College Degree: Become a Virtual Student
Becoming a Virtual Student is slightly more complicated than finding a
school and enrolling. It is not a difficult or daunting process, any more
than going for a campus-based degree. It is just that online learning is a
slightly different environment than the campus, and a slightly different
approach is needed.
Success as a Virtual Student depends upon matching the right personality
traits with the right opportunity. Mix in some flexibility, persistence
and a good work ethic, and you have the formula for a great Virtual
We are outlining the process for becoming a Virtual Student, not
necessarily in chronological order. If you are considering an online
degree program, the factors we outline below will be important issues for
Find Out If Your Personality Lends Itself to Distance Learning
Most anyone can be successful as a Virtual Student with hard work,
determination and, of course, the native ability to do the work. The same
is true for campus-based programs.
However, research has shown that certain personality types tend to enjoy
the online environment more. Consequently, they may also be more
successful as Virtual Students.
The main indicator for success in the online environment, other things
being equal, is socialization style. Generally speaking, students who get
their energy from social contact tend to do best in classroom-based
settings. Students who get their energy from internal sources tend to be
well suited for the online environment.
There are other factors, of course. But inevitably, the Virtual Student
will end up spending a significant amount of time working alone or with
online colleagues and will not receive a lot of feedback in person.
This is an important issue. Many students do find the convenience of
online education attractive, but do not succeed as well as they’d hoped
due to a mismatch between their personalities and the online environment.
See our Virtual Student profile for more detail.
Determine Your Needs
Once you determine that your personality and drive indicate success as a
Virtual Student (or once you decide to proceed anyway!), your next step is
to determine your purpose for undertaking online education.
Are you going to enroll in a degree program to benefit your career? Is
your company pressuring you to get a degree so that you are eligible for
promotion or status? Do you want to change careers or add new skills? Are
you ready to earn a degree to fulfill a personal goal, or a promise you
made to yourself before the kids were born?
These are all very common motivations among Virtual Students. If you found
yourself in any of these categories, you will have much in common with
your online colleagues.
Increasingly, it is also common for traditional college-aged students to
consider distance learning for their degrees. So very soon, if you are
older than the traditional 18-24 college age, you will probably also have
much younger company.
That will be a very good thing. Many of our young people are outstanding
students and great people.
Increasingly, as well, the Internet’s worldwide reach is bringing
international students to the online learning environment. This, also, is
a welcome event, as it adds a rich dimension of diversity to interact with
a colleague in another country in the “real time” of the virtual
No matter which group you occupy, spend a little time thinking about your
purpose before you begin your studies. A clear understanding of your
purpose will help sustain you during the inevitable difficult times that
will occur during your degree program.
Determine Your Status
Before you enroll in a program, you have the opportunity to be very
careful to ensure that your path to degree completion is as efficient as
possible. You do this by being aggressive about establishing your starting
Your starting point describes the status you have as an enrolling student.
It is made up of the number of credits you have earned that will transfer,
plus any work or life experience you have that may be awarded credit.
Before you apply for admission to an online college or university, have
each school you have previously attended send you a transcript. This handy
document will give you a reference point from which to negotiate with your
chosen school about transfer hours.
Also, if your school offers credit for work and life experience, check it
out. If your work and life learning are worth college credit, this can be
one of the most efficient ways of making progress toward your degree.
Credit for work and life experience is a very legitimate practice that is
widely offered by good distance learning schools. Most of them will limit
the number of credits you can be awarded to around 25% of the total
Finally, as it relates to transfer credit and work and life experience, be
aware that your previous credit may or may not benefit you in your current
degree program. Your previous credit may be in a completely different
discipline; it may be older than the school’s policies permit; or your
school may simply decide not to transfer your credit, for their own arcane
Find a School
Believe it or not, it is a good idea to get your information together
before looking for a school. With the Internet, it is relatively easy to
find a school.
Just check with any of several directories. Or review our selected online
By the way, we limit our profiles to schools we believe offer programming
Virtual Students will find useful. We are not trying to be a directory. As
mentioned, there are plenty of them on the Web.
Once you identify a school that matches your needs, offers a program you
find interesting, and seems appealing, make an initial contact. You can
usually do this by sending an email or filling out an online form.
Many potential Virtual Students like to make this first contact by
telephone. Although this is fine, it might be best to get used to
communicating by the Internet.
If you are going to be a Virtual Student, the Internet is going to be your
primary mode of study and interaction, so now is a good time to adapt to
that. In addition, you will know something about the school’s overall
operation by judging the quality, completeness and timeliness of their
response to an Internet communication.
This early stage is also a great time to take a demo course. You might as
well know right away whether their delivery method and technology are
appropriate for you.
