Going Back to College: Getting Started


Welcome! Going back to college as an adult can be a daunting (sometimes even scary), but very worthwhile experience. We all know that there are many talented and accomplished individuals who never went to college or for some reason or another were not able to complete their degree. For many, earning that “piece of paper” can make a significant difference in their professional or personal life (the achievement of a lifelong dream) – but the idea of returning to school after a long absence can present quite a challenge.

Often adults who are returning to school after years of not being in a classroom are apprehensive about not fitting in (for example, being thrust into a classroom with 18 to 25 year olds), taking good notes, studying, and doing well on tests. The admissions and financial aid process can be a confusing and frustrating experience. Back2College offers a directory of resources and interactive community specifically designed to help manage these challenges, including an Ask the Experts and online discussion forum.

Browse articles on returning to school and frequently asked questions in the admissions area. Locate online courses or traditional or online degree programs, find out how to get credit for life experience, or get help deciding on a major. Confused about whether you qualify for financial aid? Learn how to apply for and locate scholarships. You can also brush up on forgotten study skills and read motivational feature articles and special reports about other adults who are successfully returning to school, as well as browse a bookshelf of bestselling books and guides for the returning adult learner.

Other resources include opportunities for regional and national internships; how to buy and sell textbooks; get help with academic research and cool tools (including bibliographies with document delivery; dissertations; online journals; and special libraries). An index of information can be found on the site map or you can conduct a site search. Our resources are continually being updated – it’s easy to keep informed with our free newsletter.

It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long its been. You are not alone – millions of adults have done it before you. Take that first step. You will be glad you did! you did!

bluearrow-6242657Here are Some Guidelines for Getting Started:

Personal Assessment: Define Your Educational Goals.
Before you can determine a career path and then select the right school, you need a personal assessment to help you clarify your interests and define your educational goals. Why do you want to go back to school? Is your goal to change careers, grow professionally, or finish a degree program started years ago? By focusing on your motivation, you can best define educational goals.

Personality and career counseling tests are available to help pinpoint interests and help you decide on a career path. If expert advice is necessary, there are many career centers which will provide assistance for a fee. Assessment tests such as the Strong Interest Inventory Assessment, the California Occupational Preference System, the Career Assessment Inventory and the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator can help you identify occupations best suited to talents and temperament. Community colleges often offer these tests free or at a low cost, but may limit these services to current students. Some of these tests are available online, and may provide professional evaluation.

Take Inventory. Are you going to college for the first time or re-entering after an absence? Determine how many prior college credits you have, including non-credit courses and any life or work experience skills. Even if the subjects don’t seem applicable to a major, they might count as elective credits (see definition below) toward your degree.

If you are still undecided, don’t worry. Many students attend college for years before they decide on a major (or a primary course of study, usually about eight to twelve courses in a specific discipline). You’re allowed to be undecided, and special advisors will help you select course work that will fit into various degree programs.

A minor is a secondary course of study, generally consisting of about six to eight courses in a chosen discipline area. Electives are courses outside your major and minor subject areas, while general study courses are core courses required for a degree program in a variety of subject areas. General studies requirements can vary dependent on the institution.

Once you have defined your educational goals, you can determine the program of study:

A certificate signifies the completion of a specialized number of courses, generally required for vocational or technical training.

Associate degree.
An associate’s degree is generally the completion of two years of full-time academic study or a total of 60 semester credit hours. Associate of Arts (A.A.) and Associate of Science (A.S.) degrees are often offered by community and junior colleges.

Bachelor’s degree.
A bachelor’s degree generally comprises the completion of four years of full-time academic study, or a total of 120 semester credit hours. A Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) is generally a degree in one of the humanities, while a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) is a degree in one of the sciences.

Master’s degree.
A master’s degree is the completion of one to two years of full-time academic study beyond the bachelor’s degree. For example, a Master of Arts (M.A.) or a Master of Science (M.S.) degree.

Ed.D., Ph.D. or Doctorate.
One of the highest level of academic study. A Ph.D or Doctor of Philosophy is generally based on at least three years of graduate study and the completion of a dissertation. An Ed.D. is a Doctor of Education, and requires at least three years of graduate education in specialized study, as well as a a major research contribution.

