What and How I Learned as I Finished My Bachelor’s Degree at Thirty-Five

After living the college dropout dream for twelve-plus years, I came to a point where I was ready to go back to school to handle my unfinished business. I became an undergraduate student once again. Fourteen months and seventy-five credits later, I had a bachelors of business management.

Seventy-five credits in fourteen months may sound like a lot (and truth be told, all but the last six of those credits were completed in the first ten months) and if you had told me those numbers prior to when I began my studies, I would have thought that 1) I couldn’t handle that workload and 2) the system wouldn’t support it. But here I am on the other side having learned that I was wrong on both accounts.

I learned a good deal in my classes, but I also learned a good deal from the experience. I learned more this time around as a thirty-something than I did during my first foray into college as a teen. What follows are various takeaways and lessons learned from my experience as a full-time student. I believe that most of these points can apply to students (and prospective students) of all ages and I hope that they provide some help to many.

I was a community project. My transcript shows the credits I earned while at school. But what the transcript doesn’t show are all the people who deserve credit for helping me through. I was a regular in many professors’ and staff members’ offices and received help with everything from class-scheduling to career questions. Additionally, there were a number of professionals in my area who, having not previously met me, were nevertheless willing to give me some of their time to answer my career-related questions. My successes are in many ways the successes of others who have invested in and helped me along the way. I want to be like those people when I grow up.

Motivated. I’m a married man with three kids. I needed to hit the ground running after finishing school and I needed to finish school as soon as possible. Every day that I was a full-time student was a day that I was spending money instead of making money. I needed a degree, a “don’t-put-my-resume-at-the-bottom-of-the-pile” GPA, and to minimize the downtime between full-time student and full-time employee status. While academic success is often associated with intellect, I don’t believe that I’m especially smart. However, due to both external and internal factors, I was unusually motivated. And that, I do believe, covered a multitude of weaknesses.

Choosing a school and major. An education is an investment of time and money. If you’re investing a few years of your life, a lot of your money and lenders’ money, it is worthwhile to get an idea of your prospective return on investment. Not all benefits can be quantified in dollars and cents but there are still questions that need to be asked. What job opportunities will my degree qualify me for? Does my degree get me where I want to go or does it get me toward the master’s degree that will get me where I want to go? If I’ve settled on my major, what’s the value added by one particular school compared to another?

Best advice that I received.

A professor at a school I was considering asked me where I wanted to live after finishing my degree. When I answered with a location about four hundred miles from his institution, he said, “Go to school now where you want to live later.” Unless you’re tied to a specific school’s program or you’re attending a top-tier school that looks awesome to everyone everywhere, go now were you want to be later. Your school’s pipelines, your professor’s connections, your internships, your networking—they’ll all be connected to where you want to be after school.

Benefits of being an older student. If you’re an older student, maybe this will be encouraging. If you’re a younger student, maybe this will encourage you to be strategic about who you do group work with.

  • You (hopefully) know how to work. This is so important (maybe especially so if school is primarily functioning as a signaling mechanism for you). School is work. If you’ve already learned how to identify goals, make a plan, and manage your time, then you have what you need to handle academic work.
  • You (hopefully) have learned how to learn. I previously had the benefit of taking some 500 and 600-level courses at a theological seminary as part of a certificate program. Those courses kicked my academic rear end and sharpened me. Going from having to read a thousand pages for a class to undergraduate courses had its advantages. But more commonly, all jobs require some form of initial and on-going learning. If you’ve worked, you’ve had to learn.
  • You know why (most) of this stuff matters. There’s a perspective that comes only from work experience. That perspective provides a lens through which to view coursework and also enables the student to more aptly process what is taught and connect it to real situations.
  • You can add a unique perspective to classroom discussions and can offer a lot to teamwork situations.
  • Non-academic benefit: you are more likely to catch some of your professors’ cultural references that pre-date other students.

Internships. I enjoyed two internships during my fourteen months as a full-time student. Conventional wisdom says that internships are a good thing and I fully agree. Regarding securing an internship: don’t underestimate how important your GPA and writing ability are. Both come through loud and clear on your resume and cover letter (and any email correspondence you have in pursuit of an internship). Resolve to be aggressive in pursuing internships. You’ve got to go down a number of dead-end roads until you find a road that goes somewhere.

