Many prospective college students want to know what to expect from the college experience before they hit campus. Does college actually match up with the idealized experience you see in movies?
The truth about college is that it can be a lot of different things at once--exciting, nerve-wracking, adventuresome, stressful, and so much fun.
A lot of what college will be like is ultimately up to some of the choices you make, but there are also some basically universal truths about what college is like that it’s worth learning about before you get to campus. In this article, we’ll demystify the core components of a college education for you, including academics, extracurriculars, college social life, time management, working while in school, and living arrangements. We’ll also give you five tips for getting the most out of your college experience.
So, what is collegereally like? Keep reading to find out!
While you might identify with this furry guy right now, our article will get you prepared for your college experience.
An Introduction to College Life
Going to college is basically like a trial run at #adulting. You’re mostly responsible for your own life, but you’re still learning a lot about what you want your future to look like and how to get there (and it’s still okay for you to wear pajamas in public). Plus, you’ll be figuring all of this out with a lot of help from your friends, classmates, professors, and university mentors.
While you will have access to tons of support while you’re in college, your unique experience will depend a lot on how you respond to some of the things about college life that are new and exciting...like living on your own, managing your commitments, and deciding how you spend your time.
In the context of your newfound freedom, it's important to aim for balance. What “balance” looks like will be your choice, but thinking about how you want to approach the different demands on your time will help you thrive during your college years.
To help you envision your future as a college student, we’ll answer the question, “What is college like?” in regard to six major aspects of the college experience: academics, extracurriculars, social life, time management, working while in school, and living arrangements.
Depending on the size of your college, you may find that some of your classes are held in large lecture halls.
What Is College Like in Terms of Academics?
The main point of going to college is getting a degree, right? Of course!
Since academics are the major reason you're in college, it stands to reason that your schoolwork will make up a big part of your college experience. We've decided to focus on two major aspects of your academic life: your major and your courseload.
Your Academic Major
At some point during your academic career, you'll have to declare a major. When you do this will depend on your university. Some schools ask you to declare a major when you apply, while others allow you to spend your freshman and sophomore years as "undeclared" (which just means you haven't chosen a major yet).
Because students can, and often do, change their majors during their college careers, your college courses are split into categories: your general education courses, your major courses, and your electives.
One quick caveat: not all schools split their classes into the three categories above. For example, an art school may not require general education classes at all! We're
General Education Courses
It’s typical for students to complete what are usually called “general education” (gen ed) courses during their freshman and sophomore years of college. These are the core classes that all students have to take in order to graduate, regardless of their major. Gen ed courses are usually a mix of math, science, and humanities classes that are designed to ensure you're getting a well-rounded education.
Some students feel that gen ed courses are a waste of time, while others enjoy the opportunity to take classes in different subject areas and increase their general knowledge before moving into more specialized courses during their last two years of college. That's pretty normal, especially since gen ed courses are designed to broaden your knowledge base across a wide range of disciplines.
The other types of courses you'll take in college are your major courses. These are the classes you need to complete in order to earn a specific major!
Major classes differ from your gen ed courses in a few ways. First, they're much more specific than your gen ed classes. While you may take introductory courses to satisfy gen ed credits, your major classes are designed to take a deep dive into the topic you're studying.
For example, if you're majoring in biology, you'll have to take advanced classes like cell biology and biochemistry. You may even have to declare an emphasis, or specialty, within your major! For instance, some biology departments offer more specialized major programs in fields like neuroscience or microbiology.
Sometimes, students will feel more pressure to do well once they get into these specialized courses, since it may feel like their performance in these courses reflects on their potential to do well in their future career. It’s also common for students to feel much more excited about and interested in attending their major’s courses since these courses fall into the subject area that you picked out yourself.
One thing that’s important to know is that it’s totally normal to change your major or second-guess your choice of major. Choosing a career path is a big decision, and many students don’t feel ready to make that choice right when they start college. When you do settle on a major, though, you may also find that you have the chance to build relationships with faculty in your department. These relationships can be valuable when you need advice or a letter of recommendation.
