How to get into college. For adults. A few more important rules (part 5)

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Continuing today, the site is featuring a long form discussion of how to get into college and earn a bachelors degree specifically tailored to adults who are facing the same challenges as everyone else in today's economy. Enjoy!

Rule # 4 Time Management

Your time is the most valuable commodity. If you have the option to choose between 4 classes that add up to meet your requirements, and 2 classes that are more than likely a little harder to complete that fill in the check boxes, take the 2 classes. You have already decided that you are in it for the long haul, and there are countless resources for you to take advantage of to help you pass any class. That is less of rule for getting into college, and more of a special rule that encases everything: ask for help. You are not in high school anymore, go to tutoring sessions, do your homework and then haunt your professors with questions like, “Is this what you are looking for, am I doing this right?” Maybe your spouse is a master of editing papers, or your kid is taking the same math class as you are, work on your homework together and if the kid thinks they know more, they really might. I recommend bribery, chocolate suffices in most cases. But to get back to Rule #4, your time is everything, how much you are spending is nothing compared to how much time some of these classes are going to take. When given the option between an on campus traditional lecture style class, and an online version that is effectively self taught, 9 times out of 10, take the version that you can finish up after the kids go to bed, or when you get home from work, or right when you get up in the morning before anyone else is awake. You might want to consider taking the class that meets on campus that are a little more technical, like your math, and most science classes. But as a rule of thumb, take the online version. The classes are still quite hard, but usually finding the time to go to the lecture is even harder.

Here is another thing to point out, at the beginning of this article I noted that back in high school I could slap together a project at the last second, or cram the night before for an exam and pass just fine. Well guess what, that skill is very important at the college level. Professors enjoy handing out assignments equivalent to semester long projects at high school, that are assigned and expected to be turned in by the next week. You are still expected to put in the same amount of energy as teachers expected of you back in high school, but now, if every “t” is not crossed, and you have missed dotting just a couple of “i's” your grade is punished as if you didn't even turn in the assignment. Here's a rule of thumb, Professors grade arbitrarily because they can. That's it, no other reason than that. You will eventually hear the word “tenure” and will soon discover that it means far less than what it was intended to mean back when it was first implemented centuries ago, and mean more about being able to skip actually teaching you anything useful and then maliciously hammering you on assignments and examinations all while collecting ridiculous sums of money for almost no work.

Another important idea you will learn about college is this: college is all self taught. If you have a hard time with personal discipline, or you think you are unable to ask for help, you might want to reconsider going to college and maybe go back to hanging drywall, or driving a truck again because the school hires those professors because they can give a good interview, or they can do research for the school. The professors are not there for you, they would not even blink an eye if you told them off in some paper, they would simply fail you, turn you into the dean of students, and then go on to the next paper. Those people think you are nothing, and they are right in some respects. Back in high school, we were all coddled and lovingly moved along in order to get us to graduate and enter the work force. Professors are hired to fill a position, and you are paying them for their knowledge. They have no desire to give it away and when forced, only begrudgingly read directly from the $200 book they forced you to buy, and assign random numbers from the same book while forcing their teacher's assistants to grade those assignments.

The cold hard reality is, college is exactly like real life. But the advantage we have, is that we've been grabbing life by the throat for years now and forcing it to give up what is ours. So just take it all in stride, just like we have all been doing for years.

