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7 Tips on Choosing The Right Program of Study for You

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So you made the big decision to invest in higher education! But how do you make an informed choice when there are so many programs to choose from? The factors are numerous and nuanced, and sometimes it’s difficult to even figure out the right questions to ask. How do you know what you DON’T know?

I spoke with admissions reps about what they wish more students knew before registering. Here are 7 tips on how to make the decision that’s right for you, including questions that every prospective student should ask their admissions representative about their program of study: 

TIP #1: Speak to someone!

Get on the phone, and have your questions ready (but don’t be afraid to call as often as necessary if questions come up later). Don’t just rely on a college’s website or promotional material. Sometimes parts of a website can be outdated (such as sections that cover how many credits it takes to complete a degree).

Look up that admissions phone number and get on the horn!

TIP #2: Examine Costs & Fees Closely.

Costs aren’t always as transparent as you’d think, and the financial aid situation is sometimes trickier than a yes or no. If a university generally accepts financial aid, they will say so on their website, but they might fail to mention that they don’t accept financial aid for all programs of study. A college might accept federal aid for all Bachelor’s degrees, but not for Certificate programs. In other cases, a program might be brand new and therefore doesn’t yet qualify for financial aid.

Make sure to ask an admissions representative what type of aid or payment options are available. If you need federal financial aid, make sure they accept it for the program you are applying for.

TIP #3: Do your homework.

Yes, there’s homework even before you start school—to make sure the degree you’re seeking matches your career goals. Reps might not know what’s required for different professions in different states so while it’s important to get as much information from them about projected learning outcomes as possible, it’s equally important to do your own research to make sure the program of study you’re looking into will lead to the career you want. For instance, if you want to become a paralegal, does the certificate program you’re looking at qualify you to start working directly after you graduate? Some school websites make general promises (i.e. their paralegal program allows you to join NALA- the National Association of Legal Assistants, or that you can practice in any state), but they haven’t taken into account that different states have different qualification standards (i.e. California requires 24 credits for you to bill as a paralegal, and not all programs are 24-credits long). If you’re applying for law school, make sure the school you’re applying for allows you to practice law in the state you want. A California law school might only be able to guarantee that you can practice in California or Federal law.

Feel free to discuss your career goals, not just the program of study in question, with an admissions rep. They might be able to clarify if that program is right for you.

TIP #4: Read the credit transfer information thoroughly and ask questions.

The more credits you can transfer, the less time and money you will spend on your degree or certificate. Always ask if you can transfer credits to another school too, even if you aren’t planning on continuing your education after this degree (you just never know).

Transferability of credits may also determine what degree you choose. An Associate degree in Marketing and a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration will transfer differently depending on what master’s program you might wish to pursue in the future. If you already have an Associate in Criminal Justice, how many credits you can transfer might determine if you choose to get a Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice or a Bachelor’s in Legal Studies. So, not only is nailing down your optimal program of study important but so is the type of degree you need earn to achieve your career goals and get the most for your investment. 

Once you’ve investigated the nitty-gritty of transfer credits, take some time to ask the big-picture questions: which degree most affordably allows you to achieve your career goals? The degree that allows you the maximum number of transfer credits, however, might not diversity your education the way you’d like. So ask yourself: How do your long-term goals align with this new information?


International students (or students with international degrees) may need to acquire an evaluation from a foreign transcript evaluation entity in order to transfer credits to a United States institution. Be sure to ask the admissions rep what foreign transcript evaluation entities that the school considers reputable – not all foreign transcript evaluation entities are trustworthy. For instance, if you want to go to law school in the Los Angeles area and you have a Bachelor’s degree from Milan, Italy, you must use one of the 11 agencies that are approved by the State Bar of California to evaluate your foreign undergraduate transcript.

Here’s a list of further questions that international students might want to consider asking admissions reps.

TIP #5: Check The School’s Accreditation.

Find out if the school you’re applying to is nationally or regionally accredited by visiting the CHEA website (Council for Higher Education Accreditation) and searching for the school’s name.  You might decide, at some point down the line, to switch schools or to continue your education after completing your degree, and you’ll need to transfer credits. Most schools will only accept transfer credits from an accredited university.

TIP #6: Be Realistic.

Find out how much time, on average, your program of study will require of you, and critically evaluate how many hours you have per week to give to your studies. What kind of time do you have or want to devote? Ask yourself (and your admissions rep) what kind of lifestyle is typically required for the program you’re interested in. Ask yourself: Do I have enough hours to be successful in this field?

Abraham Lincoln University’s Director of Admissions and Marketing, Daniel Jung, encourages prospective students to ask about exam pass rates, like the First Year Bar Exam, and to know what you’re getting into and how much time it typically takes to study for and pass those big exams. “But don’t let the numbers dissuade you,” Mr. Jung says. “If you have the drive and can devote the necessary time for successful study, you’ll be okay. There’s no secret magic sauce.”

TIP #7: If you have a fear of commitment, that’s okay.

Know your school’s refund policy. Enrolling doesn’t mean signing your life away. You’re not necessarily on the hook—depending on the school’s refund policy. If you change your mind within the first week, you might only lose the registration fee. Mark your calendar with specific deadlines to receive full and partial tuition refunds if you decide to withdraw.

You could even decide to try out the first week of a class before you commit, or even the entirety of a class. You might decide that it’s worth risking $500 to sit through a month of classes to find out if a program of study is really suited to you.

I bet you didn’t know it was Carl Sagan who said, “There is no such thing as a dumb question.” Well, he did, the Internet says so, and I stand by it. Don’t be afraid to ask admissions reps any relevant question you can think of. This is your life we’re talking about.

Author: Carmiel Banasky is a writer, teacher, editor, and author of the novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop. carmielbanasky.com

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