Homework, College Style

As consultants, we love to answer high school students’ questions, and we get a lot of them.  They can range from the academic and factual: “what’s a polynomial, again?” all the way up to big, open-ended life questions: “how do I figure out what I’m passionate about?”  With juniors and seniors, one of the most common biggies we receive is “what is the schoolwork in college actually going to be like?”

As with most open-ended life questions, the short answer is “it depends.”  No two people are going to have the same experience.  However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of common ground! We all deal with larger assignments, more (and drastically different) reading, and less structure to help us manage our time.  It can feel daunting, but we all get through it!

In today’s blog, an interview with the remarkable Samuel J., we explore the question of workload in college: what is it like, and how did he make it work?

  • How would you describe college coursework compared to high school coursework?

Since you have a greater degree of control in choosing your courses, college presents much more interesting, engaging material to read and analyze. Coming from a political science/sociology background, I’d often look forward to completing homework assignments. Furthermore, most of the work is purely intellectual – there are no mindless worksheets to keep you occupied outside of class. There’s plenty of room for discussion and debate; passivity is not the order of the day.

  • How did your workload change when you went from high school to college? 

The intro to science/basic math courses are not all that much more labor intensive than they are in high school. The reading load, however, is much, much greater. Even if you only have class a couple of times a week, you should probably be reading (and re-reading) each course’s materials throughout that period, NOT just the night before or the day of.

  • Did your workload increase as you progressed in your major?

Not really. I read a lot and blogged outside of school, so the demands of upper level political science classes just meant that I do more formal work and less recreationally. I stayed on top of my assignments during the week (I tried to treat them like a job) and often had weekends free to take trips or read novels.

Re-reading and organizing course material, though, is more labor intensive than simply thinking you “got” it after one cursory journey through whatever materials are assigned. I remember reading two pieces for International Relations Theory and thinking “They’re saying the same thing.” NOPE! The two texts were completely at odds over the methods and aims of studying International Relations Theory. I didn’t embarrass myself in class, but, when I realized my error, I became a much more assiduous note-taker and summarizer in all of my classes.

  • Did you find the work more difficult? 

The rigor of college wasn’t terribly different from that of high school AP classes. However, the material that I was expected to understand and comment on for my major (international monetary policy, various models of political decision making, and the sociological approach to religion) was much more difficult to make sense of. Academic lingo can be a very intimidating and time-consuming dialect to pick up. Just because an article looks short, it’s likely going to take 2-3 times longer than what you expect to make sense of it.

  • How often did you feel like you had too much work?

There were times when I would let my discipline get lax and wouldn’t have any days off. I fulfilled an internship during my first two semesters that took me off campus 1-2 times a week. Managing that work with the transportation logistics was challenging and often frustrating. After my freshman year, though, I managed to keep myself motivated and organized to meet all of my academic obligations.

  • Were finals more or less stressful than high school finals?

Finals were definitely more stressful, maybe in part because of how visibly stressed everyone around me was. I only recall one or two make-or-break exam situations, and I do not recall them fondly.

For example, after failing two statistics tests in a row, I had to score a 90% OR BETTER on the last quiz to avoid taking the final (which almost surely would have torpedoed my tenuous A in the class.) I studied hard and aced the quiz, stress I could have avoided had I stayed on top of it earlier.  I found that reviewing my notes and looking up any odd gaps in my knowledge in the days prior to a test were good enough for me to feel prepared.
In a not-easy geography class, I managed to score the highest grade on the first test and snuck onto the right side of the A/B curve. Both of those experiences were during sophomore year. After that year, I had the hang of things.

For more from Samuel J., check out his fantastic post on choosing his university, “College Bound.”