So you want to go to college…

I started working in higher ed four months ago. One of the perks with higher ed is usually that they willingly pay you to go back to school. You don’t need to be a degree seeking student, just take classes. I started perusing classes with the intention of using every benefit available to me and found that classes aren’t really meant to be stand-alone in most cases (at least not the ones that I was interested in). So after some soul-searching, I decided to go back to school and get my masters. This is a collection of things I learned and am hoping it will help others.

Before you get started, take notes throughout this process. You’re going to be inundated with information. I’m super organized and used OneNote to track my decisions, notes, ideas, costs, etc.

  • What do you want to do in the future? Meaning what job do you want, or what skillset are you looking to build? This ultimately helps with the decision of picking a major. This is the first question you must answer before moving on (imho) because next up we start looking at schools and your major is really what will help you refine the list of schools you want to attend (or the list of schools you can attend). There are sites out there that can help you define what it is you want to study, but my suggestion is look within. What makes YOU happy? What are you naturally good at? If you’re a people person, don’t pick a major where you’ll work alone. I choose to go back for my MBA (and later refined that to add a data analytics concentration).
  • Before you go on, check out the general requirements for this major. If you’re going back for your masters like I am, you may be required to take the GMAT or GRE (and have a good score) – this can take months to prepare for. Also, be aware that if you’ve attended college before, the school you’re applying to will want EVERY transcript from EVERY school you’ve attended. If you’re like me, this spans three colleges almost 20 years ago… this was a challenge (especially given name changes). Don’t start this transcript process yet, but be aware it’s coming and make a list of schools to contact.
  • Ok, let’s start looking at schools and make a list of options. Some questions you need to address to do this are:
    • Do you want to attend physical classes or take classes online?
    • If you want to attend physical classes, where will you live? Are you willing to move/relocate?
    • If you’re willing to move, consider in-state vs. out-of-state tuition rates. It can be a big difference! For online classes, most schools charge the same for in-state or out-of-state. However, for physical classes you have other costs as well (transportation, parking, your time and how it affects your work schedule).
    • How much can you afford? Are you working? Does your employer have any education benefits (check with your HR department if you have any doubts!) – keep in mind that often times the assistance you get from employers/etc may have limitations (i.e. they won’t cover “special fees”), so ask a lot of questions, so you aren’t surprised later.
    • Can you get any scholarships or grants? If you have a special skill, look into related scholarships (swimming, golfing, adult learners, etc).
    • Are you willing to get a student loan and go into debt? Be careful, student loans are still loans and you have to pay it back eventually (employment rates are NOT what most colleges advertise*)
    • I’ll talk more about money later… this is probably the hardest and most confusing part of college (imho).
    • Take these answers and start doing some research. Here are some sites to help:
  • Now that you have a list of suitable schools, start trying to refine your list to a manageable size.
    • Look at reviews for your chosen major
    • Go back through your questions and see if the schools meet your criteria specifically regarding cost and location.
    • Start looking at the curriculum for each school in your list and comparing the differences. There will mostly be similarities (required courses), so look at what’s unique about each school.
  • Start honing in on what you’ll be paying for school. Call the bursars office and ask questions. Every college I’ve talked to has been so helpful in answering my questions. They WANT to help you – especially if it means you’ll be attending there. Be kind and polite and treat each opportunity as a way to connect. Remember the people that are super helpful – write down their names and ask if it’s ok if you contact them again if you need anything.
  • If you haven’t already, fill out the https://fafsa.ed.gov/ application. This doesn’t mean you’re using any assistance, but it’s required to get you started if you do.
  • Call the department of the major you’ve chosen and ask questions. Ask about the professors, ask about the students, ask about the climate in the classrooms. Ask anything that might be important to you. Ask about pre-reqs for getting started (orientation, etc).
  • If you think you’re ready to move on, consider this: each school you apply to charges an application fee. And almost every transcript you request (for each school you’re applying to) will also charge a fee. So applying to 10 schools might sound like fun, but the costs will add up. I’ve heard of colleges waiving the application fee in some situations (like for high school students, so talk to your adviser and ask).
  • Now, let’s get started on the fun stuff! You should have some idea about what the general requirements are for your list of schools, so start applying! Each school requires an application (and an application fee) to get the ball rolling. They will also need your transcripts (if you’ve attended school before), so start calling (or go online to) previous schools and making your requests (they almost always charge a fee).
  • Now you can sit back and wait. Acceptance can take a while, especially depending on when you apply (i.e. if you apply super early). However, if you apply at the last minute you will likely have an answer faster (because they have to get you into the system, etc). Keep in mind that some schools require interviews, either in person, on the phone or via webchat (skype, etc). Be ready to tell them why you picked their school and how you will make a great addition to their school. Be honest about what struggles and reservations you have, they will likely be selling the school as much as you are selling yourself. You need a good fit – so take the time to get to know them and let them know you as well.

I will write another post on what it’s like to get accepted and what happens next.

*There are reports of colleges hiring it’s recent graduates to inflate the employment rate. There are situations where it’s gross misconduct, and then there are colleges that fly under the radar. I recommend you not let this statistic weigh too heavily in your decision making process. Source: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-corinthian-colleges-fine-20150414-story.html

 

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