By Richard Gonzalez/Maureen Brakke

If it’s been a while since you’ve been in school and are planning to go “back” to school, or will be attending college for the first time as a “nontraditional” student, there’s a lot more things to think about this time around. You work, have a family, and live a very busy life, but you want to get your college degree or certificate. Here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Know that you are not alone! There is a growing number of adults either attending college for the first time or returning to college after years of putting their education on hold. Colleges and universities have programs and resources dedicated to adult students —and in some cases even have scholarships for returning adult students, so you should definitely consider college. It’s time to take that leap!
  2. Involve your family. They have to be willing to help pick up the slack, particularly when you have an exam. Get them to buy in and be with you 100% so they don’t feel neglected. Attend the family activities at campus. Acknowledge what you are sacrificing, such as skipping dinners and activities with your family—acknowledge these sacrifices and turn that into a positive energy to motivate you.
  3. Have the end result in mind.
    1. What career are you seeking and why? Are you changing careers after years in the workforce? If yes, then think how all those years of experience in your current field will translate into helpful skills to your new career path. For example, you work in the food industry, but now want to be a social worker. How will the skills you learned in the fast food industry help you as a social worker?
  4. Use ALL your resources. Did you know that many institutions have resources and even centers devoted to helping you navigate college? There are people dedicated to helping you figure out what you need to do in order to earn your degree, such as enrolling in full-time vs. part-time programs, night classes, online classes, taking advantage of child care services, and finding study groups or tutors. Talk to the college you’re thinking about attending and find out what resources they offer to help nontraditional students earn their degrees. Also, if you have a disability, make sure you seek help with the disability resource center from the college you’re going to attend.
  5. Visit the college campus. Get a feel for the college you’ll be spending a lot of time at by taking a campus tour. Check out the library, student services and meet with a academic advisor.
  6. Map your college career. Choose a college that will provide you with a degree or graduation map, which is a detailed list of coursework requirements for completing your degree within your time frame. This will help you understand where you are on your pathway to graduation, where you are going and how long it’ll take to get there. These maps are particularly important if you are looking to transfer from a two-year to a four-year program.
  7. Don’t have the computer knowledge (or equipment!) you need to apply, enroll, and/or participate in your college experience? Going back to college may require you to have a computer knowledge and internet access. Ask your college’s student services offices about computer needs and if they have any programs to help you with computer training.
  8. See if you already have some college credit. Did you take college classes years ago? Check with an admissions advisor to see if that college credit can count towards your new degree path. Also, many colleges will give you college credit for certain employment trainings, military/civic service experience.
  9. Talk to students. Do you know anyone who’s taken classes at the college you’re planning to attend? Ask them about their experience. If not, call the student advising office and see if they can recommend other adult learners you can speak with. Ask students about their positive and negative experiences, tips on areas that may be new to you, such as the admissions process and sources of financial aid.
  10. Learn about financial aid. College can be expensive. However, there are lots of financial aid options. The most important thing you can do is to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the only way to see if you qualify for federal financial aid, such as grants, work-study, and federal student loans.
    1. Meet with a financial aid advisor from your college and make sure you understand your financial aid award, and student loan percentage rates, and payback requirements.
    2. Know exactly how much college will cost you. Ask about special class fees, textbook prices, and about other additional college expenses.
    3. Check your place of employment to see if they offer tuition reimbursement.
  11. Be on the hunt.
    1. Hunt for scholarships. Never assume that you will not qualify. An easy way to be ready and not to spend a lot of time trying to prepare essays for scholarships at the last minute is to answer common asked questions ahead of time. Don’t worry about answering all in one seating. Work on them here and there or answer as many as possible and save them. This will save you lots of time because now you can copy and paste. Here are some common scholarship essay questions.
    2. Hunt for companies. Make a list of 5 companies that you know you would love to work for. Learn everything about them. Try and get an internship with them. Do this your junior year in college, but the sooner the better.
  12. Build a healthy network.
    1. Clean up your social media sites. YES! Employers do look at your social media sites.
    2. Work on your LinkedIn.com profile. LinkedIn takes a long time to build, so start early in your college career.

 Richard is an outreach coordinator with StepUp. He previously worked for Utah State University-Tooele as a recruiter.