goingbacktoschool

So You Want to Go Back to School

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Motivations for creating the series

I came to Physics Forums originally to read ZapperZ’s thread about becoming a physicist back in 2013. It was one of many factors that got me to pursue an education in physics that I am succeeding in to this day. One thing I wanted to find here that didn’t seem to exist was a comprehensive guide to help students in my specific situation-a nontraditional student trying to succeed in STEM education. Certainly there are many posts to help people through the process of doing just that, but they were spread out and sometimes turned out to be flat out bad advice. I believe this was because very few people are active on Physics Forums who come from non-traditional backgrounds and went back to school later in life.

In my time as a physics student, I’ve grown immensely and helped grow other student’s confidence through tutoring and mentor programs at my school. Now that I’ve successfully been admitted to my dream school as a transfer from my local community college, I feel that this forum deserves a formal take on what the process is like, what mistakes are often made, and how to optimize your time as a STEM student starting fresh. Both my experience, and the experience of several non-traditional friends will be going into this series.

This series assumes you want to go back to school for a degree that takes 4 or more years to complete, and is geared towards American STEM majors. However, what is said here can be extrapolated to almost any non-traditional path through college.

Mandatory components of an education

Going back to school is a tough decision. As an adult, it won’t eliminate all of your responsibilities and make things easier for you. It’s going to make things much, much harder. Assuming you’re reading this, you’ve decided that the challenge is worth your time. Before you start you should know there are a great many ways to make things easier on yourself.

The most important thing you need to know is you can’t do this alone. Having a strong structure of family and/or friends to assist you emotionally and financially is critical. If you’re living by yourself that will likely have to stop. Time is going to become your most cherished commodity, and having a spouse or roommate(s) to split the rent with will allow you to work less hours to meet your needs while giving you ample time to work on school and still have a personal life. This will also keep you from becoming isolated. Depression is one of the most common illnesses among students, and it comes out in scary forms when you have nobody around you to reach out to. This is where family and loved ones are necessary. You will get distressed, and as much as you will want to come on Physics Forums and be reassured at your decision to go to school, you will need people who know you and your situation to help you through those tough times.

Assuming your expenses aren’t being completely covered by a parent or loved one, your job should be low-stress (both physically and psychologically). If you dread going to work, it’s time to find another job. Nothing throws a wrench in an education more than working a bunch of long shifts and dreading every second of it only to go home on edge and annoyed. Take it from someone who tried working as a nurse’s aide on night shift when he started school, it doesn’t work.

With a job comes money, and if you haven’t been living off of a strict budget, now is the time to do so. There are student services available at every community college whose purpose is to help students figure out how to go to school without going broke. Utilize them. If you have the time, learn to make a spreadsheet in either Google Sheets (free if you have a google account) or Microsoft Excel (free with a student email address). Be honest about what you need and live by what you decide.

Lastly, if you don’t take care of your health, it’s time to start. Proper diet, exercise, and good sleep habits are all necessary to do well in school. You don’t need to go to a gym or become vegan, but you do need to regulate yourself. Schedule set times every day for when you exercise and prepare food, and get at least 6-8 hours of sleep every night.

Here are some guides for the last paragraph that I’ve found to be useful:

Guide to eating cheaply but healthily as a student: http://imgur.com/a/pHUdq/layout/grid (click on the pictures for the text to the guide)

Why you can’t catch up on lost sleep: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-can-you-catch-up-on-sleep/

Subreddit dedicated to diet and fitness guides: https://www.reddit.com/r/fitness

Beginning at a Community College

Unless you were a stellar, straight-A student in high school, you likely won’t be able to get into a reputable 4-year school right away. The beauty of it is, you don’t have to. In fact, it would be hazardous to do so. You’ll need a strong foundation in both the techniques of your major and work ethic to succeed at a 4-year school. The community college system is the best means to do this. If you’re worried about getting in, don’t be. Former prisoners in their forties were my classmates, so you will likely get in as well. Just apply a decent length of time before the semester starts.

Once you’re accepted you will have to take placement examinations for math. If you want to avoid a bit of hassle study up whatever material from algebra you don’t feel comfortable with before going in, but the longer you’ve been out of school the harder it will be to place high. Don’t feel bad if you place into lower arithmetic or algebra classes. If you did, chances are you needed to relearn the material. And believe me, nothing kills students in upper-division math courses more than not having a strong foundation in these high school level courses.

Once you’ve been placed based on your skill level, you’ll be asked to speak to an academic advisor to schedule your classes. I had mixed experiences with the advisement at my school. Many times schools won’t have people in their advising office who are knowledgeable about transfer programs. Sometimes they’ll even be inclined to get you to take unnecessary courses based on ignorance of the transfer process. Before you go speak to an advisor, you should speak to a Transfer Counselor at your school. Every community college has two or three on staff. These are the people who directly work with local 4- year schools to prep students properly for getting into them. They will have a good idea of all the programs available at these schools and their expectations of community college students. Discuss your goals with them and they will give you a good idea of what classes you should be taking.