When you have determined your program of study, decide which school you will attend.

Community, Junior, and Vocational Colleges.
Community and junior colleges usually offer two-year degree programs that enable student’s to earn an associate degree. The associate degree can then be transfered to a four-year college toward a bachelor’s degree. Community colleges also offer certificate programs or workforce development job training in preparation for the job market. They are generally less expensive than four- year colleges and have less stringent admissions requirements. Vocational colleges provide a variety of training opportunities in fields such as technology, business, culinary arts, cosmetology, graphic and fashion design, paralegal training, and health and medical training.

Four-Year Colleges and Universities (Public and Private).
Four-year colleges and universities offer four year degree programs that enable students to attain a bachelor’s degree in wide variety of disciplines. They also often offer graduate degree programs that lead to a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree. Universities are generally larger than colleges and often emphasize more scholarly or scientific research. Generally, the larger the school, the larger the class size, with some classes being taught by graduate students.

– Public colleges and universities are subsidized by the state they are located in and are generally less expensive than private colleges, although they may have less financial aid available. Non-resident students may have to pay higher rates.

– Private colleges are funded through endowments, tuition, and other private sources. Tuition is usually higher than a public school, but larger financial aid options may be offered to offset the cost of tuition. Private schools are often smaller than public insitutions, with smaller class sizes, offering more personalized attention to students.

You can begin your search in our Degree Programs section. There may be several schools that offer the program you are interested in. Research colleges and universities to find the best program for you, whether it is a traditional campus-based program, a campus and distance education program, or a full distance degree. Find out if any local colleges or universities offer the program, and if classes are available at a convenient time. Many schools offer accelerated programs, night or weekend classes, and distance learning opportunities. Classes may be offered through television broadcast, correspondence, the Internet, or other multi-media. Many adults prefer a blended approach, by taking some classes online and others on the campus.

You’ll also need to determine how many of your prior credits will transfer to the school and if the college provides credit for examination or prior learning. (For more information, see How to Accelerate Your Degree Plan and Getting Full Credit.)

Once you have selected schools you are interested in, compare them using the following guidelines (we have provided a College Comparison Worksheet):

  1. Accreditation and the ranking/reputation of the college program. Be certain that the school is fully accredited, and if seeking federal student aid to help pay for your education, that the school participates in the Title IV student aid program. If interested in graduate school or an advanced degree, make sure the program is fully transferable and meets all requirements. To find information on the school’s ranking and academic reputation, refer to college guides from the Princeton Review, U.S. News, and Kiplinger.
  2. What kind of financial aid is available, and if there are there specific scholarships targeted toward adult students. Are the college’s tuition and expenses affordable? Is there a flexible payment or installment plan available?
  3. Does the college accept transfer credits? How many? Does it provide options for receiving college credit by examination, prior learning or work or life experience credit? To learn more about these options, see How to Accelerate Your Degree Plan.
  4. Courses are presented at acceptable times and formats. Are night and weekend courses available? How about distance learning (via the Internet, broadcast television, or correspondence courses)?
  5. Does the school offer accelerated courses or programs? Accelerated courses can cover a full semester’s instruction in six or eight week formats. These programs are learning intense, but help to quickly attain college credit for degree completion.
  6. Campus office and academic advising schedules accommodate adult students. Make sure library, computer services, and academic tutoring are available at accessible times and professors are available after class hours.
  7. The college offers community and support for adult students. Ask the percentage of nontraditional student enrollment and if there are any social groups or services available. Ask if child care programs are offered if needed.

(See also Ten Questions to Ask Before Choosing a College or University and Choosing a Distance Learning Program.)

Complete any Testing and Admissions and Financial Aid Applications.
Once you identify schools offering programs you are interested in, visit their Web site or contact the admissions office for a course catalog and admissions application. Request a financial aid application from the financial aid office. Complete all the necessary testing and admissions and financial aid applications (including the FAFSA Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and send an offical copy of your prior transcripts to the school. (A transcript is a record of previous academic work. To request a copy, contact the high school or previous college(s) attended and request that an official copy be sent to the admissions office of the new college or university.) If you need your GED (General Educational Development) transcript, the American Council on Education offers assistance. (For information on getting your G.E.D. or high school diploma, see Adult Education/G.E.D./High School Diploma.)

