10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started College (as a Sophomore Computer Science Major)

With the new academic year starting and millions of students arriving on campus - either returning or making their first visit - everyone wants to be as prepared as they can be for the chaotic college experience. After successfully making my way through my first year (more or less) and already making headway into my second, I’ve learned quite a bit about the college experience - though some lessons would’ve been better to know beforehand! Here are some of the main things I’ve learned and wished I knew about before I started college. 

1. It’s a lot harder to get an A in college than in high school

A lot of people told me that college classes would be harder than high school classes, and that the different grading scales would make achieving the top grade more difficult.  I always brushed these kinds of comments away, thinking to myself, “how hard could it really be to get all A’s?”.  The answer?  Pretty hard.  For one, an A is no longer anything 90 and above.  Different classes have different grading scales, but the typical A (the one that counts as a 4.0 in your GPA) is a 95 and higher - a big difference from high school.  Meaning, the same 90 that barely saved your GPA in high school could now be worth a 3.7 in college terms.  

Apart from the grading scale, college classes are also structured in a way that puts a lot more responsibility on you to get your work done.  Teachers often assume students will regularly check the syllabus to stay up-to-date on required readings and coursework, making it very easy to let assignments pass you by and drop your grade.  It’s important to stay on top of deadlines in whatever way works for you - using a planner, making sticky notes, setting reminders, or using an app.  Anything to keep you organized helps!

2. Curves can save your grade - but they can also tank it

Many classes - especially STEM classes - use curves on exams, homeworks, and even the final grade to create a more even distribution of scores across all students.  In some cases, where the curve is algebraic or where the teacher adds a certain number of points to everyone, the curve can help you.  In others, where the curve is rank-based and your grade is only as good as the students you do better than, it is much harder to get a good grade.  If there is a curve for some portion of the class, be sure to figure out what it is early on!

3. Clubs are organized way differently

In high school, clubs would meet once a week at most for a quick after-school meeting or a short before-school session.  Unless you were competing or working on a project of sorts, high school clubs wouldn’t take up more than an hour or two a week.  That’s not the case in college.  For one, the variety of clubs available is much larger than in high school.  There are hundreds of options from career-oriented to service-based to cultural to hobby-specific clubs to choose from.  Some of these clubs might only meet once or twice a semester.  Others might meet several times a week for a few hours each time, with additional things to complete outside of standard club meeting times.  

Speaking of which, college clubs don’t usually meet right at 3:30 like high school clubs since many students have variable class schedules that could go well into the evening.  To accommodate, college clubs usually meet any time between 5pm and 9pm.  This later time might take a little getting used to, but it does end up being pretty convenient with schedule planning!

4. Career fairs occur often - and they hire early

You’ll hear about career fairs happening at least once a month at college.  These are great ways to interact with potential hirers and practice interview techniques.  Career fairs are also great opportunities for networking.  You’ll meet countless people in your field at these kind of events - talk to them and build connections!

            As a freshman, I didn’t pay too much attention to career fairs until the middle of second semester when I started looking for summer internships.  While there were still a few options available at this time, most of the ones I wanted had already filled their available spots for the summer and were focused on hiring for the next year.  In fact, most of the summer positions I was looking at were filled during career fairs during first semester and the very first weeks of second semester. So pro tip: go to career fairs earlier rather than later!

5. You’ll have a crazy amount of homework in college

            A good estimate for how much homework you’ll have is to account for around 2-3 hours of homework for every one hour of class. So for example, if you have 2 hours of class one day, you can expect around 6 hours of homework.  Now of course, this is not standardized in any way. In fact, some classes give much more than 3 hours of homework a night while others don’t give any at all. The x3 rule is just a general estimate. 

            Typically, STEM classes will give a lot of homework involving problems requiring some form of calculations or analysis.  Most science and even some math classes will also have labs that require you to do certain pre-lab and post-lab reports, readings, and computations to better understand the material. In contrast, humanities classes will have a lot of required readings and papers to write.  For some, you might even need to perform some of your own research.  Each is time-consuming in its own way, but the heavy workload from some classes will often be balanced out with a lighter workload from others, making daily homework more manageable. 

6. You’ll have a crazy amount of free time in college

            I know, I know, I just said that you’ll be drowning in homework most nights, but trust me, you’ll also have a lot of free time. You go to class for a significantly shorter time in college than you do in high school. Even if you register for the max number of classes allowed (18 credits at my university, 19 with special permission), you’ll only be in class for around half the time you were in class in high school. There are many ways to organize classes for your schedule, but a typical schedule has 2-5 hours of class on any given day, whereas most high schools had 7-8 hour long days. 

            Yes, a good chunk of your newfound free time will be filled with homework and maybe even extracurriculars like clubs or music or sports, but there are still going to be at least a couple of hours every day where you don’t have anything to do. Take this time to relax or hang out with friends or explore campus!  As important as it is to stay on top of your schoolwork, it is equally important to take good breaks to decompress and return to your best state of mind. 

7. There are lots of ways to play team sports - even if you’re not good at them

            When most people think of college athletes, they probably think of college football or basketball. They might picture highly talented individuals who excelled in their sport for years before being selected to a college team and continue to practice for hours a day.  While there are certainly athletes like this at college (and if you’re one of them, congratulations! It’s very impressive to be good enough at a sport to play on a college team!), there are still plenty of opportunities for more casual players. 

            Club sports is a great way to play and compete with people who are skilled, but don’t want the time commitment of playing directly for the university.  Club athletes usually have more flexible practice schedules, but still get to play against clubs in other colleges and compete at the state and even national level.  At the next level, there’s also intramural sports.  You can either play on an intramural team comprised of your friends (for team sports) or play by yourself (for solo sports) and compete against other intramural players. Intramural sports are usually limited to the college itself and have a very small time commitment.  Intramural is great for people who’d like to play sports for fun without a huge commitment to practice or events. 

            Many residence halls on campus even rent out sports equipment for a couple hours at a time and you can play for fun whenever you’d like across the various courts and fields across campus.  Many colleges also host competitions for casual players to play different sports against other students.  Research the opportunities your college offers to learn more about the specifics!

To conclude, college may seem daunting, but it’s really a great experience where you’ll learn a lot about things you’re passionate about and make amazing friends and memories.  I hope this list helps you be more prepared for college, but I know it can’t prepare you for everything you’ll encounter at college.  But don’t worry, you got this!  Just remember that you have lots of resources available to you for nearly everything you might need while at college.  Good luck and have a great year!