College Preparation Guide

4Starting Your Online Classes for the First Time

You’ve been accepted into the college of your choice and explored all of the available financial aid opportunities. Now the first day of class is not too far away — what else can you do to prepare yourself for the challenges ahead? This guide will cover technical requirements for online degree programs, as well as some tips for selecting your first batch of courses.

What Should I Expect?

Students enrolled in an online course or degree program will receive the majority of their course materials in a digital format. While some required books might only be available in print format, the textbook industry is quickly embracing e-book formats for new titles. These are easily loaded onto a tablet or computer, annotated, and instantly ready to go. Your coursework may include PDF documents, audio files, podcasts, and PowerPoint presentations. Rather than meeting with your classmates and professors on-campus, you will use private online forums, email, or chat sessions to discuss coursework and collaborate on projects. Tests may be administered through your browser, or through software recommended by your college.

Despite what you may have heard, online courses are not any easier than on-campus classes. Distance learning requires a high level of self-discipline. Since most online courses are accessible at any time, your participation in class discussions and the time you spend studying your materials can be scheduled around your other commitments. Many new students underestimate how much time they really need to complete their online course assignments. Depending on your field of study, online degree programs require an average of 15 to 19 hours of study time each week. Dedicate a few additional hours during your first two weeks to becoming familiar with required software, school resources, and discussion formats. Avoid falling behind by sticking to a preset schedule.

What Will I Need?

  • Laptop or Desktop Computer: Check out the operating system and hardware requirements for your specific online course or degree program. Most colleges require Windows XP or higher for PCs and OS X 10.5 or higher for Macintosh computers.
  • Data Backup: Damage to your computer or accidental file deletion can be disastrous for students. Avoid emergencies by backing up materials and assignments to an external hard drive or cloud service.
  • High-Speed Internet Connection: Cable or DSL connections are recommended to keep up with live video chats and streaming media.
  • Ethernet Cable: A cable Internet connection is generally much faster than Wi-Fi.
  • Webcam: Check to see if your academic program requires students to record video responses or participate in video chats. Some computers come with this feature built in.
  • Microphone: This may be necessary for voice chats or recorded assignment responses. Many computers come with built-in microphones. However, a dedicated microphone or headset can provide better audio quality and filter out background noise.
  • Internet Browser: Check your school’s requirements, since some content may not be viewable with some browsers.
  • Email address: Even if your school assigns you an email address, you should have an additional contact in case of technical issues.
  • Flash Player: The latest update from Adobe to view video content.
  • PDF Software: Adobe Reader for PCs or Preview on Mac.
  • Books: Check with your academic institution. Some colleges have bookstores at various locations or they will provide links to digital downloads.
  • (Optional) Tablet or Smartphone: Mobile devices can allow you to view class readings and complete assignments away from a computer. This can be especially valuable if you rely on a desktop computer at home and need to study away from the desk.

Selecting Your Courses

If you have already chosen a major:

It is crucial for you to work with an academic advisor before enrolling in classes. They will be able to recommend the best course sequence based on difficulty levels and cumulative sections. They can also recommend general education credits and minors that fulfill several requirements, cutting down on the time and money you spend on college. For example, an accounting minor may share some of the same required courses taken by finance majors. Don’t avoid your college counselor. It is their job to make sure you take all the courses required by your degree program in a timely manner.

Many AP and CLEP exams can be transferred to your academic institution, and may allow you to advance past some freshman classes. For example, the highest score on an AP US History exam can count for anywhere from three to eight credits, depending on your final score and the college you choose. Take advantage of these extra credits by informing your academic counselor about these exams before enrolling in college classes.

Read course descriptions and create a tentative schedule before your school’s open enrollment period. Just like campus courses, there are strict size limitations for online classes. Regard enrollment with some urgency; if your required or preferred classes fill up quickly, then your graduation date may be delayed. Luckily, there are no scheduling conflicts for online courses, since you typically won’t meet at set times. Reading professor reviews can help you decide on what courses to take, especially if you find experts who speak to your interests. Websites like can help you locate knowledgeable instructors who communicate well and engage with students.

If you haven’t decided on a major:

An academic advisor is also a vital resource for students who have not chosen a major. They will direct you to required general education courses so that you can still make progress in your degree. These courses are often introductory, allowing you to test-drive many different fields before making a final decision.

Create lists detailing your top major choices based on interest. Fill out a profile for each major that lists course requirements, career opportunities, and income statistics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is an excellent place to start; this site will help you understand whether or not your academic interests are likely to translate into a realistic career path. Dedicate your first semester or year to exploring various general education and elective classes. You should plan to declare your major by the beginning of your second year in college.

Many online course instructors expect the same amount of serious student participation and work as their on-campus counterparts. Academic institutions strive to provide online degrees that will foster competitive professional skills, preparing you for life beyond graduation. In order to get the most value out of your online degree program, you will need to plan ahead, collaborate with your academic advisor to select the right courses, and dedicate hours of attention to your studies.

This guide should help you start college on the right note; the next (and final) section of this series will offer advice to help you get through the remaining three and a half years.