Going (back) to college: The process demystified! Whether you are going to college for the first time or you are going back after extended time away, the process can seem intimidating. It doesn’t have to be! Follow these basic guidelines for getting your academic mojo moving in the right direction: 1. Don’t worry. I know, I know, easier said than done, but if you take the mentality that “it’s either meant to be, or it’s not,” then you’ll develop the right balance of commitment to the outcome to see the process through without alerting the drama gods. a. Did you know that your GPA (grade point average) does not transfer between colleges? If you have a low GPA at an institution and either transfer, drop out, or get expelled, you start with a fresh GPA at the new institution (or at the same one if you decide to return). Be advised, however, that many colleges will require that you petition / interview for entry and explain your low GPA before they will consider admitting you. They want to ensure that you learned from the past and that you have what it takes to be successful the second time around. Colleges and universities are highly concerned with a student’s likelihood of repaying student loans. If you seem to be a high risk, they assume you will be a high risk for skipping out on repaying student loans. b. Did you know that community colleges have open enrollment? This means that if your high school record is not stellar <cough!>, your best bet for (re)entering the world of academia may be to apply to a community college, attend for at least one academic year (earning good grades and therefore proving that you are capable and responsible), then transfer to a four year institution. c. If you already graduated with a degree (associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s), and you want to earn a further degree-- but your cumulative GPA is lower than required to gain entry at the institution of your choice--it may still be possible to get in. Some institutions will consider work experience and / or life experience over a GPA and still grant admission. It’s worth checking out! Write to a program director or department chair at the institution of your choice to find out if this is an option for you.
2. Do your research. The Internet is a wonderful thing. You have access to pretty much everything you need to know about colleges and universities right at your fingertips. It just takes time and patience to find the information. a. See what your options are: find colleges and universities. If you want to attend a local institution, Google Map your city or neighborhood, then type in the word “colleges” or “universities” and the map will populate the institutions located nearest you. Often you can even access the institutions’ websites from Google Maps as well. b. If you are open to going to a college or university in another state, you might consider using sites like Collegeboard.org or GradSchools.com. Please note that attendance costs are higher for out-of-state public institutions for the first year. Private institution tuition fees will often be the same whether you hold in state or out of state residency. Be sure to make comparisons before selecting the institutions to which you will apply. 1
c. If money is an issue (and it usually is), then number crunching all costs, such as tuition, fees, living expenses, transportation, possible moving costs, etc., is crucial in determining whether certain options are realistic. d. Define your goals. You should define and redefine your goals throughout the process, but after you have researched your options, you will certainly want to step back and assess your goals. What’s the big picture? Why are you interested in going back to school now? Is it because you want to reinvent yourself (new life, new career)? Is it because you lost your job and need to brush up your skills so that you are more marketable to potential employers? Is it because you hate what you have been doing, and you want to enter a field that seems more appealing to you? Whatever your reasons, defining your goals will help you target the best colleges / universities for the next steps. 3. Select the institutions to which you will apply, then closely read their admissions requirements for your program to determine if you meet the minimum in most, if not all, areas (see 1C above). a. View and download application materials. Some applications call for an essay, letters of reference, and a portfolio of your work, among other things. You should carefully read the requirements and note the deadline for submission. b. I highly advise that you examine the course structure for your program and read descriptions of courses offered (and if you are not sure which program you should choose, most U.S. institutions have what they call a general education requirement, which consists of base courses required of all students no matter what the major, so looking at these courses could be a starting point for you). If you prefer online option rather than a traditional face-to-face program, be sure to note whether courses are synchronous or asynchronous. c. Take inventory. Depending on what course credits you already hold and if they will transfer (i.e., be counted toward a degree at an institution), you may have to start a degree from scratch. Most programs are structured so that they can be completed in two to four years. However, if you can take courses during summer sessions, you might be able to finish even sooner. d. If the institution seems like a good choice, send any remaining questions you have to student services/ admissions/program or department head, etc. You are not bugging them by sending a polite query. They are there to help. e. Utilize social media (but before doing so, adjust your privacy settings as necessary on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and clean up your web presence if possible. We live in an age where that collection of cocktail recipes you pinned to Pinterest might be used against you by an admissions officer.) Many colleges and universities have Facebook pages, twitter accounts, and Youtube channels. It doesn’t hurt to put your name and face out there as an interested and interesting potential student, but make sure you are professional and appropriate at all times. 4. Complete financial documents. Once you have decided where you will (probably) apply, it’s a good idea to go ahead and complete the FAFSA because it takes a few weeks for institutions to receive information. In the U.S., you must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to apply for any type of financial aid, so go to http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/ (you’ll need to have the current year’s taxes filed for best results). Be sure to follow all instructions and keep login / pin numbers in a safe place because you will need this information for every year that you attend college. (Please note that you can have your FAFSA information sent to several schools whether you attend them or not. It’s a good thing to include schools on the form now so that when you apply, if you get accepted to several schools, you can compare financial aid packages.)
