How to Be Successful in College: The Online Student Survival Guide

About the Author

Noah McGraw

Noah developed the methodology, layout, and vision of OSR. He has a background in journalism and web editing. He’s probably spent close to a thousand hours poring through the National Center for Education Statistics’ spreadsheets.

No student ever starts college thinking, “Gee, what a great opportunity to fail!” Yet roughly 30 percent of students entering postsecondary degree programs don’t make it past their first year. Of the 70 percent who remain, less than half end up graduating within six years. For the slim few that make it across the final stage, what’s the secret to success?

Consider this your ultimate guide to avoiding the pitfalls that cause online students to fall short of the finish line. Instead, by the end, you’ll have what it takes to energetically sprint through the red marathon tape for a victorious adrenaline rush you will never forget.

Before getting into the solution, it is essential first to understand the challenge.

Why do so many students fail to begin with?

  1. Confusing flexibility with total freedom.
  2. Underestimating the level of effort required and being under prepared.
  3. Not having goals and a plan to achieve them.

Pursuing a degree online can be one of the most liberating and rewarding educational experiences. The first word that comes to mind is FREEDOM. There’s no commuting to campus constantly or worrying about whether the class schedule conflicts with other obligations. You have the flexibility of learning almost anytime, anywhere. While these are great benefits, without the right level of commitment, this level of liberty can turn your graduation dream into a nightmare.

The most significant contributors to failed attempts are an underestimation of the effort required and a lack of preparation. A wise man once said, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.” This is especially true in the virtual schooling world. Online programs require just as much focus and commitment as traditional programs do. With so much flexibility in where, when, and how the work gets done, comes greater responsibility on the student to remain focused and organized enough to deliver without typical structure. The key is to create your own structure. Whether you are a former onsite student trying online classes for the first time, a working professional who’s getting back into the groove of school, or any student at all, this guide will help you build a personal learning structure that can lead you to graduation day and beyond.

[divider style=”color: orange;”]STEPS TO SUCCESS[/divider]

#1 Develop and Confirm Your Mission

Before you develop a success plan, you need to understand exactly what you are trying to accomplish and why. Think about why you want to complete this degree program or class in the first place.

Do you want a better job? To learn new skills?  To set an example for your family or children? To prove the people who doubted you wrong?

Whatever your reason is, take some time to reflect on it and write it down. Not only will this remind you of why you are committing to the journey, but this can serve as a source of motivation whenever things get tough.

Everyone’s mission will be different, but it’s important to have one. According to Forbes, four key questions you can ask yourself when crafting your mission are:

  • What are you going to do?
  • How do you do it?
  • Whom are you doing it for?
  • What value will it bring? What outcome are you hoping for?

Reflecting on these questions can give you a great starting point to understanding your personal mission for your online degree program.

Pro Tip: Write your mission down somewhere that’s easy to view often such as a planner, notebook, etc.


#2 Set Your S.M.A.R.T. Goals

Now that you have a clear understanding of where you are heading and why, it’s time to set a few goals. This is where you should think about what steps you need to take to realize your mission.  This isn’t just stating that your goal is to graduate, or that your goal is to get a job. Take time to outline SMART goals that will help you achieve your mission. SMART goals are Smart, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound. It helps for any student to go through this process, but in an online program, it’s especially valuable in creating your personal structure. Here are some questions that you can ask yourself to get started:

  • What’s your target graduation date?
  • Is there a minimum GPA you’d like to stay above?
  • Are there specific skills or topics you hope to master during the program?
  • What electives are you interested in taking?
  • Do you want to secure an internship or certifications while in school?

These questions can turn into goal statements. For example, “My goal is to graduate in four years and with a minimum 3.0 GPA”. As an online student, there are some unique goals you can set as well. How often do you plan to check your online learning system? How often will you virtually communicate with your professors and counselors? Course-specific goals can also be established to better set yourself up for success. You’ll learn more about this later in the post.

Once you have a mission and goals written down, the next step is to create a plan for achieving them. While goals and the process for obtaining them can vary drastically from student to student, there are common elements to every online degree program success plan centered around people, process and technology.

Pro Tip: Share your goals with your advisor or someone who can help keep you accountable.


#3 Leverage Your Support System

When students need support on a traditional campus, they may head to the student information center or an advisor’s office for help.

Learning online doesn’t mean you have to compromise on the support you get from people. In fact, you should make a deliberate effort to virtually connect with people who can support you, as often as possible. This might include your advisor or counselor, professors, peers, and more. Also, there are tons of online resources and communities that can help provide some guidance as well. At some point in time, you’ll have questions or need help with something. When you do, don’t hesitate to ask.

Pro Tip: Early on, ask your advisors and professors about the best way to get in contact with them if you need support. There are tons of options for virtual students, from text and email to skype and discussion boards.


#4 Master the Online Classroom

You aren’t confined to four walls, and the world is your oyster. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a classroom. Your “classroom” is now wherever your computer takes you. Wherever that may be, here are some basic elements to keep in mind when working in virtual class environments.

Have a reliable computer

Depending on the program and courses, there may be specific system or storage requirements and unique software downloads you’ll need. Before dishing out cash on a new computer or thinking you’ll rely on the local computer in a library or business center, be sure to familiarize yourself with the technical requirements. I’ve taken computer science classes online where I was asked to set up my own lab in line with requirements the school provided.

Embrace technology

Also, get comfortable with the school’s online learning system. Blackboard is probably the most popular option, but there are a few others some schools may be using as well. Through these systems, you can access course content, connect with other students, submit your work, check grades, and more. Make sure you can navigate this, and don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you’re having trouble.

Set goals for how often you plan to use the online learning system for classes. Instructors usually have visibility into how frequently and how long a student is logged in. If you are struggling in a class and the system shows you haven’t accessed your account in four weeks, it may be hard to ask for make-up work or talk your way out of a failing grade. My goal has always been to access the system at least two-three days every week.

Bring the classroom home

The computer is only half of the equation. The space in which you choose to work is also a part of your virtual classroom. Picking a place where you are least likely to be distracted will help you work more efficiently. Distractions don’t just come in the form of children or people. Phones, social media, etc. can also be distracting. To overcome these challenges during my program, I’d go to a local coffee shop or library alone, keep my phone zipped in my bag, and dedicate a set amount of hours to completing my school work. You can attempt to do this at home as well.

Pro Tip: Explore the many hidden features of your school’s online learning system. I once had a professor who talked very slowly. I discovered a feature that allowed me to play the video at 2x the original speed and could still hear him just fine. I was able to cut three-hour course videos in half and save a lot of time. If a class requires you to listen to lecture videos, see if there is a speed play feature, and don’t forget your headphones!


#5 Establish Your Learning Routine

Designating time to complete course work is critical. Unlike a traditional program, you don’t have a set date or time of the week that reminds you to go to class.

It’s easier to procrastinate and put things off until the last minute. One way to avoid this pitfall is to establish your own routine that works for you. Pick your own personal class time when you can go to your learning space and complete your tasks each week.

Pro Tip: Add your personal class time to your calendar and set alerts.


In Conclusion

Pursuing an online degree is an exciting journey filled with tons of opportunities to learn and grow. While flexibility is one of the best perks, common pitfalls like underestimating the effort required, failing to prepare, or not have a plan for success can lead to falling behind in online programs, or worse. To avoid these pitfalls, always refer to the five recommendations of this survival guide: Confirm your mission, set SMART goals, build a strong support system, create your virtual learning environment with the right space and technology, and commit to a learning routine that works for you. Following these steps will significantly increase your chances of success.