While the traditional path to college is still full-time, on campus, and directly out of high school, more and more people are going a different route. People are getting degrees after they have been in the military, worked in a professional field for a time, raised a family, or coped with a long illness. Many people are returning for second and third degrees in order to make a career change. College can happen online or offline, or a bit of both. It’s not all dorm rooms and frat parties anymore.
Here are some tips…from someone who teaches nontraditional students online…for anyone who is off to school online, after age twenty-five, or after first going down any other path but the one straight to campus after high school.
Set up space for school.
The best place for nontraditional college students to take online classes, study, and complete their homework would be in a comfortable shared space. Renting a classroom or conference room with a group of other students and making that “school” for you would be ideal. Of course, that also ranges from impractical to downright impossible for most people. So come as close to that as you can. If you have a home office or studio, use that space as your school space. If you have a desk in your room or in a shared home office, use that. And if you have none of those things, set up a temporary school space. Designate your chair at the kitchen table your “school spot” anytime your laptop is open or the mug from the school store is sitting there.
Schedule school time.
Colleges and universities that offer you the opportunity to “learn at your own pace” and “work on your own time” mean that you get to decide when school time will take place, not that you get to do your work and hand it in when you feel like it. Begin each unit of study with a careful noting of due dates, and plan your work around that plus the rest of your life, including your own learning style.
Some people learn best and get the most done when they do a lot of work at once. Others need to work in shorter, more frequent sessions. Academic work time will likely need to be scheduled around paid work, family obligations, and other activities. But schedule it. It’s too easy to forget to do an assignment when you decide to just “do it when you have a chance.”
Get started…and ask questions…early.
Read the first assignment, including any resources, notes, samples, guides, or supplemental material, on the first day. Start assigned readings that day. If you have a project to plan, get started on it on the first day of school. This will give you a time cushion if something goes wrong. If you need to cancel a day of scheduled school work, a piece of a project gets misplaced, you’re having trouble getting a book you really need, or you don’t understand the assignment and need to email the teacher and wait for a reply, you’ll be ahead and able to relax and work through the difficulty without sacrificing your grade, or any other part of your life.
Wearing yourself out will not benefit your studies. Give yourself breaks and time off.
Going to college is supposed to be time consuming. It’s supposed to be hard. If your admissions counselor talked you into enrolling by promising you can earn your degree by glancing at your phone while your toenail polish dries at the salon, you are at a bad school. You will be tired. You will have added stress. But this does not mean you need to live logged in to your school website or your online research materials, never leave the local library, or miss your best friend’s wedding to write a paper.
Breaks should be scheduled into each school session. And days…or at least half days off should be scheduled for important life events. You might also want to schedule a day off of school work just to rest once in a while.
Tailor your work to the rest of your life as much as possible.
Sometimes, you are just going to have to complete projects you don’t feel like completing. This is going to be true whether you are in school or doing paid or volunteer work. But it is always more encouraging to work on something you care about. Choose a topic you’re passionate about anytime you are assigned a paper, presentation, speech, or other project on the topic of your choice. You may even want to design a project that can be used in your current professional life.
Avoid excuses and pity plays.
Excuses today come in a wide variety. The classics are still around., “My dog ate my homework, often updated to “The computer ate my homework” today. There’s always that time in the semester when it’s apparently dangerous to know someone who goes to your school, as everyone’s friends and family members seem to die, go to the hospital, or fall seriously ill at once. And then there’s the contemporary version, where the excuse-maker attempts to give everything a politically correct spin. They’re “just letting the teacher know the work will be late because communication is important,” or “They’re going to be handing in the next assignment when they can get around to it, because they’re ‘doing self-care.”Don’t use any of them. Spend the time you were planning to use to write out that excuse to write out the questions you have about the coursework that’s preventing you from being able to get things done on time instead.
Keep track of large projects you complete for classes.
If you’re old enough to go to college, you’re probably a little too old to hang your work up on the fridge, but don’t just recycle or delete everything either. Keep papers and projects you do particularly well on. You might be able to use some of the same material, or the same research, in future classes. (Make sure this is okay with the new teacher first of course.) Even if you never get to use the work again in school, it might give you something to discuss with a hiring manager at a job interview when they ask what you have done in your new field, or want to talk about your studies.
Going off to college isn’t going to be the same as it would have been in your late teens. If this is a second degree, things won’t be the same as they were the first time. But with some planning, and some useful attitudes and approaches, they can be even better.