Checklist: How Do I Go Back to School?

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It’s funny how the mind works. You might be in the middle of your workday, maybe at a job where you expected to be promoted by now, and suddenly you start thinking about your future. Maybe you’ve been shuffling kids between school and soccer practice and in the back of your mind, you start thinking about next steps in your life. You know you are going to need a degree or additional education to achieve something more.

“Okay,” you think. “It’s time and I’m ready. But, just how do I go back to school?”

It can be daunting to think about the future. And, if you have been out of the classroom for a while, figuring out how to go back to school and pursue the higher education you need — perhaps for the first time at the college level — can seem like a monumental task.

The good news is that you do not have to think about it all at once; there are ways to break down the decision-making process to make it easier. The better news is there are people along the way who are ready and willing to help you navigate unfamiliar waters, including potential online degree programs that could fit your schedule and needs. The best news is that National University was established especially for adult learners like you and is a leader in the field of online degree preparation, as well as having locations at a dozen military bases across the U.S. and 20 campuses in California and Nevada. If you want to go back to school, it is well within your reach.

Start with Your Goals

As you’re thinking about becoming an adult learner, not knowing where to start can be a fairly common obstacle. Maybe you began college or university at one time but needed to stop for personal reasons. You might have been out of school for a fair amount of time and wonder how challenging it will be to start over.

At National University, you’ll find many students just like you. “Typically, it’s someone who started and took a big break,” says National University academic advisor Jennifer Trefftzs. “It may have been that they began pursuing a career path and something changed to make them not want to continue that program.”

While National draws students of all ages, most NU students are adult learners who are drawn to the flexibility of class schedules, the wide variety of available on-campus and online degree programs, and the ability to start many of the University’s classes at the beginning of each month.

Trefftzs knows the ins and outs of returning to school because she has been there herself. “I went to cosmetology school during high school and then realized that the weekend hours and nights were going to be a little much for me when I got older and had a family. I decided that going back to school was a now or never sort of thing.”

Taking stock of several factors, including her age (she was in her early 20s), and that she was on the front end of a long career in a fairly static industry, helped motivate Trefftzs. She decided to take care of her future by focusing on herself in the present. “I wasn’t a traditional college student,” she says, noting a personal connection to many of her National University advisees, “most of whom have pursued something else prior to beginning their program here.”

Whether you are an adult who is choosing to return after an extended time away, you want to begin college for the first time or pivot to a new career, it all begins with careful planning. Making a plan alleviates stress and can keep you on track. Trefftzs says making a list and following some guidelines helps to make the process easier. The list begins with identifying your reasons for returning to school.

“Begin with objectives,” Trefftzs recommends. “it’s important to set and evaluate goals. Then you aim for a program and see if that fits what you are looking for.”

Establishing goals is a great first step because the process is crucial in determining the level of importance that education has for you. A careful assessment of your time and willingness to possibly reorder your schedule for classes and studying is a fundamental step in your journey to higher education.

Trefftzs warns that “jumping in too quickly can backfire” for those who start without clearly defined objectives and a plan to achieve them.

“From a personal standpoint, after figuring out your goals and objectives, I would strongly suggest looking carefully into job placement data to make sure your goal fits with employment opportunities. Being an older student means that you do not want to waste your time or pour your money into something and then have no idea what you are going to do with it,” she says.

As you are thinking about returning to school, keep these considerations in mind on your mental checklist:

  • Get Your Support System and Time Management Skills in Place

Deciding to go back to school will require a schedule that fits your unique work, family or personal responsibilities. How will you structure your day around education? For instance, does it make sense to spend early morning hours online, saving supplemental reading for lunchtime, and reserving sometime if needed later in the evening for catching up? How will you accommodate your other responsibilities? While adjustments can be made on the fly, the more planning you do in advance, the more likely you are to succeed.

“I have seen it go both ways, but those who are most conscientious are often the most successful because they have thought it through and know how they want to start,” says Trefftzs.

