Skip to content Skip to navigation

Differences Between High School and University

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 

In case you are wondering, there are at least 50+ differences between the average, normal Canadian high school experience and what you will experience at university.




The posting below gives some very good pointers for those students transitioning from high school to university. It is from a Canadian perspective, but the advice is almost universal. It is taken, with permission from Owner’s Manual for the Student Brain\ My thanks to Ken McKay of the University of Waterloo for providing the material. He notes that it is a work in progress, and any suggestions would be most welcomed! He can be reached at:




Rick Reis

UP NEXT: The Interactive Lecture 

Tomorrow’s Academy

---------- 1,995 words ----------

Differences Between High School and University

In case you are wondering, there are at least 50+ differences between the average, normal Canadian high school experience and what you will experience at university. Yes, 50+. When some of us get bored, we make lists like this. Some differences are small. Some are big. Some will not matter to most people. Some will matter to many. Some will matter to a few. In any event, there are lots and lots of things that will require adapting to. Although this may seem overwhelming, there are supports in place to help you succeed.

Some students will accept this reality and be ready, open to change, but we have seen many students deny that things will be different. It will be different for others. The instructors and counsellors are talking about others. They are not talking about me. What I did in high school will work. Really! Then there is some anger. They tricked me. It is not fair. The expectations are too high. Etc. Then there is some bargaining - I will study harder (more of the same), I will double down. It is possible to be special and successful at university too - it is not that hard to do, but you do have to do a reset and think about how you are going to do this, you are starting afresh. It is up to you what skills and abilities you really want to develop and excel at. You have to think about how you are going to adapt.

What is different and why is change inevitable and important to manage? Here are some of the 50+ points. When we talk about adapting to university, it affects every student differently. You will adapt and figure it out, but it will take some adjusting.

Points of difference

You are in class more and the expectations of school work (not the music, sports, drama, debate, coloured basket weaving types, but science and tech) are different - about 50-60 hours every week depending on the courses.

Holidays and long weekends are not really considered - we expect you to be a student most of the time and still do some school stuff regardless of weekends and long weekends - still the 60 hours - if you want the long weekend off, put the time in before or after - it does not go away.

There are teaching assistants and you are often being taught by professors - teaching (all of their courses and teaching related tasks) is only about 40% of a professor’s job. It is not like secondary school where a teacher is a teacher and is there for you.

It is assumed that you will have or will develop appropriate study and learning habits and be an ‘adult’. Often you will not be reminded or nagged about assignments. You forget - you get zero. If you are told to read something or do something, it is assumed you did it. If you do not come to class, it is your problem, not the instructor’s. You do not come to class, it is your decision, live with the consequences. Don’t care about the class, don’t expect the instructor to care about your mark. Effort is assumed and you are assessed based on the course’s outcome goals.

The material is the material. If the class does not get to all of the material, the instructor may or may not say to read something or do something - does not matter - if the syllabus says you are responsible for chapter 11, you are responsible for chapter 11 - even if the instructor does not say a word about it. It can (and likely will) appear on the mid terms and final exam.

The average in many junior courses can be 68-72. This is a far cry from what you had in high school. You might have your first experience of having a mark below 80, or below 50 (OMG). Lucky you. Everyone comes in with high marks and we spread you out. Do not let marks define your success as an undergraduate.

What will you do when you get a 50? 60? How will you react? Deny? Be angry at everyone except yourself? Make pretend deals with yourself about how you will just work harder? Get all funky? Or, will you accept that you will need to rethink how you study and learn. You are smart enough. You just need to do things differently.

The lectures are quick, more stuff per hour, and it just does not stop.

Almost all can handle the load, topics, and work, and learn to deal with it. Almost everyone has the ability to do it. It can be dealt with. Enough proof of that. However, the question is when do you want to deal with it? Do it later, or do it ASAP? ASAP hurts less. And, do not think you can or should change everything at once. That does not work either. Identify a couple of key habits and work on them. Then after they improve, identify the next couple. It can take many students 8-10 weeks to figure out what needs to be changed and how to change it. Be realistic. Make a feasible plan for change!

Related Topic #1 Being successful at university

What does success mean? It is healthy to set goals and objectives which are not just ‘mark’ oriented. No two people have the same definition of success and it is important to identify what you consider to be “success” to help you grow more as a student, and ultimately a person. Despite this, there are a few characteristics that, as students, are common in successful students. These characteristics may seem geared toward academic success, but can also apply to success outside of the classroom.


Take control of, and be interested in, your own education.

Study what you are passionate about, or know how, to create interest and passion to self-motivate even when you’re not interested or motivated.

