Let me tell you something: the film industry has it wrong. For instance, I’ve never been kicked out of a class, so you can infer that college is not like Legally Blonde; the interpretation of higher education by Pixar in the movie Monsters University is way off, for obvious reasons; and although Pitch Perfect didn’t get it completely wrong, there is a disappointing lack of musical numbers in actuality. 

And it’s not just movies that have molded our concept of college but also books, TV shows, relatives, friends, teachers, social media, and oversharers on Reddit threads. But here’s the thing: all of these portrayals are the products of people who probably haven’t experienced college since the Dark Ages, no offense intended. 

Higher education is constantly changing. Not only has technology become a prevalent method of teaching in the past decade, but many other conditions have evolved as well, including the campus social scenes, the expectations college professors have for their students, and the nature of the “real world” that college students are preparing to enter. So if your parents start describing their college experience and tell you about all the research you’ll have to do in the library, remind them that it’s the 21st century and you have a laptop.

However, it’s not just the outdated descriptions that are fueling your misconceptions; everyone is inadequate when it comes to accurately describing college. When I think back to my high-school years, I couldn’t imagine what college would be like, but now that I’m in college, I can’t imagine it any other way. And that’s the Catch-22. If you haven’t already experienced college, it’s near impossible to understand what people are explaining, or trying to explain, to you. I decided that in order to get insight into the subject, I needed to conduct an interview. Cue my 17-year-old brother.

As a third-year student in high school, he has just begun the process of researching, applying for, and choosing a college. And because he’s a teenage boy talking to his older sister about a topic that many juniors would prefer to avoid, this was a very brief, somewhat difficult interview to perform. Here is the transcript of his insightful yet succinct interview:

Me: What do you think the classes are like? How do you expect them to be structured?

Brother: You go to lectures, take notes, then study the notes.

Me: What do you think your time will be filled with?

Brother: Studying and hanging out with friends.

Me: What do you think college is like?

Brother: Uhh … hard?

As you can see, this is not a lot to work with, but I think we can make do. So let’s address the assumptions one-by-one.

The structure of your classes

Every university is different depending on factors such as the size of the school, the curriculum, and whether it’s a public or private school. However, between the three colleges I’ve attended, one private, one public, and one a community college, I have found a few similarities.

First, your classes will be bigger in your first and sophomore years as you complete your prerequisites; later, they will become progressively smaller. At the public school, I attended classes that were anywhere from 30–300 students; at Southwestern University, my classes have been a maximum of 30 students, with the minimum being in the single digits.

Second, chances are you will have some lecture-based courses. This is inevitable and often a bit painful. However, as you progress past the introductory courses, you’ll find that your classes become less of a lecture and more of a conversation, especially if you’re attending a school that emphasizes participation. This can be a culture shock because your teachers actually expect you to contribute to the discussion, which means you have to talk—in front of the whole class.

In the beginning, when everyone isn’t as confident, it can be nerve-wracking and sometimes awkward. Occasionally, a professor will ask a question, and when they get no response, they’ll wait. They’ll stand there for whole minutes, refusing to continue until some brave soul dares to say, “Um … is it the two-factor theory?” And god forbid nobody answers and the professor calls on you.

It sounds awful, but when a school’s intention is to use the classroom as a means to build confidence, encourage participation between peers and mentors, and inspire its students to ask questions and be curious, it’s much more fulfilling than just sitting and taking notes off a PowerPoint presentation. 

So while these lecture-based courses are necessary, once you get through them and into the thick of your studies, you’re able to enjoy the dialogue, and it becomes less about obtaining information and committing it to memory and more about retaining that information, processing it, and applying it to other aspects of your life. 

What do you even do all day?

As a high-school student, I always wondered what college students did with all their free time. They’re no longer in class eight hours a day, five days a week, so what are they doing? Of course, you have to dedicate a large amount of time to studying, but what about the time outside of that? Let’s say you’re attending 15 hours worth of classes each week and also getting the recommended eight hours of sleep a night (good for you!). That’s 71 hours accounted for. Let’s also assume you’re following the general rule of thumb and studying two hours outside of class for every one hour you’re in class, making the number of accounted-for hours 101. With 168 hours in a week, that’s roughly 40% of your week unaccounted for, coming out to more than nine free hours a day. It’s a crude calculation, but I think you get my point: there’s a lot of time to fill.

