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A beginner’s guide to going back to school as an adult

Mayra Radzinski smiles in a tomato "hoop house" wearing a yellow shirt with a denim jacket over the top. She went back to school as an adult.

Ecampus graduate Mayra Radzinski earned her degree in natural resources online after deciding on a career change. She now runs her own business, channeling her passion for the environment and gardening into sustainable landscaping work in her area.

Adding classes to your already busy schedule doesn’t have to be so challenging.

By Carly Johansen

If you’re considering going back to school as an adult, the sheer number of tasks you’re supposed to do and understand how to do can be overwhelming. So we’re breaking down everything you need to do and take care of — from exploring your options through starting your first term.

Buckle up because we’re going on a journey.

In this piece, we’ll cover:

Finding the right program

Before diving into this process, the most essential part is figuring out what exactly you’d like to learn. Many higher education institutions allow you to explore their offerings by college or even subject area.

To begin, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Why do I want to go back to school? Is it a personal or professional reason (or maybe both)? If it’s personal, what drives me? If it’s professional, am I looking to move up or switch careers?
  2. What am I passionate about? Is it helping people, nature, culture, making systemic change, inventing, something else?
  3. If my end goal is a professional change, what’s my ideal work environment? Do I want to be in an office, in the field, in a classroom or in a manufacturing setting? Do I want to work for myself, a small business or a large corporation?
  4. What am I good at? Am I better at math and science or more theoretical thinking?
  5. What have I struggled with in school in the past? Am I comfortable seeking help like tutoring or attending office hours if I need help in a particular subject area?
  6. Do I have a career shift in mind? Do I want to earn a targeted, career-specific degree, or am I looking for something more broadly applicable?
Melissa Whitney sits wearing a phone headset and a dark blouse with stars on it, smiling as she helps a student with an enrollment question.

When you call or chat with our Ecampus enrollment services team, you’ll always speak with a real person like Melissa, not a robot.

While you may not know the answers to these questions right away, it’s important to ask them before you move forward. Consider finding a quiet space and setting yourself a five-minute timer to answer these questions and any others that may pop into your head. Your answers might surprise you when you dig into why you’re looking to enroll. You can always talk with an enrollment services specialist if you’re still having a hard time deciding after that.

Deciding the type of coursework or program you’re looking for

Once you know what you’re looking to learn, you should consider what type of education you’re looking for. Remember that earning your credentials from an institutionally accredited university means that experts have thoroughly evaluated the school to ensure that students receive high-quality learning experiences. Institutionally accredited schools are the highest tier of education available to students.

Below are the types of offerings you may encounter at colleges and universities, including OSU, from taking one class all the way to pursuing an advanced degree. Note that OSU is a quarter-term school, so numbers are likely to look different at a semester-based institution. Check out how the two compare.

  • Most institutions offer individual classes, the least involved option. The basics of this option: Apply to the university of your choice as a nondegree or visiting student, choose the course(s) you’re interested in, enroll and that’s it.
  • Course sequences may be right for you if you have a specific topic you’re looking to learn more about without enrolling in a full program. Or you can use these sequences to complete general education requirements or prerequisites. Universities consider course sequence students as nondegree students, but most take courses consecutively.
  • Microcredentials consist of a series of courses that are focused on a specific subject area and can help you gain highly specialized skills. These are a great fit for those looking for a professional leg up and a newer type of résumé-builder. Learn more about microcredentials in a recent article we published on the topic. Credits earned from microcredentials can also be stacked into a full degree program after they are completed.
  • Certificates work well for those looking to invest in more education and receive a stand-alone credential upon completion. Certificates are ideal for professional advancement and provide well-rounded, contextual coursework. Oregon State University offers both undergraduate- and graduate-level certificates, so these work well for professionals of all experience and education levels. Certificate credit requirements vary, based on level, and at OSU, they range in topics from cybersecurity to organic agriculture and beyond.
  • Bachelor’s degrees at Oregon State consist of a total of 180 quarter credits (equivalent to 120 semester credits) and feature courses that cover a range of interrelated topics. Oregon State Ecampus delivers dozens of OSU bachelor’s degrees online, and they cover a broad variety of topics.At most institutions, a bachelor’s degree includes some sort of general education that helps students gain a foundational understanding of various subjects. At Oregon State University, this is known as our baccalaureate core. Beyond this, students can complete degree requirements as desired, even pursuing two degrees at once, or they can simultaneously complete a microcredential, minor or certificate.
  • Postbaccalaureate degrees are an interesting option for people who have already earned a bachelor’s degree but are interested in pursuing a second one in a different subject area. Postbacc students generally only take the subject-specific coursework for their second degree, rather than needing to complete additional general education requirements.Oregon State’s online computer science postbacc option is one of our most popular offerings, but any OSU bachelor’s program is eligible to be completed as a postbacc. Most minors and certificates can also be completed as a postbacc student.
  • Graduate degrees come after a bachelor’s degree. The two most common types of graduate degrees are master’s degrees and doctorate degrees in a wide variety of subjects. Courses in a master’s degree cover complex topics, may require a written thesis and generally take around two full-time years to finish. Some master’s programs have a more professional focus than others. A doctorate degree is more focused on research, culminating in a written dissertation, and completion timelines vary widely.

