Survival Guide for College-Bound Honor Roll Students

Table of Contents: College Survival Guide for Honor Roll Students
1. 8 Major Differences Between High School & College
2. Challenges Straight ‘A’ Students Face in College
3. 6 Quick Tips for College Success
4. On Campus Support Services for High-Achieving Students
5. Is an Honors Program in College Right for Me?
6. Expert Advice: Jason Patel
7. Additional Resources for College Success

Unique Challenges Straight ‘A’ Students Face & How to Conquer Them

For high school honor students who thrive on academics, college is the natural next step to build on their achievements. It’s a path many people take – in the fall of 2017, roughly 17.5 million students enrolled in undergraduate programs at U.S. colleges and universities. However, even straight-A and high-GPA students can struggle once they hit college. Some choose prestigious universities that demand far more than what was expected in high school. Other times, the newfound freedoms of college life derail good learning habits. To make a smooth transition between high school and college, keep reading to learn more about the differences between the two arenas, how to avoid common mistakes, and what resources are available to ensure success.

8 Major Differences Between High School & College

High school coursework in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate programs is extremely demanding—but it’s only a warm-up for college, where there’s usually more work to be completed in a shorter time frame, usually with little oversight or guidance from professors outside the classroom.

Honors students who are used to breezing through their classes may struggle with the additional workload, compressed due dates, and absence of routines that permeates high school education. Following are some of the ways in which college is an entirely different undertaking than high school.

High School

  • Attendance is mandatory, and class schedules are largely dictated by school administration.
  • Teachers assign homework, papers, and projects, and often provide ample time in class to complete work. They usually remind students about important due dates to help students stay on track.
  • Classes are scheduled one after another to fill up the entire school day.
  • Course material can often be easily assimilated with a modest amount of study time.
  • Teachers are readily available, even during class times, to discuss their students’ work, projects, term papers, reports and other coursework.
  • High school teachers typically spend more effort emphasizing what to study and helping students understand material.
  • Completing homework properly, and doing extra-credit projects, can raise your grade.
  • Teachers will tell students what they missed if they are absent.


  • Although certain classes are required to earn a degree, students have much more control over what courses they take and when they take them. College professors may not take roll, but attendance is still expected.
  • Students receive a class syllabus with all essential information, and all work is completed outside the classroom. Class time is devoted to lecture and discussion of course material. Professors may not remind students of important due dates.
  • Classes have varying start times, and students may have open hours between classes.
  • College students are expected to devote several hours of study time each day for each class – some spend even more time studying for advanced upper-division subject matter.
  • Professors post regular office hours, and students may have to wait to speak with their professors during these pre-determined times.
  • Professors can lecture for the duration of the class. Students are responsible for taking notes and identifying crucial points that may show up on exams.
  • Grades are usually determined solely through quizzes and tests, papers, mid-terms and final exams.
  • Students are expected to get notes from their peers if they miss class.

Challenges Straight ‘A’ Students Face in College

High-achieving students enjoy the prestige of being the cream of the crop during high school, earning the respect of their teachers, school administrators and peers. That can change in college, especially at upper-tier universities where students are surrounded by similar high-achievers whose light may shine even brighter. And that’s just academics – college students are also tasked with overcoming a host of other young adult issues that have tripped up many successful high school honors students.

Here are five common issues college students face, as well as tips to help overcome them:

Financial management.

Incoming freshmen who have moved away from home may depend on their parents for money, but they can’t rely on them for the day-to-day management of expenses. Creating a budget, separating needs from wants, and using credit cards responsibly—or avoiding them altogether—can help keep a student’s money in the safest place: the bank.


This is a natural part of the college experience, especially for young adults living on their own for the first time. Part of the cure lies in creating new friendships and scheduling non-academic activities to keep boredom at a minimum. As long as students aren’t overscheduled to the point that classes suffer, activities will help stave off feelings of homesickness. It’s also important to realize that feeling blue is normal—it passes.

Life skills.

For many students, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, budgeting, and generally taking full responsibility for their daily lives is an entirely new experience. There’s no road map for developing these and other crucial life skills, such as paying rent, signing a lease, or buying a car. Talk to parents and friends to get advice, surf the Internet for tips, and don’t hesitate to reach out for help when it’s needed.

Coping with stress.

Stress is a normal part of the college experience – and honors students are not exempt. Tests, deadlines and academic workload are all triggers for stress; however, there are many resources for learning to cope. One key to beating stress is to get ahead of it: work in advance of deadlines and learn effective study habits to reduce anxiety before tests.

Social anxiety.

