Racing across the Seattle University campus, freshman Rim Sem resembles the hurried, too-late White Rabbit in "Alice in Wonderland. " She has more than 100 pages to read tonight...

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Racing across the Seattle University campus, freshman Rim Sem resembles the hurried, too-late White Rabbit in “Alice in Wonderland.” She has more than 100 pages to read tonight and seems too rushed now to even complete her sentences. “The pace of work in college. Wow. Amazing,” she tells an interviewer, then pauses a moment to reflect. “I just wasn’t prepared.”

It happens every year: Entering freshmen find that, despite their excellent high-school grades, they’re missing some of the skills needed to succeed at college-level work.

   Average GPA drop

Your grade-point average is likely to take a dip between high school and the end of your freshman year. Average GPA drop for students from Washington schools entering the University of Washington: 3.65 to 3.03.

Here are some examples:

School H.S. College
Auburn High 3.61 2.86
Bainbridge High 3.60 3.26
Ballard High 3.63 2.99
Bellevue High 3.58 3.07
Bothell High 3.69 3.10
The Bush School 3.32 2.97
Chief Sealth 3.64 2.69
Cleveland 3.50 2.73
Edmonds/Woodway 3.65 3.15
Federal Way 3.67 2.92
Forest Ridge 3.48 3.06
Garfield 3.64 3.03
Holy Names 3.52 3.10
Issaquah 3.62 3.18
Kamiak 3.65 2.96
Kent Meridian 3.66 2.81
Lakeside 3.27 3.18
Mercer Island 3.56 3.23
Nathan Hale 3.55 3.00
Newport 3.63 3.19
O’Dea 3.45 2.86
Overlake 3.33 3.07
Rainier Beach 3.61 2.84
Roosevelt 3.59 3.02
Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences 3.49 3.16
Seattle Prep 3.43 3.03
Shorecrest 3.69 3.08
Summit K-12 3.76 2.47
West Seattle 3.60 2.81

“Students assume that if they’ve done fine in high school, they’ll do fine in college,” says Jennifer Hahn, a career specialist at Chief Sealth High School in West Seattle. “But college is a different ballgame — even for our top students.”

The first sign of trouble for many freshmen comes when they take a placement test to see what classes they’re eligible for in core subjects: precalculus or calculus? English 101 or 201? About a quarter of the nation’s four-year college students fail either the math test, the English test or both. Instead of taking college-level classes, they’re pushed into noncredit, remedial courses — costing them precious time and extra tuition.

What’s going on?

Simply put, “We ask a lot more of our students than high schools do,” says Lisa Garcia Hansen, admissions director at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.

Here are some pressure points:

Faster pace: Freshmen typically find they must whiz through in eight weeks what it would take a year to cover in high school.

Self-discipline: “Instructors aren’t asking, ‘Did you finish your homework?’ They just expect you to have it done,” Hansen says.

Culture shock: Students must simultaneously notch up their work quality — and make new friends and learn a new culture.

Writing: “If I had to pick one thing that college freshmen have the most trouble with, it’s writing,” says David Conley, assistant professor at the University of Oregon and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research.

“Writing shows up in every discipline, from English to science. But high schools don’t give it enough emphasis. Students can graduate from high school without having written anything longer than five pages [see box]. And most of their writing is narrative [story-telling]. They don’t know how to back their opinions with fact.”

   Signs of struggle

Many incoming freshmen fall behind in class or their grades take a dive. That’s one factor in the dropout rate. About a fourth of all freshmen at four-year colleges, and about half of all those at two-year colleges, never return as sophomores.

— Source: Education Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes higher academic achievement.

Reading: Students may be assigned hundreds of pages to read each week, and unlike in many high schools, can expect to be tested on the reading, not just on class lectures.

Math: “This is the biggest problem we see,” says Tim Washburn, the University of Washington’s assistant vice president for enrollment services. “High-school students are required to take math through intermediate algebra, but they can take that class as early as 10th grade and then take no further math. Then they get here and they’ve forgotten it, so they have to go into remedial classes. The classes are offered by the community colleges, so they have to pay extra tuition and then they don’t get UW credit because the class is remedial.”

   Well prepared

It’s not ALWAYS true that colleges expect more than high schools do, notes Tim Washburn, University of Washington assistant vice president for enrollment services. Some freshmen, because they’ve attended rigorous college-preparatory schools such as Lakeside and Bush, or taken Advanced Placement and other challenging courses, “may even find college easier if they just take typical introductory courses when they get here.” But these students, Washburn says, tend to be the exception.

Foreign language: The same holds true as for math, according to Washburn: If students don’t take it their senior year, they’re likely to have forgotten it by freshman year and must take extra classes to fulfill their foreign-language requirements.

Seattle U’s Sem says she wishes she had worked harder to prepare for her freshman year. If she had it to do over again, she’d tackle more research projects, study more alone (instead of with friends) and never, never would she ask her high-school teachers for due-date extensions.

“Unfortunately,” she says with a laugh, “you can’t get away with asking for an extension here.”