I Want to Go to College, But Where Do I Start?

illustration of a college student looking at a a street sign representing i want to start college

Department stores have a knack for telling us what time of the year it is. When you walk into a store, and it’s time to start a new school year, you know. There is the fresh smell of new notebooks, the stylish new backpacks and the rush of parents and kids alike checking off their back-to-school lists. As a child, this time of year is chock-full of hope and optimism.

But if you are an adult considering going back to school and it’s been a while since you’ve last talked to a guidance counselor, this optimism may be replaced with a bit of anxiety or uncertainty. You have a lot of information about going to college to take in and consider. So where do you even start?

That is where we come in. We’ve put together a “back-to-school” list of steps for adults considering a college education. We’re here to help you answer some of your basic questions about college applications, different types of degrees, majors and financial aid and offer a bit of advice on how to go about the back-to-school process. Read on to turn some of that back-to-school anxiety into optimism!

Going to college: A to-do list for adults

As you’re gearing up for attending college, use this checklist to help you understand what the process will look like. Along the way, you may run into a few unfamiliar terms, but don’t worry—we have you covered with a helpful glossary of college terms.

1. Find the right academic program

One of the first decisions you’ll need to weigh is the type of degree or credential you’re looking to pursue. Two of the most common options you’ll find are either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, though there are also credentials like certificates and diplomas that may be the right fit for your goals.

The most notable difference between these options is the amount of time it takes to graduate. Generally speaking, an associate’s degree is a 60-credit-hour program that typically takes a full-time student approximately two years to complete. A bachelor’s degree delves deeper into a subject and takes roughly 120 credit hours, doubling the “typical” completion time to four years. Keep in mind, these time frames can be shorted or lengthened by factors like the number of credits taken each term or whether you’re taking courses year-round instead of a Fall/Spring semester format.

If you haven’t figured this part out yet, choosing what to study in college will require some introspection. Healthcare, technology and business focused degree programs remain a popular choice for many, but you certainly have options to explore beyond these fields. Ultimately, you’ll need to self-evaluate to start narrowing things down. To start, try asking yourself the following:

  • What subject would I be excited about studying?
  • Are there subjects I can eliminate from consideration right away?
  • Is there a specific job I’d like to land? If so, what are the education requirements for it?
  • Does this area of study lend itself to a job field that is growing or shrinking?
  • Do I have any experiences in this field?

Keep in mind that while it’s great to have your preferred academic path figured out up front, it’s not really a requirement. It’s common for students to change course after enrolling, though you’ll ideally want to keep these shifts to a minimum, as it can extend your time in college and the expense that comes with it.

2. Narrow down your school options

Once you know what you want to study, the next step is figuring out where to study.

One factor you’ll want to consider is the modalities offered by the school. Generally, you’ll find three major options: On campus, online or a blended option. Your current obligations, employment situation and location will be important to weigh when considering this factor, and many adult students seek out online or hybrid formats. For example, 84 percent of adults who pursue a college degree online are already employed, as these schools tend to offer more flexible hours and class schedules that better fit with the schedules of working adults.1

Keep in mind not every school will have the major or academic focus area you’re interested in, and some will be more selective than others. These factors should help you narrow down your options for further research. From there, you may want to consider the support offered, student experience, cost and your overall fit with the school. 

3. Reach out and apply

If you have chosen a degree and decided on a school (or schools), the next step is to inquire and apply. Many college websites will have links directly to an admissions page where you’ll find useful information about the process.

That said, the U.S. News & World Report® has broken down the application process in-depth for those who plan to apply for a college program. Here are a couple of key points to remember:2

  • Many colleges have application deadlines. Be sure to research your selected school’s deadlines for your desired program.
  • It is likely that you will need to have your high school transcript (or equivalent), previous post-secondary education transcript and/or standardized testing scores. To obtain yours, you may need to contact the previous school(s) you have attended.
  • Keep in mind that some colleges may have an application fee; however, there are programs you can qualify for that may eliminate this fee.

If you think you’ll need a little help navigating all of this, the expert admissions advisors at Rasmussen University are available to answer any questions you may have.

4. Figure out financial aid and how you’ll pay

Finances are almost always going to be a big determining factor in a major life decision, and that’s no different with going to college. The expenses associated with college are no secret, and you’ll want to make smart decisions to help keep your overall costs down. Fortunately, you may have options for financial assistance. For one, there are several government programs for financial assistance—ranging from subsidized loans to direct grants—that you could potentially be eligible for.

Additionally, some employers are willing to help with programs like tuition reimbursement or other student-employee support benefits. If you’re employed and thinking of heading back to school, it doesn’t hurt to ask your employer if these programs are available. Scholarships, grants and community aid can also provide a solid option for keeping expenses down—even just a few “small” awards can be a big help.

This important step can take some time to sort out, so be sure to check out “Your Most Pressing Financial Aid Questions Answered” for a handy guide to help you get started.

5. Prepare to learn

College courses are obviously a step up from what you took on in high school, so take some time to prepare yourself. Be honest, do you really remember how quadratic equations work or how to diagram a sentence? If not, now’s the time to start brushing up on general education subjects so you’re not busy trying to overcome a rusty recollection while also learning new material.

Remember, there’s no shame in seeking out academic support like peer tutoring or asking your instructors for help once enrolled. Your goal is to learn and eventually graduate, so support options like these can be a big help as you get acclimated.

It might take a little bit of time to get back into the routine of being a student, but there are things you can do to help. For more, start with our article “Academic Success: 7 Simple Habits of the Best Students.”

Starting off on the right foot

Going back to school can be one of the most important decisions of your lifetime. While it might feel like a lot to contend with up front, the steps toward getting started in college are manageable if you break them down. If you’re ready to start exploring potential subjects to study, take some time to check out the different academic options available to you at Rasmussen University

1Jordan Friedman, “U.S. News Data: The Average Online Bachelor’s Student,” U.S. News & World Report, April 4, 2017. [Accessed May 2022], https://www.usnews.com/higher-education/online-education/articles/2017-04-04/us-news-data-the-average-online-bachelors-student.
2Kelly Mae Ross, Josh Moody, “A Complete Guide to the College Application Process,” U.S. News & World Report, September 13, 2021. [Accessed May 2022], https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/college-application-process.
U.S. News & World Report is a registered trademark of U.S. News & World Report, Inc.

About the author

Patrick Flavin

Patrick is a freelance content writer at Collegis Education. As a former educator, Patrick is passionate about helping students find the professions that fit their skills, talents and interests.

Patrick Flavin

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