Returning to school as an adult can feel a bit like traveling back in time. Adult learners, however, often bring much different life trajectories and experiences to their education than do traditional college students. You may have worked a rewarding career, raised a family, served your country, and learned how to balance the many competing challenges of adulthood. The wisdom these experiences offer matters.
Prior learning—including both college education and real-world experiences—makes you smarter and more thoughtful. It sharpens your ability to correctly identify and solve a problem. It can also help you graduate faster, and for less money.
Here’s how your history can get you closer to graduation.
What is Prior Learning, and What Counts?
Most students know they can get credit for the academic work they previously completed in an appropriately accredited program. The right school can help you maximize your transfer credits, ensuring that as much of your previous coursework as possible transfers to your new school. But the classes you’ve already taken are just one example of prior learning.
Life is full of opportunities to learn. Veterans have honed their management and teamwork skills in training and sometimes on the battlefield. Parents may be experts at time management and creative problem-solving. Work experience can help you master industry norms, sharpen your writing and communication skills, and cultivate a knack for finance or marketing.
School is not the only way to learn. In fact, many highly skilled people have little academic experience to back up their hard-earned knowledge. Prior learning credit programs acknowledge that education comes in many forms and that experts sometimes have no formal credentials.
Some examples of prior learning that may help you gain academic credit include:
- Military service and training
- Career experience
- Life experience
- Career certifications and training
- Previous classes
- Online coursework
- Volunteer work
- Advanced Placement tests from high school AP classes
Demonstrating Prior Learning
One of the challenges of prior learning is proving that you have it. Academic credit is simple to assess because a school can just compare syllabi and instructors, then identify whether one class is sufficiently similar to another to deserve credit. If you want credit for your experience, you’ll need to make a compelling case that this experience is comparable to coursework for your degree.
A number of evaluation strategies can assess prior learning experience:
Standardized tests measure a student’s knowledge compared to the information the testing organization thinks the student should know. A number of independent organizations offer standardized testing for students who seek college credit. Some colleges also devise their own standardized tests. Foreign language assessments are often standardized tests.
Institutional Assessments and Exams
Many schools devise their own assessment programs. Some actually prefer these measures because they are highly customizable, enabling institutions to directly measure the specific skills they think each student should have. Some offer generalized prior learning assessments that measure a wide range of skills. Others allow students to test out of specific classes. A fluent Spanish speaker, for instance, might be able to test out of introductory Spanish.
Not all skills are easily tested. Soft skills, such as the ability to effectively communicate or lead a team, may require a more individualized assessment. Interviews, portfolios, essays, and other assessment tools can help you demonstrate these skills to your chosen school. Many colleges establish clear policies for these assessments. If yours does not, you may need to suggest some options.
Petitioning the Institution for Credit
It’s nearly impossible for any school to implement programs that award credit for every conceivable life experience. If your college doesn’t have a test or other evaluation that can get you the academic hours you seek, you may need to petition the school. Draft a letter outlining the specific experiences for which you seek acknowledgment. Compare the knowledge you gained to the assignments listed on relevant course syllabi, and be prepared to show documentation. If possible, offer a solution for demonstrating your skill.
For example, a student who has significant on-the-job public speaking experience and is seeking credit for a public speaking class might list recent speeches, as well as any awards for those addresses. They might then offer to deliver a speech to prove their mettle.
How to Take Advantage of Prior Learning
Educational credit for previous coursework and real-world knowledge offers several key benefits:
- You may save money because you’ll spend less time in school and have to buy books for fewer courses.
- If you prefer, you can take a smaller course load and still graduate on time.
- You may be able to graduate early.
- You won’t waste time being bored in classes that present material you already know.
- You may not have to pay for prior learning, meaning you can graduate sooner and spend less money.
If you have accumulated professional experience or credentials, the odds are very good that you can get at least some college credit. So when you begin your search for the right school, look for an institution that offers prior learning credit programs. Contact the school to ask about available assessments, how long they take, and how many hours of academic work you may be able to complete with the right testing.
It’s best to begin the process early. This ensures you know exactly how much credit you have as you embark on your new degree program. So get the information and documentation you need early. Some paperwork your school might need include:
- Recommendation letters
- Professional credentials and awards
- Details about workplace certifications and training programs
- Military discharge records
- Standardized test records
- Your resume, especially if it includes a list of hard skills
- Transcripts from any and all previous schools, including online colleges
- Advanced Placement test scores
Meet with the school’s transfer coordinator or prior learning office to go over your options for maximizing institutional credit. You may need to take one or more assessments. Try these strategies to help you prepare:
- Brush up on skills you haven’t used in a while. Try reviewing old workplace manuals or class syllabi.
- Talk to other students who have participated in the college’s assessment program. What strategies did they think were most and least effective? Is there anything they wish they had done differently to prepare?
- Learn as much as you can about each assessment. You need to understand what is on the test to do well.
- For standardized tests, consider taking a preparation course—or at least taking some practice assessments online.
- If your school requires an interview, presentation, or another test of your soft skills, focus on strategies to highlight the information you have learned. For instance, if you’ll meet with an interviewer to discuss your history of leadership, talk about specific managerial experiences and achievements.
- Ask about testing policies. Some schools allow you to take a test more than once, while others give you only one chance to test out of a course.
SNU’s Prior Learning Options
At SNU, we understand that shortening the time from here to graduation can save you money and stress, while getting you closer to the life of your dreams. We work with every student to identify prior experiences that may help you more quickly meet course requirements.
Our unique Prior Learning Assessment program does more than just tally previous educational credits and workplace achievements. It treats you as a whole person whose wisdom and hard-won experience offer real value to our campus community. Earn up to 30 hours—an entire year—of college credit for free based on our assessment.
Unlike other schools, we don’t charge you full tuition for adding prior learning to your transcript. Instead, we help you save money and time by including our assessment in the total cost of our program. Don’t waste time re-learning things you already know, when you could be digging deeply into new material and enjoying new experiences. Ready to get started? We can help you assess whether it’s time for a career change and how the right degree can help you move from where you are to where you want to be. Give us a call to learn more today!