Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Dear Molly

Dear Molly,

Your mom told me that you wanted to try out community college in a few years. She asked me if I had any advice for you. I've been thinking, and thinking about it, and I finally decided just to write it here in a list.

1. Sit in the front of the class. This is advice college counselors will give you - apparently people who sit in the front get the best grades. People who sit in the front also get their questions answered, can hear things, are less distracted by an entire class in front of them, and it's easier to stay engaged. You can ask questions more conversationally if the teacher can hear you, as opposed to sitting far away. Some classrooms are huge - like auditoriums. Some are much smaller. I say get the best seat in the house, if you can. And be prepared for the fact that once people pick where they sit the first day, they mostly don't change it. It's a really weird phenomenon - so be aware of it, but have fun messing with it.

2. Talk to the teacher afterwards. Every teacher I have ever had was glad to talk to me about their subject after class ended. At a community college, a lot of the teacher you have will also be currently working in their field. They'll have loads of information and knowledge that there is no time to talk about in a class. Teachers are pretty limited, actually - they have to stick to getting information across to you that will come up in the tests - and tests are created using test banks that are created by the textbook publishers. So take advantage of the fact that you've got an expert sitting there every week who's just dying to impart more knowledge than what they've been told they have time for.

3. Take the classes you are interested in. I can't stress this enough. Especially if you are starting without any kind of external time pressure - if you don't want to graduate by a certain date with a certain degree, for example. Then start by taking the classes that just. sound. fun.

4. Take the classes that sound fun, but remember - college classes are academic based. Even if you are taking painting, ceramics, or automotive repair, there will be elements to the class that are textbook, test, and essay heavy. If you want to do only hands-on stuff, take classes through the city recreation program.

5. Be prepared about other students. I'm about to paint with a very broad brush here, so bear with me, understand there are exceptions, etc. Night classes have more older adults, folks who also work and are going to school to further their career, or switch careers. I found that they were my favorite. The students were more serious, more interesting, and the teachers gave far less busy work. The earlier day classes had students who were straight out of highschool, there was far more texting in class, more inane questions from the class, and was far more frustrating for me.

6. Do all the extra credit - it was always the best part. The fun little side projects. Beyond that, I always went with the philosophy that you get out of an experience what you put into it, so if I wanted to not be wasting my time... I'd do all the work to try to get out of it all I could.

7. Except, learn to prioritize - you have other things going on in your life? Remember who you are, you homeschooler, you. You get to decide. You always have options. It's easy to get caught up in wanting to have perfect scores, get the teacher to like you, look good to other students, represent homeschoolers... but you get to make choices about where you spend your time.

8. Drop classes. Seriously. You go into a class and don't like the teacher? Why waste time? Drop it. Every college calendar has a list of dates - dates you can drop classes before you'll get a "W" (supposedly a bad mark on your transcripts, but I've never heard of it reallllly making a difference in getting a job later on, or admittance to a university, which is all your transcripts will really be used for in the future), get your money back, or get a failing grade. It might cost you to drop it, so you have to weigh how much your future time is worth to you. As far as the grade goes - if you get below a D, you can always re-take the course to re-write that grade. And you can take it with a different teacher... Teachers get burned out teaching the same way students get burned out taking classes. Sometimes a lot worse - because the students move on to other classes, and the teachers stay, and teach the same class, over and over... Some teachers focus on tests, others focus on essays. You can be choosy. There are also a lot of community colleges (in CA at least), so even if there's only on teacher doing that thing at the closest location, there will be others.

9. Stick with the good teachers. If you find a teacher you like, take as much as you can from them. I really, truly think that the best thing I got from most of my college experience were the connections. Once I took a communication class and liked the teacher and ended up on the speech and debate team (which she coached) for two years, made friends, won trophies, practiced public speaking... I liked an English teacher I had so I took all the classes I could from him, including my first formal poetry class, which I dropped (due to not wanting to listen to other people's poetry) but I loved the textbook and it's on my bookshelf right now, and I read it all the time. I have so many stories like this. There are too many tired or bad teachers out there - keep the good ones!

10. Go on all the field trips - you'll get entrance to things cheaper than you can when you're not a student or with a group, like art museums and aquariums. You'll be exposed to stuff you would not have been before, and your teacher told you to go there for a reason - they find value in that place. So go, and then talk to your teacher about it later.

