Going Back to School as an Adult

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Are you ready for a career change, looking to expand your skill set, or just want to make more money? When you go back to school as an adult it opens the doors to new job and career opportunities, as well as pushing you to better yourself.

Going Back to School as an Adult

If you’re considering continuing education, we have all the answers you need to determine whether going back to school is right for you, and to help you get started along that path.

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There are far more options now for online college, and different ways of learning online than ever before. Technology is getting better all the time, and going back to college online is a realistic option. Keep reading to find all the information you need to make the best decision about going back to school!

Who Should Go Back to College as an Adult?

adult student in a class

Regardless of your age, educational background or work experience – we all get stuck in a rut. We all want more.

Going back to school can help you:

  • Earn a raise / more money
  • Earn a promotion
  • Take on new or different responsibilities at work
  • Keep your skills current
  • Transition into a new field
  • Finish the degree you started

If those are goals you have in your personal or professional life, going back to college may be a great choice for you.

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But keep in mind that when you go back to school as an adult, you can’t do it alone. You’ll need the support of others to succeed.

Support System

two students reading notes in library

One of the biggest indicators of success is a student’s support system. You absolutely must have the support of your family, friends, and employer in order to succeed.

Be sure to discuss your plans and goals, and how they may impact those around you. Knowing your spouse or coworker is rooting for you is fantastic, but you really need to know you can count on them to handle the grocery shopping or finish up a report when you are focusing on schoolwork.

Your school can also be a great source of support. When you feel stressed or have questions, you should reach out to your advisor, professors, tutors, study groups or even campus support groups for nontraditional students. It’s very important that you are able to recognize when you’re struggling – emotionally or academically – and feel comfortable asking for help.

If you choose to go back to college, there will be an adjustment period and bumps along the way, but with a good support system you can make it a smooth ride.

What Are My Options for Going Back to School Online?

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As an adult learner, there are so many options available to you – a wide variety of majors, schools, degree levels, learning formats and so on.

If you’re going back to college to advance your current career, chances are you already have a major in mind. Take some time to consider what skills are necessary in the role you’d like – such as managerial or financial know-how – and plan to take classes that will focus on those areas.

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If you’re ready for a new field, you may be asking, “What should I go back to school for?” You’ll need to think about your strengths and weaknesses (be honest here!), what type of work environment you prefer, how much flexibility you desire, and so on.

Choosing a Major

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As you consider majors, think about the actual jobs associated with those majors and whether or not they appeal to you. Choose a field that excites you, but that will also lead to job prospects and a paycheck you can live on.

Here are some top in-demand fields that would be worth your investment:

  • Healthcare – Employment in the healthcare field is projected to grow 18% from 2016 to 2026, adding about 2.4 million new jobs! With an aging population and new medical discoveries every day, this field is expected to add more jobs than any other. Some occupations you could consider include:
    Careers Annual Median Salary
    Radiation Therapist $85,560
    Dental Hygienist $76,220
    Registered Nurse $73,300
  • Technology – Information security, data collection and cloud computing are on the rise, which means employment in computer and information technology is booming. The field is projected to grow 13% between 2016 and 2026, adding 557,100 new jobs. Here are a few to consider:
    Careers Annual Median Salary
    Computer Network Architect $112,960
    Software Developer $107,510
    Web Developer $73,760
  • Finance – The business and finance field is expected to grow 10% from 2016 to 2026, adding 773,800 new jobs. This is due to many factors, including globalization, a growing economy, data and market research and so on. Examples of occupations you might consider include:
    Careers Annual Median Salary
    Personal Financial Advisor $87,850
    Accountant/Auditor $71,550
    Insurance Underwriter $70,020

    Projected growth and median annual pay based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While healthcare, technology and finance are some of the most in-demand fields, that does not mean it’s not worthwhile to pursue a degree in something else! Employment is expected to rise in education, law, media, social sciences and so many other fields.

    In addition to researching the projected growth and income potential, consider your work history, educational background and your own personal interests when deciding which field is right for you. If you’re still feeling lost, a personality assessment may help point you in the right direction.