5. Update resume. Apply. Now it gets really serious. You’ve done lots of soul searching and number crunching, and now it’s time to get those applications moving. Some people like to put all their eggs in one proverbial basket by only applying to one school. That’s cool, but let’s say you’ve targeted two or more schools as potentially “the one.” You can use much of the same materials for all applications, but be sure you tailor each essay / form to fit the requirements of individual schools.
a. When you contact the folks that you need references from, be sure to tell them you are applying to multiple schools so they know to save the letter of reference for multiple uses. b. Many colleges have online application systems and do not accept paper submissions. This means that unless the application program allows you to save and log off between sections, you will need to have your materials ready when you sit down to complete each application. Pay attention to these details when you get started (and if possible, print a copy of the application before you start working on the electronic version so that there are no surprises).
6. Develop a plan of action. Once you have applied and completed all the requirements (such as requesting transcripts from other institutions or test scores), you may think that all you can do is wait. Think again! a. Brush up on skills. If you know you are going to college somewhere--whatever it takes, evaluate your current skills in math, languages, writing, etc. Investing in a comprehensive study guide or taking a free workshop before you start college will help you be more prepared for the world of academia. b. Seek out like-minded people. Use LinkedIn and other social media sites and forums to find people with similar career / college interests and backgrounds.
7. Celebrate acceptance letter(s), and don’t sweat the rejections. Let’s face it, sometimes, one rejection can seem like a big blow. However, I truly believe in “what’s meant to be, will be.” So just figure that for whatever reason, you weren’t meant to go to XYZ school right now, so don’t take it personally. If you’ve been accepted to more than one institution, it’s time for soul searching, number crunching, and some old fashioned sit-downs with family and friends. Gather opinions, then do what your gut tells you. a. Be sure to let the college/university you choose know you accept their offer of attendance; likewise, send the colleges/universities that you will not be attending a “thanks, but no thanks” message. b. Write thank you notes (handwritten is best) to those who provided reference letters on your behalf. It’s just good manners (and good karma).
8. Read all correspondence from the school. Important information will be sent to you via email and / or snail mail. Important information such as outstanding documents, your campus email address, and online course login information can easily be overlooked if you are not vigilant.
9. Sign up for classes. Some schools require that you do this after an orientation or after corresponding with your assigned advisor, but if you are allowed to do so on your own, the sooner you do, the better. You’ll have better options for selecting classes that fit your schedule.
10. Prepare for sticker shock: Textbooks. a. You don’t have to purchase all your textbooks at the campus bookstore! One option is to rent instead of buy, but often, you can find used books online for a fraction of the cost. Getting in on the deals early is key, however. If you wait until classes start to purchase your books, you’ll probably end up paying top dollar. b. Get an Amazon Prime account or similar. As of this writing, Amazon Prime provides students with free shipping on many products (e.g., textbooks) for one year. You can save a boatload on shipping costs if you purchase new books here. 3
All the best,