Try this self-audit before returning to college

Illustration of man with marker making checklist

Students leave college for all sorts of reasons. For some, the experience may not have gone as planned or they simply felt unprepared. Some students are forced to step away for health or financial reasons, either their own or that of their family. Still others may have struggled with a previously undiagnosed learning disability or other impediments to academic success.

For these students, the decision to return to college or other types of education after a (sometimes significant) break usually comes with newfound intrinsic motivation. Returning students often tell me they feel more focused than they did before or that the timing is now right. They feel they have a better understanding of themselves, what’s motivating them to pursue their education and how they want to use their degree or training.

While a person considering a return to college might be tempted to jump online and immediately begin exploring degree programs and schools, I recommend they first conduct this three-part personal education audit:

Academic advisor Autumn Sanchez
Sanchez: Explore your history, mindset and goals before you return to college.

1. Know where you’ve been. Collect transcripts from institutions you’ve attended, along with records of credits or any type of noncredit education earned. Make a list of any training or professional development you’ve completed. Not only will this documentation be helpful in determining potential credit transfer, but it will also help you and your advisor holistically evaluate your education experience.

2. Explore your mindset. Think about past education experiences, especially those that didn’t go well. Where do you see potential roadblocks that might impede your progress today, and how might you overcome them? Cultivate a growth mindset and embrace lifelong learning. Your intelligence and skill sets are not a fixed value and can be expanded continuously throughout your life. For tips on developing a growth mindset, I recommend the article, “Growth Mindset for Adult Learners.”

3. Set yourself up for success. Get curious about your “why.” (For more on this, check out Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” TEDTalk.) Understanding your motivation for a return to college will be your polestar throughout your academic journey. Take inventory of the resources you will need to meet your goals, including the support of family and employer, technology needs and what type of time commitment you can realistically accept.

Your first foray into higher education may not have gone as planned, and it can be intimidating to consider a return. Preparing now with a personal education audit will provide clarity and confidence when speaking to admission representatives and create a helpful blueprint for you and your academic advisor in charting your path forward.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Autumn Sanchez, a student services coordinator, can be reached at autumn.sanchez@wisc.edu. This article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on March 14, 2021.