Your Ultimate Guide to Online College
Updated By Staff Writer on January 29, 2021
We get it—considering whether to get an online degree is a big decision. While it can shower you with a bucketload of excitement, pursuing online college can also create feelings of fear and doubt that might make you ask yourself, “Can I do this?”
Succeeding in online college is very possible! While embarking on a new journey may present its fair share of challenges, it also opens up opportunities for growth and achievement. And as our digital culture rapidly evolves, online learning can be a great way to hone your knowledge and skills in a unique and flexible environment.
ARE YOU READY?
How exactly do you take full advantage of all that online learning has to offer? More importantly, how do you become a successful online college student?
Online education requires managing your time and being self-motivated, and putting these into practice is a lot more challenging than it seems. So a crucial part of pursuing online education is being honest with yourself. Ask yourself:
- Am I self-motivated?
- Am I organized?
- Do I work well independently?
- Do I like learning on my own?
- Am I able to cut out distractions and stay focused?
- Am I able to stay on schedule and avoid procrastination?
- Am I willing to ask for help from professors and peers?
If you answered yes on all seven points, then it looks like you’re ready to take on the challenges of online school. But if you’re not quite ready yet, that’s okay too. Wherever you stand, the following 14 tips can fuel you with the preparation and drive you need to you succeed. So let’s dive in.
TIP #1: ESTABLISH GOALS
Begin by mapping out your long-term and short-term goals for online education. That way, you can create a fulfilling path, bolstered by your aspirations.
HOW TO DO IT
Long-term and short-term goals operate a little differently, so let’s go over them separately.
Think of long-term goals as the big picture: why are you pursuing a degree? Whether your answer is, “To better support my family,” or, “To advance my career in XX field,” write this down. Read it and make sure your goal is no one else’s ambition but yours. Store it someplace where it’ll be a constant reminder. It can help you stay focused and motivated during stressful times.
You can think of your short-term goals as milestones that will help move you closer to your long-term goal. These are things you can achieve in the near future, typically in 12 months or less. To come up with some short term goals:
- Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to accomplish my big-picture goal?” For example, short-term goals could include enrolling in the right classes to gain the credits and knowledge you need to graduate. It could involve speaking with a career services adviser to help you identify classes that are aligned with your career aspirations.
Identify your strengths. Let’s be real, not all of us are the best test-takers or scholars. If studying isn’t your forte, think about the things that are. Make a list of these strengths before the semester starts and strategize how you can use them to help reach your long-term goal.
For example, say you’re great at meeting new people and thrive in a group setting. Your short-term goals can be getting to know three to four people in your class and launching a virtual study group. In addition to helping you accomplish your long-term goal, these objectives can help you cultivate valuable study tips along the way.
Once you’ve brainstormed some short-term goals, compile all of them into a list and store them in your journal or computer. Open the list each week, aim to get a simple goal completed, and check it off your list. A sense of progression can really encourage and motivate you to work towards your bigger goals.
ACCOUNTABILITY AND REMINDERS
It’s important to share your goals and action plan with trusted family members and friends. Not only can they help you stay accountable, but they will better understand how to support you during this journey. People are 65% more likely to achieve a goal if they have an accountability partner. Sharing can also help you establish an example of what hard work and success look like for your loved ones. Maybe someday, they’ll follow in your footsteps.
TIP #2: USE YOUR SYLLABUS AS A GUIDE
The only person responsible for your success in school is you. It’s up to you to complete your assignments on time, understand the subjects, and be prepared for exams. So be sure to keep your syllabus accessible at all times and use it to help manage your study routine.
HOW TO DO IT
- Save a link to your syllabus if you school uses a digital syllabus, or consider downloading, printing, and keeping a copy near your computer. It can be helpful to have a physical copy and make notes directly on it. If your school’s system doesn’t allow you to download it, you can copy the relevant information into a document of your own or use a print screen of the document to create your own version that you can then annotate.
- Identify key deadlines and assignments on your syllabus and integrate them into your calendar. You can set up alarms to ensure all your tasks are completed on time.
- Do your best to get ahead. You can start assignments early, jot down notes/questions, and send any questions you have to your professor. Prepping early can help initiate productive conversations with instructors and classmates so you can remember and understand new information better.
TIP #3: MANAGE YOUR TIME WISELY
Did you know, 87% of students can earn better grades with better time management skills? And we know, managing time is easier said than done! We often get bombarded with emergencies that put a large dent in our schedules. So it’s essential to find ways to optimize your time.