If for one reason or another you aren’t confident in the information from your Transfer Counselor, you can always go to university websites and view their guides for transferring to them. They have a database of every community college in their state-and sometimes even out of state-to tell you what you should be taking at your Community College.

Paying for school

The excuse often said by people who don’t want to go back to school is, “I can’t afford it.” This is usually said out of ignorance to how the financial aid system for American Community Colleges works. There are two types of aid, which informally can be thought of as aid you have to pay back (loans) and aid you don’t have to pay back as long as you’re in good academic standing and don’t just drop out (grants). In community college, assuming you are independent and are living below a living wage, or you are a dependent and your parents are living below a living wage, there is substantial grant money that you have available to you. For some perspective, I made around $24k/year at the time I applied for financial aid, and received $2.5k/year from my federal grant and $1.5k/year from my state grant. Since my annual tuition at my school was ~$4000 a year, this covered everything for me at no cost. Applications for these grants are all done online, and only require that you are in good standing at the colleges you previously attended.

If you or the person(s) who claims you as a dependent make more than $30k per person per year you will likely get less, and depending on how high possibly nothing for grants. However, at this income level, it is very reasonable to portion off $3-4k a year to go to school when budgeted appropriately, assuming you’ve kept your cost of living reasonable in the years up to this point.

The last resort for paying for community college should be taking out a student loan. The maximum you can take out your first year in federal loans is $9.5k, incrementing up by $1k once when you’re a sophomore and again when you’re a senior. On the one hand you will only be taking out $4000 a year at most at your Community College. Which on a Bachelor’s of Engineering salary is far from unreasonable to pay back once you’re finished with school. However, debt can snowball into disastrous levels if something causes you to drop out of school and that income raise you were expecting doesn’t come, and there is no way to reasonably forgive student loan debt (not even bankruptcy will save you). So only take out loans if your worst case scenario still allows you to pay the loans back. As you are going through school, continually pay off the interest as it accumulates to significantly reduce the amount you have to pay back when you graduate.

If your situation requires far more specifics than what’s been outlined here, there is a subreddit for financial advice that is very reliable. I recommend making a thread detailing every specific of your finances and asking for guidance.

http://reddit.com/r/personalfinance

Study habits

Now that the administrative tasks are done the true trials begin here. If you’re nervous or unconfident don’t worry, building a foundation of good study habits and seeing the positive results will help you build yourself up to become a problem solving machine.

Attend every class. If you find the material boring, still show up to class. If you think the professor is a prick, still show up to class. If you are tired, still show up to class. Not only do many Community Colleges grade based on attendance, but if you don’t show up to class you risk having your financial aid revoked, and you will have to pay it back in full out of your own pocket.

One thing that’s told to every student in any college is that for every hour in class you must spend 3 hours outside of class studying. Most students ignore this, and those students typically don’t get A’s unless the class is trivial. Assuming you’re a run-of-the-mill human who like most of us is decidedly average in intelligence, you will not be able to ignore this tip. If you do not put in the hours, especially in your math and science classes, you will not get A’s. This is the biggest killer for students who go on to a 4-year school after community college and find that the courses are much harder.

For your math and science classes it is best to read the material that you will be going over in the next lecture ahead of time while doing the example problems and as many of the end of chapter problems as time allows. Lecture should be used as reinforcement, not the foundation of your intuition. This is the method that education research has shown time and again is the key to great success in science and math courses at the university level. Even if you’re confident in the material, don’t skimp on this way of studying. Remember, the point of studying isn’t to do as little as possible and still do well to stroke your ego, it’s to build good habits so that when you reach material that isn’t your strong suit (and it will come, believe me) then you will have the tools to learn it effectively ahead of time.

Study habits for tests require a bit more strategy. Depending on the class, you could have anything from multiple choice (my chemistry class), to 10 long problems to do in 2 hours (my first physics class). What you should do regardless is try to find an old exam from the professor or build your own exam from the harder questions in your textbooks. You should study these exams by completing them once, checking your mistakes, and retaking them to reinforce in your brain the correct way to do the problems. This was a strategy employed by a UC Berkeley student majoring in finance who got a perfect score on the most failed exam in the school, and was what gave me the skills to do well in classes that are often failed at my Community College.

Note for Remedial Math Students:

If you placed into a lower level math course that goes over grade school math, there are several things you should do BEFORE you go to your first class. First is that you should memorize your multiplication and division tables over several weeks before class starts. Often times the reason people fail this course is because that basic arithmetic foundation isn’t there. Use a website dedicated to learning these tables and get good enough to be able to solve them in a few seconds or less just by looking at them. This will take 20+ hours to do. Also become familiar with basic operations using fractions-another thing that fails a lot of students. One thing to remember about this class is that it’s effectively 6 years of grade school education in 12-16 weeks. If you do not put at least 10 hours per week into the class, you WILL fail. I know this from tutoring well dozens of students in this class over almost 2 years.