11. Figure out how you like to be organized. I messed with so many different calendars and organizational techniques for tracking classes and assignments. I learned a lot from that. Figure out what works for you, and you'll create a system that'll work for the rest of your life. I know I like pen to paper calendar, and I use sticky notes for lists. Other people use their google calendars. Whatever works for you.

12. Don't be alone on a college campus after dark. Make friends with the moms in the classes, they'll sit with you while you wait to be picked up.

13. Go to shows on campus. Cheap theater tickets, lots of fun. Also there will be art shows, museum openings, sports games, 5k's, fundraisers...

14. Even if you don't buy food there, most college cafe-type-things will have microwaves you can use. Different buildings will have really different vibes - some will have couches, good places to sit and read...

15. Be prepared for the "so are you some sort of genius, or something?" weirdly shaped question. You're young, and you look young, and people aren't afraid of pointing that out. I think lighthearted answers are better for getting out of it, but it's up to you.

16. Be more prepared for the weirdness that happens when you are suddenly the same age as everyone else and no one is asking you that question. It's a weird thing not to stand out, and to get to decide on your own if you want to talk about homeschooling or not.

17. Sell back your textbooks, except for the anthologies of creative writing. First off, they are heavy and take up a lot of space. Second off, information changes really fast these days. So much from my old textbooks isn't even TRUE anymore (anyone heard from Pluto, lately?). Third, what do those textbooks have that you can't find by googling? The creative writing books, however, I kept. I suppose I could also google those poets and authors, but I love having them on my shelves. Your thing might not be poetry.. but having met you, I don't think I'm leading you astray with this one.

18. Think about your life when you decide to sign up for classes. Remember it'll be 16-18 weeks of your life in a ROW. So do you really want to wake up at 8am 4 days a week? Do you really want to have to be on campus 5 days in a row? Think about the times of day you feel the most productive - do you want those hours to be taken up in a classroom? It's good to know these things about yourself and make decisions revolving around them. There will be times when you decide that the class is worth a sacrifice, such as that awesome, awesome printmaking class that you're dying to take but is all day Friday, and it might mean missing Girl Scouts this semester.

19. Tests. People always ask me if I felt like I was prepared for testing. I never understood what the big fuss was about. If you are unclear about the format of a test or what is going to be on it, or what materials you'll need - ask the teacher ahead of time. Even if it seems like you should know it - if you are wondering, other people in the class are wondering too. Scantrons (fill in the bubble tests) are pencils only, which drove me crazy, because I hate writing in pencil. A very small percentage of my classes used scantron tests, actually. The first test of any class will be the most nervewracking, because you don't know what the teacher is really like, yet. Some teachers will have weird ways of wording things.. little quirks that you'll figure out before the 2nd test. I am really sensitive to noises, like chewing or pen-clicking. That's hard for me, during tests - because it suddenly gets quiet and all I can hear are those other little noises. I combat that by chewing gum myself - somehow that helps. What else.. uhm, if you're sick, bring tissues, because you'll be looking down and gravity... you get it. The technique that always worked for me was to go through the test and fill out all the questions I was 100% sure about, and then go back and think about the others. Sometimes wording in later questions will remind you of an answer. I'm a fast test taker, I figure if I don't know it right away I am not going to remember it if I sit there for another half an hour. But you'll have to figure yourself out on that one.

20. Essay tests - teachers may give you paper, or ask you to use a blue book. I always, always ask if I can use a scrap piece of paper to write an outline first. Then I'd do bullet points on the outline, so I make sure I include everything I want to.

Well, Molly, I hope this helps. 20 pieces of random advice about going to a community college. If you have any other questions, let me know. I was 13 when I started, and transferred to CSULB when I was 20. I graduated, then went back for my Master's. I've got a lot of years of college advice in me!



  1. Oh man, I REALLY wish I had this list before I went to college!!

    1. Which parts would have been the most helpful? Any tips you would add?

  2. The thing I would add to this is, ask your teacher who (in his or her opinion) is the best teacher who teaches X, X being the next thing that you will take. My daughters got unerring advice about good teachers from their other favorite teachers. The advice from students or computer websites about computers was a lot less useful.