Your high school may have allowed you to take elective courses, and most colleges do, too. Elective courses are classes that aren't specifically required by the university, your college, or your department. Basically, elective courses are classes you get to choose to take because you're interested in them.
Electives give you the freedom to explore topics outside of your major so that you can learn more about the world, develop new skills, or even earn a minor in a different subject. Elective courses give students a chance to shape their education into a unique experience that's a perfect fit for your future plans and goals.
Many universities require that students take a certain number of elective classes before they graduate. Depending on your goals, you can use your electives to explore your interests, or you can leverage these slots in your degree plan to earn additional distinctions, like graduating with honors. If you plan ahead, you can even use electives to help you on your way to earning a double major!
You'll sign up for your courses at the beginning of each term. Universities usually have two or more terms per academic year.
Your Class Schedule
Future college students are often curious how difficult college classes will be. The truth is: it's hard to know!
The difficulty of your classes will depend on your own abilities, your major, and the amount of effort and time you put into their courses. It’s generally true, though, that upper-level classes in a student’s major will be more demanding in terms of the workload and expectations than general education or prerequisite courses.
Another thing that can make a student’s academic experience more challenging is their schedule of classes for the semester. Most universities list classes in terms of hours. A typical class is three hours, whereas a class with a lab component is usually four hours. In order to graduate, you'll have to earn a certain number of hours toward your degree, with a specific percentage of those being within your major field.
The typical courseload for a full-time student is generally considered to be 15 hours. But you can take more (or less) depending on your needs! Regardless of how many hours you decide to take, working with your academic advisor to put together a schedule that is manageable for you in terms of workload and difficulty is very important.
Keep in mind that taking more hours isn't always better...or even more efficient! If your 18 hour courseload is burning you out (and lowering your GPA), it probably makes more sense to reduce your courseload so you can be more successful. Additionally, a smaller courseload doesn't always mean it's going to be easier! Taking 15 hours of gen ed courses will probably be easier than taking 11 hours of upper-level major courses. Consequently, be sure you're thinking about the difficulty of each class as you build your schedule each semester.
The great thing about college is that you also have a lot of flexibility around how you take your classes. Some students like to take all morning classes so that they can be done with class for the day around noon. Others like to take only afternoon classes so they can sleep in or study in the mornings. Some students try to put together a Tuesday/Thursday class schedule so they can have three days a week off from class, while other students schedule their courses around their work schedules! You can even take a mix of in-person and online courses if your campus offers the choice! Going to your advising appointments with an idea of what classes you need/want to take and the kind of schedule you’re hoping for in mind will help you work with your advisor to get the schedule you want.
Building your class schedule each semester is fun, but be sure to have a back-up plan just in case. Classes can fill up quickly during registration, so having a back-up plan for your semester schedule is a good idea too. Working with your advisor to create two or three potential course plans can ensure that you're able to enroll in classes that help you meet your graduation requirements.
College extracurriculars include everything from debate to sports. You'll definitely be able to find an extracurricular activity that suits you!
What Is College Like in Terms of Extracurriculars?
The great thing about college extracurriculars is that students get to choose which ones they’re involved in. Just like high school, college extracurriculars are clubs, organizations, and activities you can participate in outside of the classroom.
It’s common for college students to choose extracurriculars based on their hobbies, values, beliefs, or desire to be a part of a community. The main point of these activities, clubs, and organizations is to help students connect with others who have common interests or goals and support each other through the college experience.
Keep in mind that some collegiate extracurricular activities are more high-intensity than others. We’re talking about extracurricular activities that demand a lot of your time outside of class, host a lot of compulsory involvement activities, and strongly encourage participants to mold their college identity around their involvement in these extracurriculars. Three examples of high-intensity extracurriculars are fraternities and sororities, ROTC, and student government. If you want to be involved in organizations like these, you'll need to be extra diligent about building your course schedule and keeping up with your studies.