What 4-year universities look for

There are several things you need to be consistently building towards when you are in your Community College planning your classes, and they all revolve around what your next college will think. Your transfer counselor should give you a good idea of how to structure your time, but you may find it beneficial to get ahead of them and plan out your next 2-3 years yourself. This is where having a good idea of which schools you’re going to apply to is key. You need to have their requirements and expectations sitting in front of you when you’re making decisions on how to plan your courses. This information is always either on the school’s website, or the database website of whatever state school system you are planning to transfer to (i.e. The University of California system’s assist.org). Most reputable schools would like to see that an Associate’s Degree was completed at the Community College you attended, which means the next thing on your list of things you need to look at are your college’s requirements for graduating with an Associate’s Degree.

Regardless of your choice in schools there are common themes among all of them. First, you’ll need to get your Mathematics completed up through Intermediate Algebra, or if you placed higher, any math course you can take, and a course in writing. These are non-negotiable at any school. Next you’ll want to take courses in your major to start your way to your Associate’s Degree (See below for an example for Engineering Majors). And lastly, you’ll want to take a bunch of courses to go towards your general education requirements at your 4-year school, of which the most important would be foreign language courses.

Here’s an example of a typical Associate’s Degree curriculum when starting from square one: https://mechanicalderp.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/example-of-a-fresh-start/

Once you’re closer to applying and you’ve taken your course in writing, it would be a good idea to write out your personal statement to add to your application. There are 4 major things universities look for: 1) Owning your mistakes in the past. There’s probably a reason you started school late, tell them your story, and be honest. If you were lazy, own it. If you were a drug addict, own it. If you don’t tell them they’ll have to guess and think you’re being disingenuous. 2) Telling them why you want to go to THEIR school. If what you’re saying about them can be said about any other school, it’s not specific enough. Tell them what’s so special about them. 3) Giving them your specific goals, and how you plan to achieve them. They like seeing students who have a plan. 4) Don’t exaggerate yourself. If you’re telling them your achievement’s that’s’ one thing. It’s another to rant about how awesome you think you are.

Here was my essay for my application: https://mechanicalderp.wordpress.com/2015/11/21/my-personal-statement-for-pitt/

Final words

I chose to go back to school at the age of 24 because I was tired of working a job that I hated while the world around me turned to hell. I was passionate about science and philosophy and decided to take a few courses at my local school to see if it was for me. I was hooked after about three weeks. It’s been a hell of a ride, and I’m still going strong, but it’s been hard. Life still comes up and hits me in the face every so often, and I have to take it and go right back to the books the next day to keep up. Don’t take going back to school lightly, and try to avoid going into things full time until you get an idea of what it is you want to do. You may lose a lot if you’re not careful and diligent. You have to wake up every day with the mindset that you’re going to have to work hard. You’ll have to fight the mindset that if you just give up it’ll be easier. Most importantly don’t assume because you’re going back later than the high school kid you know who went to an ivy that you aren’t competent, or that just because you dropped out at some point that it’s impossible for you to go back. If you want to learn something and make a career out of it, the tools exist for you to do so. You will struggle at first, change your mind fifty times before you finish, and lose a lot of free time. You may even decide halfway through that college isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to fight to better yourself, then you’ll make it work. Good luck.

Edit 1: Phrasing and correcting a link.

Edit 2: Grammar and phrasing.

5 replies
  1. Dr. Courtney
    Dr. Courtney says:

    This is fabulous advice, not just for students returning to college, but for ALL students.  Thanks for writing it!One thing that’s told to every student in any college is that for every hour in class you must spend 3 hours outside of class studying. Most students ignore this, and those students typically don’t get A’s unless the class is trivial. Assuming you’re a run-of-the-mill human who like most of us is decidedly average in intelligence, you will not be able to ignore this tip. If you do not put in the hours, especially in your math and science classes, you will not get A’s. This is the biggest killer for students who go on to a 4-year school after community college and find that the courses are much harder.For your math and science classes it is best to read the material that you will be going over in the next lecture ahead of time while doing the example problems and as many of the end of chapter problems as time allows. Lecture should be used as reinforcement, not the foundation or your intuition. This is the method that education research has shown time and again is the key to great success in science and math courses at the university level. Even if you’re confident in the material, don’t skimp on this way of studying. Remember, the point of studying isn’t to do as little as possible and still do well to stroke your ego, it’s to build good habits so that when you reach material that isn’t your strong suit (and it will come, believe me) then you will have the tools to learn it effectively ahead of time.Study habits for tests require a bit more strategy. Depending on the class, you could have anything from multiple choice (my chemistry class), to 10 long problems to do in 2 hours (my first physics class). What you should do regardless is try to find an old exam from the professor or build your own exam from the harder questions in your textbooks. You should study these exams by completing them once, checking your mistakes, and retaking them to reinforce in your brain the correct way to do the problems. This was a strategy employed by a UC Berkeley student majoring in finance who got a perfect score on the most failed exam in the school, and was what gave me the skills to do well in classes that are often failed at my Community College.

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