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    The well-known Myers-Briggs tests are extremely thorough, but you will have to pay for the report. For a free, scaled down test, check out The Princeton Review’s Career Quiz.

    Choosing a Degree Level

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    Knowing the field and career you are pursuing will help you determine what degree level you should pursue.

    There are 4 college degree levels:

    • Associate’s degree: Approximately 2 years of full-time study (60 credit hours); Qualifies you for entry-level jobs in some fields. (An associate’s degree is not a required pre-requisite to earning your bachelor’s degree. You can skip the associate’s degree if you already know that you want to complete your bachelor’s degree.)
    • Bachelor’s degree: Approximately 4 years of full-time study (120 credit hours); Qualifies you for entry-level or management positions, depending on the field
    • Master’s degree: Approximately 1-2 years of full-time study beyond the Bachelor’s degree; Qualifies you for advanced or executive-level positions
    • Doctoral degree: Approximately 3-5 years of full-time study beyond the Bachelor’s degree / May require earning your Master’s degree first, but not always; Qualifies you as a field expert to work in business or research, or as a college professor

    The most commonly pursued degree is the bachelor’s, but which degree is right for you depends on your goals. Try searching the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics website for the career you’re considering to find out what type of degree is necessary.

    Consider Online Learning

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    As you evaluate degree programs, you may notice the many advantages of the online learning format. Online learning can fit around your existing commitments and responsibilities. You can complete online courses despite obstacles like long commutes, traffic, transportation problems, childcare conflicts, business meetings or trips, an inconsistent work schedule, your own illnesses or the illnesses of loved ones, and so on; problems that may make it impossible to attend classes on campus, aren’t so difficult for online learners.

    As an online learner, you will have strict deadlines, but most online degree programs offer 24/7 access to learning materials, message boards, and tutors. This way, you can hop on early in the morning, on your lunch break, or late at night – whatever works for you.

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    You can also work toward your degree at your own pace. If you’re motivated and have the time, online programs often offer classes in accelerated 8-week semesters, rather than the more traditional 16-week semesters, which will help you earn your degree in a fraction of the time. Oh, and did we mention online learning is often a cheaper option?

    What Adult Colleges Are Available to Go Back to School?

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    According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were over 6,500 post-secondary institutions in the US as of 2017-2018. Needless to say, you’ve got choices!

    Choosing a School

    This time around, you probably don’t have a guidance counselor, parents, or teachers to help you sort out your options, so you’ll have to do a lot of the research yourself.

    Here are some factors you should consider when choosing a school:

    1. Major – Start off by making a list of schools that offer the major you’re interested in. Only include schools that are accredited.
    2. Scheduling – Next, narrow the list down based on how and when you’re able to attend classes.
    • Do they offer fully online degree programs?
    • Do they offer night and/or weekend classes?
    • Do they offer online classes?
    • Will you have access to the library, computer services, advisors, and professors during hours that work for you?

    You want to find a school that can fit into your lifestyle so that it isn’t a hassle for you to attend, get involved, or keep up with coursework.

    1. Cost – Next, compare the costs associated with each option.
    • What is the tuition?
    • What other fees may come up?
    • What is the payment schedule?
    • What financial aid, scholarships for adults, or grants for going back to school are available?
    • Are there any incentives for adult learners?
    1. Duration – Be sure to find out how long it will take to earn your degree.
    • Will your existing credits transfer?
    • Can your work experience be used as credit?
    • Are there accelerated courses or programs to help speed up the process?

    Online Programs

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    Traditionally, location would also be a factor when choosing a school, but with the availability of online programs you don’t have to be limited to the schools in your area.

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    Online students can access their courses and materials from anywhere, at any time. You can find online programs in nearly every field. You can find online programs like these at brick and mortar schools as well as through online-only schools.

    Transferring Credit

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    Before choosing a school and program, you will need to take inventory of previous college coursework. If you’ve attended college previously, or earned college credits in some other capacity, transferring those credits will help you graduate faster and at a lower cost. You’ll just need to have your transcripts sent from your former school to your new one.

