With some preparation and a clear sense of what awaits you, returning to school can be one of the most exhilarating adventures of your life. Elinor Lenz and Marjorie Shaevitz, co-authors of "So You Want to
Go Back to School" (McGraw-Hill)
Whether you're seeking a career change, job enhancement, a degree program or classes for the sheer fun of learning, the adventure of going back to school is available these days to almost anyone willing to try it. In the past decade, a growing proliferation of courses has provided something for everyone at Southern California colleges, universities, high schools and business and vocational schools.
However, choosing from this "educational supermarket" requires careful planning, author Elinor Lenz says.
"You should be very practical about returning to school and approach it as you would a business," she advises. "Find out everything you can about it before you design a program to fit your particular needs. Ask yourself: 'Why am I doing this? What do I hope to get out of it? How much time and effort am I willing to put into it?' "
Fun Is Motivation
If it's just for fun, that's fine, Lenz says, adding that fun is as good a motivation as any.
"Perhaps you are a learning-oriented person who wants to keep up with things or a retired professional who is finding that the golden years are beginning to tarnish. There are a great many educational opportunities for people who want to keep mentally active, alert and alive."
On the other hand, the rapidly changing technology and constant competition in today's corporate world account for a large segment of the returning student population, she says, and make retraining for career mobility a compelling option.
Lenz, who has been an educational consultant for UCLA Extension, points out that getting started is the most difficult task in making something happen, especially a complicated endeavor, such as going back to school.
"People become so overwhelmed by the details that they often end up procrastinating, sometimes forever. So you have to begin with a plan of action," she explains, "because that puts you in control of the process."
Once the decision is made to go ahead with your educational plan, you should make sure everything about it works in your favor. Lenz offers the following guidelines to help adult students achieve the optimal conditions necessary for an enjoyable and successful return to school:
--Do a geographical check. Use a map to pinpoint those schools that are within a reasonable driving distance from your home and workplace. Check into the hours you will be driving, and try to avoid high-density traffic. People often get discouraged when they are committed to an overly long drive to and from school. This is particularly relevant to people with family responsibilities.
--Which school? Find out the educational resources available within your geographical parameters. Options might include two-year and four-year colleges and universities; graduate programs; technical, vocational and business schools; night programs at high schools and the shorter, intensified courses of study offered at extension programs and summer sessions. To avoid the frustration of wasted time, energy and money, choose your school carefully. Find out what the admission process is, what qualifying exams (if any) are required and if the school gives credit for life/work experience.
--Course selection. Call up each school that is appropriate to your needs and ask it to mail you a catalogue. Study it for subject matter, hours and costs, and determine which courses will be credited to your transcript. Select the courses that interest you, and be sure ask if you can get a refund, should it become necessary.
--Academic advisers. Before you sign up for your courses, make an appointment with the school's advisory staff to talk about your plans, goals and course of study. If you decide to work toward a degree, determine what the requirements are and the time frame for achieving it. Give priority to courses that give you credit toward your degree. If you are not going for a degree, it is still advisable to get CEUs (continuing education units). The CEU, offered almost everywhere these days, adds value to the time and effort put into any course of study.
--Organizing your time. If you are holding a full-time job, a part-time job, taking care of a family or any combination of the three, a time plan is essential. Figure out the hours you will spend in the classroom and the time you will need to devote to outside study. Certain fields are more time consuming than others. For example, someone going back to teaching will have more outside reading to do than someone taking a computer course in which all the work is done in the classroom. Research your time needs before you begin your program.