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Transitioning from High School to College: From Cities to Small Towns, Small Schools to Big Schools (& Vice Versa!)

The transition from high school to college is undoubtedly one of the biggest you’ll make throughout your life. Some of those changes come easy – no curfew? No problem! But others, like adapting to a bustling city when you grew up in a town where everyone knows everyone, or finding yourself at a tiny liberal arts college when you’re used to a huge, football-centric high school, can come as a culture shock. Her Campus talked to girls across the country who dealt with those same changes. Steal their tips for making a smooth transition so you’ll feel confident when you step on campus this September.

City to Rural

City girls, if you’re used to subways, skyscrapers, and lots of noise, moving to a small town or rural area for school might come as a shock. Incoming University of Wisconsin – Stout freshman Laura Bauman worries, “I’m going from high school in a large town near Milwaukee to college in a town the size of pinky finger in the middle of nowhere. How am I going to get a fashion degree in ‘Farmville,’ Wisconsin?”

Be open-minded. It’s easy to think that everything worth seeing and doing happens in major cities, but that mentality won’t get you anywhere at a rural school. Katrina Margolis, a University of Virginia sophomore from Boston who spent her freshman year at the rural College of Wooster, says, “I’ve been told, ‘I’m so sorry you went to school in Ohio,’ from people in Boston. But my school was driving distance from Cleveland, which I think actually has a better fine arts museum and symphony than Boston does.” Even the most remote locations have something exciting to offer. Once you’re at your new school, ask friends who grew up in the area where their favorite spots are. You might just discover a beautiful place to hike or a restaurant that makes the best local food – something you’d never get to experience at home!

Get your city fix. Weekend trips to visit friends at city schools kill two birds with one stone – not only will you get to see your friends again, but the change of scenery will come as a relief. “I plan on getting my fill of the city by visiting friends in the Twin Cities,” Laura says. If you’re within driving distance of a city, make the most of the proximity by coming in once a month for concerts, girls’ nights out, or whatever you miss most about city life.

Make summer internships a priority. Sometimes, internship experience can be tough to come by in a small town. If you’re a future investment banker with an eye on Wall Street, internships at the local bank are only going to take you so far. Plan on interning for at least one summer in a city to boost your resume and gain experience you won’t be able to get during the school year. “I plan on spending my summers in New York, Chicago, or L.A.,” says Laura.

Rural to City

If you’re trading in a small town for a big city, you might be itching to start school already. The excitement, city lights, and occasional celeb spottings couldn’t be more enticing – but nevertheless, the few hundred miles (or a few thousand miles, cross-country gals) to the city of your dreams can sometimes make you feel as if you’ve arrived on another planet. Two small-town girls who made the big move to New York University dished on their experiences.

Be prepared for culture shock. If you’re used to knowing the name of everyone at the grocery store and crossing the street without looking twice, be prepared for a shock. Nicole Gartside, a New York University freshman originally from a small town in Colorado, says, “In my hometown, there’s a lot of trust among the residents. We never lock our doors. When I came to New York, I locked myself out of my room six times in the first month and had several items stolen from my kitchen.” While safety is definitely a vital issue, expect even the smallest aspects of daily life to change, too. “At home, everyone nods or waves to you if they pass you on the road. That doesn’t happen here; no one has the time,” explains Ellie Siddens, a New York University sophomore who grew up on a farm in Kentucky. It’s crucial to learn street smarts (preferably not the hard way, like Nicole did), but stay true to yourself – if saying hello to everyone on the street is your thing, don’t be afraid to keep it up and brighten someone’s day.

Spend wisely. Between all the clubs, restaurants, and shows, life in a city can be glamorous. But those outings quickly add up. “Being in New York City had always been a vacation to me. It took me a while to register that I was living there and that I had to start spending like it,” says Nicole. Create a budget detailing how much you want to spend on food, transportation, and fun (like going out and shopping) each month – then stick to it! Try keeping a log of everything you spend, or tracking your money on your phone with Mint.com’s app.

Get ready to pound the pavement. In high school, you (or your parents) probably drove to school, to sports practices, and to friends’ houses. But once your parents drop you off on Move-In Day, it’s time to pick up the pace and start walking. City schools often have buildings spread out over several blocks; because parking is so expensive in cities, bringing a car to school is completely impractical. “It took a few weeks for my body to get used to the miles I was logging every day just walking to class or to the grocery store, since I was so used to being in a car,” says Nicole. She recommends purchasing a comfortable pair of walking shoes to accommodate your new routine.
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Big to Small

After four years at a large, public high school, the transition to a small, cozy college might come as a refreshing change. But navigating a small school comes with its own challenges, too. Here’s how three collegiettes made the transition.

