Resolving to go back to school? WUSTL dean offers tips for success

So it’s 2008 — the year you decided is the one to start or finish that degree you’ve always intended to earn. But if it’s been awhile since you’ve stepped foot inside a classroom — or at least one that wasn’t your kids’ — here are some suggestions to help you follow through on your New Year’s resolution.

Decide what you’ll give up ahead of time. Classes themselves might last two hours a week, but add to that approximately three hours of homework or study time per class, and going back to school can be a major time commitment.

“Most adults have a pretty full life before they go back to school,” says Robert Wiltenburg, Ph.D., dean of University College, the evening and summer program in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “There’s not a huge hole in their lives waiting to be filled by classes.”

Potential students need to figure out how to make time for classes and homework, which might mean cutting “Law & Order” reruns from their daily routine.

Taking classes with a friend can help adult students stay focused on their schoolwork.
Taking classes with a friend can help adult students stay focused on their schoolwork.

Research your options. Don’t just enroll in the first institution that sends you a brochure; find the program that will best meet your needs and goals.

Admissions officers can put you in contact with current students, who can fill you in on their experiences in the program.

Ask to talk with professors to ensure you know what they will expect from you and what you can expect from the class.

And inquire about teacher evaluations before signing up for classes, says Wiltenburg. They’re not available at every school, but they can be a valuable resource.

Consult an academic adviser. Before enrolling in your school of choice, make an appointment to meet with an adviser to discuss program requirements and to create a course plan that will ensure you can meet those requirements in a timely manner.

“Advisers know the school and programs inside and out,” says Wiltenburg. “They will know paths through programs that would never occur to you.” Keep in touch with the adviser after your first visit; he or she can offer you continued support and advice.

Explore different class formats. Some adult classes are offered in a traditional, lecture-style classroom setting, while others can be taken online at home. Both have benefits and drawbacks: Online courses can be taken at your own pace while wearing pajamas and sitting on your couch; traditional classes frequently offer more personal interactions and attention. Pick the type of class that’s right for both your schedule and learning style.

Investigate your financial aid options. First, visit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) Web site, To receive federal aid, whether by loans or grants, students must fill out the FAFSA form. From there, check out your school’s scholarship resource center or financial aid Web site and visit with a financial aid officer.

Take it one step at a time. Signing up for four classes in your first semester might seem like a good way to jump-start the journey toward a degree, but it’s also an easy way to get overwhelmed — fast.

“Take a course or two at the beginning to gauge your ability to handle the work — both the degree of difficulty and with the inevitable pull of other commitments,” says Wiltenburg.

Convince a friend to become a classmate. Many runners train for marathons with friends because they know they have a better chance at success if someone supports them and keeps them focused on their goal. Along those same lines, having a built-in study buddy will help you stay focused on your schoolwork and your goal of graduation, says Wiltenburg. Even if you don’t start classes with a friend, become pals with someone sitting next to you or join a continuing education group on campus.

Give yourself some intellectual wiggle room. A glass-blowing class might not show up in your health care management degree curriculum, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking.

“Taking a class in a subject you enjoy is a great way to rekindle your love of learning,” says Wiltenburg. “If you give yourself the freedom to explore new interests, you might uncover a passion that you never knew existed.”

Editor’s note: Dean Robert Wiltenburg is available for live or taped broadcast-quality interviews using Washington University’s free VYVX or ISDN lines. Please contact Jessica Daues at (314) 935-5293 for assistance.