Rule #5 Path of Least Resistance

This leads us into Rule #5, which is a combination of rules 3 and 4: take the easiest path to your degree as possible. This requires a rather large amount of research on your part, but here's the trick: universities accept up to a certain number of classes from a community college on a one to one basis. Each of the schools generally publish these equivalent transfers, but rarely publicize them. What this means is that you can take many of the prerequisite classes at a community college at sometimes a quarter of the price, directly into the university of your choice. To clarify that one to one basis comment, while a community college may award 4 credit hours for a certain class, and in turn provides enough credit hours to check off that particular requirement, the university you are going into may only view that class as 3 credits, and since the, we'll say humanities requirement expects 8 credits you find yourself having to take yet another nothing class to make the university happy. Why these transfer credits are a good thing: price at a community college is a huge advantage, but usually the classes taught there are graded much easier than at a university. I will use mathematics courses as the reason why this matters. At a university, they have a mathematics department that is teaching math majors, how to be math majors, while professors at a community college are teaching the class to people that want to learn how to do mathematics in order to move onto another class. This applies to most other classes as well, but since I personally am dealing with this I'm able to give a first hand account. In universities, the department is expecting that you are intending to do math, and math only. Usually learning mathematical theorems that are good only for math majors. They are lovely in theory, but really don't mean anything to someone that only needs to learn concepts of how to solve practical problems in the field they are entering. So, taking prerequisites at a community college in order to take the classes from your major is a really good idea. Here is an anecdote from my personal educational path.

I knew basically no math when I started college, so I had to start at the very beginning. Progressing from Algebra, into Trigonometry, then Statistics, and then into the Calculus cycle was incredibly hard, but by doing my homework, and just plugging through I ended up learning the subjects and passing. I was no master of theoretical problems in mathematics, but I understood the ideas and I was able to equate those ideas into practical use. I made a mistake though, instead of staying at the community college to finish my mathematics cycle, I thought that I knew how to learn math in the same way that everyone expected. I transferred to the university that I intended to get my bachelors from and enrolled in one of their classes. What ended up happening was instead of the professor wanting to help you with understanding a concept, they wrote down mathematical proofs and expected that they meant the same thing to someone that “only” understood the practical concepts of calculus. The professor expected that everyone in the class was a master of mathematics up until that point and taught and tested accordingly. I'm not saying that I was slacking off in my community college classes, but there is a distinct difference between knowing how to set up a physics or engineering problem and innately knowing the finest details of mathematical principle that simply only matter to math majors who intend to write math proofs just for the sake of writing proofs. If that's what you're into, great, have fun, but I'm working under the impression that most adults are trying to get into a field that needs just the essential knowledge of mathematics. The warning from this anecdote is that once you take a class at the university, you can only retake that class from the university. Remember that universities are for profit companies. Long story short, I failed that first attempt quite miserably and when I figured I would just go back to community college to pass the class, I was informed of this policy and was stuck seriously worrying about the future of my degree.

The point of all of this follows, discover and write your own path and follow it religiously. None of us have the time to throw in the effort that some of these classes expect, and if the requirement can be met by transferring in a class from a community college, do that. You are still getting the same education.

I feel as though I need to bring this point up again, when you are putting together the path to your degree, include both community college credits along with university credits. The university has the final say in terms of what classes you need, but combined with being able to transfer in credits and being able to decide between several options makes your path a lot smoother than what you might expect. So, after finding the degree you need to get into the job that you want to do, then finding the school that offers that degree, get the course requirements for that degree and compare that to what a community college offers. Most of the time there is already an agreement between your local community college and the university you are hoping to get into, so again, find what the university wants, see if the community college has it, see if they transfer completely and then if it's available, find the online version.

Another clarification is in order here, earlier I referred to the “blow off” classes as being an excellent way to pad your grade. This is true, but another catch is that just because you got yourself top marks at the community college, that grade only goes so far as to get you into the university. Something to think about is what classes can you successfully pull off at the university, and which ones you only need the passed status.

As a suggestion, take all of your math classes at a community college. Take your English 101, and 102 (as a side note, those numbers are arbitrary, a my wife's old college they were WRT111, and COMP112 or something like that, essentially what I'm referring to here is the basic college writing classes), those are your introductory classes for how to write at a college level, at community college. Take your science classes there too. Generally you run into a similar situation that you would run into with your mathematics courses with taking the core science classes at a university. Take a couple classes related to your field at a community college if they are available. That is another point that I discovered the hard way. When I entered college I was fully intent on becoming a computer programmer, so I signed up for computer programming classes at the community college. The classes themselves were great, I learned a lot about method, and theory. What I discovered was that as much as I enjoyed programming, I wanted to do more than sit at a computer screen all day. So as a benefit to taking a class that I wanted to take at a quarter of the cost, I refined my idea of what I enjoyed doing, my “what I want to be when I grow up.”

