Seven differences between high school and university

Student's walking through campus.

ClareMona Written by Clare (she/her) and Mona (she/her), students

If you’re in high school and planning to go to university, you might be unsure about what you’ve signed up for. What is university going to be like? How will I find my classes? How many people are going to be in my class?

These are all valid questions, and we had them too before starting at Waterloo. So, for answers to these questions and many more, look no further. Here are some of the biggest differences between university and high school.

You're in charge of yourself

At my high school, if I didn’t show up to a class, my mom would get a phone call and I’d get a “talking-to.” However, in university, there’s no attendance list. Whether or not you show up is up to you — but remember, you’re paying for the class whether you attend or not.

Some classes will take attendance as part of a participation mark, but for the most part, nobody is holding you accountable to show up for class.

It’s your choice to attend class and do your work — not your professors' and not your parents’. Nobody is going to tell you to do that assignment — it’s up to you to get it done!

This freedom can be exciting, but remember, with great power comes great responsibility. Not being hounded to go to class and do your work can often present a challenge, especially for a master procrastinator.

But don’t worry too much, soon after starting school you’ll get an understanding of what works for you and how you can motivate yourself to get work done.

At the start of your new-found freedom, you might find yourself staying up too late all the time, not spending money wisely, or making other decisions that you may not have in high school. This is pretty common, so don’t beat yourself up if you do it too! Soon enough, you’ll learn how to succeed on your own.

It can be challenging to figure out a new schedule, create a budget, and figure out transportation, but don't worry, lots of other first-year students are going through this at the same time — and you’ll figure it out in due time.

Students studying together.

Independent learning

In university, you’ll do a lot of learning outside of regular class hours. Readings and assignments are just as important as the content covered in lectures.

For some classes, you’ll be in a classroom for only three hours a week, but you’ll spend much more time doing readings on your own. This can be hard to get used to!

When I was in high school, all new content was covered in class and homework was only to reinforce what I already learned. When I got to university and started doing learning on my own, I found it difficult. However, by now, I'm used to it, and I actually like doing some independent learning.

Flexible schedule

Whether you went to a semestered or non-semestered high school, you probably had school during the same time, every day of the week.

In university, you'll no longer have a set time for school and you'll often have lots of time between classes.

I love having gaps between my classes because they're the perfect time to grab a meal, hang out with friends, get involved with Waterloo's clubs and sports, and study. You have flexibility with how you want your week to look like.


You know exactly when all your tests and assignments are due

Imagine knowing exactly when each assignment is due, each test and each project, for the entire course on the first day of school.

Well, this is exactly what a course syllabus tells you, and right on your first day of class, you know exactly when everything is due for the next four months. This really helps you plan out your term — and getting a giant calendar planner to hang in your room really becomes important!

Distance between classes

Students walking on campus.

Moving from elementary school to high school, I remember how exciting it was to be able to switch classrooms at the end of class. But now, rather than moving from classroom to classroom, you will likely be going from building to building between classes.

In high school, most classes are in one building. At Waterloo (and most other universities), classes are spread out in buildings all over campus! This can be difficult for the first little while — I know that I got lost more than I care to admit! However, during your first week at Waterloo there will be people stationed around campus to help you get around, and the school has some impressive signage.

But honestly, I still get lost sometimes when I’m going to a building or classroom I’ve never been to before. Now, getting lost doesn't faze me (all part of the adventure!), but if I’m going somewhere new, I always give myself a few extra minutes to get there!

All that to say, you'll definitely get in a lot more walking and even get the chance to ride your bike around campus.

Services to help you succeed

One thing that really surprised me when coming to university was that you get a lot of resources to help you with your transition, such as Waterloo Ready which is held every summer.

There are not only free academic tutoring sessions, but there are many Waterloo services ranging from counselling to academic advisors and mentorship programs, which can really help you succeed.

Student talking with someone

The friends you meet will change you

Okay, so although I never technically became friends with the campus geese, I did get to know some of the most amazing people from across the country and around the world.

Before university, pretty much all my friends were from my hometown. I get to university, and all of a sudden I’m meeting people from towns I’ve never even heard of. It’s wonderful to meet so many new people. Your horizons will widen so fast that you might feel like a completely different person within the first month at school.

You may miss some of your friends from high school, but in university, you'll be amazed at how much more diverse your atmosphere can become.

I made friends from all over the world within the first few days of university, which is something that you'll need to leave high school to really experience.

Students smiling and laughing together.

More ways to get involved

University populations are much larger than those of high schools. At your high school, you’re likely used to hundreds of students. At university, there are thousands.

Sometimes large student populations can be intimidating, but, if you ask me, I think the more students, the better! More students makes for so many more opportunities to get involved and have fun. Clubs, societies, and school events are just some of the things that are positively impacted by having lots of students on campus.

At your high school you probably have some clubs, some sports teams, and one main student government. At Waterloo, we have 200+ clubs, six faculty societies, 30 varsity sports teams, dozens of intramural sports teams.

Two volleyball players cheering


As you can likely imagine, our club variety is huge. The Waterboys, Coffee n' Code, Culture and Language Exchange Club, DJ Club, and Humans vs. Zombies are just a few of our clubs. 

If you can’t find a club you like, or have a great idea for a new club, you can create your own with the help of Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA), our student government.


At Waterloo, we have both varsity and intramural sports. Our varsity sport selection is large with 19 sports and 32 teams, ranging from badminton to rugby.

If you’re looking for something with less commitment, try an intramural sport! Some popular intramural sports are dodgeball, squash, and volleyball.

Student government

The Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association is the student union for all undergraduate students. Our faculty societies are similar, but are small and specific to each of our six faculties (Arts, Engineering, Environment, Health, Math, and Science). As well, there are dozens of program societies where you can meet people in your major.

Faculty and program societies hold events, offer services, clubs, and even free food! Joining a faculty society is a great way to meet people with similar interests as you and start networking.

If you asked me whether I enjoyed high school or university more, I would without a doubt say university. The experiences and opportunities you gain during your undergraduate program are beyond imaginable and incomparable to high school. It's definitely a journey!




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