    1. Ooops, oops, oops. I should re-read a comment before posting. Of the errors I made, the most important one to correct is: The advice from students or computer websites about TEACHERS was a lot less useful.

    2. That's a really good point - there are things like RateMyProfessor - which I never really found helpful either. I found it to be full of negative reviews written by students who didn't want to learn/work, about teachers with high standards.

    3. I found RateMyProfessor pretty useful--I just didn't go by the number rating, only by the comments. Good teachers usually have mixed ratings, 1/4 to 1/2 from students who adored them and 1/2 to 3/4 of students saying they're "too hard" or not flexible or have high standards. But all of the really bad teachers I've had at community colleges were rated very poorly on RateMyProfessor, and several times I wished I'd checked there before signing up for the class. I could have saved myself a few weeks of headache. So I guess I'd suggest using websites to eliminate bad teachers, rather than pick good ones.

  3. Totally rad advice. You and I had a very similar experience with college - I feel like this could have been written for my 13 year old self. Using my teachers as resources and not being afraid to approach them and talk to them and ask any and all questions got me a lot out of college, and resulted in me being appreciated by and forming useful friendships with some fantastic adults. I want to emphasize the importance of getting to know how you like to be organized and owning and using a day planner - especially as someone moving from a less formal to more formal academic structure.

    1. Learning about how I like to get organized was not an anticipated benefit of going to community college - but definitely helped me in every job I've ever had, and then in my Master's program, then in my trainee-ship, and now that I am working at two separate private practices. The things I figured out worked for me when I was 15 and planning my classes (actual paper planner, with a monthly spread and daily space for taking notes) are still what I use most effectively today.

  4. Great advice. The one thing I'd question is the wisdom of dropping classes. First, depending on what you want to do next, W's can matter. Second, in a lot of schools you now only have two weeks to drop and still get a full refund, and *that* can definitely matter to a lot of families, especially since tuition has increased so much in recent years. Finally, a lot of community colleges only allow you to repeat a class once, which means that if you drop it twice, you can't take it again. If it's a class you'll eventually need to graduate, you're better off waiting until you're sure you can handle it before trying it.

    1. can you give me a specific example of when a "W" has ever mattered? I would say that if you have 3 a semester, then that pattern might matter - but one every once in a while? I've never heard of anyone being penalized for that. But if that's not the case, I'd love to know.

      I did mention the financial issue - and to pay attention to the calendar of when you are able to drop and still get refunds. I still think there's a trade off there, if the value for your money is an issue - to maybe drop and not get a refund but be able to get a much better class later. It depends. But that's part of why I suggest dropping a class - do it sooner rather than later. When I've hesitated because I didn't want to drop, but was thinking about it from the beginning of the class...and then waited too long, and then missed the chance to get a refund, I almost always should have gone with my gut, and dropped it. I can't think of a single class I took where I thought I should drop the class, but then the teacher turned it around for me.

      As far as repeating classes goes - I know that some classes have only a number of repeats you can take - but that's typically if you actually finish the class (or do enough of the class to receive a grade) but not a dropped class. I am checking into this, because I'd hate to be wrong - but I can't imagine this actually being true, because if you drop, say, English 100 twice, and then aren't able to retake it? You wouldn't be able to get almost any degree.

      I also know that things are tightening up in community colleges since I last attended (my last community college class was in 2005), so I will have to check into this last one.

    2. Here's an article about some of the changes that MAY go into affect in CA.

      You're probably right that they can't prevent you from retaking English 100 if there's no way to graduate or transfer without it, but there is this:

      "The colleges already took one step toward limiting class repeats in July, when they cut off state funding for students to repeat most courses more than three times."

      As to W's, I guess it depends on how many you have:

      "Students also would lose enrollment priority if they are put on academic probation or fail to complete at least half their classes for two terms in a row."

      Again, you're probably right that most people wouldn't be dropping enough classes to get into trouble. However, anyone that does drop a class will probably get a W since you now get them starting on week 3 of a 16 week semester.

      I'm sure I'm overstating the problem, but it bugs me that *Community* colleges aren't there for the use and enjoyment of the community. You can't even take too much time to explore different areas:

      "if [students] do not follow their educational plan or fail to declare a program of study by their third term, they fall to the back of the line, in theory making room for new students."