Back-to-College-A-Degree-Planning-Timeline - My Degree

Back to College: A Degree Planning Timeline

This can take place at any point in the year. For example, inspired by all those graduation cards in the supermarket, you may decide in the springtime to return to college. But aren’t the application deadlines for most colleges long past? They might well be, but that doesn’t mean you can’t begin the application process immediately by launching into research and decision-making.

And, in the digital age, the college you choose might offer courses which are beginning at just the right time for you; some online courses are offered year round. At the beginning of your college journey, the most important action is… action.

To maintain the momentum of your decision and excitement, no matter the time of year, take concrete steps to make your dream a reality. Otherwise, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the many aspects of the college decision and application process. Use action to combat procrastination.

It’s important to have a realistic view of your current life before deciding to commit to a college and career path. Is moving to campus an option, or must you commute? Are you caring for children, pets, or an aging parent? How much time and energy does your current job require? Can you still allot time for exercise and self-care? How many classes can you afford right now, both in terms of time and money? Is an online college the best option?

Match Your Career Goals to Your School

If your goal is simply “to attend college,” sit down in a quiet place and piece of paper. Aimlessly drifting into and out of courses without a solid goal can invite frustration and loss of motivation. What are your career goals? What kind of job would you like to have? The answers to these can help direct you to the college which is the best fit.

For example, if the career you’d like to have doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, a vocational college might be ideal. But if becoming a kindergarten teacher is your ultimate destination, go get that four-year diploma and teaching certificate. In the event you’re really not sure what you’d like to do, or are torn between several careers, consider enrolling in a smattering of short-term community courses to discern what your passion truly is.

If the answers to these questions change, that’s not unusual; 33% of college students change majors. And, if you move from one specific job to another in the same field—such as from nurse to physical therapist– that’s even more normal.  It is helpful, however, to have some idea of what you’re reaching towards.

Summertime: Research

Since most college application deadlines are around Thanksgiving, summer is a good time to begin researching best-match schools and potential admission boosts. Remember sitting down with that piece of paper to decide on your career path? Match it to an appropriate school. For example, if you’d like to study music, find a college with a strong program in that major. Do you want a lot of personal attention?  Choose a smaller school.

Some colleges even offer separate applications or entire study programs for adults. Others can award credit for past college courses or life experiences. In the event you passed Advanced Placement exams as a high-schooler, these credits might carry over as well.

Veterans or active members of the military might be able to take advantage of the GI Bill. In the event you are in the Armed Forces and began serving after September 10, 2001, you could qualify for Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits. These might even extend to the on the job training, and can include tuition, supplies, and housing stipends.

A fair number of colleges insist on potential students filling out their own applications, but others accept general submissions. You might save time by applying to multiple colleges with one set of documents via the Common Application or the Universal College Application.

Summer is also a good time to begin researching financial aid and entrance exams such as the CLEP. As financial aid is its own arena, it might be beneficial to work with your top choices and see which loans, grants, or scholarships are the best options.

Even if you’re not sure which college is your top choice, keep June 30 on your calendar. That’s when the Free Application for Federal Student Aid must be submitted. If you’re applying for financial aid, the FAFSA is a can’t-miss. Some colleges have individual deadlines for FAFSA as well, and in general, it’s best to turn it in as soon as possible. Don’t let that work-study program slip away.

Before applying, make sure to contact your high school alma mater for your transcripts or, if you did not graduate, to obtain your high school equivalency, or GED. It’s also a good idea to choose the people in your life you’d like to supply your letters of recommendation.  Work supervisors, sports instructors, or people you know from volunteering are all good options.

Autumn: Apply

Some colleges offer early decision applications; if you’re done with the preliminary paperwork and sure about your top choice, take the plunge and relieve some down-the-road stress.

As soon as you have narrowed down your college choices, start structuring your application essay. Some colleges require individual, specific essays; others may be tailored to the Common Application. If writing is nerve-wracking for you, begin as soon as possible so that the task is on the “done” list.  That way, you can concentrate on testing and gathering final documentation.


Colleges which offer rolling admissions usually have winter application deadlines, so if you missed the autumn cutoff, see about applying for the following semester.

Unless you have applied via early admission, most colleges send acceptance notices by April at the latest. In the event you haven’t landed a spot at your first choice school, don’t give up. Some students find that the best path to their dream college is to enroll elsewhere, then re-apply and transfer later.

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