Thinking of Going Back to College? Read This (Part 3)

Hear about how to split your time, balance a busy schedule, take care of yourself, study well, be efficient, and take notes to be successful.
Young man reading on a tablet about going back to college

If you're thinking of going back to college, there's a lot to consider. In this third-part blog series, I've interviewed my wife, Cathy, who recently decided to return to school to earn her degree. In our first conversation, we discussed the reasons for returning to college and the application process. Part two focused on financial aid and the experience of attending classes with younger students. In this final part of the conversation, Cathy and I discuss balancing time between work, school, and family life. She also passes on some valuable tips for other students thinking of going back to school.

Jonathan: Okay, so let's start by hearing how you divide up all of your time. How does it get split?

Cathy: Every day involves schoolwork, which is comprised of homework and/or classes. I take four classes per semester, which is a full-time course load. There's a lot of reading that comes with that. Then I work part time from home as an assistant for a small business, and I also have a work-study job that I work two days a week for a few hours. In addition, I have an internship that I work at three days a week. And I take care of our four-year-old son, except when he has preschool three days a week.

Jonathan: I know all of this, but hearing it listed all at once makes me realize how much you have going on. Obviously you have a wonderful and supportive spouse, but this is still a lot to manage. What pieces of advice would you give to someone who has to balance a busy schedule when going to back to college?

Cathy: The first thing I would say is make sure that you carve out time to study and do your homework. If you have kids, make sure that they know that this is something that you have to do, and that it's very important. It's hard to do - you feel guilty taking time for yourself to do work, especially if you have kids. It makes you feel selfish, and that makes it harder to actually get the work done. It's helpful to take away anything on your plate that doesn't help you get your work done or take care of yourself. Strip away duties or chores that you can. Maybe other people can do the food shopping for example.

Jonathan: I think that's an important point that you made about taking care of yourself. Talk about that a bit. If it's difficult to take time for yourself to get your schoolwork done, it must be hard to set aside time to relax.

Cathy: It totally makes you feel guilty to take care of yourself. But the most important thing about college, especially now, is to finish. And to finish, you can't get burned out. To address that, I made sure that each semester I took a class that involved some sort of self-care. For my first semester, it was yoga. We studied the history and religion of yoga, but we also did yoga for half the class. Then it was pottery. This semester it's journaling, and next semester will be chorus.

Jonathan: Ah yes, the pottery.

Cathy: Yes! One word of caution. Art classes are no joke. Pottery was the most demanding class that I took. I spent 20 hours a week working on pottery every week.

Jonathan: I spent a lot of time in that pottery studio with you. I remember.

Cathy: Another thing I did to balance a busy schedule was to take online classes. They were more accommodating in a way, but again, it's one of those things where you think it's going to be easy and it's very intense. My classes were truncated, because it was during the summer, so the workload was more concentrated. And since there are no in-person sessions, I feel that the teachers compensate for that with more reading. Online classes are great. In the long run, they can take up less of your time than on-campus classes and be more convenient - I'm glad I did them. But just be aware, they are also a lot of work.

Jonathan: What tips would you pass on about study habits?

Cathy: There's an author that I really recommend named Cal Newport. He has a helpful blog titled Study Hacks. He talks about things like the most efficient way to study or write a paper or do time management. Using what I've learned from him, I don't cram for tests and I take my time writing papers. I take great notes in class, and I know how to read textbooks and articles efficiently.

When you're going back to college as an adult, you know the value of an education. You know the cost as well. You're paying for it financially but also with the time that you are dedicating that you could be spending elsewhere. You feel that cost, especially if you have a young child. So it's hard for me because I wanted to do ALL the reading, and I wanted to do it completely, but in order to be successful, you just can't do everything. You don't have all that time. So you have to be efficient.

Jonathan: How did you do that?

Cathy: Well for example, when you're in a classroom, and you realize that your teacher tends to cover what you read the past week, you can skim the reading a bit and then pay close attention in the class discussion. Also, in the first class, find out the style of the tests that you'll be taking in that course. The format of the tests will inform the best way to take notes and to study in order to be most successful.

Jonathan: Can you explain that further?

Cathy: Here's an example: If you have a teacher who will be grilling you on dates and whose tests might try to trick you into giving the wrong answer, you'll want to structure your notes in such a way to facilitate memorization. Like flash cards. But if you have a teacher who is more essay-driven and focuses on understanding the concepts, then you should focus on making sure that you understand the material at a high level, and know how the facts you learn relate to one another.

Jonathan: So what's next?

Cathy: I graduate in May.

Jonathan: And then grad school?

Cathy: We'll see!

Jonathan: Well that will be a whole other discussion.