But “high-intensity” doesn’t mean bad! Many students find that they thrive in extracurriculars that are built on consistency, accountability, and high expectations. Most of the time, too, these extracurriculars make students feel like they’re really a part of something and provide a close knit support system of peers to rely on during college and beyond.
Some college students are more interested in being involved in extracurriculars that provide more flexibility in a relaxed, low-stress environment that still provides the opportunity to connect with others around a common interest. These lower intensity extracurriculars could include intramural sports, service-learning programs, campus festivals, concerts, lectures, or discussions to promote multicultural awareness.
Involvement in extracurriculars might seem like an afterthought to the academic side of college life, but studies have actually shown that students who are involved in extracurricular activities gain essential life skills and are more likely to view their college years as a positive experience. Many students find that involvement in extracurriculars is an irreplaceable part of their college education and invest a lot of their non-academic time in this form of involvement.
The key to a successful college experience? Balancing your social life with your academics and other responsibilities!
What Is College Like in Terms of Social Life?
At most colleges, there are what will seem like endless opportunities for social engagements. Since a college is like its own little community, there are many social events that happen on-campus that are either free or very inexpensive for students to attend. These events can range from athletic competitions, to theatre productions, to fundraising or community service events, to events in the dorms, like movie nights or pancake suppers.
It’s typical for there to be on-campus social events of some kind nearly every night of the week. One of the best things about on-campus social events is that they’re often free or heavily discounted for students. They’re also an opportunity to see or meet people who you don’t see everyday during class or in the dorm.
For many students, getting to know the wider community in which their college is located is really important in addition to attending on campus social events. Many students get involved with local nonprofits or charities, churches or other religious groups, or attend events hosted by local businesses. Some on-campus organizations or clubs will even partner with groups in the community to host events.
But you don't have to take our word for it. Lilly, a junior in college, gives this advice to incoming freshmen who are worried about having a social life during college:
“If you’re bored and can’t find anything to do in college, you’re not looking hard enough. There are tons of events happening all around you. Take it upon yourself to learn where to find information about campus and community lectures, concerts and the like. Your school’s website is the best place to start.”
At the end of the day, there are constant opportunities to enjoy college social life, if you put yourself out there. Some of the most fun and memorable moments during college are impromptu, like a dance party in the dorm hallways at midnight or a Mario Kart tournament in the dorm lobby. The key to having a positive social experience during college is to be open-minded and willing to put yourself out there.
Many students work and attend school at the same time. Working can be a great way to help alleviate the cost of college!
Can You Work While Going to College?
Many college students work while they’re in school. There are two types of jobs that students often get while in college: on-campus jobs and off-campus jobs.
Most universities offer many part-time job opportunities for students. These jobs can be found in almost every department on a university’s campus, from the health and wellness clinic, to the dorms, to the groundskeeping crew. Because they don’t require leaving campus, on-campus jobs are typically pretty competitive, especially the kind that put their student workers out there as the “face” of the university, like campus tour guide jobs for prospective students and parents.
While some of these jobs will be open to all students, others will be reserved for students who qualify for work study. In order to do so, you have to meet specific financial need requirements. You can learn more about work study--and how to qualify for it--in this artice!
Whether you have work study or not, if you want to work on campus, you'll need to keep your grades up. Some work-study jobs have minimum GPA requirements, and you don't want your work to interfere with your ability to apply for internships, grants, and awards that take your GPA into consideration.
Unfortunately, on-campus jobs aren’t available to every college student, so many students get a part-time job off-campus. It’s common for businesses in college towns to hire college students, both during the school year and over the summer/holiday breaks.
If you're considering working off-campus as a full-time student, you'll need to think about how to balance your classes and extracurriculars with your work responsibilities. Many off-campus jobs, particularly in food services or customer service industry, require you to work an evening schedule and/or weekend schedule. Keeping that in mind can help you be proactive about managing your academics and your work responsibilities.
Working during college doesn't mean you won’t have any time to study or engage in college social life. It just means you have to manage your time and communicate clearly with your supervisor about your unavailability. In fact, many students enjoy working while attending school because it gives them professional experience and more financial freedom.