    To request your college transcript:

    • Visit your former school’s website.
    • Using the search tool, type in: Transcript
    • Follow the steps provided by the school to request your transcript (this usually includes filling out a short form and paying a small fee).

    You will be asked for some information, such as your Social Security Number and the address of the school(s) you want the transcripts sent to, and there may be a small fee (under $20). There’s a good chance you will be able to complete the entire request online using an electronic signature, but some schools will ask that you contact the registrar’s office and provide a paper request and signature.

    If your transferred credits are coming from another regionally accredited university, most colleges will accept them. General education credits (English, math, history) tend to be the most transferable, but most other courses will transfer as well, even if only as elective credits. Each school will have its own credit transfer policy. Here’s an example of Stanford University’s transfer credit policies found on the registrar’s office page:

    To find out the credit transfer policy at your chosen school, check the following resources:

    • The school’s course catalog
    • The school’s website (try searching for keywords such as “transfer credit” or “transfer policy”)
    • The Registrar’s Office

    Sometimes there is a time limit, or a limit to the number of credits a school will accept. They may also refuse credits earned at a non-accredited institution. And if your field of study is rapidly advancing (think: computer science or nursing), they may require that you repeat some classes to ensure your skills are up to date.

    Once your new school has reviewed your transcripts, they will let you know how many of your credits are transferable. If they have refused certain credits, you have the right to question their decision, and you should be prepared to provide a syllabus or other class materials to support your argument.

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    Keep in mind, too, that on-the-job experience related to your major may also be eligible for up to 30 credit hours, depending on the school’s policy. Be sure to mention any professional accolades, credentials, licenses or training you have that may allow you to skip certain courses.

    When Is the Right Time to Go Back to School as an Adult?

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    Anytime is the right time to better your future! We know it probably seems daunting. You’ve already got a lot of adult responsibilities, and money’s tight. Adding college – classes, homework and tuition costs – on top of it all seems impossible!

    It’s not impossible, though. And it’s well worth the effort. Having a college degree could help you secure a better job, earn more money, and feel a sense of accomplishment. And we’re here to help you find ways to make it work for you, no matter where you’re at in life!

    Going Back to School at 25

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    Maybe you feel like you’ve missed the boat. Your classmates went straight from high school to college, and by now they’ve earned their degrees and settled into professional careers. You may wish you’d followed that path, but now it feels too late. You’d feel silly sitting in a classroom full of 18-year-olds!

    Well, chances are, if you do go back to school you won’t be sitting in a classroom full of 18-year-olds. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in Fall 2020 expected enrollment is about 12.3 million college students under age 25, and 7.5 million students 25 and older. And those numbers are growing each year! And you’ll have many advantages over younger students anyway.

    At 18, many are still adjusting to their newfound freedom and may have trouble prioritizing coursework. But you’ve been on your own for a while, holding down a job and paying bills. You can multitask, prioritize and focus better than you could at 18. So how about the cost? College costs can be intimidating, but no one expects you to pay upfront.

    Start out by completing the FAFSA, which will determine which grants and loans you’re eligible for. (Do not skip this step, no matter what!) Because you’re over 24, you will be able to fill out your FAFSA as an independent student, meaning you won’t have to include your parents’ financial info. This should help paint a more accurate picture of what you are truly able to afford.

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    In addition to grants (i.e. free money), the FAFSA will help you qualify for low-interest loans. You do not have to accept the loans you are offered.

    Federal aid through the FAFSA isn’t your only resource. Look for scholarships for adult learners or in your major using search sites like Fastweb. Communicate your circumstances and needs with the school you to which you are applying, so they can help you find the aid you need. Lastly, if you plan to work while going to school, ask your employer about tuition assistance programs.

    If flexibility in your schedule is important to you, consider getting your degree online. More and more accredited colleges and universities are offering online classes and complete degree programs allowing you to virtually “attend” classes when it’s most convenient for you.

    Going back to college at 25 will be a challenge, but you will have many years to enjoy the benefits that come from having a college degree.

