How to Design Your Online College Plan

Posted on August 03, 2023

Posted on August 03, 2023

Attending college isn’t as simple as filling out an application and taking courses. You have to prepare application materials, take standardized tests, gather recommendation letters, and most importantly, choose your major and career path for the future. 

The earlier you start – and the better organized you are – the better prepared you’ll be to select, apply, and get accepted to the college or university of your choice. Here’s everything you need to know to design your own online college plan. 

Choosing a Major 

If you already know what you want to major in and what career you want to pursue, you’re ahead of the game. But if you don’t, that’s a good place to start. 

Consider your professional goals and interests, as well as the career you want to pursue. For example, if you want to be a lawyer, you can major in just about anything, but majors like criminal justice, political science, or history are recommended. You will also need to go to law school, which means preparing for testing and law school admission midway through your undergraduate experience. 

Conversely, some career paths are more limited in their majors, such as nursing, accounting, engineering, and anthropology. You’ll put yourself in a stronger position after you graduate if you make smart decisions about your major. 

Once you have decided on a major, it’s time to consider your options for higher education institutions. Some majors require a four-year program, but others you may be able to complete at a trade school or a community college with an associate degree. For example, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) can attend trade school instead of getting a bachelor’s degree. 

Research Institutions 

While many institutions offer similar programs, the quality and cost of those programs can vary. Depending on the career path you’ve chosen, you may put yourself in a stronger position for your future career if you attend a school that’s esteemed for that field. 

Some schools are known for having robust science programs, for example, which is important if you’re pursuing STEM fields. If you want to pursue business, colleges and universities with specialty business schools have prestigious undergraduate programs. 

In addition, you have to choose the type of institution that works best for your needs: 

Four-year Public College or University 

All states have public colleges and universities that are funded by the state to help residents attain a quality education – often at a lower cost than a private school. Out-of-state students are permitted, but public schools often cap the number of non-resident learners each year and the tuition costs are higher. 

If your tuition costs are a concern, consider the state and city colleges and universities that you can attend at a lower cost with in-state tuition. 

Four-Year Private College or University 

Private colleges and universities are often more expensive than public schools, but they come with added benefits. Some private schools offer more undergraduate research opportunities, valuable networking and connections, and prestigious professors. 

There is also an array of different types of private schools, including smaller liberal arts schools with niche areas of study or massive research universities. In some cases, the generous donations that fund top private schools can mean more institutional financial aid opportunities. 

Two-Year Community College 

Most community colleges offer certificates and associate degrees that you can earn in a year or two with full-time attendance. These are a great option if you don’t need a bachelor’s or advanced degree for your field or you want to complete some general education courses before transferring to a four-year school. 

If you’re not sure of your major – or even the field you want to enter – a community college can be a good choice to get some credits before making a decision about your major. You also have an opportunity to learn about different subjects and figure out what you want to do. 

Hybrid or Online College or University 

For some students, an online degree offers a lot of advantages. Many online programs are asynchronous, allowing you to complete your coursework on your own time without the constraints of scheduled lectures and exams. This is important for students who need to balance school and work or family responsibilities. 

Online learning may be more cost-effective as well. Some colleges and universities offer lower tuition for online courses, and you won’t have to pay fees for on-campus services like meals or housing. With online programs like Sophia Learning, you can take your general education courses online, at your own pace, and transfer them to a four-year university – either online or on-campus. 

Trade School 

Trade schools, also known as vocational schools, and technical colleges offer trade education if a four-year degree isn’t the right path for you. You can learn a range of marketable trades in just a few weeks or two years, depending on the program. 

Many trades are in high demand, including web development, electrical and plumbing work, mortuary science, nursing, dental hygiene, and radiation therapy. Keep in mind that not all programs are available in an online format, however, especially if they involve a lot of hands-on experiences. 

Special Focus Institutions 

Special focus institutions are specialty schools that offer degree programs in limited academic areas. Usually, these schools are affiliated with larger institutions, such as the Peabody College of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University or the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. 

While many of these schools are focused on master’s or doctoral degrees, they may offer undergraduate degrees in fields like the arts, engineering, or business. Students with a clear major and career path in mind often choose specialty schools. 

Consider Expenses 

Tuition is the biggest college expense you’ll have by far, but other costs can significantly add to your investment in your education. For example, textbooks, supportive educational materials, lab fees, or technology fees can add up. If you want to participate in clubs or extracurricular activities, you may need to pay out of pocket. 

It’s important to research and apply for financial aid like scholarships, federal aid, and private loans. The school you attend makes a big difference in your expenses. As mentioned, public schools are often less expensive than private schools, but they may have fewer options for institutional aid. 

If you have your heart set on a specific four-year college or university, however, you can save by taking your general education courses online with Sophia, then transferring them. These courses are similar to the same courses at your preferred school, so you can pay less for your core courses while still earning a degree that reflects your chosen institution. 

Early College Planning in High School 

Applying to colleges is a lot of work. You have to track dates and deadlines to make sure you don’t miss out on an important aspect of your application, such as your SAT, college application submission, or FAFSA. Make sure to set notifications in a calendar app to stay on top of these dates. 

If you want to set yourself up for success in college, your high school guidance counselor can be a valuable resource. They can help with the deadlines for applications and offer advice on how to improve your applications or prepare for college with college prep or advanced placement (AP) courses and testing for credit. 

College Application Checklist 

Start college planning early with this checklist: 

Ninth Grade 

  • Create a study plan with your required courses. 
  • Research potential career paths. 
  • Make a list of your chosen areas of study. 

Tenth Grade 

  • Take the PSAT, PSAT 10, or PreACT practice tests. 
  • Select some extracurricular activities to bolster your applications. 
  • Attend college fairs and other college-related activities. 

Eleventh Grade 

  • Take the PSAT. 
  • Enroll in AP courses to earn college credits. 
  • Take the SAT/ACT. 
  • Take AP tests. 

Twelfth Grade 

  • Take available AP courses. 
  • Tour college campuses 
  • Take the SAT/ACT, if you haven’t already. 
  • Fill out and submit the FAFSA (opens October 1). 
  • Apply for scholarships throughout the year. 
  • Prepare college application materials, which include:
    • Application form 
    • High school transcript 
    • SAT or ACT scores 
    • Letters of recommendation 
    • Personal statement 
    • Portfolio (if applicable) 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Why Is College Planning Important? 

College requires four or more years of your life to earn a degree, not to mention the thousands of dollars – if not tens of thousands – that you’ll spend on tuition and related expenses. This is a big investment, so it requires thorough planning in advance to make the most of the experience. 

When Should I Start Planning for College? 

You should start planning for college as early as possible. Freshman year (ninth grade) is ideal, but you can begin the planning process at any point in the remaining three years. If you can get a head start with application materials, testing, AP courses, and letters of recommendation, you’ll be in a better position to apply for colleges in your junior or senior year. 

What Should I Consider When Choosing Colleges? 

The college experience is different for everyone. You have different interests, limitations, and goals than another student, so you should consider your major, career path, and ideal schools to weigh your options early on. 

Prepare for Your College Experience 

Planning for college takes a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort to ensure you can create a customized plan that helps you reach your educational and career goals. If you’re interested in getting a head start on college with gen ed courses from Sophia, start a free trial or explore our courses

Category: Student Success

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