Adult students usually aren’t required to take admissions tests (i.e., the SAT Standardized Admissions Test or ACT American College Test), although they do need to take graduate admission tests such as the GRE Graduate Record Examination or GMAT Graduate Management Admission Test if attending graduate school. Many colleges offer a placement test instead of admission test scores for older students, and don’t consider high school performance or outdated test scores, especially with transfer students from community colleges. (For frequently asked questions about the ACT and SAT, including old test scores, see the ACT and SAT Web sites.) For help in preparing for admissions or other educational testing, see Educational Testing Services and the Princeton Review. Information on college credit options (i.e. life experience credit and the CLEP (College Level Examination Program), is referenced in Testing and College Credit Options.

Make an Academic Plan.
Once you determine your educational goals and the school you wish to attend, your next step is to make an academic plan. Your advisor can help you decide which courses to take, and whether you should take course prerequisites or any refresher courses (for example, in English or Math). This plan will serve as your academic guide and timetable to keep you on course. You can review this plan periodically to determine how it fits your lifestyle: if it gives you enough time for work, family, and other activities. To get maximum benefit from your degree, plan your career beforehand, not when you finish the program. Be sure your academic plan has a determined end date.

When you are ready to select classes for your first semester, choose subjects in which you are already interested and do well in. This will help ease your transition and establish a study schedule. As you increase in confidence and are more acclimated to college life, try the more difficult or unfamiliar subjects. Many colleges offer tutoring, so be sure to take advantage of these services if you need them. Additional study resources can be found in the Academics section of this Web site.

Attend a Campus Orientation.
Many colleges offer student orientations or campus tour before the start of the semester, and sometimes there is an orientation especially for non-traditional students. These orientations often include information about campus resources, re-entry services, study skills, and stress management tips. They also help familiarize you with the campus and provide help with other important issues you may need to address while continuing your education.

If you can’t take a tour, try to familiarize yourself with the many resources the college provides on campus, such as the career center, a math lab or writing center, and any free tutorial assistance.

Build a Strong Support System.
A major reason for not completing their degree for returning adults is not having a strong support system. Transitioning from workplace to student can be difficult and present obstacles, especially if you lack support from employer, family, or friends. These may include difficulty in understanding and getting financial aid, receiving counseling or career direction, the complexity of re-enrollment and transfer/credit issues, inflexible class scheduling, persistence, and poor study skills.

Persistence is one of the most common hurdles facing adults who return to school. Adult students generally commute, may be married, work full or part-time, and have children. Handling an academic workload while dealing with these realities can cause some to drop out. Others might begin a program of study, to find they have to put it on hold due to life events (i.e., health or other issues).

Having a strong support system can help adults facing these challenges. While ultimate responsibility rests with you, it’s also up to you to reach out if needed. Involve family and friends in the excitement and importance of learning. Demonstrate to your employer how your goals will benefit the company as well as yourself. The more involved others are in your success, the more they will be on your team if you need them.

Reach out to those on campus as well. Ask your college or university if they have any resources for older students. Seek out social networks or groups, academic or professional, to share concerns. Get to know your professors or instructors and take advantage of office hours to answer any questions or seek help if struggling with a subject.

Consider Combining Class Work with Part-Time Employment.
Combining classes with part-time employment can be a challenge, but employers often provide assistance to help you toward educational goals. Many offer cooperative education programs*, tuition reimbursement, or paying assistantships or internships. As well as helping you with your tuition, these programs can provide valuable work experience and references.

Another option is federal or state work study (which can be included in your financial aid award.) If you choose to participate, you will need to find a position in your major with a qualified employer. Your employer will then be reimbursed and the income you earn will not be counted in determining the next year’s financial aid, a significant benefit.

Remember, you are going back to college because you (like many other adult students) want to be there. Relax, and enjoy your journey!

bluearrow-9788115Still have questions? Please ask your questions here: https://back2college.com/ask-the-experts