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How Can I Prepare to Take on a College Workload?

Preparing for the differences between your high school and college workloads is important. Here's some expert advice on making this big academic shift.

Silhouette of person sitting at desk with laptopJim Terhune
VP of Student Affairs
Swarthmore College 
I think the most surprising aspect about life on campus for new students is how much time they have and how hard it is to manage their time well. College students, even those with the most demanding schedules, spend way less time in formal classroom or lab settings than in high school. It’s easy for students to think of their schedule exclusively in terms of when they have class and maybe athletic practice or a performance rehearsal. They believe they have a lot of time to get work done and socialize, etc. A well-balanced college workload includes making time for sleeping, meals, activities, socializing, and—most importantly—studying outside of class. Carefully construct your daily and weekly schedules to keep on top of your responsibilities. Students who look at their schedules in a holistic way find they have more free time than those who are less organized. View your life in a comprehensive way rather than as chopped up into parts.

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Silhouette of person sitting at desk with laptopJay Chakrapani
Vice President, General Manager, Digital
McGraw-Hill Higher Education
Preparing for the differences between the high school and college workloads is one of the most underrated aspects of making the transition from high school to college. College requires a lot more independence and self-motivation when it comes to staying on top of your work and turning it in on time. Similar to developing a study plan, the best way to begin the preparation is to do research: talk to older students, professors, and family members who have been through college. Get their perspectives on what the workload is like in college. Then, create a plan. Develop a study routine that best fits your style of learning. If students start out staying on top of their work, they’ll be better able to manage throughout the next four years.

Michael MiloneMichael Milone, PhD
Educational Consultant, Research Psychologist, and Writer
The best way to prepare for a college course load is to understand the different ways you can learn from others—both directly and indirectly.

  • Direct learning takes place when you ask people how they do something, listen to their answer, and try to imitate what they did. A good example is asking friends how they are going to find the time to do all the reading for a literature assignment.
  • Indirect learning is when you observe someone doing something and imitate the procedure the person follows. Suppose you notice that a friend doesn’t eat in the cafeteria but instead brings lunch to a quiet spot and eats while studying. The friend is always on time for the next class. This seems like a good strategy, so you imitate it.

When learning from others, you have to be sure to evaluate the effectiveness of what you’ve learned. Not everyone is successful with the same strategies. The evaluation should take place in two phases:

  • Phase #1: Determine the likelihood of the strategy working for you. If you think it may work, try it.
  • Phase #2: Determine how successful the strategy was after you have completed it.

A surprising number of people are reluctant to learn from others. They feel it is somehow demeaning, especially in academic areas or life skills. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of us try to imitate the techniques of skilled athletes, businesspeople, scientists, etc. If someone is doing something effective, don’t hesitate to try it out.

If you need more help with this big change in your life, check out our article on How to Manage the Transition From High School to College.

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