One advantage of going back to school today over previous decades is that many schools now offer both on-campus and online degree programs to make it easier for adult learners to choose the option that best fits their schedule.  Another benefit is that schools like National University understand that mid-career students have many obligations and that four-week schedules while rigorous, are manageable and make it easier to complete your education in a timeframe that works for you.

Keep in mind though, that while flexibility and an accelerated format are both great for adult learners, you are expected to be as committed to studying and preparation as your professor is to presenting the class material. Going back to school is hard work. That also means being on time with assignments and engaging in class.

Having a good support system, from family, friends, or even work colleagues is also important. Blocking off time for your education on your individual or family calendar helps build a sense of organization, provides control and helps ensure that what needs to be accomplished is accomplished. Time management is a skill that will serve you well both during your educational journey and later on in the workplace.

  • Choose a Program with Your Goals in Mind

After determining personal goals and career objectives, Trefftzs says another significant step is to engage in pre-career planning. “We strongly suggest looking into job placement prospects and knowing the likelihood of finding employment.”

The advantage of knowing your “end goal,” as Trefftzs calls it, is that you can plot your educational journey while keeping your destination in mind. That keeps you on track and committed to making good progress.. Since daily life can sometimes get in the way, focusing on the end goal is vital to personal development, career planning, and educational progress.

A commitment to helping students with their career pre-planning extends to the National faculty. “We have a lead faculty point of contact for each program and we often encourage prospective students to reach out to those lead faculty members to see if a program is right for them and aligns with what they want to do,” Trefftzs adds.

  • Let You, the Buyer, Beware

You would not invest your hard-earned money into a business venture that you have not thoroughly assessed. Your education should be no different. Higher education is an investment of your time and money and an investment in your future — so choose carefully.

Whether you are looking at on-campus options or are considering an online program, make sure it is accredited, preferably by one of the regional accreditation bodies, which is the “gold standard” for educational accreditation.

Why? Simply put: accreditation matters. It matters if you want to transfer credits (for instance from an associate degree program to a bachelor’s degree at another institution). Accreditation can matter a great deal to your employer (for instance, many top engineering firms or technology companies may look for graduates of ABET-accredited programs. ABET stands for Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology.) Program-based accreditations may also matter for your graduate school eligibility. Finally, accreditation matters for financial aid availability and for the quality of your educational experience overall. In short, before you apply to any school, you need to protect your educational investment by carefully researching and choosing an accredited institution or program.

  • Find a Comfort Zone

A college or university setting can be awkward for a returning student and even more so for a first-time college student, whether you are seeking to earn a traditional or an online degree. Just as someone who begins training to run a marathon or even a 5K race, choose a comfortable pace. Remember that you are not in competition with anyone, not even yourself. Because self-care is not selfish, your mental condition and sense of enjoyment are important for success in academic study. Be sure to seek opportunities for self-assessment to lessen anxiety and doubts. You may find it helpful to search for online resources, including tutorials, free courses, and public academic lectures that may reconnect you with a broad range of material.

Focus on developing a can-do mindset. Perhaps you have the jitters at the thought of taking a math class as part of your studies. Before convincing yourself that you must take a remedial math course, consider other options. Trefftzs says a little research can alleviate some of those jitters. “With something like basic algebra or something else you do not remember how to do, we sometimes recommend looking for online resources. Just a quick little YouTube video can convince you that you remember more than you might think.”


  • You Can Try With a Little Help From Your Friends

Thinking about what you need to do to make college a reality is no small undertaking and there several things that will help you make a smooth transition from prospect to actual student. One of them is turning to your support system for good advice. One overlooked source of information is your personal network.  For instance, family and friends frequently have practical insights to share from their own college experiences. Don’t forget to tap into the knowledge of your peers. Ask questions of those in similar age-brackets, or who have children, who went to school on campus, or changed from a traditional campus setting to an online degree option. It can be especially helpful to ask questions geared to their personal know-how. “Do I go back to school now?” “Should I go while I am still active in the military or should I wait until I transition out?” Ask them what strategies they may have found helpful in balancing work, school and family commitments. You could get some very helpful ideas.

