College is utterly different from school so get ready for it now

Do your research before you switch from secondary to third level – you won’t regret it

No more homework. No more uniform. No more being told where to go and what to do.

College is utterly different from school, but it will come with its own set of demands and challenges. So just what can you expect? And how much should you be getting ready for it now?

The transition between second- and third-level education is much greater than the move from primary to secondary school, says Catherine O'Connor, an education consultant who specialises in student recruitment at Trinity College Dublin. She's also the author of Cracking the College Code: a Practical Guide to Making the Most of the First-Year College Experience.

“For now, it’s more important that they focus on the exams and the system that they’re in, but a strong work ethic now will serve them well in college,” she says. “In college, unlike school, there is no hand-holding: it’s up to the student themselves how they handle it. And the channel of communication will no longer be between school, parent and student; it will all be about the relationship between the student and the college.”


At secondary school, not handing up the homework could lead to punishment; in college, there will be no disciplinary process – the student will simply fail. At secondary school, teachers will demand an explanation if you don’t show up to class; in the vast majority of college courses, nobody will care, but you’ll fall behind and may struggle to pass your exams.

Too much freedom

Sounds great, right? It’s not really: too much freedom can be a bad thing. Because of this, says O’Connor, working hard for the Leaving Cert helps prepare students for the discipline they will need for third-level study.

“But while there can be a lot of focus on settling in academically, 62 per cent of students in a recent survey said they were more concerned to fit in socially. College will provide chances to meet new people and develop new networks, and clubs and societies are there for personal and professional development and to meet like-minded people. There is so much on offer: charity or volunteer work, societies based on hobbies or academic interests, student papers, the students’ union and sports clubs.”

With this in mind, O’Connor advises students that, while it is important to pick the right course, it’s equally important to choose the right college. Do you want to go somewhere close to home? Does this college have the right clubs and societies for you? Is the campus big or small and how can you fit in there? What services are available at this college and how do they fit in with the needs of students? Are there work experience options, or will you have a chance to study abroad?

“For those students who move away from home, it can be a big wrench and they will miss the home comforts,” says O’Connor. “Should they learn now how to use the washing machine and make a dinner? I’d advise them to stay focused on the exams for now – there’s plenty of time to brush up on life skills during the summer.”

Regurgitating facts

The college learning experience is fundamentally different. In college, students are discouraged from merely regurgitating dates or facts; they have to engage in much more critical thinking. Students who got As all through their Leaving Cert can be shocked to find themselves barely scraping a pass in first-year essays and exams. It takes a little bit of time for students to find the right groove, though most colleges now give workshops on critical and analytical thinking.

How can a student manage to study and find time to pick a course and college, let alone have some semblance of a life? “Get a notepad and write down all ideas that cross your mind: big, crazy, small, sensible,” O’Connor advises. “It can include notes on courses you are interested in, people you spoke to, occupations you might like, people you admire, interests in school and outside school, or anything to do with college, career and study paths. Parents can work quietly in the background helping, and maybe they can compare notes in a few months.”

So what are the most important considerations for students? “The student has to take control of the process,” says O’Connor. “They need to be aware of their choice. Then, they have to consider the consequences of their decision. Ask: what will happen if I get one of these courses? Will I be happy with them? It could happen that you throw down 10 choices on your CAO form without considering them fully, and then get offered one that you didn’t really want and didn’t think you would get – make sure to consider this carefully.”

Students should be having lots of conversations about third level with teachers, guidance counsellors, friends, parents, colleges, students, academics and professionals working in the industry they are interested in, O’Connor advises. “Go to open days as well. Talk about the college you might go to, what it is like to be a learner there and who will finance your education. Will you be reliant on your parents? Can you get a state grant? Or can you fund your own learning?”

Of course, the pressure to make a big decision has lessened significantly in recent years, with most students using the CAO change of mind facility to make a final call on college before the July 1st deadline.

“Most of all, the student has to choose the right course in the right place,” says O’Connor. “It is so important that have a genuine interest in what they will be studying. This is their journey, and they need to take ownership of it. The challenge of making an informed decision ultimately rests with the student.”


College is all change. New friends, new ways of learning, new relationships and new financial challenges all beckon. Just what do you need to know?

- The days of easily digestible bite-sized information are over. In college, students have to find information for themselves and learn how to analyse it.

- Chances are, like most students in the first few months of college, you’ll learn about the danger of leaving that essay too late and finding out all the books you need have been taken out of the library, or studying at the very last minute. You’ll learn from this.

- The cost of living away from home is about €11,604 per year, according to a survey carried out by DIT. If you stay at home, expect to pay €6,834. It’s good to start planning for this now.

- Try not to stress about it too much: students are masters of frugality and you will pick up some budgeting skills on the way. But, for starters, avoid credit cards, look for jobs you might be interested in, and get used to Lidl and Aldi.

- Rents are perhaps the single biggest cost. Expect to pay a lot more in Dublin.

- During the summer learn to cook a few staple meals. Tins of tomatoes are a student’s best friend: they’re versatile, nutritious and a wonderful base for a whole host of delicious dinners.

- You’ll eventually have to start washing your own clothes and – if you’re into that kind of thing – ironing them.

- If you have any disability, whether autism spectrum, mobility issues or perhaps dyslexia or dyspraxia, it’s a good idea to check what support services your college has to offer.

- Many students just go in, attend the lectures and maybe go out with their college friends every now and again, but they’re missing out: clubs, societies, student newspapers and the students’ union are a big part of college life. You don’t just meet new people and develop new interests, you also set your CV apart in that giant pile from graduates with 2:1 honours degrees. Most of all, getting involved in a club or society is a way of ensuring that you grow as a person.

- Throw yourself into the college experience. Your brain undergoes huge changes between the ages of 17-25, and the books you read, ideas you digest, conversations you have and causes you fight for will shape you forever. Don’t waste it just sticking to the same small group of school friends and heading out drinking a few times a week.

- Chances are that you'll have more than a few romantic relationships in college. Around 80 per cent students are sexually active (though don't feel you're some kind of freak if you're not and don't feel pressured to do anything you're not ready for). You may or not have had a half-decent education about relationships and sexuality in school; either way, negotiating your first adult relationships can be tricky. Make sure, whether you're male or female, that you understand that sexual consent can never be presumed. Don't have sex with someone unless they have explicitly given consent – there should not be any shades of grey. Use contraception. Don't ever share sexually explicit pictures of your partner – this makes you, at best, a vile creep. And abide by what sex columnist Dan Savage calls the "campsite rule": that you leave your partner in at least a good a state as they were before the relationship. In other words, be kind and nice and treat them as you would like to be treated. Respect yourself and respect your partner.

- If you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – and not already out – there’s no better place to come out than in college, where you’ll find LGBT societies, as well as a generally more tolerant and welcoming environment. Life is too short to pretend to be someone you’re not. Help and support is there.