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How to Get Started on Your Online College Degree

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Getting started on an online degree takes a bit of preparation.

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So, you want to earn a college degree on your own schedule and at your own pace? Getting started as an online student can actually be more challenging than beginning courses at a traditional college. You’ll need to take the initiative to study your options and research the claims that both credible online schools and disreputable diploma mills make. 

As a potential online student, some of the most important decisions you make will be your first ones: what kind of college you choose, whether or not you apply for financial aid, and how you begin your first semester.

If you’re considering earning an online degree, start with the absolute essentials:

1. Decide if online education is a good fit for you. The truth is that some students thrive in an online environment while others flounder. An unfortunate number of students let their tuition money go to waste while they forget to log in and complete their assignments. Take while to reflect on your situation to find out if distance learning is right for you. Are you self-motivated? Do you do well working independently? Are you organized and good with deadlines? Is an online degree considered comparable in your intended career?

2. Learn the basics of online college accreditation. The last thing you want to do as an online student is end up “earning” a fake degree from a diploma mill. In fact, in some states listing a diploma mill on your resume is even illegal. Additionally, students attending unaccredited colleges generally cannot receive federal financial aid. Before you research online colleges, educate yourself on accreditation standards. Regional accreditation is the most commonly accepted form, while DETC accreditation is also gaining wide-spread approval. Keep in mind that you can always check any college’s accreditation status with the Department of Education.

3. Evaluate your past education to prepare for your future education. What you’ve accomplished in the past and how you accomplished it should inform the decisions you are making now. If you are only a few credits shy of a degree, you may want to choose an online program specifically tailored to returning adult students with lots of credits. Have your past successes been in programs that were more flexible or more structured? Did you prefer to demonstrate your learning through test-taking or portfolio-making? What kind of learning style do you gravitate to? Use what you learn about yourself to make a more informed decision.

4. Research online colleges and programs. Now it’s time to research online colleges. Use what you’ve learned about accreditation, your past accomplishments, and your learning preferences to choose an online college that suits you best. This list of regionally accredited online colleges is a good place to start.

5. Apply to several online schools. It’s a good idea to have a backup school (or two or three). Find several online programs that would work for you and apply to all of them at the same time. Consolidate your efforts by requesting transcripts, test scores, etc. at the same time.

6. Get sure you have your financial aid in order. Keep in mind that online colleges aren’t necessarily cheaper than traditional schools. You’ll want to work with your school and file for federal financial aid as soon as possible. Talk to a financial aid counselor to find out if you also qualify for scholarships or grants. Additionally, many students are able to receive tuition reimbursement from their employers. It’s often worth asking.

7. Prepare for your first semester. Once you’ve been accepted, it’s time to prepare for your studies. Don’t just log in an hour or two before your first assignment is due. Get ready by buying your textbooks, setting aside a time and place to study, and marking major due dates on your calendar.

8. Stay on track. Without regular face-to-face meetings, it can get easy to let assignments slide. But, missing just a couple could derail your entire semester. Check in with yourself to make sure you are on track each week. If you need help, ask for it. Working with your professors by email or phone can help you get caught up if you become confused or fall behind.

9. Know how to quit (but try not to). If online learning simply doesn’t end up working for you, make sure that you quit the right way. Officially withdrawing through the proper channels can ensure that you don’t ruin your transcripts with a failing grade or academic probation.

10. Treat your teachers and peers like people. Even though you’re learning online, keep in mind that there are people just like you on the other end of those message board posts and emails. Treating your instructors and classmates like people can help you feel a sense of community and make connections that may be helpful to your future studies or career search.

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