Differences and Similarities Between Polytechnic and University Life

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You’ve probably heard how university is a whole new ball game compared to your polytechnic days. If you’re here to find out if that’s true…it is and we’ll be sharing a few reasons why!


Try watching a movie on fast forward mode.

“Are you serious? How am I going to catch the important parts of the movie?”

If these were the thoughts that flashed through your mind, the answer is: you will, once you get used to it. Studying in university is akin to watching a movie in fast forward mode. Time passes by in a flash and before you know it, the semester is over and the exams are mere days away.

This phenomenon is inexplicable, but many students attest to it, especially those from polytechnic. We reckon that it is because you are so overwhelmed with the workload that you are not aware that the clock is ticking. Polytechnic students have a lot of difficulties adjusting to the pace because we are used to taking a stroll in the park; what you’d learn in an entire polytechnic semester can be covered in university within as little as three weeks. Typically, you will be hoping for extensions (you may be able to get this depending on your professor), more leeway and some breathing space in the course of a semester.

Well, this is understandable since they are cramming a lot of content into about 4 months of education (the length of one semester) and will have to go rapidly in order to finish covering the syllabus. The rationale of this is to heighten the stress level to simulate the work environment where your boss will not slow down for your sake. Therefore, you can expect to have to do some revision after each lesson in order to fully digest what was taught in the lectures, as it is nearly impossible to absorb all the content thrown at you on the spot.

Polytechnic and University Life

Don’t panic when that happens to you, and if it feels like you’re the only one struggling—just know that many of your peers are doing their best to keep things together too. Some of them may even have contemplated dropping out at some point. Do reach out to your professors, friends, or the university’s counselling services if you feel too overwhelmed.


When in Rome, do as the Romans do: be prepared to open your eyes as wide as an owl’s all the time when sitting in lectures in universities. It is rather different over here. While you may be one of the outliers if you pay complete attention to lectures in polytechnic, the reverse is true in universities. As if listening to a lecture is not enough, people scribble notes without pause while the lecturer is speaking, making you wonder if they are machines or if you’ve missed a key point. FOMO sometimes sets in and you may feel compelled to jot down everything too (sometimes there really is no need to).

Don’t forget, you are now accompanied by insanely studious students from JC and top scorers from neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, China, India and many more geniuses. Your competition has been internationalized and intensified.

You may or may not have been introduced to the bell curve system but in any case, it is going to be your good friend for the next three or four years. Your classmates have raised the bar so high that you have to follow their pace, or you find yourself playing catch-up halfway in the semester. The faster you realize this fact, the easier it is for you to run alongside your peers. Not to mention, the difficulty level is also much higher than that in polytechnic. If you liken a polytechnic exam to a game of paintball, a university exam is a real war.

Therefore, do not think that everyone is taking it slowly or slack because of a gradeless first year (for NTU and NUS students), or you will pay for it with your grades. Getting mentally prepared for university and being vigilant from day one will help you a long way in adjusting to rigorous university life.


Okay, before you get a panic attack and start reading your textbooks back-to-back, here’s the good news! There are many similarities between polytechnic and university life that will give you an edge over your peers in university. Firstly, both these institutions treat you like an adult. As you have realized by now, no lecturers call you up to ask you if you have finished your homework, and no one will contact your parents if you flunk your exams. And similarly, no one will bother if you miss a class or two. This is the same case in university. You are expected to take charge of your own learning by printing your own notes, doing your own revision and seeking the prof for consultations proactively. The professors’ job is just to teach and not nanny you. This is where you have a significant advantage, as you have already gotten over the hardest part which pertains to lifestyle adjustment.

Chances are, if you managed to get into university, you are an independent learner with the essential self-discipline required to thrive in the university environment. You don’t need to have a cheerleader by your side in order to sit down on a Saturday afternoon to do your work, and this will help greatly in acing your university life. You just need to step up your game by being prepared to spend more free time studying, instead of waiting till the exam period is here before doing so.


Next, you already have strong domain knowledge which gives you a head start in university. While most of your JC counterparts are still learning about general knowledge such as how tornadoes are formed or who is the first president of Singapore (which we don’t know how it will come to use in the future), you are already building up knowledge pertaining to your intended career. By the time you join university, you are already pretty well-versed in your domain, while others start from ground zero. Therefore, there is no excuse for you not to flourish!


Finally, we would like to congratulate you on making it to university! Yes, some of your polytechnic classmates may have chosen to go into the workforce and start earning money to enjoy the food they like or the brands they’ve always wanted, but fret not, the experience here is worth your sacrifice in feeling like a pauper.