    Going Back to School at 30

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    Adulthood has a way of sneaking up on you, oftentimes when you get married and have babies. It may seem like you’re on an express train, traveling full speed ahead. If you’re considering veering off in another direction you need to speak up NOW! Are you headed the right direction? Are you prepared for what’s ahead? Can the career you’ve chosen support the lifestyle you desire for your family?

    These are all important questions. Going back to school at 30 to ensure a better future is not uncommon. You may choose to get a more advanced degree in the field you’re already in, or transition into something new. Either way, it may be possible to get college credit for the work experience you already have under your belt.

    You probably cannot put your job, spouse, or children on hold to pursue a degree, but online learning can work around those commitments. Rather than needing to be in class at a certain time each day, you can log on to complete course materials at your convenience. Online learning is also often the fastest and cheapest option. Can’t afford it? There are many options for assistance.

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    Start out by completing the FAFSA, which will identify which grants and loans you’re eligible for. You may qualify for funds that do not have to be repaid. And the federal student loans that do have to be repaid will have lower interest rates and more flexible payment plans than any alternative loans.

    Scholarships are another great way to fund college, and there are many opportunities available specifically for adult learners. Try using Fastweb to search for scholarships.

    Federal aid and scholarships aren’t the only help available. Communicate your needs to the school to see what resources they can offer, and ask about repayment plans if that’s something you’re interested in. And if you have a job, discuss your educational goals with your employer and ask about tuition assistance programs.

    Going back to school at 30 is a major decision. It will be a challenge to find the money and add another responsibility to your plate, but finding a career you love that can help you support your family will make it all worth it.

    Going Back to School at 35

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    You’ve been working in your chosen field for a number of years, and you’ve stalled out. You’re not fulfilled in your current position, so you either need a more advanced degree to keep moving up within the field, or to go back to school and focus on another area of interest. But how? You have adult responsibilities – a job, a family. You can’t just put everything on hold while you “re-do” your education.

    First of all, don’t think of it as starting over, but rather as refocusing. The years spent in the workforce were not a waste. Speak to an academic advisor about how that experience can be turned into college credit. Be sure to mention any additional expertise you have that may allow you to test out of classes or coursework.

    Secondly, you will not need to completely disrupt your life to go back to school. Consider enrolling in an online degree program, which will allow you to fit college around your existing commitments. Oftentimes online courses are accelerated, so you’ll be able to finish faster, and it will cost less than attending on-campus classes.

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    Cost is often a factor in returning to college. Start out by completing the FAFSA, which will identify which grants and loans you’re eligible for. The federal student loans offered to you will have lower interest rates and more flexible payment plans than alternative loans.

    If you aren’t comfortable taking out student loans, ask about the school’s payment plans. If you’re quitting your job to return to college, you can ask the financial aid office to consider that when estimating your income. If you plan to work while in school, ask your employer about tuition assistance programs.

    Returning to school at age 35 is a big decision. It will be tough to find the money and juggle another responsibility, but getting yourself out of that career rut and into something more rewarding will be worth it in a multitude of ways.

    Going Back to School at 40

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    The devil on one shoulder is saying, “Who goes back to college at 40? You’ve worked in this field for half your life, and now you want to just throw it all away and start over?

    You have responsibilities, financial obligations and loved ones who count on you. You can’t just push everything aside while you chase your wildest dreams.” But let us speak from the other shoulder. Your past is not a waste and you are not starting over. Your work experience may count as college credit. And of course you’ve gained life skills that can be applied in any number of degree fields.

    Yes, you will have to make sacrifices, but your responsibilities will not be shirked. You can continue to work and care for your family, especially if you choose to get your degree online. Taking classes online means you can do it when you have the time. It is also usually less expensive than traditional college.

    Returning to school at age 40 will be a struggle, but it will be worth it to find a career field that will keep you satisfied until you retire!

    Going Back to School at 50

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    At 50, your children are grown and out of the house, and you have more time to yourself. You’re learning to focus on you again. Now is the perfect time to go back to school and earn that degree you’ve dreamed about!