HOW TO DO IT
- Set up dedicated study blocks: Online learning provides plenty of flexibility, but too much freedom can set you back. Therefore, it’s best to devote specific blocks of time to study. These time frames will likely vary each day depending on your work and/or family schedule. You might have half an hour one day (a great time to listen to a video lecture) and three hours the next day (a good chunk of time to dive into homework assignments or study for an upcoming exam).
- Organize and make a schedule: Stay on top of your study blocks and deadlines by using a daily planner or Google Calendar. Dedicate one day during the week to look over your schedule and make sure everything is in order. You could do this on Sunday, to help you feel mentally prepared for a new week.
- Communicate with friends/family/roommates—and prioritize: Once you have a schedule locked in place, share this with the important folks in your life. You might even share your calendar with them, so they know when they can reach you and when it might not be the best time. Sometimes, you need to sacrifice social outings to dedicate more time to school. Learn to prioritize, and stick with it. Your loved ones will understand and respect the space you need during busier times of the semester.
TIP #4: CREATE A DESIGNATED STUDY SPACE
So you have your schedule all laid out on your calendar, but where should you study? It’s important to find a location that makes you feel comfortable and productive.
HOW TO DO IT
- Try out different places: It might take some experimenting to find the right environment. Some people like the tranquil silence of the library; some prefer the comfort of their home sofa; others want the ambiance of a coffee shop. Find whatever works for you and choose it as your designated workspace. Be sure the location can accommodate room for all your study materials.
- Eliminate distractions: Social media apps can get way too distracting. It’s best to turn your phone off to eliminate all distractions, or at least put it in airplane mode so you don’t get any notifications while you study. And since you can still access social media on your laptop, it can be a good idea to log out of your social media accounts or temporarily disable notifications.
- Clear the clutter: Keeping your space clean and organized can help improve focus and instill peace of mind. Especially during exam season, it’s easy for your study area to get cluttered with paper, food, and books. A person spends about 1.5 hours every day being distracted by things from a cluttered desk.3 So take time to give your space a nice deep clean.
TIP #5: FIND GOOD STUDY STRATEGIES
Everyone is different, so study habits will differ. Student life is busy, and when you’re on a time crunch, it’s essential to discover studying tactics that work for you.
HOW TO DO IT
- Break up your tasks into subtasks: When you’re faced with a large project, trying to get everything done all at once is overwhelming and, frankly, you could be setting yourself up for failure. Break down the task into smaller, more manageable subtasks and create a timeline for these components. Not only will this help you avoid procrastination, but it will also make the project seem less intimidating.
- Use index/flashcards: Flashcards are a great way to learn new ideas and concepts. They encourage active recall,4 which helps you absorb information effectively. When you’re learning new terms and concepts in class, take time to create flashcards on them. The act of writing will help you become familiar with them, too.
- Repeat concepts out loud: Being able to explain concepts in your own words is a good sign that you’ve mastered a new skill. Repeating new information out loud can be a powerful study habit.
- Draw pictures/diagrams: If you’re a visual learner, try drawing out concepts to help you better comprehend the lesson. Don’t be afraid to incorporate pictures into your flashcards to make them more memorable. The Picture Superiority Effect5 illustrates the idea that people remember images a lot better than words.
TIP #6: ASK FOR HELP
Though you might feel a bit less connected to your professor when studying online, there’s a team of dedicated academics and advisers who are invested in this educational journey as much as you are. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help. In fact, you should make it a priority to ask questions and get feedback. Take ownership of your journey.
HOW TO DO IT
- Instructors: While your interactions with your professor may happen largely through a screen, you can still reach out to them via email or through your learning management system. You can also see if they offer virtual office hours, which is a great way to get answers in real-time and develop a relationship. When you send them a message, be clear and straightforward as much as possible; you don’t want things to get lost in translation.
- Advisers and tutors: There are additional coaches outside of office hours to help you succeed. Independence University is proud to offer many student resources like tutoring, and career services, to help you advance in your classes and career.
TIP #7: LEARN THROUGH COMMUNITY
As you’re wading through several lecture slides, videos, or even synchronous lectures, you may find yourself feeling feel lost or isolated. Garnering connections with your fellow classmates can provide enriching opportunities for new friendships and ways to learn.
