Deciding to pursue a higher education can be one of the most important decisions you can make in your life, and now you can join the droves of people who are choosing to do so without ever stepping foot on a college campus. Online schools are a good choice for highly-motivated individuals looking for a program that offers them the flexibility of learning at their own pace, said Anjit Bose, a faculty member at the University of Phoenix. But while learning online can be an added convenience in your life, it’s also important to be aware of the challenges it can bring.
Students need to “understand that they are here to broaden their knowledge base, so short cuts will really not work [and] they should also be prepared to work long hours and put in their best,” Bose said.
Once you have decided that online education is the best choice for you, you must identify the school you want to attend and begin the admissions process. While this may sound daunting, getting into an online college should not be a stressful experience, as long as you are prepared for it.
Know the School
To determine whether an online school is worth your time and money, you should research it and get an idea of the type of education you would receive there. Finding out this type of information before beginning the application process proved to be beneficial for Sarah Hoback, who is now a graduate student at Ashford University. “What I found very helpful about Ashford is that I could view all of this information on their website before speaking to an advisor,” Hoback said. “By the time I spoke with them, I knew the program I wanted, the classes I would be taking, and I had the option of choosing any other courses I wanted to be applied to my program.”
Know the Requirements
Before applying to an online school, you need to determine whether or not you are eligible for admission. Not all that different than admissions requirements at brick-and-mortar schools, to be accepted into an online school, applicants are often required to have earned a high school diploma or GED, be a permanent resident of the United States or have an approved valid visa, and meet an English language requirement.
According to Heather Cavanaugh, a former admissions advisor at American InterContinental University, whether a program was online or on campus did not make a difference in admissions, as the school has the same requirements for all of their students no matter what the delivery platform. “The director of admissions said all the schools were accredited and used the same standards across all the schools, so it includes on-campus and online campuses,” she said.
Other criteria for admission may involve meeting minimum requirements concerning GPA, test scores, work experience, or even age. Many schools have a minimum GPA requirement that applicants must meet to be automatically accepted. According to Liberty University’s website, students need to have at least a 2.0 cumulative combined GPA for all accredited colleges attended or for high school. Those who have a lower GPA can speak with an enrollment specialist to see what can be arranged as other options may be available.
Schools like the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University practice an open enrollment policy, meaning that any applicant who meets minimum requirements is permitted to enroll in undergraduate courses. Even if a school is not very hard to get into, it can still offer an excellent education, according to Joan Casey, a college admissions consultant and president of Educational Advocates. “Selectivity can mean a quality education, but not always, just like an open enrollment or less selective school may offer a very good education,” she explained. “Sometimes, less selective schools have fewer resources which can translate into high costs, less advising or restricted availability of professors. Students need to ask the right questions and carefully evaluate their options.”
Know the Deadlines
Traditional colleges and universities, as well as campus schools with a few online programs, generally have semester-based admissions where you apply to enroll in the fall, spring or summer. In contrast, the majority of online schools have rolling admissions, meaning that you can apply at any time of the year for an upcoming session. While semester-based admissions only allow students to enroll in courses three times a year, rolling admissions makes it possible for students to enroll in courses monthly, or even weekly, because the academic calendar includes more terms and start dates. This policy falls right in line with the flexibility that is so characteristic of online education, as it is convenient for students who wish to begin their program right away, rather than waiting a few months for the next semester to begin.
Hoback said the rolling admissions policy at Ashford University made it easy for her to begin working on a degree almost immediately. “Courses start every Tuesday, so I was scheduled to start my undergrad and graduate programs in time to receive my first book in the mail,” she explained. “I started my undergrad three weeks from the application date and I started my grad program one week after application.”
Students at Kaplan University are on a quarterly system, with quarters representing a 10-week term and beginning each month, said Yolanda Thomas, admission advisor at Kaplan Online Thomas. The Kaplan University Calendar has four tracks, A, B, C, and D, that students are assigned to follow depending on their program and class start date. Tracks do not impact admissions and may differ in regard to term length, breaks, and important dates.
Know an Advisor
Those interested in applying to an online school often have the option to request for an admissions advisor to contact them directly to provide further information about the school and evaluate their eligibility over the phone. After Hoback realized that Ashford University was where she wanted to pursue a degree in organizational management, she visited its website and used the “chat with an advisor” option to communicate with an admissions representative in real-time.
“I was contacted by an enrollment advisor, Heather,” Hoback said. “She was so friendly and cared about my story and my goals. She took me through the whole process and then linked me to the financial aid advisor. I was pretty intimidated by the process at first, but the advisors know exactly what they’re doing so I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I knew what I was doing.”
According to Cavanaugh, during these types of conversations, advisors would ask a prospective student goal-based questions about their life, such as what they want to change about it and what would make it better in the future. “We also talk to them about their current work experience, skills they want to have, and goals they have for the future to get an idea of what field they should go into and what major they should have,” she said. When discussing potential degree programs, you should be cautious as some of these questions can be used as persuasive sales tactics. Rather than taking an admissions advisor’s word for it, you should try to get feedback from teachers in the program, said Rogers-Estable.
“If one can get an honest, anonymous, review of the school’s program from the instructors, they will have something real by which to make a choice,” she said. “It is my experience that teachers and professors in high quality academic institutions will be honest about the program and whether it is the
right place for any given student. Ask them if they would have attended that school. If the answer is no, go somewhere else.”
