From IB to State U: the Challenge of Change

In my opinion, no high school curriculum is more challenging than the International Baccalaureate Program. IB prepares students very well for the rigors of the college classroom. However, IB does not prepare students at all for the overall college environment. In our experience, IB students struggle more than any others with the culture shock of adjusting to college.

The college environment is as different from IB as night is different from day. IB is quite structured and keeps students extremely busy. IB students spend a lot of time doing their homework, CAS, and other schools activities. Furthermore, the IB group mindset provides natural support for individuals in crisis. Then, in college, this support structure disappears in the same moment that time requirements dissipate.

Students who complete IB and then enroll in major public universities seem to struggle more than their non-IB classmates. IB students are well-prepared for class, but not for what happens outside of class. They are astounded by the differences. One student, during his second week at a state university, made a striking observation: “Don’t they know they’re supposed to go to class?!”

The dysfunction of the new environment burrows deeply into IB students. One student wrote: “I was told by previous IB graduates that college was a breeze, so it was extremely stressful for me when things did not go as smoothly as they were foretold. I stressed myself out beyond belief.”

Another described his first year as full of emptiness. “At first, I felt like I was lacking something. I no longer had a strict routine day to day. It was no longer wake up at 5:30, get ready for school, go to school from 7:30 to 3:00, go home, do homework, exercise, do more homework, then sleep. Although I had a lot more control over my own time, it was a tough transition.”

Without the structure within which they grew, IB students feel lost in large environments: “IB prepares you very poorly for a state university experience. IB provides a clear path with a clear endgame if you do everything right. College offers no such luxuries. You need to learn how to function in such a massive, overwhelming educational environment without the support of your friends, teachers, and guidance counselors. You must work very, very hard to maintain friendships and relationships that automatically refresh themselves daily in high school. When you stress out in freshman year at a big university, you will be doing so alone. In those moments, it can be nearly impossible to maintain motivation.”

Large environments are harder to navigate than small ones, especially for IB students. At medium-sized universities and small colleges, the adjustment seems to be easier. One IB student attending a private college told me that although her first week was uncomfortable, she was amazed at how connected and interactive everyone was by the second week of school.

For IB students at major public universities, the key is to find small social groups, and that means making an effort to get involved in campus activities. A sophomore who had only recently become comfortable in his surroundings provided this recommendation: “My advice for people dealing with a tough transition is to try and get involved with organizations or activities that they find interesting. The best way to get over the feeling of emptiness is to get involved. Really, just try everything.”

Major, public universities offer amazing assets. Once students become accustomed to the new environment (and gain some seniority), they can take advantage of all that is available to them. Unfortunately, for IB students, the transition from high school to State U is more dramatic, and the adjustment takes longer than most people anticipate.

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