Expectation vs Reality: A Conversation with Students on the College Experience


By Kevin Xiong

College Readiness Coordinator


The transition to college can be scary and overwhelming. Many students have been told stories of what to expect for their workload, student life, and classroom expectations. I recently met with college students at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities over lunch during their TRIO Affinity Group time. The TRIO Affinity Group is a space curated by the TRIO Student Support Services program for students who are first-generation college students, students from low to moderate income backgrounds, and students with a disability, to share their college experiences with each other and make connections with those from similar backgrounds. In our conversation, students shared their candid responses about their college experiences and provided some tips to middle and high school students on what they can do now to prepare for college.

One of the biggest topics during our discussion was classroom and workload expectations. Many of the students shared that this was a large source of stress for them and was especially challenging because of the difference between high school and college. All of the students are full-time students taking around 15 credits this semester. Per University policy, “one credit represents an average of three hours of academic work per week (including lectures, laboratories, recitations, discussion groups, field work, study, and so on) in order to complete the work of the course to achieve an average grade.” This means that students taking 15 credits each semester are expected to dedicate on average 45 hours a week to be successful in the course.

(Sophomore, Business and Marketing Education Student): I would say the academics are at different levels in college and high school. In high school, I didn’t have to try hard at all. If I’m taking 15 credits and don’t study for that 40 hours that you’re supposed to, I’m not going to get that grade that I want. The academics are intense and leave you with no social life. You’re always studying and always going to class and you’re always drained. But it gets better as you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, when to study, how to study, it gets better for sure.

(First Year, Undecided Student): You have to work hard or else you fail. You have to balance it. Sometimes if you do want to have a social life, you have to pull those all nighters. It’s really unhealthy . . .

(Senior, Elementary Education Student): I do want to make sure people know that different majors come with different times for studying. Some saying they spend 40 hours a week sound very crazy to me. For me, I don’t feel like the classes are too hard, but maybe an Elementary Education major is not as difficult as other majors. 

(Sophomore, Genetics Student): In high school be glad that the teachers are chasing after you to turn in your assignments. Right now, unless you have small classes, your teachers will rarely check in. In office hours they say it is your responsibility. 

Another topic that students discussed with me was the social aspects of college. Many of the students had to learn how to balance their social lives with their classwork schedule. 

(Junior, Youth Studies Student): Being a commuter student is so different in terms of college experiences. I feel like there is a sense of disconnection. Everyone has access to the rest of the campus and they can get around so easily. To get to events, you have to deliberately take the time to plan and go to those events. It's an added obstacle. Your social life, I think, looks different. I joined [student] organizations, but then also within my major I’m making connections with other people and that’s nice to see other familiar faces in classes.

(Junior, Youth Studies Student): I didn’t realize how individualized college is or can be. You have to always advocate for yourself. Especially, if you come from a more marginalized background. You often have to prove yourself amongst your peers. Not so much professors, but amongst your peers. You never know what you don’t know. There are so many resources and opportunities but it’s a matter of getting connected to them. So if you’re not talking to people, if you're not connecting with your advisor or professors or other people in your classes, then you don’t know what you’re missing out on. 

(First Year, Undecided Student): When I first came I was used to the idea of being independent, but as time went on, I started to realize the importance of community because it started to set in, the loneliness. So, finding a group that you feel like you belong in is very important. 

(Sophomore, Genetics Student): Making friends can be hard… My biggest challenge was finding people who I can vibe with instead of feeling like I’m always in competition with them. In university everybody wants to try to be the best and pass [their classes]. 

Finally, students shared tips with me for what they would want to share with their younger selves. Through the discussion students brought up things they have learned and wished they knew before college. Many of these things include pre-college and first year college tips. 

(Sophomore, Business and Marketing Education Student): Ease myself in AP classes because I felt like that would've helped me adjust better to the academic load in college. I only took one college credit class my senior year which wasn’t enough to prepare me for how much the academic load was going to be. So I felt like if I would have eased myself into one to two AP classes my sophomore year and maybe my senior year do PSEO that would’ve definitely helped me to realize, “I like this class or this is how the academic load will be like.” Also figure out what interests you, so you can align it to your major and apply to multiple colleges regardless of the price.

(Junior, Youth Studies Student): Take advantage of the mentors and resources and experiences you have access to in high school and middle school. I know that there are college access programs you can be a part of, like College Possible or TRIO Upward Bound. For me what helped was having a mentor to navigate the ins and outs of what it takes to go to college. For me, I am first-gen, so I was at ground zero. I had no idea how to apply to college, so having someone to explain how the ACT worked and how college applications worked was helpful. In terms of figuring out your interest, I would say jobs go very far. 

(First Year, Psychology Student): Don’t schedule classes during meal times.

This conversation provided many insights into the college experience. As I listened to their stories and experiences some of my takeaways and insights for future college students include:

  1. The workload in college is different from high school. Expect to spend more time doing your homework than what you might be used to.
  2. Even at a large university, students feel isolated and lonely. Many students expressed that they felt this. You are not alone. Take time to make connections across campus by joining student groups and meeting your classmates.
  3. Have fun! While these quotes are a small snippet of the conversation that we had, after the meeting ended students made plans to study or go to another event on campus together. 

College is a transition. It will take time to get used to the changes and learn all of the resources and experiences that it has to offer. As a student above stated, “it gets better as you figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.” 

About the Author

Kevin Xiong, M.A., is the College Readiness Coordinator within the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. The College Readiness Consortium aims to prepare all students to be college ready through the partnerships with K-12 educators, youth workers, and programs across the UMN campuses. Kevin has extensive experience with college access and success through his work as a High School Counselor, Academic Advisor with the TRIO Student Support Services program, and various college access programs throughout the Twin Cities.

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