One of the best things about college is the unparalleled amount of freedom and free time students have outside of class. Unlike high school, college students may only spend two or three hours a day in class, and they may not even have classes five days a week. While there is some expectation that more independent homework and studying will take place outside of class, there’s still a ton of free time students have to pursue creative or extracurricular opportunities.

This is one reason college is a great time to start a business or explore a passion, hobby, or talent they may not pursue within their classes or major. Since college is one of the last and only times students may find themselves with this much unstructured time and freedom, they should really take advantage and make the most of it, or else they might be kicking themselves post-graduation when they start their first 9 to 5. Those who opted to build a business and set themselves up for a less traditional but very lucrative entrepreneurial path will be the envied few.

Check out Beta Bowl for a creative opportunity to help you further develop your business skills.

Homework and Studying

Homework and studying are both an important part of formal education, but the amount of time spent on homework versus studying are practically polar opposites between high school and college. In high school, students receive daily homework assignments, which are often discussed, checked, and graded. Studying in high school is reserved for the week or nights leading up to big quizzes or tests.

In college, homework is often optional. It is rarely graded, and instead is meant as a tool to help students better understand the material. College professors expect that students will spend a significant amount of time on a regular basis reading and studying course material outside of class, months ahead of midterms or final exams. When it comes to college exams, no amount of overnight cramming can make up for the semester of studying that should have taken place through readings, optional homework, and professor office hours.

Social Life

two students socializing online

In comparison to high schoolers, college students often have much more of a social life outside of their classes. A high school schedule barely affords time for a social life on evenings after school, especially for students who participate in extracurricular activities and take on a rigorous course load with hours of nightly homework.

Conversely, the college environment fosters a community of friendships and social events, and many college students find some of their best and lifelong friends in those four years. That said, college students have to take responsibility for balancing their schedule to ensure their social life doesn’t come before the studies they’re paying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to attend.


One unique thing about college is the amount of respect students are given by their professors and the opportunity for mentorship and networking that can occur. College students are truly adults, and they’re treated as such. Professors take a keen interest in students who show a genuine dedication to or passion for the subject they teach, and they’re often more than willing to mentor students one-on-one and perhaps act as referrals or connections for future internships or job opportunities.

This is one reason why it’s important for high school students to practice forging these types of relationships early on and begin seeking out mentors in the subjects that interest them. One highlight of Beta Bowl is the fact that students do get an individual startup mentor to help guide them through the business-building process, as well as act as a potential connection and referral for them as they grow their business in the future. Beta Bowl students have already seen the value of a professional working relationship with a startup mentor, and that can encourage them to seek out these relationships in college, at summer internships, and in full-time jobs.


Overall, college is very different from high school, and the best thing teenagers can do now to prepare early is to develop their independence. High school is a bit like life with training wheels; students are guided through their courses and schedule, with the help of parents and teachers to keep them on track.

College is the open road, and students don’t have those same training wheels keeping them moving forward in the right direction. College students who don’t use their time wisely can fall off track, and their success is largely down to how well they adapt to the greater amount of freedom, independence, and responsibility they’re given.

That said, high school students can take calculated steps to develop the necessary skillset for success in college, and it begins with taking responsibility for their own schedule. High school students should begin setting their own alarms, managing their time and workload without the nudging of their parents, and forge meaningful relationships with teachers and mentors. High school students can also begin to explore the subjects and passions that really interest them so they have a good idea of how they might like to make the most of their free time when they get to college.

A program like Beta Bowl, in which high school students build businesses outside of school, is a great opportunity for teens to develop many of these adult skillsets, from independence to time management, accountability, problem-solving, creativity, determination to take projects to completion, and the ambition to seek out independent enrichment. No matter what college you plan to attend or what major you may pursue, developing your independence and accountability as early as possible will put you well ahead of your peers and give you a real advantage come your freshman year.

Related: About Beta Bowl