HOW TO DO IT
- Create a social network group: Social platforms like Facebook are a great way to get connected with your classmates. You can create online groups, where you can exchange notes, share valuable study tips/guides, and seek help from other students. You can also get a group chat going on your phones to help you stay extra-connected with your peers. Launching these platforms can also be a great way to scope out those who might be interested in being part of a smaller study group.
- Establish a virtual study group: Virtual tools like Zoom6 and Google Hangouts7 can help you have proactive discussions and hash out any problematic areas of the course. It’s a great idea to create a virtual team of two to three people and sync weekly to go over lecture notes, bounce ideas off each other, and...vent together! Sometimes, we all need a little pity party to help us get over the hurdles.
TIP #8: PRACTICE SELF CARE
School requires a lot of time and energy, so it’s important to practice self-care so you can continue to tackle your academic responsibilities.
HOW TO DO IT
- Take breaks: Sitting for more than three hours a day can shorten your lifespan.8 So get moving! Go for a walk outside, phone a friend, or cook a healthy meal. Take these breaks every 90 minutes,9 and improve your concentration and attention levels. If you’re on a time crunch, take your study notes with you on your walk.
- Practice mindfulness: You face a lot of ups and downs as a student. It’s important to pay careful attention to your thoughts and feelings and understand how to foster a positive mindset. Consider taking a two-minute break to just breathe and calm any anxieties. Journaling is also a great way to pour out your feelings and identify methods for coping with conflicts.
- Sleep and eat well: Get sufficient sleep (at least seven hours), drink plenty of water, and eat well. These three components are vital in helping you stay well-rested and keeping a happy mind and body.
TIP #9: GET LOGISTICS ORGANIZED
Technology is a major component of online education, so it’s important to get this in order for a smooth experience. The last thing you want is a user error getting in the way of your deadline!
HOW TO DO IT
- Collect all contact information: Have all the phone numbers and email addresses of your school contacts in one place, so they’re available when you need them. When you’re stuck on an assignment or are having technical issues on the learning portal, you’ll know who to contact and how to reach them.
- Download your course materials: Whenever possible, download your course materials so you can easily access them offline.
- Prepare your technology: Some video conferencing software requires downloading an app prior to using it. Be sure to have everything ready and test all of the software/apps before class begins. If assignments are uploaded in a cloud service or learning management platform, make sure you have your account details in order.
- Save and organize your work: In case of technical issues, it’s important to save and have a backup of your work in your computer or the cloud (Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.). You might also want to create individual folders for each class to help organize all of your documents.
Though navigating the logistics of online learning can be difficult at first, keep in mind that this experience can benefit your career. Between 2001 and 2017, e-learning in businesses grew by a whopping 900%.10
TIP #10: FAIL AND LEARN
Last but not least, don’t be afraid to fail. As Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Failure is often stigmatized; when we fail, we feel like failures. But the truth is, it’s only a stepping stone to success and our long-term goal. We learn from failure and from there, we grow.
HOW TO DO IT
- Pursue your ideas: Have an idea in mind for a project that might be risky/out-of-the-ordinary? Go for it! School is a great place to experiment. The process of trial and error can enhance your creative chops and help you better understand your strengths and weaknesses.
- Seek feedback: Feedback is a great way to identify areas of your project that need fine-tuning. More importantly, it helps you find ways to improve. So reach out to your classmates and instructors for their thoughts. College exposes you to individuals of diverse backgrounds, and getting feedback from them can help you gain more perspective on your craft.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: Though getting feedback and failing can get uncomfortable, keep in mind that working through these things are signs of growth. So have some faith, roll with the punches, and enjoy the journey.
TIP #11: CHOOSE A DEGREE/PROGRAM THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU
In these next few sections, we’ll be focusing more on the nuts and bolts of degree programs, employment, and finances.
If you’re browsing through various course/degree catalogs and anxiously scratching your head, don’t worry. Choosing a degree can be a long and hard decision, but for good reason—it requires a lot of reflection, research, and honesty to find a program that will ultimately lay the foundation for your career.
Here are some ways to help you get started:
- Dive into your interests: If you like doing something, why not get paid for it? For example, if you enjoy math and problem solving, then pursuing an Accounting degree may be a good fit.
- Think about your values: Why do you like what you like? How does it connect with your core beliefs? Finding a degree that aligns with your values can help you find a career that is rewarding, encouraging, and fulfilling.
- Think about your talents: Leverage your talents into a profitable and fulfilling career path. What are you good at? Say you’re great at creating art (drawing, painting, etc.) and learning various computer programs. You may want to look into Graphic Arts degree programs.