  • Get Your Paperwork in Order

Paperwork, whether it’s digital or actual paper, is one of those certainties of life; education is no exception. When you are ready to enroll you will need certain documents that go along with a completed application. If you are a high school graduate with no college credit you will need to submit your high school records confirming graduation with a 2.0 GPA (grade point average. Your academic record, called a transcript, exists at each school you attended. Beyond noting courses taken, dates attended, and the program pursued, it shows the grade you achieved for each class and your overall GPA (cumulative grade point average). Review each transcript to remind yourself of your academic performance.

If you have earned credits for college coursework, you will need official transcripts from all colleges you have previously attended (remember, accreditation is important here). Once enrolled, you will be required to submit a completed FAFSA or paperwork for military benefits if you’re a servicemember or Veteran. If instead, you are applying to graduate school, you will have to complete an application and provide verbal confirmation of a bachelor’s degree with a 2.5 GPA from a regionally-accredited institution. Be prepared to have official transcripts forwarded upon acceptance.

Be aware that transcripts could be delayed if there is a hold from a campus office, most often an outstanding balance in the student accounts office. Delays in transcript delivery can slow your admissions and enrollment process. They can also create snags in your financial aid process so pay close attention to submission dates and timelines.

“How Do I Go Back To School As a Servicemember or Vet?”

It’s not uncommon for military servicemembers or Veterans to feel a unique sense of pressure about going back to school. Whether seeking an online degree or planning to attend school on campus, you may find yourself concerned about potential problems, be they assignments, deadlines, or exams. Should that happen, Trefftzs suggests focusing on what all you have accomplished during your career. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of military service are excellent proving grounds for the endurance, forward-thinking, and vision that higher education requires. Fortunately, National University is a great place to return to higher education for active duty or Veteran servicemembers.

If you are a military servicemember or a Veteran, you should move National several slots higher on your list of possible schools. Retired US Navy Captain David Chigos established NU because he believed there was a higher education gap for those who had served their country. This commitment to service personnel features military tuition discounts and scholarships to qualified applicants, including those serving, those who have served (including their dependents), Reserve members, and National Guard members. Almost one-third of NU’s student body consists of active duty servicemembers and Veterans.

While many schools across the county tout being certified as “military-friendly,” National has a documented commitment to servicemembers, including class access on more than a dozen bases, including several in California, and other bases from Hawaii to Virginia. Beyond offering more than 75 program options, you will have access to National’s Veteran Center. There, you can find help with transitioning to civilian life, a support community of other military students and staff, and a wealth of opportunities including mentoring, work-study, and community resources. As a Yellow Ribbon institution, National accepts the post 9/11 GI Bill — which means that if you qualify, your out-of-pocket education costs are kept to a minimum.

“How Do I Go Back to School?” Conquer Your Fears!

Do not be derailed if you have doubts about how to go back to school. It’s not uncommon for prospective students to wonder if they can navigate degree programs, classes, or juggling multiple responsibilities. Take note of the ways you demonstrate stress and deal with any issues at sooner than later. Putting them off most often makes them larger in perception and, sometimes, in reality. Being honest with family members keeps them from being blindsided by challenges they may not see in advance, like the need to split chores, your inability to be at certain events, and maybe even your need to keep up with classwork on vacation.

Trefftzs understands those doubts and recognizes that students can have them even after they have returned to school. “It can be awkward for someone who feels a little out of the loop and needs to catch up on some of their skills,” she says. Time and the right resources can help with the back-to-school transition, though.

At National, help is available whenever you need it. Our Student Success Center offers services and assistance, including sessions that can help you with time management skills and strategies for keeping up with assignment deadlines. There, you will have access to tutorial services (including a number of free sessions) in the areas of mathematics and the language arts. National University knows that your success as a student will make you a successful graduate. Our alumni body is a 150,000 strong network of graduates across the globe.

You know your interests and your skills and that’s a great start to the next step in your future. We invite you to explore all our programs on our website program finder. Not sure what you are looking for? Fill out our Request for Information form to reach out to one of our admissions advisors who can help. Welcome back to school!

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