Four li’l nuggets of truth no one really tells you about going back to college

Books aren’t the only thing you’re going to be exposed to at school.

Thinking about going back to school to finish your degree?  Maybe you have a soon-to-be student in your life and you’re wondering how things have changed since you went to college?

First, let me say CONGRATULATIONS!  It’s so commendable that you’re thinking about the future and looking for information on how to make it happen.

School is intrinsically rewarding. But to get the most out of the experience, it really helps to have a little help from the inside.

Some background on my experience — I went to the University of Virginia for a couple of years in the 90s before deciding formal education just … wasn’t for me at the time. After a layoff from a job in non-profit fundraising during the recent hideous and hellacious recession, I decided to go back to school and finish a degree that 1) I could get excited about and 2) that I actually would be able to use. I settled on a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing. And now, I’m having a great time pursuing it! I’m set to graduate in Fall 2013.

But there were a few things that kind of surprised me when I started the process, and there are many things I’ve learned along the way that I wish I had already known. So here are my tips for you, based on my experience.


Seriously, if you are even *thinking* about going back to school within the next 12 months, navigate thyself to the school’s web site and check out deadlines and offerings.You should also fill out a FAFSA online immediately if you even suspect you will need financial aid.  (You’ll need your previous year’s tax information and you’ll have to create a PIN number, but it’s a relatively quick and straightforward process.)  Immediately put the deadlines in your calendar and set a reminder for a couple of months before, if you can. These deadlines creep up and pass with a whisper, but if you miss them, you can be left whimpering.

You’ll want to start the matriculation process at least 3 months ahead of your first day of school. It’s really easy to get excited about a grand new project like school, but I can guarantee that there will be more steps than you anticipate. There is a ton of bureaucracy around education. You’ll have to coordinate transcripts from other schools, compile records of immunizations, think about financing your education, etc., and each step will probably take longer than you think it should. So start now!

2. You’ll probably need a liiiiiiiittle attitude adjustment.

Remember — school teaches you more than just reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Completing a degree program ensures that you graduate with experience jumping through hoops and following a plan to meet a long-term goal.

For example, there’s the aforementioned bureaucracy. This is especially tough for those of us who have been out in the world for a while and have developed a client-centered view of business. Yes, you’re paying these people a LOT of money to provide you a service and a product, but the “customer is always right” maxim has no power here. You might go ahead and start framing it in your head like this — you are paying them for the opportunity to earn a degree. But they run the game. The matriculation process will test your patience, getting into the classes you need will likely test your patience, and then some of your professors’ demands will definitely test your patience. But this is all part of the process! If you can relax and roll with those punches, you’ll have already won half the battle straight out of the gate.

3. Start thinking about how you will finance your education — and lifestyle. And health.

You’re probably going to have to work while going to school, and the more planning you do ahead of time, the more comfortable you will be when the time comes. Maybe the first time around you were living on campus and your parents were paying tuition and you worked a side job at a t-shirt shop for spending cash. Well, if you’re on your own now and living in any but the cheapest of markets, student loans and grants are probably not going to pay for everything you need to survive and perform well at school.

And then there’s healthcare. Sure, there are usually student health facilities, but their services are minimal and topical, in my experience. You really don’t want to be stuck going bankrupt because you didn’t have insurance but you broke your arm or had to stay in the hospital. You might consider options for vision and dental coverage as well.

4. It’s going to blow your mind how awesome it is.

Sure, those last items were a little heavy. But they’re worth it. You are starting on a journey that is going to teach you things you never knew about yourself, and you’re going to meet incredibly fascinating people along the way. If you’re doing school again because you felt stuck in a rut, this is going to push you out and get you on your way. If you are looking to get out of your comfort zone, you can bet this will be a great way to jumpstart you. You are embarking on the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure — the rest of your life!

But that’s not all!  There are several things you need to know about life on the inside. School is a whole different world, I’ve posted some of the lessons I’ve learned that might help you maximize your experience once you’re in a classroom and studying. They just might get you even more excited about your decision to go back to school, as well! Get excited about going back to school here!

Is there anything else you would like to know?  And hey, fellow non-traditional students — is there anything I have missed?  What would you share about the process of getting back into school?

6 Comments on “Four li’l nuggets of truth no one really tells you about going back to college”

  1. Jennifer says:

    I am a non-traditional student in my mid thirties and I could have written #2! It is so hard to do perceived “busy” work when you have adult responsibilities but your advice is great. I am always saying it is an endurance test to get through college as an adult. Great post!

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Best of luck in finishing up your studies! I know I can’t believe I have been back in school since 2009, but it’s also shocking to think I only have a couple of semesters left. Thanks for taking time to read and comment!

  2. Dianna says:

    Thanks for this post!

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