- Ask yourself, “Is it employable?” and, “Will it be around later in life?”: These questions are crucial in determining the viability of career options a specific degree provides. Not only do you want to make sure there are jobs available in the field, but that they will also exist 20 years down the line. As technology is rapidly advancing, make sure automation won’t make your job a thing of the past.
- What does it pay? Whether you have a family to support or you’re single and living on your own, ensure your prospective job can adequately support yourself and your loved ones. Resources such as Glassdoor and PayScale provide helpful insight into salaries for specific roles and companies. This can also help you discover companies you might be interested in joining after graduation.
- Will it build a lifestyle you want for yourself? While finding a well-paying job is important, you also want to make sure your career options align with your desired lifestyle. For example, maybe you’d prefer a remote role if you’re a working parent. Or maybe you no longer want to work weekends, so you’re looking for a less-demanding role. A job should safeguard your mental health, relationships, and personal goals. And as you gain more experience and grow in your career, your needs and expectations will change and evolve. Whatever happens, make intuitive decisions and look after yourself.
Remember, don’t panic if you’re unsure about your major. As we mentioned earlier, college is a place to experiment and discover more about yourself. So stay committed to putting in the work to find the right path. And when you know you want to pursue a specific degree, take the leap and do it. Listen to your gut.
TIP #12: PREPARE FOR THE JOB YOU WANT WHILE YOU’RE IN SCHOOL
Though we’d love to tell you that every college student gets hired immediately upon graduating, this is unfortunately a myth. Here’s the thing, 53% of college graduates11 are unemployed or working in a job they’re overqualified for. Not to mention, it frequently takes three to six months12 to get hired after graduation.
Therefore, it’s crucial to prepare for a job while you’re in school. This means taking time to look into career resources and adding applicable experiences to your resume.
Here are some key opportunities you should take advantage of during school:
Networking: For many industries, it’s all about who you know. The more connections you’re able to make, the better your chances of landing a job. Start by using online resources such as LinkedIn. You can look up folks who have your dream job and reach out to them for questions and advice. This professional social platform also indicates whether you have any mutual connections who can possibly provide an introduction.
Get to know your classmates: The great thing about college is that you meet people from various walks of life. Your peers might know a thing or two about folks in your prospective industry. In addition, don’t hesitate to take advantage of your school’s career services. These services generally offer career counseling that entails resume and interview workshops. You can also discuss career options with your coach, who can offer tips on becoming a more competitive candidate in the field.
Internships: Internships are a great way to get your foot in the door. You can acquire the skills and experiences that can boost your resume. Better yet, you’ll be able to network with various professionals who might be able to open doors for you after graduation.
Unsure about your major or career path? This is completely fine, and you shouldn’t let this deter you from pursuing an internship. In fact, that’s the perfect reason to get one! Internships allow you to explore a variety of different roles and industries. They can help you decipher what you like and what you don’t like, which can guide you towards a degree and career. A job occupies a great amount of your time and self-identity, so it’s important to explore as many options as possible.
Part-time positions: If you’re in a position where you have a pretty good idea of what you want to do after college, then pursuing a part-time position might be the right fit for you. While internships typically last for about a semester to a year, part-time positions are ongoing.
You’ll already be contributing to your field as an employee and learning the skills needed to succeed. Not to mention, your chances of transitioning into a full-time role after graduation are higher than those outside of the organization looking to get hired. But you’ll have to prove you’re worthy of taking on the full-time position. Be sure to show your value to the team by being open to new ideas, feedback, and growth.
TIP #13: FINANCE YOUR DEGREE
We’ll be honest, pursuing a degree is an investment. While it can be a hefty one, keep in mind, there are schools that help make your degree more affordable. For example, many colleges, like Independence University, offer grants, scholarships, and even books and supplies at no additional charge.
It’s also important to keep in mind what this investment is for. The median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients was $24,900 higher13 than those with a just a high school graduate degree. Moreover, the unemployment rate has consistently been about half the unemployment rate for high school graduates.
Though there are some financial hurdles in the beginning, by looking in the right places, education can be a worthwhile investment. So with that in mind, get started without the worry of saving everything up-front by looking into:
Grants: Grants are bursaries that do not need to be repaid. There are federal, state, institutional, and private grants you may qualify for. Some federal grants such as Pell Grants are need-based and others, like the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant, are dependent on educational programs you’re enrolled in. Failing to fulfill program requirements or withdrawing from school early may require you to pay back your grant.