Selecting a school

Once you know what type of program you’re looking for, do a handful of related web searches and ask friends, family and colleagues about which institutions you should consider. Nearly every university has a “request for information” form that you can fill out to get additional info on their specific offerings. When you fill out Oregon State’s form, you’ll receive information about your program of choice, tuition, support services and more.

Eddie Rodriguez sits in front of a computer wearing a headset, engaged in a web call with a student, in a cubicle setting.

Our success coaches connect with OSU Ecampus students one-on-one to provide personalized learning support.

At OSU Ecampus, tuition for in-state, out-of-state and international online students is the same. This opens the door for attendance from virtually anywhere.

We’ve created a handy guide on exactly how to narrow things down, but here are the highlights:

  1. Think about how many classes you want to take and then check how much tuition costs.
  2. Consider how your credits will transfer. Though OSU is on a quarter-term system, many courses from accredited institutions on a semester schedule transfer in easily.
  3. Find out what type of support the school offers to online students. Distance education presents unique challenges, so schools like Oregon State Ecampus provide students with tailored resources. This includes services like success coaching, free virtual tutoring and ways to connect with your peers.
  4. Research the school’s reputation through reputable sources. This could include browsing ranking websites, industry journals or reaching out to someone working in your field.

Preparing to apply

By this time, you’ve done pretty thorough research. You’re almost to the fun part: applying.

First and foremost, make sure you meet admissions requirements for the school you’re applying to. Doing this can help save you a bit of money before application. If you don’t meet academic standards for your dream school, don’t fret. Many transfer students find that their earlier academic performance doesn’t reflect their current work ethic. If you feel the same, you can retake courses at your local community college or at your school of choice as a nondegree student to improve your GPA. An enrollment services specialist can help you start working on your GPA.

Keep an eye on application deadlines and recommended timelines at your institution of choice, not just when the start of the term is. Many schools curtail applications weeks or even months before the start of the term.

Applying for admissions and financial aid

Once you’re ready, it’s time to apply. Follow your school’s guidance on how to apply, and be sure to note whether the degree type, program and modality are all available via the type of application you submit.

If you run into difficulty with your application, most schools have an entire team dedicated to admissions who are available to help. This even includes admissions advisors who can help walk you through your application.

If you’re transferring, submit any transcript information as soon as you apply to a school. Transcript evaluation teams are often very busy at the start of the term. Set yourself up for success with an early submission.

Shortly after applying, you may want to apply for financial aid. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, can be challenging at times, but don’t give up. The Federal Student Aid website has tons of helpful resources, including a guide on how to complete your FAFSA. You can also find the guide in Spanish.

The FAFSA opens on Oct. 1 each year, and if you know you’re headed back to school, apply as soon as you can.

You can also check for other sources of financial aid, including employer-sponsored degree programs and university-specific financial support. Most schools have a central application for scholarships, and many include options for those who are unable to complete the FAFSA for one reason or another.

Note that there are some third-party scholarship application sites that are not legitimate. If you are not sure about a site, be sure to contact your institution before sharing personal information.

Get a breakdown of the different types of aid available to you on our financial aid and scholarships page.

Enrolling in your first classes

After receiving your notice of admission, first and foremost, celebrate! You’re moved closer toward whatever change you’re looking to make in your life. Then, take a very deep breath. There’s a lot of excitement ahead. And you’re definitely not alone in this next part.

A school with an online student support team will have many of resources in place to help you succeed. This includes:

This last person could be an academic advisor, a major professor or a point of contact in your subject area, depending on the type of program you’re looking for.

Be kind to yourself as you head back to class for the first time. Whether it’s been a year or a decade, learning online is sure to be different for you. For more tips on navigating classes as an online student, check out our recent guide from a former Ecampus student.

Ready to start at OSU?

While the beginning of this process is more about doing your own research, Oregon State Ecampus is here to help. Whether you have questions about the differences between programs or aren’t sure what to do about financial aid, we’ve got your back.

Contact us today via email, phone or live chat.


  • Bright Maweja says:

    I have read the documents in regards to how i can study as a mature online student but i need to talk to the Campus enrollment team for further clarification

  • Carly Johansen says:

    Hi Bright, thanks so much for reaching out! You can reach the Ecampus enrollment team via email, phone, live chat or scheduled appointment. Find all of your options on our Contact Us page.

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