I hear from students all the time that they thought community college would be easy - like High School Part II. I also hear (from the same students) just a year later that community college wasn’t what they were expecting… at all.

Apparently it's a pretty big myth that community college isn't hard, or that it’s not a “real college.” But as an honors advisor, I talk to students everyday about just how real community college is.

Read: “6 Infamous Myths about Community College” by Tatiana Siegel, AH student extraordinaire.

For this post, I've compiled three ways community college is harder than high school, based on conversations I've had with current students.

1) You Will Be Expected to Think Differently

People think in what’s called “mental models.” They’re our lenses for viewing the world, and they shape our behavior and approach to problem-solving.  They can also be extremely stubborn: exchanging one model for another often takes time, effort, and struggle.

You’ll wrestle with ideas you didn’t know were out there. You’ll be required to express yourself in ways you didn’t think you could. This can be an exhilarating experience.

In community college (especially in honors courses), you’ll be expected to think differently than you did in high school. That means building new mental models.

In high school, you may have never been challenged to think outside the “plug and chug” method in math. Or find evidence to support your claim in US history. Or judge the cogency of an argument in philosophy. You may never have been required to think abstractly, without the benefit of detailed instructions and concrete examples. You may never have been required to “think like a historian” or to “think like an engineer.” (What does that even mean?)

In community college, you’ll wrestle with ideas you didn’t know were out there. You’ll be required to express yourself in ways you didn’t think you could. This can be an exhilarating experience. Or, like what one student told me last week, “frazzling. Like landing a plane in the fog.”

Trust me: this is a good thing.

By taking challenging classes, you’ll make the most of your education; you’ll come out on the other side with a deeper understanding of the world (and yourself.) No, you won’t remember every detail or fact that you memorized. (Because, hint: that’s not the point.)

2) You Won’t Get Perfect Grades—and that’s OK

If you find it easy - like, boringly easy - to get good grades in high school, then this can come as a big shock.

In community college, getting good grades won’t come as easy. Your first grades in college might be lower than anything you’ve ever gotten before. When this happens, it’ll be easy to equate the number circled next to your name as defining your soul from here to eternity.

I beg you, don’t do this. In college, the rules of the “grade game” change entirely. In college, grades ≠ you. Grades = feedback.

Think about it this way: would you rather have a teacher let your weaknesses slip by unnoticed, or show you areas where you could improve?

Sure, it’ll sting the first time you see that low grade next to your name on a returned test. Yeah, it might crush you to realize that you weren’t as exemplary in that one subject as you’d thought you were.

But the grade isn’t the end of the story. (No number ever is.) And it certainly doesn’t mean you should stop trying. Receiving a low grade can be a perfect chance for you to roll up those sleeves, get back on that horse, and try again.

“The bottom line is that grades aren’t everything.”

What matters here (and what instructors care about) is how you respond to challenges. You may struggle to get a B in a higher-level math class, but that instructor may be the one who writes that killer recommendation letter—because she saw you earn that B.

Or you may “sacrifice” your GPA to take a challenging class outside your comfort zone, knowing that you probably won’t get an A in it—but you’re eager for the challenge.

The bottom line is that grades aren’t everything. What’s more important is how you respond to the feedback they give you.

3) With Freedom Comes Great Obligation

In community college, you are the manager of your time. You may get lucky and have a nice back-to-back class schedule. But most likely, it’ll be scattered: for example, you might have a free morning or afternoon, or possibly an entire random day in the middle of the week with no classes.

It might feel weird having a chunk of time in your day with no one telling you how to use it. And it might feel great to have no one checking in on you everyday to ensure you did xyz (except maybe that pesky advisor of yours. #sorrynotsorry - it’s our job.)

But the consequences of this freedom don’t always show themselves immediately. These moments can be rude awakenings: like the times you’ll get assigned papers due in December and think, “whatever, I’ve got time”--then December rolls around, and - oops - you haven’t started.

With this freedom comes obligation to yourself. And the greater the freedom, the greater the obligation. It’s tough to say no to the pull of video games at 2am, or Netflix after a long day of class, or putting off that assignment until the night before.  But it’s your job to manage these obligations, and to be your own self advocate.

“Ask yourself, ‘is this use of time going to benefit me in the long-run?’”

Here’s your litmus test: ask yourself, “is this use of time going to benefit me in the long-run?”

If the answer is “no,” consider what the consequences will be, then evaluate if you’re willing to live with them. If you’re not willing to live with them, then fix the behavior, and fix it fast.

If the answer is “yes,” pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath, and keep going.

If the answer is “I’m not sure,” talk it out with someone!

  • Start with your advisor. Use him/her as a thought partner. Together you can unpack the dilemma, and look at all the possible outcomes.

  • Talk to your instructors, too. Believe it or not, they LOVE helping students develop these success skills.

  • And of course, talk to other students. Especially if you’re in something like a close-knit honors program, those students are like your family!

The freedom you’ll be given in college is immense--freedom to succeed, freedom to fail & try again, to explore, to work hard, even to put your feet up and procrastinate. To be the best freedom-manager you can be, always ask yourself - and others! - if you’re doing yourself a favor.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Bottom line is that community college actually isn’t like high school at all. It’s a lot more challenging! But, you do have the potential to succeed. That’s especially true if you find a program like American Honors at your college.

Now that you understand the major differences between high school and community college, you’ll be ready to take on those challenges head on -- and ready to celebrate your victories!

Read: Honors Problems: The High School to College Transition