Finding a school that offers a program you’re interested in and one that will work around your family and work obligations is one thing, but then you’ve got to get in. Depending on the type of institution you’re eyeing, getting in may be challenging or simple. A school that has an open enrollment policy will accept you as long as you can prove you finished high school (or passed an equivalency exam). A selective institution may require a whole lot more.


Find your academic fit.

Just because you have found a couple of interesting schools doesn’t mean that you have found the right school. Consider your past academic history, your job history, and the school’s academic reputation to determine if the school is the right fit for you. Ask questions:

  • How selective is the school? If a school is highly selective and admits only 6% of applicants, you may want to consider applying to more than one school since the odds aren’t in your favor. Consider applying to a safety school (one where you’re practically guaranteed admission based on scores and your GPA, or a school with open enrollment), a match school (one where you’re on par with the average student), and a reach school (a competitive school where you still have a chance of getting in).
  • Do I need to take standardized tests to be considered for admission? Taking (or retaking) the SAT or ACT may help make you more of a competitive applicant, even if it’s not required by your school. Not all schools require test scores, though, so you don’t have to sit for the test if you don’t want to or can’t find the time.
  • What is the school’s academic reputation and will it affect my future job prospects positively or negatively after graduation? If the school’s reputation isn’t going to help you, it’s best to cross it off your list and move on. Be sure that you also check a school’s accreditation status. Without accreditation, your credential won’t mean anything to future employers or schools. Understand, too, that nonprofit and for-profit schools are received very differently by potential employers and the general public. Learn the differences before you commit.
  • Does the school have current adult students or transfer students? While this isn’t a foolproof method of determining your academic fit, a school that adult and transfer students attend is already one that is more open to nontraditional students than one that only accepts students fresh from high school. A campus visit may be a good way to find out what types of students you’ll see on campus, or you could call the admissions office.
  • Is your prospective institution well known for the program in which you want to enroll? If your school is best known for its cooking program, but you’re more interested in engineering, take a second look at the program before applying. You want to attend a school with a strong program in your field.

Understand application requirements.

Depending on the colleges you’re considering, application requirements may be different. What is required by a community college may be different than what is required by a research institution that grants bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees. At Pennsylvania State University, adult applicants with more than 18 college credits do not need to submit their high school or equivalency test transcripts, though those without fewer than 18 credits do. Northern Virginia Community College has an open enrollment policy, meaning that anyone who has completed high school or an equivalency exam is guaranteed admission. While students do need to complete an application, they are not required to submit transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, essay responses, or a résumé.

Check with each school to determine what materials you will need to apply. Ask about testing requirements. Some schools may ask that you submit SAT or ACT scores regardless of how long you’ve been out of school; the same goes for transcripts. You may have to write an essay or respond to short answer questions. Recommendations may be allowed to come from employers instead of previous teachers. Contact your school’s admissions officer and then read about the college application for more information about requirements.

Transfer your old credits.

If you attended an accredited university in the past and are now returning to college, some of your old credits might transfer. It’s not a guarantee; a 2014 study showed that nearly 40% of all first-time transfer students lost all their previously earned credits. It is worth at least a try.

The main problem with credit transfer is that schools label and teach their courses differently. A class on “Global Change Biology” at one school may be more compatible with “Evolution” at another. Generally, prerequisite classes, like Calculus I for example, are the same at all institutions, and are thus more likely to transfer. Here are some things that colleges look for when considering transfer credits:

  • Credits transfer best from a community college to a four-year institution.
  • Regionally accredited schools are less likely to accept credits from a nationally accredited institution than another regionally accredited one. Nationally accredited institutions are more open-minded.
  • Public institutions are more accepting of transfer credits than private institutions.
  • If you previously attended a community college, schools with which it has an articulation agreement are likely to accept your previously earned credits.
  • Most colleges will only accept credits from courses in which you earned at least a C.
  • Specific expiration dates are rarely given for transfer credits. The real determinant of whether the credit will transfer is if the course material is still relevant. For example, computer science has changed drastically over time, so credits from 15 years ago are not likely to fill your educational need.
  • The GPA you earned while at your previous institution will not transfer with you. You’ll start fresh at 0.0.

Old credits will need to match your new school’s education requirements. Only about one-third of first time transfer students bring all their previously earned credits to their new school, but it never hurts to ask. Even if not all credits are accepted, the ones that are will save you both time and money at your new school. You could also consider returning to your previous school, given that it is financially and geographically possible. Your credits will be viable, since you earned them at the same institution, so you are generally picking up right where you left off. If transferring to a new school seems too difficult, contact an admissions officer at your original college.

For more information on the types of transfers, credit transfers, and transfer-friendly institutions, click here.

Page last updated: 07/2017