Go to lectures, prepare before lectures, engage the instructor during the lecture.

Use your passion and interest to expand your knowledge and understanding - do not limit yourself to only “learn” what was officially taught or provided.

Learn in a deep and thorough way. Not just facts, but try to comprehend, know how to apply the concept or lesson, be able to use what you have learned when analysing or thinking about something, be able to combine the ideas with others that you have and create something new!

Do not be afraid to fail, be able to learn from your mistakes, try not to avoid failure, embrace it, and pay attention to the instructor’s feedback and use the feedback to improve.

Address the lessons learned from your mistakes so that you don’t make the same mistakes multiple times.

Do not be afraid to ask for help!

There are many resources around you, take advantage of them. For example, use Student Success Office's resource for getting coaching or becoming a coach.

Related Topic #2 Best Practice - succeeding as a professional student

At the post-secondary level, you should consider yourself a professional student and view the next five years as a ‘job’. Learning is work. Here are some of the things that help students benefit the most from their post-secondary education – the students being different/better than when they entered; coming up with different, better informed decisions. This is what we observe the best students understanding and doing. See Bain (2012) for additional ideas. The following points are in no particular order.

Work habits

You should attend class and focus on the class you are taking. Not everything is in the book and it is possible to actually benefit from the instructor’s expertise if you ask questions and probe the subtleties. Many instructors inadvertently signal what is important and what might be on the test if you pay attention. Pay attention if the instructor repeats something, uses key words like important, critical, or useful. What they slow down on. The examples they use. The common errors they mention. If something said in one class is referenced in a later one.

You should take good notes. What happens in class comes fast, hard, and there is lots of it. Board work, slides, questions, answers, and the instructor speaking. You might think your memory is great or good enough. It isn’t.

You should go to office hours, speak to your instructors one-on-one, ask questions, show interest. You will never be in an environment again with so many subject experts - take advantage of this unique opportunity. Use this option only when you need it. Self-regulating and knowing when to ask for help is key to a healthy school-life balance.

Look at the material before class and try to teach yourself something about the day’s topic. You will get more out of the effort you put into a course and the class time will be more efficient and effective. And, review the material after class - what confused you, what you do not understand, then deal with it.

You will need to have above average time management if you want to avoid cramming and jamming all of the work into the last few weeks of term. Do not blame the instructors for the work load if you had ample time to do it when advised and you decided to procrastinate. Do not cram. Do not pull all-nighters.

The big picture

You should reset your expectations when you enter university. Most programs assume a 50-60 hour work week for an average student to get an average mark. This is not high school. In the beginning, take it slow. Test the waters to see how much school takes up in your week. Slowly get more and more involved in extra-circulars and other activities once you get a better understanding of your school workload. Realize that your lifestyle from high school to University WILL change. You might have to do this every semester.

Develop what is called a growth mindset if you do not have one (see Dweck 2017). You will need one – especially with the experiences most of you have had growing up in today’s world. Intentionally or not, today’s K-12 school system encourages a fixed mindset.

Be mature and be accountable - understand what is your responsibility and be accountable for what happens if you shirk it. Do not blame others. Face it. Understand it. Accept it. Figure out how to avoid the mistake. Do not make the same mistake again.

Learn to fail, learn from failing - while you can memorize facts, methods, and recipes, you cannot learn and develop key skills without failure, pushing yourself, persevering, expanding your comfort zone. Embrace failure when you use it for learning and growing. You are not a failure just because you fail. Failure is feedback.

Realize that for most knowledge based courses (see Bloom and Krathwohl 1956, where facts, recipe recitation, and memorization dominate), you can actually learn on your own almost all of the topic from the course material and what is online. The basic facts and recipes. You are smart enough. Learn to read with purpose and teach yourself. Do not blame the instructor in knowledge based courses when you should be able to learn it yourself. After all, many knowledge classes have the instructor writing on the board what is in the text and then reading it aloud; what you should be able to do for yourself with respect to the facts and recipes. For the subtle interpretations and insights, you need to be in class!

Learn what skills you need to be a student and in your future career, like planning, organization, time management, self advocacy, goal setting, note-taking, active reading strategies like SQAR. Develop these through deliberate practice. Only you can develop your skills. Initially you will be developing ‘new muscles’ and it may be painful. Deliberate, consistent and repetitive practice of your skills will create improved results.


Dweck, C.S. (2016). Mindset – The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books, Updated Ed., Carol. S. Dweck.

Bain, K. (2012). What the Best College Students Do, Belknap Press, MA.

Bloom, B. S., and Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives; the Classification of Educational Goals by a Committee of College and University Examiner. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, NY; Longmans, Green.