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Last fall, I made the decision to return to school and pursue my MBA. As someone who has been in the work force for some time and out of college for many years, this was not a decision I made lightly. Work-life balance is hard enough, but adding the equivalent of a part time job on top of everything else was sure to be challenging. I’m fortunate that National Life offers an excellent tuition reimbursement program, so the main investment came down to my time and commitment to personal and professional development. As my colleague Mary Putnam has recounted in the past, “If you’re not green and growing, you’re ripe and rotting,” -Ray Kroc. Source: NLG

I’m attending an online program, which will take about 18 months to finish. If there is one takeaway for the key to success, it’s time management. Obviously, attending school is deadline driven. It’s critical that you effectively plan your days and weeks accordingly, and are fully prepared to make sacrifices.

Here are my observations and advice for anyone considering going back to school:

  • Having work and life experience gives you a tremendous advantage compared to younger classmates. There is almost never a time when you don’t have some experience with a topic or area of discussion that you can draw on.

  • When you first start your program, you may go through a mental adjustment period. You will wonder what you got yourself into, be completely annoyed with all aspects of it, and find that there are a million other things you could/should be doing. Give it time, and eventually you will know if it was (or wasn’t) the right decision.

  • Your professor may be younger than you, and yes, there are some classes you would probably be able to teach more effectively. Remember to respect authority even when it may be hard.

  • Follow directions! We all learned this in kindergarten, but it’s still important. Understand exactly what the components are to an assignment. You’ll be face-palming yourself if you lose points for something that could have easily been included.

  • Prepare to miss family dinners, Sunday football games and countless sunny days sitting in front of your computer or reading. (Tip: Don’t bother recording shows on your DVR – it will just fill up.) Additionally, don’t be surprised if you experience slight resentment from family and friends on occasion. School is taking you away from them.

  • Academia can overcomplicate anything–always have and always will. Prepare to cite endlessly. You’ll discover that there hasn’t been an original thought since about 1978, so make sure you’re always giving proper credit. Jokes aside, plagiarism–even unintentional–is a big deal.

  • Make sure you have a quiet place to do your schoolwork that’s free of distractions if possible, even if it means staying late at work.

  • Know how to find your zone. There are times when you will work for hours and have only a few paragraphs to show for it. (AKA, ants in your pants.) It can be painful, but eventually you will adapt and become more efficient.

  • Bring reading material everywhere you go. You have to maximize any amount of downtime you may have.

  • Try not to procrastinate. Just because you’re capable of whipping out a paper a few hours before it’s due, this process will eventually bite you.

  • You will encounter people in your classes who will make you question how they got this far. (This is just life, actually.) Resist the urge to school others. Try to be empathetic and find something to learn from everyone. You might find that you’ll meet some cool people along the way.

  • Give yourself credit. Late at night, when you’re staring bleary-eyed at your computer, you will be absolutely convinced that you’re about to turn in the biggest piece of crap assignment ever written. A few days later when you get your grade, you’ll realize that it was actually pretty good.

  • When you get older, nothing is truer than the fact that time flies. You’ll find that your classes go by fast too.

  • Don’t spread yourself too thin. If you find that your work (or family) is not getting the attention it deserves, it’s ok to take a break and reset. Don’t worry about self-imposed goals like graduating by a certain time. You will be better for it.

Going back to school can be very rewarding and personally fulfilling. But you are in charge of your success–and time–so make sure you’re fully prepared for what you’re getting into. And most of all, be proud of yourself and know that if you work hard, anything is possible.

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