Dear High School Graduates: The Truth About What Changes (And What Doesn’t) In College

The stressful period of college applications and decisions is finally over, the prom has passed, and you have either already tossed your graduation caps into the air or about to do so. As summer approaches and you get ready to leave behind the place you likely spent the last four years, I’m sure you are feeling a lot of strong emotions looking ahead towards the next chapter of your life.

You are likely wondering…what will college be like? Will it be different from high school? Is it true that college is an opportunity to reinvent yourself?

There are dozens of articles on the web that address the differences between high school and college. The main theme of many articles is that college is a blank slate: a chance to start all over in a place where nobody knows you and everybody is more open-minded and less petty than in high school. Many articles describe college as this place that is completely different from high school where suddenly everything that mattered in high school no longer means anything.  

On one hand, college is an opportunity to start fresh in a place where other people don’t have any preconceived ideas about who you are. It is a chance to redefine yourself amongst a group of people who didn’t know you during your awkward middle school years. However, this very black-and-white perspective reiterated by many writers can set unrealistic expectations and leave you feeling disappointed.

The truth is, while high school and college are very different, they are not complete opposites. From the perspective of a girl who entered college last year, I want to give the most realistic portrayal that I can of what college is like, and what really changes from high school to college.

1. First of all, there’s this idea out there that the minute you toss your graduation cap in the air and earn your diploma, you suddenly will never see anybody from high school ever again (other than your close friends). Why else did you ball your eyes out listening to that song that goes "As we go on we remember, all the times we, had together.” Or if you didn’t like a lot of the people in your high school, graduation symbolized the last time you would ever have to deal with anybody from your hometown again.

The truth is, while you will no longer have to see your high school classmates on a regular basis, even if you go far away to college, there is a chance that you will run into many of them again. Breaks are much longer in college than in high school, and unless you stay in your college town or go on vacation during all of winter break, spring break and summer break, you will be spending several months right back in your hometown. While you will probably end up spending less time in your hometown as you get older and find internships and professional jobs, your first summer or two will probably be spent back at home. You won't talk to every single person you knew in high school, but there's a good chance that while you're home you'll hang out with more hometown friends than you might have expected to a year ago. And you'll probably run into several other people from high school just by being in your hometown (grocery stores, restaurants, etc). Furthermore, social media makes it even more difficult to completely leave everybody behind.

As time goes on and you are no longer living at home during the breaks, you will eventually break away from your high school peers. However, don't be shocked if you feel like you live in two different places during your first year in college. You will  have your home at college where you will meet new friends, but it might not feel completely like home to you immediately. For a while, you may feel confused and not sure exactly where you belong.

2. There’s also this myth out there that once you get to college, the cliques and “popularity” that were once important in high school suddenly disappear and is it extremely easy to make friends because everybody is so open-minded. While people are more open-minded in college and it is definitely easier to meet new people and make new friends, cliquish behavior still exists to some degree in college (unfortunately). While the big popularity game that was so important in college doesn't exist to the same extent, the whole "social hierarchy" thing is still around to a degree in college (yet it should become less and less evident as you go through college). Something I have come to learn is that even when you grow up, there will always be some people who are still immature and cliquish, and the desire to appear "cool" will always exist for some people. However, college does offer the opportunity to meet all kinds of people, and you will definitely expand your social circle and meet a more diverse group of people. 

3. While making friends in college is easier than it was in high school, it might not be the walk in the park that you may expect. Blame it on social media, online articles, television...whatever you want, but for some reason there's this image out there that making a million friends in college is a breeze and you should have a ton of friends from the start.  It’s easy the first week because everyone is new, but don’t be devastated if a couple months into the year you still feel like you don’t know who your friends are. This is okay! It takes a while to find your group of people in college. Also, try your best not to compare your college experience with the pictures that other people have posted online. Instagram and Facebook can hide a lot of things, and you never know what is really going on behind all of the smiling photos and #friends.