    Online learning may be intimidating at first, but it will help you avoid busy campuses and a strict class schedule. It’s very flexible, so you can fit your education around your job, family time and hobbies. It is also usually less expensive than traditional on-campus programs.

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    Returning to school will involve challenges and sacrifices, but remember that this is your dream you’re pursuing. You’re doing this for you! Focus on how good it will feel to have that diploma in hand!

    Why Should I Go Back to School as an Adult?

    Going back to school to earn your degree can help you achieve a number of personal and professional goals.

    • Are you gunning for a pay raise?
    • Looking to advance in your current field?
    • Are you ready to move into a different field entirely?
    • Did you start a degree years ago that you’d still like to finish?
    • Or maybe you just want to increase your knowledge or feel that sense of pride and accomplishment?

    In addition to these significant “end goals,” you may consider setting some smaller goals that you can reach along the way.

    Here are a few examples of short-term goals:

    • I will take 3 classes this semester.
    • I will earn a 3.0 GPA or better.
    • I will apply for 5 grants or scholarships this semester.
    • I will visit the career center twice this semester.

    These short-term goals can help you feel a sense of accomplishment as you work toward your primary end goal. You might choose to reward yourself for meeting those short-term goals – a short weekend getaway is great motivation and a way to recharge before a new semester.

    How Do I Get Started If I Want to Go Back to School?

    Once you’ve made all the important decisions – to return to school, what for and where – it’s time to get the ball rolling! Here is a step-by-step guide to get you started.

    Step 1: Complete the Required Pre-Admission Testing, If Any

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    As an adult learner, chances are you won’t be required to provide SAT or ACT scores since those scores may not reflect your current academic aptitude.

    Instead, you may need to take a placement test once you’re accepted. Placement tests are meant to evaluate your math, reading, and writing abilities to help determine which courses to start you off in. Placement tests may sound intimidating, but don’t worry – you can’t fail!

    If your score isn’t up to par, you may just need to take a remedial course before moving on to the college’s regular classes. Take the time to brush up on those skills and you’ll be back on track in no time! Of course, there are still entrance exams for more advanced degrees. If you’re headed to graduate or business school, check your school’s website to find out whether you’ll need to take the GMAT or GRE.

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    Many colleges (especially those offering programs online) no longer require these test scores. If you’re going to law school, though, you’ll still need to take the LSAT. And med school hopefuls, you’ll still be taking the MCAT.

    Here are some helpful study resources for each exam:

    • Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
    • Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT)
    • Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
    • Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

    Entrance exams like these are designed to measure your capacity for success in the program. If this is a required exam, your score will carry a lot of weight in the admissions process, so if you think you may be weak in any of these areas, you might want to try a practice test or take a review course.

    Step 2 – Apply for Admission

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    Applying to college is fairly straight forward. However, you may be confused about which application process to use. What is the difference between a first-time student and a transfer student?

    • First-Time Student – You have a high school diploma or GED, and have no college experience or college credits. Once admitted, you will be considered a freshman.
    • Transfer student – After graduating from high school, you attended and earned credit at a college. The number of college credits transferred will determine whether you are admitted as a freshman, sophomore, or junior.

    Common Question: Are the Admissions Criteria for First-Time Students and Transfer Students Different?

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    Yes. The GPA requirement for a transfer student is typically lower because it is presumed that their previous coursework – in college – was more challenging than the previous work of someone coming from high school. Visit your target university’s admissions page to see which criteria will apply to you.

    Common Question: Will my GPA carry over?

    In most cases, no. When you transfer credits, only the actual credit hours transfer, not the grade earned. Your GPA will begin anew as you complete the first classes at your new school.

    Step 3 – Apply For Financial Aid

    The first step in financial aid planning is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can file your FAFSA starting on October 1 of the year before you plan to attend college. Aid is awarded on a first come, first served basis, so you should get your application in right away. Even if you feel certain you won’t qualify for aid, DO NOT skip this step!