Learning experience

Firstly, the lecturers here are generally way more qualified than those from your polytechnics (we know we are stereotyping here) and they will provide you with a much stronger learning experience. Most of them have a mix of industrial know-how and theory, which makes things more practical and useful. Also, there is a wide myriad of programs available in university that you can take part in to maximize your learning beyond just your course. CCAs are also great places to explore your interests before entering the workforce!


You are the average of the five people you hang out with. While this statement is not statistically proven, it is true if you look at the people around you. One of the biggest advantages of coming to university is that you get to hang out with elites and some of the brightest people in the nation. Their potential earning power is limitless and you get to form a new network by coming to university. Who knows how you can benefit from these friendships in the future.

Those of us who went from polytechnic to university are all thankful for the extremely valuable experience we spent here. The practical and hands-on training we receive in polytechnic, coupled with the academic rigour we go through in university, transforms us from being a caterpillar to a butterfly ready to soar in the corporate jungle. Not to mention that being in some of the world’s top universities avails us of tremendous opportunities such as overseas experience in Ivy League universities, access to Fortune 500 employers and wonderful student leadership experiences. We can’t wait to witness your success!


  1. I’m not sure whether the writer personally experienced poly life, but business courses in polytechnics are definitely not “strolls in a park” and students definitely are not sleeping in lectures. And based on the required GPA to polytechnics, those polytechnics students who managed to enter university should be those who spent their Saturdays studying as well.

  2. It’s pretty true. I came from a polytechnic, ended up in a uni, and it becomes painfully apparent by the end of the first semester that this isn’t your regular daddy’s playhouse. It’s a nightmarish field of landmines, claymores, artillery rain and screeching bullets as you juggle six or seven subjects with all the grace of something between a choking ostrich and a broken reed in the wind.

    Not only do they get you to cover more subjects over a shorter period of time, they also require you to read more in-depth into each of those topics, assuming you don’t also have to handle quizzes, assignments and all manner of monstrosity (Which, let’s face it, you have to.)

    The subjects Poly covered in a whole semester, University demolished in a week or two.

    Poly was a playground. Uni is where it gets real.

    There’s nothing quite as dismaying as going from doing well in a vibrant environment with friends and a life, to having endless hours poured into books and still doing worse than your peers. You sacrifice sleep (I’ve gone three days without sleep once, on a particularly hard subject), you sacrifice fun, and you sacrifice personal time.

    My advice? Be prepared. Emotionally, even physically, this is the toughest it’s ever been on me. Be prepared to work many hours, and when the exams come, see questions that are nowhere near the level of the dozens of test papers you’ve done. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves, apply some elbow grease, and smash your face into the rock-hard pavement that is your curricular checklist. You’ll be losing a few teeth, and probably loosen a few screws by the end of University.

    I have to say though, that this isn’t the end of the world; Our forefathers have had much, much worse, and keeping that in mind, stay strong. We made it here for a reason, and whatever that may be, honor the sacrifice that our parents have made for us to take a seat at this over-glorified boot-camp of an academic institution.

    It’s good. You’ll learn a lot. Problem is, University rarely ever lets you retain it at the pace they’re going. When push comes to shove and your knees are wobbling, when you’re going to cave in, you’ll learn one way or another how to prioritise, juggle, and make lovely pirouettes out of the tumbling cave I call University. Focus on the subjects that you really love, and if you really can’t manage, just try to “make it” for the rest.

    Juggling is an art. And in University, they are going to make you world-class jugglers, acrobats, glass-blowers and demolition experts.

    • Haha, what a creative way to describe a painful scenario. great insights. As we all know, its going to be worthwhile when you look back at those bittersweet memories few years later.

  3. Thanks for giving us another perspective. This article strives to cover the differences between poly and university life as accurately and objective as possible. Given that there are variations in various university and polys, I am aware it may run the risk of generalizing, hence I am very appreciative of everyone who share their experiences to help us further our understanding of this topic :)

  4. “By the time you join university, you are already pretty well-versed in your domain, while others start from ground zero.”

    Not necessarily true that those in JC start from ground zero. We do not only learn general knowledge (about politics, socio-economic issues, the family, crime and punishment etc) as in GP but we do cover academic subjects in JC which could be related to the career we want to pursue and not necessarily start from ground zero.

    In JC, we can choose our H2 subjects to specialise in more in depth and also cover in more breadth than our H1 subject which is a contrasting subject (eg. if your H2 subjects is focused on maths and science, your H1 subject must be an art subject).

    Thus, we cover the fundamental core concepts of the H2 subjects and if the course in university is related to it, you wont start from scratch as your concept is there with the academic rigours of JC as you can also apply to your future university course.

    With strong fundamentals, you are able to build on more advanced concepts onto your core knowledge and learn faster than the rest by linking the various concepts together and make better sense of the information given to you.


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