According to Cavanaugh, advisors would also obtain information about their educational background, including type of education they have completed, whether or not they had attended college in the past, how many credits they may have earned, and if they have already earned an associate degree. After obtaining information concerning a prospective student’s academic interests, desires for the future, and motivation to improve their lives through education, advisors then take steps toward helping them apply, said Cavanaugh.
Know the Application Process
When it comes to applying, the application process may be a little different than that of an on-campus school, but not all that much. Unlike the 460 traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities that require applicants to fill out the Common Application, online schools typically have their own unique application that can be accessed through a website. Rather than mailing in the application, it can be completed and submitted online and additional required forms or documents can be mailed, faxed, scanned, or uploaded.
You may also find yourself applying over the phone after speaking with an admissions advisor to determine whether or not you are eligible to enroll in a program. Michael Wright, who is pursuing a degree in religious studies at Liberty University, said applying over the phone was convenient and recommends that prospective students take advantage of it. “The people there are extremely nice and incredibly helpful and they will get the ball rolling so much faster and smoother than just playing around the website, which I learned the hard way,” he explained.
Know What You Need to Apply
Before you begin filling out the initial application, you should be aware of the information you will need to complete it and the type of documents and forms you will need to submit. This will ensure that the full application packet is received by the deadline and processed as quickly as possible.
While most brick-and-mortar schools practice selective admissions and therefore require extensive information about applicants, online schools usually just need to know basic information about applicants. As an admissions consultant, Casey agreed that traditional admissions criteria are not as relevant to admission at an online school because there are more non-traditional than traditional students in higher education.
When it comes to applying to an online college or university, the following items are typically required:
Completed Application. Prospective students must submit a completed application that provides basic information, including contact information, demographic data, citizenship information, academic history, military experience, employer information, and financial assistance information. Applications are usually available online on the school’s website and may or may not have to be completed in one sitting.
Transcripts. Online schools require applicants to submit transcripts from all previously attended schools in order to verify things like high school education, cumulative GPA, course grades, and previously earned college credit. In order to prevent any fraudulent activity, these official transcripts must be obtained directly from an institution and include the signature of the registrar and seal of the college or university. Given that academic records are confidential, applicants must provide written authorization to have their transcripts released to a third party. Some online schools like Strayer Universitywill ask for authorization to request transcripts on the student’s behalf from college and universities previously attended and bill applicants for the cost of them.Other schools leave it up to applicants to request that transcripts from other colleges and universities are received by them. After submitting an application to Liberty University, students should work on sending in their official transcripts. However, Liberty understands that this might be a time consuming process and will also accept unofficial transcripts while waiting for official ones. Wright said initially Liberty University requested that he send in temporary transcripts to accelerate the enrollment process.
Test Scores. Applicants may be required to submit official test scores, such as the SAT or ACT. Schools that are selective in the admissions process often use test scores to compare applicants, although since many online schools are not selective, it is often not mandatory. Depending on the applicant’s educational history, specific circumstances, or type of program, some online schools may ask to see scores to determine academic ability. At American InterContinental University, applicants must undergo an evaluation unless they qualify for one of 11 exemptions, one of which includes achieving a composite score of 23 on the ACT or a combined verbal and mathematics score of 1070 on the SAT within the past five years.Some online schools may require applicants to complete an assessment to determine program readiness. All students at Kaplan University must take an entrance examination before they can enroll in courses, according to Thomas. This exam assesses logic and reasoning skills, and it helps Kaplan determine which classes would be best for the student, she explained. In addition, international students who are non-native English speakers must meet language requirements before they can study at an English-speaking online school. Typically, this requirement involves achieving a passing score on the TOEFL, or Test of English as a Foreign Language, which assesses your ability to understand the English language and use it in an educational environment.
Interview. The majority of online schools require an interview for admission consideration, but a few do mandate that prospective students meet with an advisor in person or over the telephone. For example, American Intercontinental University applicants must participate in an admissions interview before they can enter a degree program. This is typically done over the telephone and allows advisors to get a better idea of the goals the applicant is trying to achieve.
Additional Documents. Depending on the online school or type of online degree program, applicants may be required to submit additional documents, such as a personal essay, statement of purpose, or letter of recommendation. These types of documents help provide additional information about an applicant, explain special circumstances, verify skills and abilities, and describe educational goals. While this type of additional information is commonly required of those applying to brick-and-mortar schools, online schools may find it unnecessary as they are not as selective in admissions. According to Casey, this does not reflect poorly on the academic quality of the school. “If the school is accredited properly and the student carefully evaluates the offerings, a lack of essays and the like should not matter,” she said. “Essays and recommendations are more frequently used at schools that get more applicants than they can handle as a way to evaluate and select admitted students. They also give a student who might have a rocky academic history or personal challenge the opportunity to explain their unique circumstance.”
Application Fee. Just like any other traditional brick-and-mortar school, many online colleges and universities charge application fees. These fees help cover some of the expenses related to processing the application and are used to ensure that only those students who are truly interested in attending the school apply. Some schools, such as the University of Phoenix may not charge an application fee at all, while other online colleges and universities have fees that typically range from $25 to $100, depending on the school. However, you should speak with an enrollment advisor to see if you can waive these application fees, as some schools will do so if you fit a certain criteria.The following list includes application fees from a few schools that are well-known for their online
- American InterContinental University: $50
- Strayer University: $50
- Ashford University: $55
- Kaplan University: $45
- Liberty University: $50
- University of Phoenix: $0