To get started, you can learn more about federal student grants and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Please note that the availability of some federal grants vary across schools’ financial aid offices, so be sure to contact your financial aid counselor to discuss your options.
There are also merit-based or private grants awarded to students who show high levels of academic achievement, great leadership skills, and/or meet special circumstances. Finding private grants requires doing some digging, as numerous organizations carry a variety of unique grants. For example, Imagine America offers grants for those returning to school after taking time in the workforce. The Union Plus organization offers grants and scholarships to current and retired members of the AFL-CIO labor union along with their children and spouses.
Scholarships:There are also numerous types of merit-based, and targeted, scholarships available. This requires tapping into your background, experience, and talents.
Start by contacting your prospective school’s financial aid office to see if they carry opportunities you may qualify for. Finding additional scholarship resources involves digging into some research. The U.S. Department of Labor offers a free scholarship search tool where you can explore several different organizations offering scholarships.
Loans: Federal, state, institutional, and private entities also provide loan options. Keep in mind that loans come with interest rates. This means you’ll likely have to repay more money than the actual cost of your studies.
Start by first looking into loans offered by government institutions; they usually offer flat or low-interest rates. If you don’t qualify for government loans or they’re not enough to cover your tuition costs, look into multiple private loansto find the best fit for you. Interest rates across private lenders vary. Not to mention, some loans bear interest when you’re in college, while others are interest-free before graduation. So take the time to shop around for the best deal.
Rest assured, investing in education to improve your career prospects are worth it. Those who have a college degree make more than those who don’t.14 Better yet, the financial returns from having a degree outweigh the costs of the average student.
TIP #14: BUDGETING FOR COLLEGE SUPPLIES
All of this talk on finances is probably making you wonder about the expenses you’ll accrue in school. What kind of supplies do you need to succeed in college? More importantly, how do you budget your money to purchase them?
During the 2018-2019 academic year, students spent an average of $1,290 in textbooks and supplies.15 One of the advantages of pursuing an online degree is not having to purchase as many textbooks and supplies as traditional schooling would require. Therefore, that average might be lower for you.
Some additional supplies you might need include:
- A personal computer or laptop: If your computer is pretty outdated and slow, it’s probably time to invest in a newer and more reliable one.
- Printer and printer paper: Though you’re attending school digitally, there may be times when you’ll need a printer for your assignments and projects. Having a printer and printer paper at home will help you stay prepared.
- Earphones: If you’re at a cafe or your home gets loud with roommates and family members, invest in a good pair of earphones. You want to be sure you can hear lectures and presentations well enough to digest them. Not to mention, zoning out with some good tunes can give you the focus you need to fulfill your projects.
Consider what supplies are provided by the school. If you're considering more than one, a complimentary computer and covering the costs of textbooks could make the difference. Depending on your financial circumstances, you might need to start budgeting. Here are a few tips:
- If there are textbooks you need to purchase, check out chegg.com. It’s a great place where you can rent or buy textbooks at a discounted price.
- If you live alone, consider looking into roommates. You can split rent and utilities that will help you cut costs. For example, in Boston, moving from a one-bedroom place, which you’ve inhabited solo, to a two-bedroom place with a friend can save you about $990 a month.16
- Cook more. Make your own meals and coffee. You can save almost $10 per meal,17 which totals in about $400 per week if you’re cooking for two at home.
THE LONG-TERM IMPACT OF COMPLETING YOUR DEGREE
Pursuing a degree can be scary and difficult. But experiences that challenge you, and at the same time enlighten you, help you discover who and where you want to be. Aside from the financial returns you can enjoy from having a degree, there are also social, intellectual, and physical benefits that come with it:
- Completing college helps individuals discover their personal identity18 and make choices that are well-aligned with their identity. This enhances their psychological well-being along with their sense of sympathy and tolerance towards those who hold different opinions.
- Higher levels of education have been linked to better health.19Earning a degree not only enhances your life, but the lives of your children. Children of college-educated parents are more likely to have higher cognitive skills and be more involved in extracurricular activities than other children.
MOVE FORWARD WITH INDEPENDENCE UNIVERSITY
With these survival tips, you could make progress and crush your online education goals. More importantly, you’ll build key relationships along the way and have better control of your future. To get started, find people who’ll support you every step of the way.
If you need help on where and how to advance your career, be sure to contact the online education specialists at Independence University. They’ll walk you through the process of enrolling in the right online degree program for you.