4. One positive (well, there are lots of positives!) thing about college is that you will definitely have much more freedom than you did in high school. You will be given a whole new level of independence. While in high school you were bound to staying in one building for eight hours a day and were unable to leave, in college you may only have one or two classes a day (or even none some days!) and it is up to you to budget your time. You also won’t have your parents watching your every move. However, most likely there won't be anybody forcing you to attend your classes either (most professors won't take roll), but that doesn't mean you can skip all of them if you want to keep your grades high! 

5. If you were like me, you probably spent a lot of time in high school worrying about getting into college. You spent hours stressing over good grades and worrying whether or not you had enough extracurriculars and volunteer hours. Now that you're in college, you no longer have to worry about getting into college (grad school is a different story, but this might not apply to everyone). However, don't be surprised if you find yourself stressing out as much as you did in high school once you are in college. To be honest, in college it is hard not to feel the pressure to keep up with everyone else and figure out what you want to do with your life. The pressure to have impressive extracurricular activities will most likely be replaced with the pressure to figure out your major or get an internship. 

The pressure to “keep up” will never truly go away, so it’s about learning to deal with it. However, college also allows much more freedom than high school did, and offers so many more opportunities to try new things and find yourself. Although it is really easy to get caught up in keeping up with everybody else and trying to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life, college is the one time you have to really just explore new passions. Although you probably will, try not to freak out if you aren't sure exactly what you want in your life after one year of college. Talk to any successful, older person you know. They will most likely tell you that they did not know exactly what they wanted to be at your age either.

6. Although it is a chance to "reinvent" yourself in a way, you won’t suddenly become a new person when you enter college. For example, if you were a really quiet person in high school who had trouble talking to other people, don't expect to suddenly become the most social, talkative person in your college. While it is natural to want to grow and improve as a person, it is unrealistic to expect yourself to become completely different in one year. What you should expect to become is a (hopefully) better, more confident and more self-aware version of the person you already are. 

7. For the most part, people don’t care what sports you played or who you hung out with in high school. However, the things you did in high school do have an impact on who you are when entering college. For example, if sports gave you confidence in high school, you will bring that with you into college. It’s less about what you actually did, and more about how what you did helped mold your personality, which can be a guide to how you act and interact with others. The same is true about your grades. While nobody cares if you got a 4.0 or a 2.0 in high school once you are in college, the study habits that led you to reach certain grades before are likely to carry over. However, it's also never too late to change your habits!

8. One thing you should mentally prepare yourself for when entering college is that you will no longer always be "the best." While you may have been a big fish in a little pond in high school, college is filled with many intelligent people who are likely just as motivated and talented as you are. Prepare yourself that there will be other people who may be smarter, more talented, or more ahead in their career plans than you are. Accept that you cannot always be #1 once you are in college, and you will save yourself a lot of heartache and stress.

9. Don’t go into college expecting to enter a relationship right away. Sure, it seems like the perfect set up. You are literally surrounded by hundreds or thousands of new potential “mates.” However, college is different from high school. With today’s college hookup culture, whether you like it or not, less people tend to date in college. While it is a lot easier to go on casual dates while in college, finding a serious relationship is difficult. This is just another thing to keep in mind. Just have fun getting to know people, and if a relationship happens to come, then congratulations! 

10. And finally, don’t be surprised if a year from now, you find yourself still dwelling on some things from high school. In a perfect world, we would leave behind every hard feeling, regret, frustration, etc. that we felt during high school. However, sometimes it can take longer than a year away from home to completely leave behind everything in the past. I mean, you likely spent years with the same people. It is natural to hold onto some feelings/animosities/anger towards some people from high school. Don't expect yourself to immediately let go of everything that happened over the past several years of your life. Realize that eventually you'll make so many amazing memories in college that the past will naturally fade away, but it may take longer than you may hope. 

Overall, college is a whole new chapter in your life and will be an amazing one, too. However, moving onto college isn't as clear-cut as turning a storybook page where you leave behind the previous chapter to move on to the new one. High school and college aren't the complete 180-degree polar opposites that they are sometimes made out to be, but they are still very different. You will grow as a person immensely while in college, and when you return back home in a year, you will likely have a whole new perspective on things.

Suddenly, life will be more than homework and football games. You will realize how big the world is, and how many opportunities are suddenly open to you.

Congratulations new graduates. I wish you all the best of luck! 


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