Even Bright High School Graduates Can Fail First Semester College: Here’s Why

By Patricia Gorden Neill - June 13th, 2013

When high school graduates go off to college, they’re in for a big challenge. You may be surprised to learn that many students fail academically in their first year of college. One-third of freshmen students don’t make it to their sophomore year. That’s a huge number, and it worries everyone concerned with higher education.

Reasons for this high dropout rate are many; some freshmen have to leave for financial reasons, say, one of their parents was laid off. Others are purely homesick and can’t take the stress and loneliness of that tough first year. Some students, shocked by the amount of work they’re required to do at college level, conclude that the main reason they’re in college is to please their parents and friends. These students realize that college is not one of their own personal goals, so they drop out, and probably rightly so. Finally, many students simply cannot make the necessary transition from high school to college level academics.

Memorizing Facts vs. Conceptual Thinking

Academically, college is tough, even for those bright high school students with great GPAs, honors and AP classes and good ACT/SAT scores. Many of these bright students also fail academically their first year.

Take John, for instance, although John is not his real name. He had a top GPA, took honors and AP classes, and did great on his SAT. He attended a large public high school in New York City. He flunked his first semester of college, however, because he was simply not accustomed to the demands of college level work. Although he had taken few math classes in high school, he entered his college as an engineering major because he thought he’d like that challenge. He failed his engineering intro course with an F, got a C- in chemistry, D in calculus and A in a writing class. John was unprepared academically and he realizes now that he didn’t know how to study effectively at the college level.

Why did such a smart kid fail? He attended lectures, took notes and read the textbook assignments for his classes, but flunked the tests. .What John didn’t understand is that college level work demands more than memorizing facts and stating them on a test. In college, you have to think through the problems by doing them so you will understand the concepts and can apply those concepts to other problems. The biggest difference between high school and college is the level of thought required.

High school classes demand very little conceptual thinking and understanding the big picture behind the plethora of facts students are expected to learn. In college, facts aren’t where it’s at. By the time you reach college, if you forget a fact all you have to do is look it up. It’s easy to find the fact that you forgot, and college level work isn’t concerned with memorizing facts. College demands that you use those facts in a variety of ways. What is important is that you understand the concept and learn how to apply that concept in different situations. You have to learn a different way of thinking about things, and that requires a different method of learning.

That’s why it isn’t enough to attend every lecture, take notes and read the textbook for your calculus class. You have to work through the problems in order to understand the concepts. It’s the same in any class, whether its biology, engineering or linguistics. What you’ll be tested on is not facts, but the concepts and applying them appropriately.

Directed vs. Self-Directed

High school learning is directed by the teacher and is highly structured. Students go from class to pre-scheduled class, doing the majority of their work in class. Quizzes and tests are given often and usually test only a few days to a week’s worth of study. Teachers remind students of upcoming tests and make sure the students are prepared. Teachers, in effect, are in charge of their student’s learning and carefully guide them through it.

Colleges do none of that. One of the biggest and hardest transition challenges from high school to college, is that students must learn to be self-directed in their studying and learning. No one is going to hold your hand, remind you there’s a test on Tuesday and nag you to get up in time for your 8:30 a.m. economics class. In high school, little homework was required, at least, in comparison to college. For each hour spent in a college class, students should be putting in two to three hours of study for that class. In high school, you were tested only on what was discussed in the classroom. In college, you will be tested on all of your assigned readings, whether it was discussed in class or not. It’s totally up to you to do the reading and studying necessary.

Help is available if you need it, of course. All colleges have an academic center of some kind where you’ll find assistance in any of your classes where you’re having trouble. Unlike high school, the teacher won’t come to you knowing that you need help. It is up to you to reach out for help, whether you require academic assistance, or financial advice or emotional counseling. If you don’t contact your professor or show up at her office hours, she won’t be contacting you.

Your learning at college has to be self-directed or you won’t get anywhere. In fact, your life must now be self-directed. Your mom isn’t going to pick up your room and launder the dirty clothes you left on the floor. You will decide when to get up, what you’ll eat, when you’ll go out with friends and when to go to bed. You’re not used to that level of freedom and chances are you’ll make many mistakes that first semester. Nearly all freshmen do, at first.

Students who make a successful transition to college soon get themselves back on track. They have learned that they are responsible not only for getting to class on time, but for doing the necessary two to three hours of studying for each class. They learn not to stay up late partying if they have an early class the next day. Students who don’t transition well skip classes, don’t learn how to balance study and social life, don’t study enough or effectively and start the downhill spiral. It’s notoriously difficult to catch up academically once you begin to slip. The best solution to this problem is to prevent it in the first place.

Transitioning Successfully

Here’s a few things you can do to make your transition from high school to college easier and ultimately successful:

  • Start making friends right away. Go to orientation and meet people, not just students, but faculty, the dean of students, academic advisors and dorm mates. Form a good network of friends from all walks of campus life and you’ll have support when you need it.
  • Get a calendar and day planner and write down everything you have to do such as classes, appointments, study hours and meetings with friends. Write down test days and when papers or projects are due. Make writing in your day planner a habit, and it will help you learn the necessary time management skills you’ll need.
  • Tell yourself ahead of time that you will not miss any classes unless you’re on your deathbed. The sooner you learn self-discipline the better.
  • The minute you realize you’re having problems, any problems, reach out for help. If you don’t understand something in class, show up at your professor’s next office hour and ask for help. If you realize you are not sure you are studying effectively, head for the academic skills center and find out how. If you are feeling afraid, confused or depressed, get some emotional counseling. The college has many support services available. Take advantage of them. Don’t put it off.
  • Maintain the three cornerstones of health: eating healthy, exercise and enough sleep. Of course, you’re going to indulge in too much ice cream or late night study snacks. Just do it occasionally, not all the time.
  • Learn to balance study time and social time. Too much or not enough of either can throw you off.
  • Realize that you’ll make mistakes, but when you do, don’t dwell on them. Pick yourself up and start over.

Once you’ve made it through the transition, you’ll be fine. You’ll love your time in college and remember it for the rest of your life. The trick is to be aware of how difficult that transition time can be; plan to do your best and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.