How to Go Back to School: Planning Ahead Means Planning for Success

Man sitting at laptop planning how to go back to school

Whether you've wanted to return to school to finish a degree started long ago or are finally getting the chance to follow your dreams, you're committed to going back to school and know there will be challenges along the way. So what are some things you can do to ensure you're more likely to succeed?

What is My 'Why'?

What are the reasons behind your decision in the first place? It's important to understand the 'why' behind your choice to go back to school. Many non-traditional students go back to school because they need a degree to get a promotion. Others want to change careers and some have just made earning their degree a personal goal. Whatever your reasons, making adjustments will be easier if you have a good understanding of your motivation, the impact your degree can make on your career and the role model you will be for your children, other family members, friends and colleagues.

You may find it helpful to write your goals for finishing college on an index card and then putting the card somewhere you'll see it every day, like your bathroom mirror or nightstand. When you find yourself being challenged, losing motivation or drive, being reminded of why you started can help you stay on track.

Map Your Plan and Write It Down

With your ultimate goal for going back to school fixed firmly in your mind, the next thing to think about is the time commitment you're taking on. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Director of Student Success Laura Corddry said students should plan to spend 12-15 hours a week on coursework. "How do they fit that in their life is what they have to unpack for themselves," Corddry said. "From the get-go, having a plan that they can stick to is really important."

One key to success of any plan is time management and there are plenty of tools to help you along the way. The trick is finding the one that works for you. Some people use a simple planner. Others use their smartphone and various apps so they get notifications about upcoming deadlines and commitments. Many people find it helpful to use online calendars and planners that can be shared with their spouse and other family members. "It has to be planned out when you're as busy as our students are," said Jennifer Kidwell, an online community specialist at SNHU.

Talking to your academic advisor and instructors can help you develop a course sequence through your chosen program of study so the workload school is adding meshes with the demands from other parts of your life. When you know what to expect from certain courses, you can make an informed decision about how much to take on. You may want to take only one course during a summer term when your kids are home from school, but then add a second course in a fall term. If you struggle with certain subjects, you may be able to adjust your schedule to be able to spend more time on coursework when it's time to take that subject.

Get a Little Help From Your Friends

Talking to your family, friends and employer about going back to school, why you're doing it and getting their support will pay dividends down the road. With more on your plate, you will need help from your support network. If the people in your life know ahead of time why you're pouring more of your effort into school, it will be easier for them to understand during those times when your attention is focused on coursework instead of them. Your boss will know and be able to understand why you turned down an extra shift at work because you have to turn in an important paper, for instance. Your friends or family members may be more willing to pick up your kids from soccer practice once a week because they know you had to carve out some time to finish a reading and discussion board post for school. "If you have a good support network that you can fall upon when life happens, you can adjust a lot easier so you can still meet the needs of your family and your school and your job when a monkey wrench is thrown in," Corddry said.

Along with the people in your own life, your school will also have resources for you to call upon, resources like IT help, academic advising, writing centers, math labs and many more commonly used support services.

Use Your Support to Move Forward

Finally, go into your learning experience expecting you will encounter challenges and that you've prepared yourself and the people around you to persevere. "It's not going to be easy. There's going to be some classes that are going to be challenging, that are going to be difficult," Corddry said. "You pick yourself up and you look at your goal and you keep on moving forward. You use your resources. You use your community and your supports to get you there."

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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