From High School to University – Part 1: Just Showing Up

“I need a make-up exam.”

He said it to me casually, as though he were asking me for the attendance sheet or a copy of assignment instructions.

Excuse me?” I said.

I wasnt at the midterm, so I need a make-up exam,” replied this first-year student in my history class, again with the implication that this was a simple request, no big deal, as it probably had been in high school.

 At this point, I referred him to the syllabus, which stated that late work would not be accepted, and late exams would not be given, except in the cases of documented illness or family emergency. I asked for this documentation. He stared at me with a combination of incomprehension and panic.


This student is an object lesson in the pitfalls that line the path of transition between high school and college or university. My colleges official position was that students were responsible for all policies spelled out in the code of student behaviour and in the syllabus of a given course. In practice, though, no one had prepared this student for the importance of the syllabus as a contract between instructor and student. Many promising academic careers get off to a bad start due to a lack of preparation for the different expectations that students encounter when they graduate high school and start their studies at a college or university.

For students who started university this fall, the first midterms are underway and the first essay deadlines are looming. Success in these tasks hinges on recognising and internalising the expectations that professors and administrators have for university students. How can you avoid scoring an own-goal at the start of your university experience?

The maxim that showing up is 80 percent of life” has been attributed to multiple people. It’s true. In university, these words of wisdom have both literal and metaphorical meanings.

In its most basic sense, this advice means that you have to actually show up. Unlike in high school, no one is going to call your parents if you miss class. Some instructors may not even take attendance. As an instructor, I told my students at the start of every semester that they were responsible for everything discussed in class, whether they were present or not.

The easiest way to avoid starting your academic career off with a serious penalty, or even a zero, is to make sure that you always show up, even (and especially) if no one is standing over your shoulder making sure that you go to class.

More broadly, the dictum that showing up is 80 percent of life” is a statement about responsibility and preparedness. “Showing up” means being mentally engaged as well as physically present. In the context of adjusting to university, there are two aspects to this:

  1. Knowing and doing exactly what is required and; 
  2. Knowing and doing everything that is required.

What does this mean in practice?

When I taught history, I required citations in the format described in the Chicago Manual of Style. I included detailed instructions in why, when and how to provide citations. I also demonstrated the proper format in class. Students who submitted essays with no citations, or with incorrect citations, found themselves at a huge disadvantage. So did students who went far beyond the word limit. They may have thought they were demonstrating more knowledge and ability, but expressing themselves concisely was one purpose of the exercise. Similarly, some essays received marks that did not reflect the obvious intelligence of the student who wrote them because the student left out required components of the assignment.

I often asked these students if they had kept the instructions in front of them while working on the essay. Usually they had not.  

As the example of our unfortunate student at the start of this post shows, instructors will assume that you are familiar with university and course policy. There may be no opportunity for late submission or make-up exams. Falling behind or not receiving credit for an assignment can start a snowball effect that carries across your first year of university and beyond.

This is how the contract between students and instructors works: instructors should give students every opportunity to know what is required of them, and students are then expected to produce exactly what is expected and everything that is expected. EssayJack is a tool to help students include all required components and relevant information in an essay. The same principle applies to all aspects of the transition to university.

I can’t stress enough that a disproportionate amount of success in academia, as in life, is just showing up: being present, doing exactly what you are asked to do and completing all parts of an assignment.


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