Many students live on-campus in dormitories for at least a portion of their college careers. But there are off-campus housing options, too.
Where Will You Live During College?
One of the most exciting things about going to college for many students is living on your own. There are two main types of living arrangement options at most colleges: on-campus housing, and off-campus housing. We’ll break down these two types of college living arrangements next.
On-campus housing refers to dormitories (sometimes called “residence halls”) and apartment-style living that is located on a university’s campus.
Many students love this housing option because it usually gives students the option to walk to class, the library, and on-campus dining. Living on-campus also makes many students feel that they’re more involved in campus social life since the university is right outside their front door...literally.
Each university determines who can or can't live on campus, but it’s pretty common for there to be dorms dedicated to first-year students and optional on-campus housing opportunities for upperclassmen or non-traditional students. In many cases, the dorm situation is a bit like its stereotype: there are roommates, community bathrooms, study groups in the hallways, and Resident Assistants or Advisors (RAs) who will check in to make sure you’re doing well.
But there are a lot of variations to dorm-style housing that students can often choose from. Some dorms offer single rooms (without a roommate!) and private bathrooms. Others offer suite or pod-style housing, where students share a centralized common room with, say, four other individual dorm rooms. Some suites even have a private kitchenette! At some schools, dorms are separated based on gender, while others offer co-ed housing options.
Probably the most exciting thing about living on-campus is the opportunity to spend more time with your friends and classmates. In a dorm situation, there’s almost always someone studying in the hallway, having a movie night in their room, or hanging in the lobby playing games. There are usually quite a few shenanigans, too! On the other hand, though, you can always close your door and take some time to yourself. Living on campus gives you the opportunity to be as social and involved as you feel comfortable with.
There’s also the option of off-campus housing. Many juniors and seniors will choose this housing option, but some schools also allow freshmen and sophomores to opt for off-campus housing as well. The types of off-campus housing that are available and affordable usually depends on the town or city your college is located in. It’s common for off-campus college students to rent apartments, townhouses, or regular houses and live with roommates to keep the costs affordable.
Finding off-campus housing is a bit different from signing up to live on-campus in the dorms. With off-campus housing, it’s going to be your responsibility to find an apartment, put in an application, and have conversations with friends about splitting rent and bills. That means you'll have to be proactive about finding off-campus housing!
It’s also important to think about who you’re willing to live with for a year (or longer). Unlike in the dorms, there won’t be an RA to help mediate disagreements about the living space, and it’ll be much more difficult to get out of a rental agreement in a house or apartment. Choose your roommates wisely! Just because you're BFFs with a person doesn't mean you'll be able to cohabitate well.
Besides finding roommates for off-campus housing, many students wonder if they’ll become disconnected from campus life if they move off-campus. You might have to make more of an effort to get to campus and spend time attending events there. On the flip side, if you live off-campus your junior and senior year, you might have a core group of friends established already, and enjoy the opportunity to hang out in your own spaces away from campus. So really, you'll be able to dictate how involved you are (or aren't!) once you move into off-campus housing.
No matter what your major is, you'll need to develop time management skills to stay on top of your academics. (Managing your time will also help you fit fun things into your schedule, too!)
How Do College Students Manage Their Time?
The last aspect of college life that we’ll address is time management, because it plays a big role in shaping what a college student’s experience will be like in all of the other areas described here. Developing a time management plan will allow you to dedicate your time to several different things during college without becoming burnt out along the way.
Everyone is unique, which means you'll have to experiment to find the time management tactics that work best for you. Digital reminders are a good motivator for some students, while others like to keep a paper calendar on the wall of their dorm room. Whatever your approach to time management, it’s important that you figure out your time management techniques early in your college career. That way you stay on top of your work, keep your GPA up, and can still have a great time!