Graduating early. You probably can. You probably have good reason to try to. And it’s probably not as hard as you think it is. In addition to not leaving any class-taking capacity unused each semester, consider the following…

  • Summer classes. Let’s say you take two summer classes every year between your freshman and senior years. That’s six classes — basically, a semester. That means that you could be graduating at Christmas time and be making a full-time salary in January when other seniors are going back to school and taking on more loans to pay room and board.
  • CLEP tests. The arguments against these (namely, that you will shortcut some of your education and miss out on the benefits of the classroom) are not without merit. However, think in terms of semesters. If some CLEP tests and summer courses can save you a semester or maybe even two, might it be worth it to investigate? Don’t CLEP just to CLEP. But if you can move your graduation date forward or just ease the burden on a particularly demanding upcoming semester, then CLEP tests are a great option. After testing the water with two, I ended up CLEPing a total of five courses and it proved to be a game-changer for me. I spent around $150 per test. The $150 paid for the test itself and the “study guide” that the College Board makes available (if five classes is a full semester, then five CLEP tests take care of a full semester for as little as $750 — this is not insignificant). I fully recommend buying the College Board study guide because of the practice test it has. For me, the practice test was the single most important thing to get. The rest of the “guide” has test-taking tips, rather than actual study material. For study material, I used Khan Academy, Marginal Revolution University, college courses available on iTunesU (I used my 97-mile roundtrip commute to listen to lectures on double speed), and other MOOCs. There’s so much material out there. It’s wonderful.
  • University of Phoenix. Because of schedule conflicts, I was having trouble fitting a particular class into the puzzle that was my spring semester schedule. It eventually became clear that the best way to get this class taken care of would be to take the class through another institution. After examining a number of options, I found that the most convenient (by far) and most cost-effective option was UoP. I was grateful to have the option and surprised by how thorough the class was.

Here’s the thing: no one’s going to chart your course for you. But if you ask, if you look, if you poke around, if you investigate, then you will likely find more options than you anticipated. If you want to finish early, you may need to string different efforts together. Get creative.

Time management: transitions can be killer. I tried to ruthlessly minimize the number of mental shifts and amount of make-ready time for my course work. I had to do this because I was prone to mental fatigue. A lot of people are playing with more cards than I have so I had to be strategic about how, when, and in what order to play my limited cards. It didn’t always work and there was still a decent amount of inefficiency. But I did what I could.

Let me offer a few examples and scenarios.

  • First, if an assignment can be completed in one sitting, do everything you can to not let that break into two sittings. The lost “make-ready” time adds up. How long is it from the moment you say, “It’s time to do the assignment” to the moment you are actually producing? Consider everything. Sitting down. Getting your laptop and books out. Finding the page. Opening a file. Putting headphones on. Rearranging your seat. That’s time. And you don’t want to have to do that dance twice. Also, consider when you hit your peak during a one-hour assignment. How long does it take you to really get in gear? Is it at Minute 6? Minute 15? Minute 25? My guess is that it’s somewhere on the back end. If you break one-hour into two half-hour blocks, you may be missing out on your best. Think of it like not allowing yourself to get to the R.E.M. sleep equivalent of your work cycle.
  • Second, batch similar types of work together. The nature of some of my classes was varied and required different modes of thinking. For example, it was easy for me to do my Business Finance homework right before doing my Managerial Accounting homework because the courses were heavily related. But shifting from Business and Management Policy to Managerial Accounting was not as easy of a transition. Different blocks of time for different types of work.
  • Third, batch one class together. If the syllabus is straight-forward and the course content is conducive to it then why not do two, three, four, or even more assignments for the same class at once? It’s a bigger time commitment, but there’s something beneficial about gaining momentum on a particular subject. For me, I had a Quickbooks class that was brutal for me over the first few weeks. I lost time to just getting out my Windows laptop (a scrambled secondhand purchase I made solely to accommodate the Windows-only version of Quickbooks that came with my textbook) and trying to remember how to open the files. I knew this class would take up much more time spread out over multiple months than it would if it were condensed. So I condensed it. I finished it in about six weeks. There were many early mornings at the dining room table with a blanket over me because the house heat was still kicking on. But the quality of my work improved and I was actually retaining more of what I was learning because I wasn’t forgetting things between the weeks. Taking that approach with that class was one of the best moves I made as a student. For the record, I would’ve preferred to take many of my classes as one, two, or three-week intensives rather than semester-long courses.
  • Fourth, context matters or location, location, location. The degree of detailed thought that I passively put into assessing work locations will likely seem odd to the vast majority of readers. But this was reality and it mattered to me. These are the places that I did most of my undergraduate work: home (dining room table, living room chair), Dunkin Donuts (one in my town and one near school), the public library (one in my town and one in another town), Tim Horton’s, Panera Bread, school (cafe area, library, and study rooms), a Starbucks in a Target store (but not the normal Starbucks in my town — I don’t like the layout), and a friend’s house near campus (I had a key and would sometimes go there between classes or at lunch to eat, work, and/or nap). I’m hyper-aware of how each setting impacts my work. Different places worked for different types of work at different times of the day. I’ve had enough experience with this to know that I am not above being impacted by my surroundings. Part of managing myself and making the most of my school opportunities required setting myself up to succeed and that often meant paying for rented “desk space” in the form of purchasing coffee.