Be on your academic “A” game. Sure, you can get away with slacking off in a 400-person lecture at a huge school. But do you really want to be known as that one kid who always falls asleep in your fifteen-person seminar? We didn’t think so. “I like that my professors call on me by name when I raise my hand in class. That type of relationship makes me more comfortable answering questions,” says Alexandra Court, a freshman at the College of William & Mary. Although a small school tends to foster close student-professor relationships, it’s still important to put your best foot forward. “Even at a small school, you can’t expect your professors to come up to you and start chatting,” says Katrina. The bottom line? A small school typically means you can get as much help from your professors as you need – as long as you make the effort!

Enjoy the tight-knit community. “Although my high school wasn’t very large, my college only has about 85 students per class,” says Ari Chae, a freshman at the Olin College of Engineering. “The level of trust that comes from knowing everyone at a personal level is amazing – we have an honor code in place that we all live by, so we can leave our stuff anywhere, and we’ll often find money tacked on to bulletin boards with notes that say, ‘Is this yours?’”

Know how to navigate the social scene. We know you’ve heard this a thousand times, but if there’s ever a time to put this motto into practice, it’s the big move to college! If you went to a big high school, you’re probably familiar with the classic Mean Girls-style social scene – lots of cliques with defining features, like the Plastics or the Mathletes. At a smaller school, though, the social scene is a little different. Katrina says, “It was kind of hard to find a group of friends. There weren’t a ton of people to choose from, so it was hard to find people whom I really clicked with.” Whatever you do, don’t give up! The close-knit community of a small college is the perfect place to make friends. “I really appreciate being able to fit in anywhere on campus,” explains Ari.

Small to Big

Tiny private high schools – the kind with only a few dozen students per grade – are fantastic places to be educated. But after spending so much time with the same people (we bet you know each and every classmates’ dogs’ names), it’s only natural to want a change of pace. A large university with thousands upon thousands of students might be the ideal way to shake up your academic opportunities and social scene. Here’s how three former small private school girls adapted to their new schools.

Speak up! At a big university where each class can swell to five thousand students or more, it can be easy to think you’re just a number in the school’s database. One of the best ways to avoid feeling lost is to speak up in class. According to Ally Koss, a senior at Northeastern University, “Being at a small high school for so long actually helped me to be successful at a large university, since I was already comfortable talking to teachers one-on-one and asking questions in class.” If your classes are mostly large lectures, attend office hours on a regular basis (aim for at least once a month) to get more face-time with your professor. When you’re in class, strike up a conversation with the people next to you – it could be something as simple as, “Where are you from?” or “How do you like the class so far?” – and set up a study group. You’ll instantly have a study buddy and potential new friend.

Get involved. Large universities typically offer a wide variety of clubs (some schools boast literally hundreds of clubs!), so there’s no excuse not to be involved. “Joining a plethora of clubs and publications makes me feel like I have a strong presence on campus. Also, they’re a great way to meet tons of awesome people who share your interests,” says Kelsey Mulvey, a sophomore at Boston University. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the size of your school, joining a club or two is the perfect way to instantly create a smaller community within your school. “I am involved in the Dance Society here and participated in the show with 180 other dancers. Even though there were a lot of people involved, the society really feels like a community,” says Hannah Anderson, a sophomore at the University of St. Andrews.

Don’t be afraid to be yourself. At a small high school, you probably knew everyone – or at least recognized most people in the halls. While a small community is great, it doesn’t exactly promote risk-taking; it’s easy to feel judged for taking a fashion risk or hanging out with a new social circle. A large university is the ideal setting for being the truest, most confident version of yourself. Kelsey says, “Instead of fretting about what random classmates would think if I sported a red lip or took a certain class, I just do whatever I want and don’t worry about it. Who’s going to care?” (Answer: Nobody! In fact, they’ll admire you for your rock star confidence.)

No matter where you came from or what type of college you’re attending this fall, we’ll let you in on
secret: all of these tips apply for any collegiette’s experience. So go ahead – step up your academics, be bold and confident, and open your mind to new experiences. You’ll adapt in no time.


Originally from Boston, Hannah is now a sophomore at New York University and loves life in the big city. Her favorite things include poking fun at celebrities on Twitter, yoga, leopard print shoes, Frank Sinatra, and her little sister Julia. Hannah was Her Campus's first editorial intern in Summer 2010 and has since continued her involvement with HC as the High School Editor and head of the High School Ambassador program. She is a former Seventeen and Huffington Post intern, where she researched and wrote about celebrities and once made lunch for Kylie Jenner. Read her short-form ramblings at @hannahorens.
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