From IB to State U: the Challenge of Change

The International Baccalaureate Program does a fine job of preparing students for the rigors of the college classroom. However, IB does not prepare students for the overall college environment. In our experience, IB students struggle more than others with the culture shock of adjusting to college, particularly large state universities.

The differences between the college environment and IB are dramatic. IB is quite structured and keeps students extremely busy. IB students spend a lot of time doing homework, community service (CAS), and other school activities, leaving little free time. When they encounter substantial unstructured time in college, time management becomes a significant stressor because they never had time to manage before. 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?!”

Furthermore, the IB group mindset provides natural camaraderie and support for struggle and crisis. When this support structure disappears in college, students can feel isolated and lonely during their challenges.

As a result of the difficult transition from the only homes and educational environments they have ever known, IB students who enroll in major public universities seem to struggle more than their non-IB classmates. Even though they should be well-prepared for college classes, the lack of preparation for what happens outside of class not only affects their moods, but also causes their grades to suffer. They are astounded by the differences and usually do not understand why they cannot perform well.

The dysfunction of the new environment burrows deeply into IB students. One student contacted us during her first semester at a state university to ask why she was having paralyzing panic attacks whenever she stepped on campus. Another 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.”

Especially for IB students, the first year of college can be 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 us that although her first week was uncomfortable, she was amazed at how connected and interactive everyone was by the second week.

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.” In other words, it is particularly important for IB students to find and engage with small groups within the state university environment.  Honors colleges, the Greek system, interest-based clubs, and intramural sports can all provide nurturing environments that mimic the support previously found in IB.

Major 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 can be more dramatic, and the adjustment can take longer than many IB students anticipate.  However, when students arrive on campus with their eyes open to the challenges presented by the new environment and ready to search out smaller group activities, they are more likely to have a successful transition from IB to a positive college experience.