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    The FAFSA opens the door to grants for older adults returning to college and scholarships that do not have to be repaid, as well as to low-interest student loans that are not necessarily income based. And remember, you do not have to accept the aid or loans you are offered. The FAFSA process can seem intimidating, but it’s actually quite simple!

    Here are the basic FAFSA steps for how to get grants for college:

    1. Start by creating a FSA ID. Your FSA ID is the username and password you will use you to access your financial aid information and electronically sign your documents. This is a new login requirement as of May 2015.
    2. Start the FAFSA
    3. Fill in your general demographic info.
    4. List which schools you want your financial info sent to. (Feel free to list several! They will not hold you to it.)
    5. Answer a series of basic questions to determine whether you’re considered “independent” (by their standards, not yours) or will need to include your parents’ data.
    6. This is where you will enter your financial info! Here’s what you’ll need:
    • Your most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned. (You may be able to easily import your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.)
    • Bank statements and records of investments
    • Records of untaxed income
    1. Sign and submit your FAFSA.

    That’s it! In a few days or weeks you should receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), or a summary of the information you provided. Then, from the schools you listed on your FAFSA and were accepted to you will receive an award letter indicating the amount of financial aid they can offer you.

    Step 4 – Test Out Of As Many Classes as Possible

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    In addition to transferring credits, you may also be able to skip ahead in your degree program by testing out of certain courses or coursework.

    Check with your school’s admissions office to see if they accept exam credits, and how many. Students who take advantage of this “test out” option typically only do so for a class or two, but many schools will allow up to 30 credits. You could graduate in a fraction of the time and save yourself thousands of dollars!

    CLEP is the most well-known, widely accepted testing program. They offer 33 multiple choice tests covering introductory material taught in “general education” courses. Your school may also accept credits from DSST or Excelsior exams.

    Step 5 – Register for Classes

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    When registering for classes, pay close attention to your academic plan. But if you have some flexibility, it’s a good idea to choose classes that excite you in your early semesters to help motivate you and build confidence. Depending on your interests, that might be Business Ethics in Sports or Marketing for Hotels and Restaurants.

    You should also attempt to strike a balance between subjects that are tough for you and those that come more easily to you. For example, if you’re not math-minded, offset your Calculus class with a Composition class. Also consider the workload for each subject. Balance classes that are heavy in reading and writing with subjects like math or art.

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    A full-time course load is between 12 and 15 credits per semester, and since many courses are assigned 3 credits that means you will be taking 3-4 classes at a time. Here is an example of a well-balanced first term schedule, covering some typical “core” classes:

    • Composition 101
    • College Algebra
    • Intro to Psychology
    • Intro to Fine Arts
    • History 101

    A part-time course load can vary, but may be around 6 credits per semester. A well-balanced part-time schedule might look like this:

    • Composition 101
    • College Algebra

    So, How Does Online Learning Work?

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    In terms of the actual online learning process, the name of the game is speed and flexibility. Classes are usually offered via short eight week-long semesters as a way to expedite your time in the virtual classroom, though some institutions still abide by the more traditional 16 week-long variation (or give you the option to choose between a standard semester or accelerated one).

    Submitting tests, papers, and other coursework is typically accomplished via an online learning platform, so you can complete your required assignments at any time, as long as you finish before the due date established by your professor. Speaking of your professors, interaction comes in a variety of different forms:

    • Email
    • Online discussion boards
    • Live chat
    • Phone
    • Personal meeting (depends on your proximity to the physical campus location)

    You’ll also find that any lectures, supplemental downloads, and course-specific digital tools can be accessed within your online learning portal or a specified student server.


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    Going back to school may seem overwhelming. Indeed, there are a lot of decisions that have to be made, and the process will require hard work and dedication.

    But we’ve given you the tools and information – the who, what, where, when, why and how –to help you decide whether going back to school is the best choice for you, and to help get you started.

Ready to start your journey?
Elizabeth Abner
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Abner

Elizabeth is pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Foreign Policy and earned her master's degree in business administration. For her undergraduate studies, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration with a concentration in international business. Elizabeth's research is focused on universities offering online degree programs.