As we pass the halfway point in the academic year, most of the college applications have probably been submitted. All that remains is for students to wait for their acceptance letters to come in. By this time last year, I remember that I began to think about college life. The light at the end of the tunnel was near, but few people, beyond my college interviewers, had given me any hints as to what college life would be like. Yes, I had a few friends who had graduated; they usually gave me vague answers such as, “you get to sleep in more” or, “the papers are longer.”
Today I will give you, the high school senior, a definitive preview of academic life at an American university. Princeton is not like most other schools, however “the daily grind” is about the same everywhere. For that reason, I will illustrate a semester in the life of Liam O’Connor to give you an idea of how you’ll be in seven months.
Wherever you go, your schedule will be much more open than it was in high school. This does not mean that you will not be busy, but you will have more flexibility in how your time is allocated. State laws usually mandate that students attend school a minimum of seven hours every day, five days per week for K-12 public education. There are no such laws for a university. They are independent institutions that set their own rules.
As a result, a college student may spend less time in class on average than a high schooler and at sporadic intervals. Take a look at my spring schedule below. On Tuesdays, I am in class for only an hour. On Wednesdays, I will spend six and a half hours in class.
This extra time will usually be dominated by three things: sleep, homework, and clubs.
College classes are much more condensed than those of high school; they are rather skeletal, providing only the information that you need and nothing you don’t. Gone are the days where you will spend time working on homework, worksheets, or projects in class. All of this must be accomplished during your free time — and they will consume a significant portion of it.
Instead, classes are almost always delivered as a lecture. A professor will stand at the front of the class and unload his or her knowledge in a long speech. Sometimes, there are debates or interactive sessions, however they are rare.
For my friends at CR, take Mr. McCormick’s classes. They are exactly what you’ll encounter in college.
Introductory classes may have 100-300 students in a large lecture hall. I have been told that Economics 101 (microeconomics) at Princeton has 250 students sitting in the uncomfortable wooden seats of McCosh Hall. On the other hand, my Spanish class had only nine in it.
At Princeton, classes are not much longer than those in high school, lasting 50 minutes on average. A few, such as labs, will last 90 minutes or longer.
Ultimately, you will spend about as much time on school-related activities in college as in high school; the majority of it, though, will be completed outside of class. Homework includes: completing sets of problems, writing papers, creating presentations, programming computers, or reading various documents. These assignments will require three or more hours per day.
Juniors, you can help your transition into college by scheduling a busy senior year (but not too busy because you’ll need time to write applications). If you take easy classes and slack off as a senior, then you will have a very difficult time acclimating to college life during your freshman year. I took five college-level classes as a high school senior and stayed busy with club activities; this adequately prepared me for managing time in college.
Take a look at some of my homework assignments.
Midterm and final examinations will closely mirror those administered by College Board for Advanced Placement classes. Most college exams will last two to four hours.
There is one significant difference between college and AP exams. The AP classes usually teach you “canned” problems that are repeated every few years because there is a limited amount of material that College Board can include on the test. A professor will teach students a new way of thinking and a sphere of knowledge. The students must then learn how to apply this newfound logic to a challenging set of problems that they have never seen before.
Professors also give quizzes, but they only consume the duration of a class.
Princeton tries to replicate Oxford’s education system. That means there is a lot of weight placed on a student’s exam performance with little else in the class swaying the results.
This leads me to…
In college, no one really cares about your grades like in high school. Your class grade does not matter as much to peers, unless you fail. General college advice: don’t fail classes. This will cost additional money when you have to retake them. Also, don’t flunk out. If you do, be sure to create a Silicon Valley start-up like Facebook or become a world renowned writer like F. Scott Fitzgerald. But that doesn’t happen to everyone.
That being said, you will (or at least should) spend your time trying to learn the material and not fretting about your score on the quiz. If you learn it well, then the good grades will follow.
Supposedly, the SAT is a good indicator of a student’s success in their freshman year of college. Personally, I think that is a marketing ploy. I do not see any way that the SAT’s trick questions reflect academic life here at Princeton. Sure, people who score better on test have usually spent more time preparing for it and are therefore more diligent students. But this is true for just about any test.
If you didn’t score well on the SAT, breath a sigh of relief. You’ll do fine in college as long as you keep working hard.
When going on tours, you have probably noticed that each school boasts about its 300 clubs, 50 acapella groups, and Quidditch team. For the most part, this is true. Colleges have a lot of clubs that fill nearly every niche. You name it and there is a club for it.
Some clubs focus on a certain academic skill to hone. The Princeton math club is supposed to be really strong. Others teach professional skills, like Speak with Style.
Musicians can choose one of two paths. One is to major in music. This will provide the maximum number of opportunities to practice an instrument, but it can be very difficult for those who are not naturally talented and do not have a lot of free time in their schedule. The other path is to join a casual band. Some can be very good.
High school athletes have one of three options they can choose if they want to continue their sport:
The first is to join the college’s official varsity team. Their training schedules are very demanding. Your entire life will probably be split between class and sports with little time for anything else.
The second option is to join a club or intramural team. Club sports may be just as demanding as a varsity sport if your college has a very good team. Intramural sports may be casual teams that are formed within departments, dorm clusters, or separate clubs and compete against each other.
The third option is to pursue the sport independently. Nothing stops you from running early in the morning or swimming in the evenings. A few schools have really nice exercise facilities.
Disclaimer: I neither played sports in high school nor in college. I am only speaking from my experience with friends who did.
In general, college clubs are better funded and more active than those in high school. Some clubs at Princeton have a crazy amount of funding. The debate team, for example, can afford to travel to a competition every weekend. Also, clubs usually do not have a faculty adviser, meaning they are more independent and truly student-lead.
There is much variability in this. It all depends on what each student chooses to do in their free time. Be careful, it is true that people tend to go wild in college. Remember, the law still applies to you. Even here at Princeton, people occasionally get arrested for drug possession or driving under the influence. There are much stricter crackdowns at other colleges, especially state schools. No one is forcing you to do any of that.
My Advice: Stay relatively (compared to others) simple. Go to a movie with friends. Watch Netflix. Go to a hockey match. Take a train or bus to a nearby city. Stroll through town.
Generally speaking, being a college student is a nice lifestyle. You create your own schedule and pick your adventures without having to worry about a job or family. Even when there is a lot of homework, I take a few minutes to savor the moment. It is also important to schedule a few breaks. I went to New York City on a Saturday to “get away from it all.”
At the end of the day, you are going to college to pursue the truth in whatever field that you choose to study. Do not forget that. Academics always comes first; that is why your family is paying $10,000-$60,000 per year for you to go to school. It is this constant pursuit of truth that has lead humanity to accomplish great feats and overcome enormous challenges. Now it is your turn to contribute to the ever-growing sphere of human knowledge.
Keep up the good work! There are only four months remaining in your senior year of high school. College is still far enough away that you do not need to worry about it too much. Just keep waiting for the acceptance letters to come in. I know that you can do this.