Gather information and ask questions
Once you have made an initial contact, you can be quite sure that the
distance learning school will contact you. If they do not, then you know
something important about their responsiveness. It is not likely to get
better once you become one of their paying “captive” students.
When they contact you, be ready with every question you can think of. Here
is a list of common questions to get you started:
1.) How long does it take the average student to complete their degree?
2.) How many hours, on average, do students spend on their course work
3.) What is the average age of their students?
4.) What are their transfer policies?
5.) Do they anticipate changes in their technology platform any time soon?
6.) Where do their faculty members come from?
7.) What kind of training do their faculty members receive?
8.) What is the policy for settling a dispute with a faculty member?
9.) What software will one of their students need? (i.e., word processor,
10.) Do they have library resources (online or physical) available?
You will also probably have financial questions, and logistical questions
about when classes start and how the enrollment process works. But that
list will get you a good start.
Apply for Admission
Every online school should have an easily accessible and easily understood
online application for admission. Fill out the application, note any
special requirements (writing samples, letters of recommendation, etc.)
and press “submit.”
Your journey to an online degree has officially begun.
Once the school receives your application, they should let you know about
any additional information or documents you need. These will include
transcripts of your previous work, perhaps your work and life learning
portfolio, and probably various documents related to finance.
It is at this point that you will want to become your own advocate. No one
else will do it for you. Pay close attention to your transfer evaluation,
which is usually handled by the Registrar’s office. Be aware of the number
of credits that will transfer, and how they are applied to your degree
In an astonishing number of cases, schools will simply refuse to accept
transfer credits, for no reason except an amorphous “policy.” If you find
yourself in that case, or if your credits are accepted as “electives” but
not applied to reducing the course load required to complete your degree,
Ask to speak to the Registrar, and if that doesn’t help, contact an
Admissions representative. You see, the Admissions rep has a vested
interest in your enrollment in the school, possibly even a financial
interest. The Registrar may or may not care.
Once you are satisfied with your transfer credits—if any—and you
understand the enrollment process, get ready to enroll. And get ready for
a great ride.
Restructure Your Life Regarding Time, Energy, Money, and Family
Once you become a Virtual Student, your degree program will become a very
important part of your life. It will sometimes seem to consume your time,
your energy, and a lot of your money.
Some Virtual Students, and some on-campus students, too, find that their
studies disrupt their family situations. With a supportive family, you can
minimize the disruption by planning ahead, realizing that your degree
program will draw away from the time and energy you have for the family,
and asking for their patience and support.
Register for Your First Course
Many Virtual Students find the registration process somewhat daunting the
first time they do it. Feel free to ask for assistance. As we have said
about other issues, if the school is not able or willing to help you
through the process the first time, take it as an indicator of the way
they think about you as a student.
As a practical matter, every school worth its diploma stamp will help you
register for a course. If you are using an online registration facility,
it will probably have a great set of instructions or “help” files
available. Use them and realize, with most things in online education, the
process is easy, the second time you do it.
Take Your First Course
Many Virtual Students also feel like they are “fish out of water” as they
work through their first course. This is normal. You are getting used to
an entirely new way of delivering information, and a whole new way of
performing the tasks necessary to be successful in a college course.
Take your time. Feel free to ask the instructor, or tech support, or one
of your classmates for help. Many schools and many instructors prefer that
you use the virtual classroom facilities to communicate.
However, no one should fault you if you send a discrete email to the
instructor, letting them know that this is your first course with the
school, and asking for their indulgence as you feel your way along. Most
of the time, this is a great strategy, and we recommend it for the first
As you work on your first course, there are several key elements for you
to pay special attention to. Note and refer frequently to the course
calendar or schedule; look around for any special instructor announcements
in the virtual classroom; and plan ahead for the inevitable “crunch time”
that seems to come at the end of every course.
With a little preparation and planning, you will weather your first course
as a Virtual Student just fine. Then, you will officially be a veteran.
More important, you will be ready to repeat the process until you have
completed your degree.
Monitor Your Progress
Your school should provide some kind of document, online, hard copy or
both, that acts as a degree completion plan. It should give you a clear
road map to degree completion, and should let you “check off” the
mileposts as you go.
Do keep close track of your progress, as this exercise accomplishes two
important things. It helps you stay on track, acting as a basis for
communication with officials from your school.
And it helps you stay encouraged. Every course completed is a “check” on
your list. Every course completed is one step closer to your objective.
Finish Your Degree
Finally, and obviously, the reason you’re doing all this is to earn a
degree. When you get it finished, you will experience an awesome feeling
And you will deserve that feeling, for you will have worked hard,
contributed much, and persevered. That is the mark of a great
accomplishment. And the mark of a Virtual Student.
Good luck with your degree studies.