Professors. Two notes on professors:

  • I’d suggest viewing your professors as your employers. Even though your tuition is paying their salaries, you are working for them in class. The syllabus is your job description and list of deliverables. Work as though they are paying customers who are dependent on your work product.
  • Don’t like a professor? Good! You’ll have bosses in the future that you don’t like and you’ll have to learn to deal with it. Working with a professor that you don’t care for is some of the most relevant, practical, and applicable experience you’ll get in college.

My workload. You may be wondering what it looked like. It’s not as complicated as it may sound. This is what it looked like for me. (Note: all classes were three-credit courses).

  • Summer (July-August): three classes, one internship (20 hours/week), two CLEP tests.
  • Fall: six classes, two CLEP tests.
  • Winter: one class, one CLEP test.
  • Spring: six classes, one internship (10 hours/week).
  • Summer (May-Aug): two classes (one at a time).

Takeaway #1: every credit adds up. Think of it like a football team moving the ball forward. Getting an extra yard here or there might not seem like much, but if you consistently get one or two extra yards here and there, they eventually start adding up in noticeable ways.

Takeaway #2: completing a number of classes quickly doesn’t make you awesome, but it does make you tired.

Now, two age-specific notes:

  • Older students: if you are like me, sitting in undergraduate classes can be a simultaneously humiliating and pride-inducing experience. At times, I felt like an elementary student who had failed second grade and been held back. I mean, people don’t exactly look at a 33-year-old who is taking undergraduate classes full-time and think, “Something must’ve gone really right in his life…” But on the other hand, there was often a strong temptation for me to assume that I already knew enough about a certain subject and therefore didn’t need to learn anything else from the class I was taking. I had to actively swallow my pride on the first problem and actively squash it on the second one. I should be grateful for the opportunity to learn and should recognize that I still have much to learn.
  • Younger students: every day is a job interview. If I was in a position to hire a recent college grad that was also one of my classmates, let me tell you what I can’t help but pay attention to: 1) It’s hard not to assume that how you approach your school work is likely an indicator of how you will approach your future work. If you seem inconvenienced by school, put off by being asked to do work, and are given to complaining…well, you see where this is going. I don’t care if someone has the highest GPA or not. But I do care about whether or not they seem to care. 2) Would I want to see this person every day? That matters. I’m not talking about who is fun or funny or cool. I’m talking about deciding who I’d want to see day-in and day-out, who I’d want sitting in my team meetings, and who I’d want interacting with my customers.

So, there you go. Some reflections on going back to school from someone who graduated from high school at the very end of the previous millennium — you know, back when Pokémon was a cultural phenomenon, Justin Timberlake was making music, and new Star Wars films were hitting the big screen.