Rule #6 Methods For Enrolling

The university I decided on going to accepts up to 64 credits transferred in, while the university in turn expects that you take a minimum of 64 credits there in order to be allowed to graduate with a bachelors. The university also has a requirement for being accepted of a minimum 3.2 GPA with the list of extra-curricular activities that were alluded to at the beginning.

But the other way to get in to university, the one that is pertinent to most adults is through the back door, in a manner of speaking. It's not exactly the back door, but just another way onto the path of getting a degree. I'm sure you've noticed that I've said community college about a dozen times already, but that's the key to getting into college for those of us that decided to walk a different path in life. Enroll in your local community college. You are more than likely already paying taxes to the place through your local taxes, so why not take advantage. The college accepts basically anyone with a pulse, which is by no means a comment on the quality of the education they offer. With their effective open door policy, you are now given the opportunity to prove yourself in a way that universities understand.

Most, if not all universities will accept your admissions application if you complete 24 credit hours with a GPA of at least 2.5. This represents 2 semesters of work at 12 credit hours per semester. The break down of these numbers usually works out to 3 classes worth 4 credits each. Just as a quick note if you were never sure what a credit hour was. A credit hour is a college's way of weighing classes against each other. Essentially, comparing a Calculus class to an Underwater Basket Weaving class would be ridiculous in terms of difficulty and relevance. So the common metric is to assign a number in terms of how much the classes are worth educationally, such as the math class being 5 credit hours, and the other class being assigned 3 credit hours.

Sometimes at community college, what is a 4 credit class at university is awarded 3 credits for the same class. This can be a problem when it comes to trying to earn 8 total credits to fulfill a specific list of items, for example the humanities expectations. But also can work to your advantage in the case of your English 101, and 102 classes as discussed earlier. Those two classes are fairly universal in terms of what all colleges require, and if the requirement is met through the community college for numerically fewer credits, generally the university accepts them one to one. You may end up having to make up the raw number of credits through taking another class, but by the time you have to worry about that you have already found a veritable mountain of other classes that you need for your degree.

Some people argue that you should do everything necessary to get the Associates degree offered from the community college before going off to your university. I, and many others, disagree and argue that you should do the bare minimum it takes to get into the university, and then if there are classes that are notoriously impossible at that university, take them at the community college. I have mentioned this several times already, but it needs to be brought into focus. Getting your associates is wonderful and should never be knocked for being sub-par, but right now your goal is getting your Bachelors degree from the university of your choosing. An Associates degree takes time, and generally requires classes that do not transfer, or replace a required class at the university. You are generally allowed to transfer in up to 64 of the 128 credits required, which are always far less expensive than tuition at the university, but what happens is that you are following the path of the community college and not what your bachelors requires. This goes right along with Rule #2 in that the community college wants to make money off of you, and because your time is very limited, taking the time to graduate with your 2 year Associates usually takes away from the time you want to put towards your main degree.

Look into whether or not the university that is offering your degree allows dual enrollment. What this means is, as soon as you can, get into the university of your choosing and then see if while taking specific classes relevant to your degree, you can continue taking prerequisite classes at the community college. You do this because some classes that are on your path towards your degree are designed to be taken as a freshman with almost no prerequisite classes. I can assure you, getting burned out by only taking useless classes as well as prerequisite math and science classes is a very real possibility. When you take those prerequisite classes along with those that are in your ultimate program, you remind yourself why you are suffering through those tedious hours. Here's a hint that nobody will admit to: most math and science classes, while amazingly useful and fun to use specific parts of later on, are pointless and require more thought and time than any class related to your degree. Yes, the classes you have to take directly training you for your degree are incredibly difficult, but as a rule of thumb and as I mentioned above, the prerequisite math and science classes will make you want to quit school and get your old job back. That is how extraordinarily difficult they are. So again, mix things up while on your path, just to keep you wanting to stay in school and generally keeping you sane.