College is about getting an education, but that doesn’t rule out time for fun. Attending sports events, going to parties, and just hanging out with friends is all part of the college experience. People who suffer from social anxiety may avoid these experiences, but even small or low-key interactions are important breakthroughs. If anxiety is an issue, create a list of important social activities and check them off one by one. Practice makes these types of interactions less intimidating over time.

It’s normal to be intimidated, feel lost or even unsure of whether you can successfully finish the year. The good news is that you are strong, and you can make it.

Jason Patel

6 Quick Tips for College Success

Success in college requires a well-planned approach and dedication — the same things that helped honors students excel throughout high school. The game plan for college needs to be modified a bit, though, since college is more complex and comes with different challenges. Following are five tips for honors students to help them thrive.

  • Create a schedule that allows for breaks between classes.
    Not only do breaks give you a chance to grab a bite to eat to keep your energy up, a schedule with a few gaps also provides valuable on-campus study time. That time could easily slip away if you’re in the dorm room, but on campus, you can head to the library and use it wisely. That will also free up precious, off-campus personal time.
  • Form relationships with your professors.
    Introduce yourself to your instructors and strive to participate during class. Stop by during their office hours. Continue that hard-earned reputation as an excellent student – the professor you get to know may be the one who writes that crucial letter of reference for a job, scholarship or grad school admission.
  • Plan ahead.
    Procrastination has sunk many college students, even high achievers. Waiting until the last moment to study or write term papers usually results in lower-quality grades and papers. Experienced professors can sniff out a rush job, especially from good students who normally display strong writing skills and are likely to grade accordingly.
  • Polish your writing skills.
    Many professors require students to write term papers that determine a large portion of their class grade. Strong written communication skills are essential not only in college but also later, in the workplace. College writing centers are the perfect place to gain these essential skills. Also, consider taking an English grammar course in college – it can markedly improve your writing skills and, by extension, your grades.
  • Connect!
    Establish a study network with like-minded students to help you understand and assimilate course material and earn better grades. As a bonus, study groups are also a great way to make friends.
  • Explore Your Options.
    A main goal of college is to prepare for a job, but it’s also an ideal time to explore different routes—and it’s okay to change your mind about your interests or career trajectory. Don’t be afraid to sign up for classes that seem interesting, even if they’re not directly related to your intended major.

On Campus Support Services for High-Achieving Students

Colleges and universities typically have a robust set of resources to help students succeed, whether they need academic counseling or emotional support. Honors students should consider tapping into these five on-campus resources to ensure their successful transition into college life.

Academic advising.

Some colleges assign first-year students an academic adviser who helps plan their freshman and sophomore year class schedules. Other colleges have a department where students can drop in for advising. Advisers provide an important link between a college and its students. They help ensure students take the proper courses in the proper sequence, as well as create a clear academic pathway to graduation.

Academic support center.

Even honors students may need additional help with difficult college classes. Colleges provide learning and tutoring centers free of charge to help students succeed. Tutors are usually graduate students or upper-division students who have mastered pertinent coursework.

The library.

The Dewey Decimal System may have taken a backseat to Google in the Internet age, but the library is still a vital resource for college students. College libraries come equipped with computers for student use—and some things are still only found in books. The library is also an excellent individual and group study venue, minimizing distractions while offering full resources.

Campus counseling center.

High achievers struggling to adjust to college life should visit their campus counseling center. These trained professionals can offer confidential help to students for problems such as stress, anxiety or depression; relationship issues; academic performance; self-esteem, gender identity or sexual orientation; and personal issues or crises that may arise during the school year. According to the annual Penn State Center for Collegiate Mental Health, about 53 percent of visits to college counseling centers were for mental health issues in the 2016-2017 school year.

Career center.

For many, college is about gaining the education and skill set that leads to a career. The career center focuses these efforts by providing career guidance, resume-writing help, and a place to practice and polish interview skills. It’s also a great resource for finding both on- and off-campus jobs.

Is an Honors Program in College Right for Me?

Exceptional students may want to consider enrolling in a college honors program, which will demand more rigorous academic performance but also offer opportunities beyond a regular curriculum.

  • What are honors colleges and programs?

    Honors programs consist of classes that typically are of a higher caliber and are more complex than standard college coursework. As such, they require students to demonstrate higher levels of critical thinking and aptitude. Many state colleges create honors programs to lure in exceptional students who might otherwise enroll in prestigious private universities. Graduates’ diplomas often denote this honors status.

  • Should I consider an honors program in college?

