As a future online student, you won't have to worry about navigating a large campus or getting used to life away from home. However, this doesn't mean that you can't prepare for your online educational journey. There are certain things you can do to make it more likely that your online college experience goes smoothly and you graduate on time.

According to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), it typically takes four years for students to earn a bachelor's degree, two years for an associate degree, and six to 12 months when it comes to a certificate. By preparing for online college before your start date, you can reduce your risk of prolonging your graduation date, potentially saving money and time as a result.

Choosing a Major

Although it's easier said than done, it's crucial to choose a major before starting an online education program. By selecting the right major for your interests and future career goals, you can plan your time properly and avoid taking courses that aren't necessary for your program.

Here are three tips for choosing a major:

  1. Start by thinking about the subjects you enjoy. If you love math and science, you may want to pursue a STEM major such as engineering or mathematics. On the other hand, if you're passionate about writing, a major in journalism or communications may make more sense for you.
  2. Think about the jobs you may be interested in pursuing after graduation. What kinds of jobs are common in your area? How much do they pay? What industries are seeing a lot of growth in your state? This can help you decide on a major if you aren't feeling inspired by subjects themselves. It can also be a good tiebreaker if you're torn between multiple different subjects.
  3. Consider shadowing and speaking to someone who majored in a discipline you're interested in. The experience may inspire you to pursue that major after all, or it might show you that an alternative option would actually be a better choice. The person you contact may even have some tips on how to succeed in online classes!

Auditing Your Technology Set-Up Before Classes Start

If you're asking yourself, "How do online courses work?" you should know that every online college has their own unique requirements for logging into classes. Many online colleges require students to have one or more of the following:

Find out your school's hardware and software requirements before you make any investments. Once you do so, you'll know what you need in terms of operating systems, internet connection speed, web browsers, memory and storage space. Test your hardware and software to make sure it works properly and can accommodate your online learning needs.

It's also important to figure out where you'll be attending online courses and completing your homework. Do you have a home office where you can hook up a desktop computer? Do you prefer to take online classes on a comfortable chair in your bedroom with a laptop? Or might you need to walk to a nearby cafe or library and log onto their internet instead? Think about what you might need in order to concentrate and be productive before classes start, not afterwards.

Selecting Your First Online Classes

If you're about to take college courses online for the first time, you may be wondering how to pick courses for your first semester when you aren't yet familiar with how online classes work. Fortunately, we have some tips that can help you make good selections for your first semester in distance education.

Speak to an Academic Advisor

Our first tip may also be the most important: as you start your online college career, it's well worth your time to consult an academic advisor.

Think of an academic advisor as a personal education coach who can give you tips for taking online classes. An academic advisor can work with you via phone, email and/or video conferencing to make sure you're enrolling in the right classes for your major, lifestyle and preferences. They can help you learn how to be successful in online classes.

An academic advisor may inform you that you have to take a sequence of courses in a particular order before getting into electives or courses that fulfill your major requirements, and outline what that order might be. Alternately, they may explain that you do not have to follow a particular sequence, and offer suggestions for which courses might be best for you to start out by taking. Every online program is different, so it's important to learn these specifics before registering for your first set of online classes, and an academic advisor can be the perfect source for this information.

Research Your Program and Classes

Another important tip to consider before selecting your first classes is research your curriculum and professors. Find out if you can talk to former or current students about their experiences so that you have an idea of what to expect. You can also read online review sites like to learn more about professors and classes related to your online program. Is the professor strict or easygoing? Is most of the grade determined by lots of small assignments, or a few big assignments? Is there a lot of groupwork in the course, or a lot of essays, or a lot of independent research projects? Details like these can help you better understand how your class and your semester might go.

Balance Your Workload

Consider your workload balance when selecting your first classes. If you're juggling classes with a job and/or childcare responsibilities, refrain from signing up for many difficult classes at one time. Try to find a good balance of hard and easy classes instead, especially for your first semester. The first semester of online college is typically the most difficult, because you're getting in the swing of things and establishing a routine.

Take it slow enough for your first semester that you can get a feel for how online classes operate and how easy or difficult they are for you. If you determine that your classes weren't challenging enough or that you could take on more than you thought you could, you can make changes to your schedule for the following semester instead.

Take a Writing Class

Take a basic, comprehensive writing course your first semester if you can, as it's likely that you'll be communicating through writing rather than speaking throughout your online degree or certificate program. A writing course can give you the chance to develop your writing and research skills and build a great foundation for your entire online college experience, even if your major does not directly involve writing.

Stay Flexible

Once you sign up to take college courses online, it's important to be flexible, as course or major requirements may change at some point. Accept the fact that most courses and majors aren't set in stone. Be prepared to go with the flow and adapt to changes if they do come your way.

What is a Learning Management System?

It can be helpful to become familiar with the learning management system (LMS) at your online college before taking your first classes. Because an LMS is the primary channel by which class materials and assignments are delivered to you, knowing about the LMS can tell you a lot about a class even before it starts. Blackboard, Canvas, and Moodle are three of the most common online learning platforms used to deliver online classes.

While Blackboard focuses on assessment tools for professors, Moodle places a greater emphasis on engagement tools for online students. Moodle is an open-source platform, meaning online schools can modify it to meet their needs. Both Blackboard and Moodle offer a content library, mobile learning, easy testing and synchronous learning.

Canvas has similar features as Blackboard and Moodle, but it creates a more social media-esque feel that some students may appreciate. It was designed to be easy and intuitive for both professors and students. Additionally, Canvas is cloud-based, meaning it automatically updates to the most secure and up-to-date version available.

If you're wondering, "What are online classes like?" find out if your school has an orientation that can give you the chance to learn the ins and outs of its LMS. Tutorials on your college's website, or on the website of the LMS your college uses, can give you a sneak peek into how you'll be accessing materials and turning in assignments. You can also log into your school's LMS after enrolling but before your classes start and play around to familiarize yourself with the features.

Managing Your Time

When it comes to how to be successful in online classes, excellent time management is essential. It is particularly important if you are working or have other responsibilities in addition to your online classes. The amount of time you'll need to dedicate to homework and studying depends on the classes you're taking and their level of difficulty. A good rule of thumb, however, is two hours of homework and study time per one hour of class.

To stay on schedule, create and update a calendar with all of your homework assignments and upcoming tests. Your calendar can be done online or in paper, whichever works best for you. This helps keep assignment due dates and test days fresh in your mind, both so you won't forget them and so you can visually see what you have on your plate for a given week.

If you do happen to fall behind in your online class, contact your professor, explain your situation and find out if you can get an extension. There's no shame in doing this once or twice, especially if your work or family responsibilities are demanding your attention. In the event you find yourself falling behind often, however, it may be time to take fewer classes or to consult your academic advisor, who may be able to share some tips on how to succeed in online classes.

Other Key College Services to Know About

Online colleges are known for granting online students access to a variety of useful resources. For example, you may be able to receive career advising services from your college's career services department. A career advisor can help you with resume writing, interview preparation, salary negotiation and more.

You may also be able to download educational e-books, journals, videos and other content through your college's digital library. If you're looking for a specific kind of resource, find out if you can ask a school librarian for research support via phone, email or online chat as well.

Other Important College Staff to Meet

Don't forget that you're not alone in your journey to take college courses online. In addition to academic advisors, there are many other people at your school who may be able to help you with your degree path.

Online college isn't easy, any more than on-campus college is easy. But there are ways you can make it easier on yourself. If you're looking for more tips for taking online classes, consider checking out our OC Insights section for more articles and advice on how to be successful in online classes of all kinds. Good luck out there, and happy studying!