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August 22, 2019
3 mins read

Learning at university vs. high school

You might have heard from your teachers, siblings, or friends that university classes can be pretty different from high school.

Maybe you’re expecting lower grades and harder classes. And while it’s not uncommon to see a dip in your marks (it’s okay if you don’t maintain your average from high school), there are also great things about studying at a university.

Sure, you might have bigger assignments, but you also have a lot more academic freedom. You get to choose the majors and classes that interest you, and learning what you love (or even finding out what your interests are) is the beauty of university.

I learned that I didn’t have to be a ‘yes’ person

At the start of my first term, I thought I had to accept the syllabus readings as gospel. After all, how dare a first year criticize literary legends, like Thomas Hobbes or Margaret Atwood? 

My Arts One seminar prof actually encouraged us to challenge the texts and to poke holes in their arguments. That class taught me how to critically analyze ideas and stick to my convictions—and, in fact, some of my best essays have come from books I hated!

Here are some more lessons and personal stories from our own UBC Life writers that can help you adjust to university academics this fall:

You’re in charge of your own learning

“In my experience, I’ve noticed that profs, like high school teachers, may assign questions from the textbook and give out worksheets. The difference is that whereas high school teachers are more likely to hold students accountable and check for homework completion, profs don’t really do (or have the time to do) the same. Many of these extra resources are ‘strongly encouraged.’ I try to take the learning into my own hands and treat myself the way I would a student I’m tutoring. Put the effort in, stay focussed.”

Shawn Chang, 2nd year Science student (Combined Honours in Biochemistry and Forensic Science)

You can learn what you really love

“I think the biggest difference between uni and high school is that in university, you have the autonomy to choose topics that you actually want to learn about. I remember being able to choose my own topic for the final essay in my first-year history class. I chose the British suffragette movement because it stood out to me from a lecture and I wanted to learn more about it. To this day, that was one of my favourite assignments because it was the first time I genuinely enjoyed the research and learned the content for myself, and not just to pass the essay.”

Sarah-Louise Carter, UBC alumna (Economics and Commerce), B.A. '18

Failure can reveal your strengths

“I hadn’t experienced academic failure until I got to university. When I did, it hit me like a bus and changed the direction of my studies. But I soon realized it only shifted my focus from subjects I was struggling with to areas of my degree I really enjoyed. I could then use my energy to learn what I wanted to instead of feeling pressured to study what I didn’t enjoy and did not do well in.”

Maham Kamal Khanum, 5th year Arts student (International Relations)

You can enjoy the journey

“High school can feel like a bit of a race at times—your grades can make a big difference in being accepted to university, and I always felt like I was competing with my peers to get the best marks. In university, it's more about the journey than the finish line. Grades still matter for scholarships or for grad school, but I was able to focus more on the process of learning and felt satisfied with my work without having to 'compete' against my coursemates for the best marks.”

Jordan Johnston, UBC alumnus (International Relations), B.A. '19

You can push the limits

“In high school, assignments were all about meeting expectations and answering questions in a predetermined way. University profs want more than that—you won’t get an exceptional grade unless you’ve really gone above and beyond in some way or another. I started getting much better grades on my essays once I started coming up with my own research questions or challenging the foundations of the ones provided. Profs like when you push the limits, ask good questions, and take chances with the kind of work you’re doing!”

Emily Morantz, UBC alumna (English Honours), B.A. '18


That being said, brilliant and original epiphanies don’t come to you overnight the minute you start university, and you will probably face a few challenges during your degree. Some key advice: go to office hours! And maybe revamp how you study for max productivity—but remember that your grades do not define who you are.

Trust that learning is a process at any age. Like UBC’s motto, Tuum Est, what you take away from university is up to you.