    There are positives and negatives that come with being in an honors college or program. Here are some of the most common issues outstanding students should consider before enrolling:

    Smaller class size. Honors students constitute a minor portion of the student body at state schools.
    Priority registration. Classes are more difficult and cover much more ground than standard classes.
    Students earn the equivalent of a private school education for the cost of tuition at a state school. Students risk lower GPAs. An A in a regular course is worth more to the GPA than a B- in an honors course.
    Honors credentials carry great weight for grad school admissions. Employers may not pay much attention to an honors degree, instead focusing on work history.
    Students are placed with similar exceptional students. The added academic burden takes time from other activities, such as volunteering or extra-curricular activities, that are important for grad school admission and scholarship review committees.

  • Who is eligible to apply?

    There are many different ways students can earn honors eligibility. Typically, students are judged by their GPA and their standardized test scores (SAT or ACT). In some instances, colleges require current students to complete a certain amount of credit hours before applying to honors programs.

  • Are there resources available specifically for students enrolled in honors programs?

    Students in honors programs have access to the same resources as regular students – academic advising, counseling, etc. However, they also often receive special campus housing facilities that place them with other honors students, and they enjoy greater access to their university’s top professors.

  • How do I get into an honors college?

    Each college has its own method of determining honors applicants. For example, Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College has a review committee that evaluates a student’s academic credentials, extra-curricular activities, leadership, critical thinking and writing skills, letters of recommendation and personal desire to enroll in the program. Students should check with their academic advisers to determine specific requirements and steps.

Expert Advice:
College Transition & Success for High-Achieving Students

Jason Patel is founder of Transizion, a college prep company that provides boot camps and tutoring on the college application, SAT prep and academic subjects. Patel earned a bachelor’s degree in political communication from George Washington University and has helped more than a thousand students, young professionals and C-level executives with college admissions and college success.

What are some tips for straight-A students transitioning to college?

Many really smart students coasted through high school and think they can do the same in college. This won’t be possible – you won’t be able to rely on raw intelligence to get you through college. College is not free, and if you don’t take your academics seriously, you will suffer both the financial and opportunity costs.

You also will need to be meticulous about organization to achieve your full potential. Write assignments in a planner, and carve out time to complete them. If you have a test coming up, it’s up to you to form a study group and make flashcards. You will not have time during class.

What are some pointers for honors students attending a campus where they are surrounded by people who match their intellect?

Many great students haven’t been challenged like this before. In your first year, be easy on yourself. You might fail a test because you’re used to quickly looking through your notes and acing anything that comes across your desk. Don’t beat yourself up over it; instead, take failure as a learning experience and change the way you study.

What are some ways honors students can balance the pursuit of academic excellence and still enjoy the social aspects of college?

Work purposefully to establish a daily or weekly schedule that allows you to create a balance between the different parts of your life. In addition to attending classes and doing homework, make time to relax. This might mean reading a chapter in a book, taking a hot shower, eating a meal without looking at your phone, calling a friend to come over and watch a movie, or going for a walk in town.

Strive to be your best self. Once you’ve committed to a major, seek out opportunities to get work experience in that field. Don’t graduate from college with a scant resume. Instead of looking like you focused on your academics (hence the great GPA), it may look like you slacked off.Jason Patel

Additional Resources for College Success

In addition to the standard campus resources listed above, honors students can get additional help and support with college through the following resources.

  • Honors-specific scholarships.
    Many colleges offer scholarships specifically dedicated to students enrolled in their honors programs. It’s still competitive to get them, but the pool of applicants is usually smaller.
  • National prestige scholarships.
    Honors students are strong candidates for National Merit, Barry M. Goldwater, Harry S. Truman and other prestige scholarships.
  • Student Success Center.
    Many colleges have dedicated resources and staff to assist with the process of transferring, student disabilities, and undergraduate mentoring and support.
  • Student health services.
    Colleges provide health centers where students can get free or low-cost medical services such as immunizations, nutrition counseling, lab work, health education and sexual health testing.
  • Financial Aid.
    The campus office of financial aid can help students identify grants, loans and scholarship opportunities to help pay for college.
  • Work-study.
    Honors students can’t survive on academics alone. Federal work-study programs can put some extra cash in their pockets.
  • Study abroad.
    Honors students often have opportunities to study abroad or take on internships relevant to their degree paths.
  • iStudiez Pro.
    One of the most popular paid apps for tracking class schedules, grades and key assignments.
  • Evernote.
    One of the most popular note-taking apps on the market, Evernote allows honors students the ability to easily capture and share notes with their study-group peers.
  • My Study Life.
    Free app for budget-conscious students that tracks school schedules, homework and exam dates.

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