Additionally, college students will tell you that it’s important to prioritize the academic side of college life in your time management strategy. Brooke, a student in New York, says this:
“Put your classes first. I know this sounds crazy, especially if you’re a freshman, you might be thinking, ‘Of course I’ll go to class!’. But in college, not everyone goes to class. Especially if it’s in a mass lecture hall and [the professors] aren’t taking attendance, it’s really easy to skip and be like, ‘I’m just not gonna go’. But I don’t agree with that. I think that the first step to success in school is going to class.”
Brooke’s advice on how to make sure you make it to class every time? Use your planner. You can check out our favorite digital and physical planners that will set you up for academic success in this article. Even if you didn't use a planner in high school, you'll need to get into the habit in college if you want to keep all of your assignments, due dates, and extracurricular activities straight.
In general, most college students will tell you that the only bad time management strategy is not having one at all! They’d also probably tell you that no one is perfect, and that’s okay. There will probably be at least a handful of times when you forget about a quiz or have to study at the last minute. If you’re doing your best, just cut yourself some slack when you have an off-day. It happens to every college student sometimes! You just want to avoid making it a habit.
While college can be tough, following our advice can make sure you don't feel like Grizzled Leonardo DiCaprio by the time you graduate.
4 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your College Experience
Since much of what college is like will be up to you, here are four tips for getting everything you can out of these four years of your life!
Tip 1: Get a Planner
We already mentioned this, but it's worth saying again: if you want to make the most of the time you have in college, get and use a planner. Planning how to spend your time on a daily and weekly basis is key to your overall success.
Budgeting your time well allows you to really enjoy your leisure time too. When you're on top of your schedule, you don't have to stress out about when you'll do your homework or if you'll have a few hours to relax. You'll already have those things mapped out! Keeping up with a planner takes consistency and commitment, but the time and stress it will save you is worth it in the grand scheme of your college experience.
Tip 2: Get Involved
One of the best things about college life is the chance to be a part of a community of peers in a place that is totally dedicated to facilitating a positive experience for you. The more you put yourself out there and get involved in that community, the more likely it is that you’ll feel like your college is a place where you belong.
Pursuing extracurricular activities and attending social events on campus is the best way to meet new people, make friends, and find people to make memories with during college. Feeling connected to the people around you can make college feel like a home away from home--and that’s never a bad thing.
Tip 3: Be Present
There’s nothing wrong with snagging some quality pics for your Insta story or keeping in touch with family/friends back home, but one of the best ways to feel like you’re having meaningful experiences in your college social life is by just being present. When you get to know your dorm neighbors, chat with the person sitting next to you in class, or strike up a convo with the person in line behind you at a coffee shop, you open yourself up to new knowledge, new relationships, and powerful memories from your college years.
It may be tempting to go home to visit old friends every weekend or hide out in your room, especially at the beginning of college, but taking the plunge and allowing yourself to dive into the newness of college will help you feel more invested in making it a positive experience.
Tip 4: Work Hard
Since it sometimes feels like there’s endless free time in college, it can be easy to put off the difficult parts of the experience, like studying for tests, getting homework done, and writing essays. Most students want to do well in their classes and make good grades, but it can be hard to feel motivated if it seems like everyone around you is somehow always out having fun instead of hitting the books.
Though it might be a drag at the time, working hard on a consistent basis--especially early in the semester--will make the academic side of your college experience less painful in the long run. When you pay attention in class, show up consistently, and study hard, you save yourself from having to retake courses, pull all-nighters during finals week, or beg your professors for extra credit at the end of the semester.
You've probably realized that college can be pretty dang awesome. We agree! Now it's time to focus on getting in. This article will give you a general overview of the college application process. You can learn even more about specific aspects of your application, like your admissions essays and entrance interviews, on our blog! We have tons of amazing resources for college hopefuls, so be sure to check it out.
One of the keys to having a great college experience is picking a school that's right for you. The good news is that there are tons of colleges out there! The bad news is that it can be hard to narrow the field down. Learn more about how to choose your potential schools here.
For some students, academics are the most important part of choosing their dream school. If that's the case for you, be sure to check out our guide to the top academic colleges in the United States.
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Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.