Balancing work, school, family, and a social life is a challenge, but for those who can manage to do it all, the rewards are significant. Earning a degree can open doors in the workplace, and staying employed while attending college can minimize student loan debt.
For those working students who truly make the most of the experience, there are psychological benefits as well. Work becomes a break from school, and school becomes a respite from work. Skills learned in the online classroom can be immediately applied in the workplace, and lessons learned in the school of hard knocks can become the subject of academic study. Here are a few tips for striking the right balance and making the most of both work and online classes.
Don’t equate “online” with “easy”.
Expect to be challenged. Online classes are convenient, but most online courses will offer the same degree of academic rigor as a traditional class. Plan to spend at least one hour a day on most days and several hours on some days studying for your classes.
Understand the expectations of your degree program.
Some online courses will allow you to work completely from home, while others will require you to visit a campus to take exams or participate in seminars. If your schedule will not allow you to meet all the requirements of a given program, choose a different one. Decide whether you prefer self-paced courses or classes that set due dates for you. Another factor to consider is the time frame of the classes. Some online programs are highly accelerated, which means that you will have a shorter amount of time to study the same amount of material.
Have all the right technology.
Understand your school’s technology agreement. Be sure that your computer has the appropriate word processing, computational, and media-viewing software needed for your classes. Have a reliable Internet service provider, and come up with a back-up plan in case your computer or your Internet service goes down the night a big paper is due. (Your professors will not usually be understanding of your technological problems).
One way to make sure you can complete your assignments is to make a list of local wireless hotspots, public computer labs, and cyber cafes. You can also ask a friend or neighbor if you could borrow their computer in a pinch.
Cut back on extracurricular activities.
While working and taking online classes, you may need to put other responsibilities or hobbies on hold. For example, you may decide to DVR your favorite TV shows and save them for after graduation, or you may have to cut back on social activities or volunteer commitments. By narrowing your focus, you can finish school on time, which will leave you free to enjoy life as you begin your new career.
Start (and finish) assignments early.
Set yourself up for success by setting your own deadlines at least one day earlier than your professors’ deadlines. That way, if an emergency at work or a last-minute technical problem throws a wrench in your study plans, you can still complete the assignment and earn full credit.
Take advantage of all your school has to offer.
Find out what services your school offers to its students. For example, can you take advantage of free tutoring to help you with papers and test preparation? Does your school offer workshops to help you gain basic academic skills? Because many students fail to make use of these opportunities, you will gain an edge by using all of the services offered.
Set realistic goals.
In a perfect world, everyone could be a 4.0 student, employee of the month, and the perfect spouse and/or parent, too. In the real world, success in one area may mean making sacrifices in another area. Being a working student may mean that once in a while, you turn in a late paper or do a rush job on an assignment. It may mean you don’t get straight A’s in your classes, or even that you have to repeat a class or two, and that’s ok. The important thing is that you finish your classes with a new set of skills and the degree to prove you have them.