In my experience, it’s a culmination of random things, and every day looks different. There are commitments you have to attend, such as club meetings or office hours; routine things that take up bits and pieces of your time, including eating in the dining hall, running errands around campus, or getting lost on campus; and more substantial time-consuming things, such as sporting events, social engagements, hobbies, crying in the bathroom after an accounting exam, or buying snacks to cheer you up after said accounting exam.

This can be advantageous for people who enjoy switching up their days, have good time-management skills, and can keep a good sleep schedule despite not having a job that forces them to get out of bed at a reasonable hour. However, for the rest of us, this tends to be a somewhat difficult transition because there’s no one to tell us to go to bed, so we stay up until 3:00 a.m.; there are no parents to force us to turn off the TV and do homework; and there is no one to tell us to take out the trash or clean our toilets. 

However, this is to be expected because it’s difficult to grow without making mistakes. Until you see or feel the consequences of your actions, you won’t know any better. Such actions may include making unhealthy eating habits, procrastinating on assignments, and staying up too late, while possible consequences may be gaining the freshman 15, having a mental breakdown while scrambling to meet the 50 deadlines that have snuck up on you, and falling asleep in your 8:00 a.m. class. 

But that’s the beauty of going to college and beginning your adulthood in a still-somewhat-regulated lifestyle: you get to experience all the revelations that come with “growing up” while simultaneously realizing that there’s a reason why your mom always told you to eat your greens.

College is hard

College is challenging, which is a completely different ballpark from hard.

While it’s meant to advance your knowledge, push your intellectual limits, and prepare you for your career, college is also supposed to develop you as an individual outside of the classroom or workforce. 

I’d always heard that college was hard, but I didn’t fully understand what that meant until I experienced it for myself. I found that creating a good balance between school and personal life is extremely difficult because when you know that there’s always work to be done, you feel guilty when taking time for yourself, which makes it hard to enjoy life. Juggling four, five, or maybe even six classes on top of internships, extracurriculars, and jobs can be emotionally exhausting. You often feel as though you’re in a constant game of catch-up, just trying to get through the next deadline, the next day, the next week. You often tell yourself, “I just have to get through this; then I’m in the clear,” but the cruel joke is you’ll be telling yourself this for the entire semester.

After that frightening description, you might be asking yourself, “Why should I go to college if it’s so miserable?” Because it’s challenging, and that’s exactly what you need when you’re preparing to enter a crazy, unpredictable, stressful world on your own. College gives you direction and purpose; you have clear, attainable goals to work toward; and you’re not going through it alone. There will be so many  people around you who are in the same boat and also bailing out water often. You know what I mean if you’ve ever asked someone about an assignment or test and felt relief when they admitted that they haven’t started the assignment either or that they had also bombed the test.

College is challenging, but how hard it is depends on you. Taking measures to make it easier on yourself will pay off in the long run. For me, it was putting my pride aside and attending tons of help sessions for the classes I was struggling in, having my coffee maker set on a timer so I had motivation to get up in the morning, and keeping my priorities straight in the event that life got crazy and some things had to go on the backburner. For you, it might be planning your outfit the night before, having the contact information of a fellow student in every one of your classes, and meal prepping so you don’t give into the late-night cravings. Find what works for you, and stick to it like a postage stamp until you arrive at your final destination.

My advice

The best thing you can do is to be honest with yourself about your abilities. If you know you won’t be able to complete everything you’ve put on your plate, bite the bullet early and ask for an extension, try to delegate nonacademic tasks to someone else, or, if you can, omit some things altogether. College is difficult for high achievers and brutal for perfectionists; you can’t do everything, and as for the things that you can do, you won’t be able to do them all perfectly. It’s a harsh wake-up call for those of us who were fortunate enough to cruise through high school while making decent-enough grades to get us into a good college. However, the experience does build up your resilience, work ethic, and the capacity to handle pressure, all of which are crucial to being successful, especially during a time when it seems like the next mini-apocalypse is always right around the corner.