Ask a College Advisor: I Want to Go Back to College, but Where Do I Start?

Hear from one of our education experts on the first steps to take when deciding to go back to college.
portrait of Lauren Albano, M.Ed.
Lauren Albano, M.Ed.
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Lauren Albano is the assistant director and designated school official at Seattle University's International Student Center, where she advises international students and alumni on maintaining F-1 status. She holds a master's in student development ad...
Updated on April 24, 2023
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Question: I want to go back to college, but where do I start?

Answer: Congratulations on your decision to go back to college! As you embark on this new and exciting academic journey you may be feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to begin. Together, let's explore some ways to help you feel more confident and better prepared for your first steps toward your return to college.

First, consider what you're hoping to achieve by returning to college. Are you looking to finish that bachelor's degree you started but stopped a while ago, or are you searching for a specialized program to make a career change? Regardless of your situation, keep your goal at the front of your mind and do your research to ensure your academic choices will help you get where you want to go.

Consider Your Limitations

Going back to school as a nontraditional college student, you likely have responsibilities or circumstances that are different from the typical first-year student. Do you need to prioritize programs that offer evening or online classes, childcare options, affordable tuition, or part-time academic plans? Think about your needs and consider any adaptations you can make to ensure this experience will work for you.

Begin Your College Search

After evaluating your priorities and centering your goals, it's time to begin your college search. You can compare colleges using basic criteria such as location, cost, school size, available programs, academic reputation, and any other specifications you have identified as being important to you.

Once you've narrowed down your search to a few different schools, you can spend more time comparing smaller details that can make a big impact on your experience. These factors might include special scholarship options, a strong alumni network or career placement resources, support for adult learners or veterans, and more.

Calculate Costs Accurately

We all know that college can be expensive, but how much will college actually cost by the time you have that diploma in your hand? Review your prospective college's website to learn about tuition and fees while also considering the cost of miscellaneous expenses like textbooks, technology, and childcare.

Will you be leaving a job to dedicate more time to your studies? If so, account for any lost wages or health insurance coverage you might be missing. If you plan to continue working while attending school, does your company offer any tuition assistance? If you're taking out student loans, don't forget to calculate your interest on those loans and make a plan for how and when they will be repaid.

Review Application Criteria

Once you've narrowed down your choice of schools, review the application requirements. Does your college require standardized testing results, or have those testing requirements been waived? The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the number of schools doing away with standardized testing requirements, so you may be able to focus more time and energy on your college application essay and other forms of preparation.

When applying to more than one school, keep track of unique application deadlines, requirements, and future start terms. Some schools may offer rolling admissions and allow students to enroll on several dates throughout the year, while others only accept new learners in the fall.

Also, don't forget to take advantage of your past experience! You likely have some credits to transfer, so request your transcripts from your previous schools. Some colleges may even offer credit for past work experiences, waiving some entry-level course requirements. Be sure to gather documentation on any relevant work that might qualify.

Seek Admissions Support

It's always a great idea to schedule a meeting with an admissions counselor for one-on-one support during the application process. Their job is to help answer any questions and encourage your enrollment — use their knowledge and resources, even if you think you've got it covered.

You might also be able to meet with an academic advisor before you enroll to find out if it's possible to make adjustments to your academic plan, especially if you're interested in studying part time instead of full time. Let them know any accommodations you might need and find out what support the college can provide to help ensure your success.

Apply for Financial Aid

You may need extra financial support to make going back to college a worthwhile investment. Be sure to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, once it opens on October 1 of each year. Completing this application can help you become eligible for state and federal grants, work-study programs, scholarships, and loans.

You should also apply for relevant scholarships offered by your college or local organizations in your community. You can also complete a nationwide scholarship search to take advantage of other opportunities.

Use Your Experience

While it may feel daunting to go back to college after some time away, your experience is also an advantage. Use your skills in networking and navigating complex systems to make college work for you.

Get to know your faculty members, academic advisor, and other campus staff, and make connections with your classmates. These relationships can help maximize your learning, support you through challenges, and help you find employment after graduation.

Don't forget to pace yourself and set realistic expectations throughout this new experience. Work with your family to create a plan for any support you'll need and continue to assess and adapt along the way. Going back to college is a major life change, but with determination and support you can reach your goals and find success.


Use your goals, priorities, and limitations as a guide throughout your college search to help narrow down your options. Utilize the admissions office for support, prepare important documents like transcripts and essays, and remember to apply for financial aid. Keep yourself organized and focused, and now get back to college!

DISCLAIMER: The responses provided as part of the Ask a College Advisor series are for general informational purposes only. Readers should contact a professional academic, career, or financial advisor before making decisions regarding individual situations.

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