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How Does College Work?

a young woman moving into her dorm

You may be in the beginning stages of thinking about your options after high school. Or you might be working on your college essay and applications right now. No matter where you are in your journey, knowing as much as you can about how college works can help demystify the experience and process.

The odds are there are plenty of questions rattling around in your head, coupled with some fear and anxiety as you prepare for the next step in your life. But you know what they say? Knowledge is power, and knowing what to expect might take away some of the uncertainty and angst you feel around this next step in your life.

Let's jump in and talk about what you can expect from college. 

The college experience

You’re not in Kansas anymore! College will not be like high school, especially if you choose to live on campus. Even if you’re living at home, it’s going to be an adjustment. Here are some things you need to accept:

You will manage yourself

Your parents won’t be there to hold your hand and won’t be able to offer you help as often as you might need it. It’s time to stand on your own two feet and step bravely into adulthood.

Attendance isn’t always mandatory, but it’s expected

Many college freshmen classes are huge, and you might feel it doesn’t matter if you attend class. Some professors take attendance, others do not. They expect you to attend. And if you don’t attend class, you won’t know what to expect on tests, be able to take lecture notes, or participate in the debate that makes college a unique experience.

You will be expected to absorb a large amount of content

Not only will you be expected to absorb content from lectures, but you will also have reading assignments to do outside of class. Budgeting your time is crucial.

My daughter used to divide her reading assignments up at the beginning of the semester and allocate a certain portion of time every day to read in each subject. That way she wasn’t cramming at the end of the semester and had time to absorb all the material.

Most of your work is done outside of class

The lecture part of the class is the least time-consuming. Up to two-thirds of the work is done on your own time: reading, preparing for tests, getting ready for presentations, doing research, and writing papers.

Not all your teachers will be professors

In colleges and universities where the freshman classes are large, graduate students often lecture and grade the assignments. If possible, take classes with regular faculty and opt for the smaller classes. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd and struggle in larger classes.

My daughter attended a small college where there were no graduate student teachers. My son, on the other hand, had a freshman class of over 500 taught by a teaching assistant who just read from the course book.

Professors are usually on your side

Take advantage of office hours and meet with your professors. Establish relationships with them because they can help you if you struggle or steer you in the right direction if you feel lost.

Independence is a blessing and a curse

You are finally on your own. This can be overwhelming and scary. Yes, you have finally gained some independence, but you are also responsible for your actions and the consequences that go with them. You will have a large amount of unstructured time, which means you should manage your time wisely to balance academics, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and social life.

College academics

Academics play a central role in college life, but you won't be in high school anymore. College classes are set up differently and are more academically challenging. We talked above about how college classes work in terms of requiring you to manage your own time and take ownership of your success. That's a little different than you've experienced in high school. 

You'll also want to know how college credits work. One college credit represents approximately 1 hour spent in a classroom and 2 hours spent on homework each week. Most single-semester college courses are worth three credits or 9 hours of work per week.

Colleges require a minimum of 12 credits per semester (four 3-credit classes) for full-time students, but a typical course load is 15 credits per semester (five 3-credit classes) if you plan to graduate in four years.

General education courses

These courses provide a broad range of knowledge in various disciplines like math, social sciences, humanities, and the arts. These courses are taken during the freshman and sophomore years. Students are expected to complete a certain number of general education courses apart from their major.

Major courses

The remainder of the courses you take will be centered around the major you choose. These classes are more specialized, delving deep into the subject matter related to your major and providing you with a more in-depth understanding of your chosen field. These courses prepare you for your future career.

Elective courses

Elective courses allow you to explore other areas that interest you outside your major. These are classes you choose just because you want to learn more about them because they interest you.

Outside of the college classroom

College life isn’t just about academics. Take advantage of all the extracurricular activities available on campus. College is also about experiencing new things, meeting new people, exploring the area, and venturing outside your comfort zone.


Sports play a significant role in college life. For some schools like Texas A&M, college sports are one of the foundations of college life. The entire student body attends the weekly cheer practice on campus to prepare for college football games. Students stand the entire game, cheering on their team.

Apart from college-sanctioned sports, intramural sports are also available and will allow you to stay active, meet people, and develop teamwork and leadership skills while having fun.


Clubs on campus cover a wide range of interests. From debate clubs to environmental clubs, entrepreneurial clubs, and photography clubs, students can pursue their passions outside the classroom.

Greek life

Many colleges have sororities and fraternities on campus. Greek life isn’t for everyone, but if it interests you, it’s a great way to develop long-term relationships and serve the college and local community. My daughter met her sorority big sister freshman year and they have remained friends for over a decade.

Jobs and internships

Jobs can provide extra income during college and help you manage your time in school. Work-study programs offer jobs on campus that make it convenient to work while in school. Internships in your field of study help you establish relationships that can lead to employment after graduation.

Social life while in college

You can’t stay holed up in your dorm room or at home while attending if you want to make friends and take advantage of all that college has to offer.

Parties and social events

Attending parties and social events in college is a rite of passage for many students. There will be many opportunities to participate in them. They give a chance to relax, have fun, and create memories that last a lifetime. But they can also interfere with your success in school. 

When my son was looking at colleges, his Marine friends told him about a specific “party school.” Unfortunately, he took their advice and applied to the college they suggested. The result was not good. He failed all his classes in his first semester and ended up dropping out of college. Parties are a part of college life, but as with all things, moderation is key.

Diverse people

In college, you can connect with students from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and interests. You will meet students from different states and different countries with different hobbies, beliefs, and passions. This will foster inclusivity and acceptance.

Meeting roommates and classmates

Meeting new people is going to be part of your everyday college life. Interactions with college roommates, dormmates, classmates, and students in common areas like the student union or cafeteria give you a chance to make meaningful connections with your peers. Don’t neglect these opportunities, and make a conscious effort to socialize.

Networking and building connections

From the time you enter college, you should be networking and building connections. You never know who an invaluable career resource will be as you move toward graduation and a future career.

Final thoughts on the way colleges work

College is a community. College gives you a chance to study for your chosen career while engaging with other students and building lifelong relationships while creating memories. It is not simply a school or a place to party. College works if you combine both education and experience and strive for a balance of both for the next four years of your life.

Finding the right college for your needs and interests

Now that you know more about how colleges work, it's time to get to work building out your college list and touring campuses.

Appily can make this easier by helping you find colleges that match what's most important to you. From budget to majors to campus vibe - whatever your criteria - we can help you connect with the right-fit schools. 

Either create a free Appily account or log into your existing account. Browse schools based on your ideal qualities, save those you're interested in, and we'll share curated suggestions for schools that match your needs. 

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