10 Ways to Finesse the Transition from High School to College

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The only thing that changes when you graduate from high school to college is…everything.

When you arrive on campus that first week, you suddenly have to scramble to figure out your living situation, your classes, and your new friends…For many students, the transition from high school to college will be the biggest change in their lives.  Fortunately, it’s also loaded with new freedoms, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and more than a few good times.

You can start preparing for your high school to college transition long before you even step onto campus.  Here are 10 ways to get ahead of the game:

1. Become a Natural Networker

Those high school cliques from ‘80s movies don’t really apply in college.  You’ll meet a whole new range of mature, interesting and driven people.  College is the time in your life when you really start to self-advocate – to present yourself to others so that you can obtain the best connections for your life, education and career.   

You can start developing your networking game in high school by reaching out to NSHSS partner organizations that specifically serve high school students.

2. The Salad Bar is Your Friend

Between the food court and late-night pizza, the “Freshman 15” is not a myth. If you’re on the meal plan, every single meal is an all-you-can-eat buffet of rich entrees and calorie-bomb desserts (not to mention the unlimited bacon at breakfast...). 

It’s a good idea to learn about healthy food choices in college before you’re standing in front of the self-serve ice cream sundae station.  Start every meal with the salad bar: having a huge assortment of fresh-cut veggies at every meal is a rare nutritional luxury that you’ll miss later on.

3. Follow the Money

You will never have access to so many sources of money as you do in college. Between student financial aid, scholarships, grants, stipends and work-study programs, there are mountains of cash waiting for motivated students to grab them. That’s one perk of college versus high school:  you get thousands of dollars instead of a teenager’s allowance. 

Scholarships sit at the very top of the money pile.  Most cover tuition, and many cover all or part of living expenses.  Typically, you get this funding free-and-clear so long as you maintain a certain GPA. You can start landing college scholarships through NSHSS while still in high school.   

4. No Such Thing as a “Free” Lunch

Student loans, by contrast, sit at the bottom of the money pile.  This “free” college money actually has to get paid back.  Today, there are over 40 million Americans paying off student debt.  For many, this monthly payment represents a significant chunk of their paycheck.

The federal government provides student loans up to a certain amount, beyond which most students need to supplement with additional private loans.  (The two are typically coupled together into one financial aid package.)  Unlike private loans, federal education loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. 

You can start familiarizing yourself with student loan repayments with the Federal Student Aid calculator.  Make an appointment with an officer at your college’s student aid office well before you sign on the dotted line. They can demystify what compound interest will look like 10, 20 or even 30 years into the future, and help you find the best ways to minimize your debt after graduation. 

5. Become a Self-Directed Learner

When you get to college, you finally break free of the standardized high school curriculum. This reprieve comes with a new responsibility:  you’ve got to take charge of your own education.  This is more than taking a 101 course in Art History or Communications. 

You have to take the reins and be consistently educating yourself about the next steps in your life.  No teacher will give this information to you.  Want to get a head start?  Attend a National Society of High School Honor Students event like our college and career fairs, where you can take advantage of amazing networking opportunities. 

6. Be Down With your Profs

If you see a prof that you like during your first weeks of class, look for the “office hours” on your syllabus and make an appointment to see them.   Developing a good relationship with at least one professor (preferably in your major, and in a class you’re performing well in) is one of the most important things you can do in college.   

After you graduate, send that prof a friendly check-in email every year and let them know how you’re doing.  They will be thrilled to hear from you as 99% of their students simply ghost out of their lives forever once class ends. Some day they might just provide that key recommendation for your first-choice job or grad school.     

7. Land that First-Choice College

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get into your first-choice school; you can always transfer up.  But you’re more likely to thrive if you don’t feel like you got second prize.  One of the best ways to dominate the admission process is to attend NSHSS events where you can meet with multiple college admissions counselors.  

Here’s the special sauce:  Ask a college admissions counselor how they like serving in that role.  You’ll be amazed at how they can open up when a student actually asks them a question. This is one way to stand out from the pack.  You’ll leave a memorable impression.

8. Make the Library Your Office

Any night can be a weekend night in college.  If you live in the dorms, you’re going to be surrounded by students who want to socialize, party, or go outside at a moment’s notice.  This can make for a great time…or a great distraction.  

Treat the library like your office.  Set regular hours, go in and get your work done, and, whenever possible, finish for the day so you can be “off-the-clock” when you go home.  Most college libraries even have quiet rooms for study (sometimes you need to ask for a key at the front desk.)  

Students often return to the same table or carrel every time they go into the library.  It’s not a bad idea to get into that library the very first day of class and stake your claim to some prime real estate for your new “office”.

9. Stay Connected to the World Outside College

While college may seem idyllic and self-contained, you can’t stay there forever (otherwise no one would ever leave!).  

Someday, you will have to graduate, and you’ll feel a whole lot better about your future if you’ve been actively developing relationships with employers and organizations outside your college.  This may be the most important long-term strategy of college success, and it’s something that you can begin in high school by reaching out to NSHSS partners with programs for college students.

10. Call Home

This should be on every list of college freshman tips.  As one undergraduate dean chuckled, “every September, I get calls from worried parents who haven’t heard from their freshman son or daughter.  Usually, this is because their kid is having so much fun that they forget to call home.”  

Remember, your parents miss you and want to hear how college is going.  Set a regular time to Zoom with them on Sundays.

Get Ahead of the College Game

While high school is good at providing the academic base for college, it really doesn’t prepare you for the whole experience. An excellent way to finesse the high school to college transition is to take advantage of the wide range of scholarships, events, internships and student opportunities offered by The National Society of High School Scholars.  You can jump right in by meeting college representatives and participating in college-oriented workshops at NSHSS events.