What do I need for college?
February 21, 2021 6:59 AM   Subscribe

In a few months I will be returning to college for a two year degree, and I’m about 18 years out of date\practice when it comes to education. What sort of stuff (physical or software) should I pick up before hand?

Some special considerations:

Assume that I don't know anything about the practical considerations of being a college student, but that since I'm almost 40 I do know quite a bit about the practical considerations of being an adult.
The summer semester will be online only, but after that I'll probably be doing at least some in person classes.
Hand written notes aren’t going to happen in any meaningful way.
Apple ecosystem for phone\laptop\tablet. All 1-2 product cycles behind.
Initially classes will be part time, but might grow to full time depending on unrelated things.
I’m hoping to get a work study job on campus.
I’m planning to be do the commute via public transportation as much as possible.
Budget wise - I’ve got 3 kids and no job, so work with that in mind. That said, I can pay for one or two big ticket items.
posted by Gygesringtone to Education (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I can relate to the desire to plan and be prepared. But I would hold off on any purchases, as sometimes it’s not evident what is required until classes start. You may be eligible for student discounts/educational pricing once you receive a student card. With a limited budget, I would hate for well-meaning MeFites to make helpful suggestions only to find out on the second week of class that you need something specific after you’ve spent your previously allocated funds.

Make sure you can create .doc and spreadsheet files and have a PDF reader/converter. Those would be my key suggestions for now. Every assignment will presumably be uploaded. Depending on your learning style, you may be able to do all of your reading on a screen. Some folks are not. This will determine whether or not you need a printer.
posted by nathaole at 7:11 AM on February 21 [11 favorites]

You should be fine with your current tech array -- if your laptop was a Chromebook I'd tell you to get a Windows or Mac one, but the Mac machine you have will do what you need. Do not buy Microsoft or Adobe anything until you matriculate and can get a student discount.

Safari should do you fine as a browser for your online coursework, but downloading and setting up a free backup browser (Firefox or Brave) is not the world's worst idea.
posted by humbug at 7:21 AM on February 21

Congrats on going back to school! I'd agree with others that there's not a lot to physically purchase until you start and find the needs of your particular classes.

Premeditate a system for organizing your digital notes. Maybe that's a file structure with Word docs, maybe its all contained within an app like Onenote or Evernote. My use case is slightly different, but I can vouch that having all my notes across many years in Onenote is a lifesaver.

Even if you don't use Google Docs/Sheets/Slides for your own work, a good understanding of how those apps work can be very helpful for group projects and collaboration.

As much as possible box out a cozy space in your home for work. Maybe find a good set of comfy headphones so you can block out home distractions when you need to Get Sh_t Done?
posted by Wulfhere at 7:33 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great answers so far, thank you. I just wanted to chime in since it's come up twice now, this is mainly for budgeting and purchase planning reasons. Not going to run out and buy anything right now, but thank you for that advice about student discounts, I'll make sure to keep an eye out for that as an option when doing my planning.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:46 AM on February 21

I did my undergrad at 18, went back for one grad degree in my early 30s, and am about to go back for another in my early 40s. I'd recommend you spend time between now and the start of your program practicing being a student. Watch academic lectures on YouTube and take notes while doing so. Find background books in your subject and start reading aggressively now. Make sure you're able to carve out time for all of this, able to set a schedule, a routine, etc. It's hard, and even harder when you have kids and family obligations.

Not only will this help you build discipline and structure (both of which makes school so much easier!) but it will help you identify challenges and obstacles you're going to face which could be solved by tools and software that you then purchase at the start of your program.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:09 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]

I’m a two-year college instructor. There’s really not a whole lot to buy upfront, just be prepared for textbook / access code costs. You can search the college’s bookstore online for their retail costs on these and then see if the publisher, Amazon, etc., offer the same materials at a better price. Find out what online learning management system your college uses — likely Canvas or Blackboard. Canvas does not play well with Safari; it likes Chrome best. Students get free or highly discounted subscriptions to the online MS Office suite, and Google Drive apps work okay — though Sheets is not a great substitute for Excel for most instructors.
You’ll do most research online, so as mentioned above, a good PDF app is a must.

My students’ experience shows that childcare is their largest college-related expense, with textbook costs riding along behind. Our bookstore (run by Follett), is notorious for jacking up prices, but finding out textbook needs early and shopping around helps keep those costs down.
posted by girlbowler at 8:12 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]

Depending on your intended field of study (does it include a lot of paper writing?), you might want to install and mess around with the citation manager Zotero. Citation styles are BS, but in some fields instructors are painfully anal about them. Zotero cuts through a lot of the nonsense. Free under almost all circumstances (there's a paid service, but you have to be pretty hardcore to need it).

Consider a web-bookmarking tool along with whatever you settle on for notetaking. I'm a Pinboard gal myself, but it's not the only game in town. There's a lot of stuff you don't need to memorize, but could still be handy later.
posted by humbug at 8:16 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]

I'm finishing my MS degree this semester, at age 57. For reference, I finished my BS degree at 52. So I understand the "going back to school as an adult" part of this.

Your school will probably have a subscription to Office 365, which means you'll probably be able to download that for free. If not, they'll have a way for you to get a student discount on the Office package.

I keep ALL my schoolwork in Dropbox, so that it's off my computer and backed up in case my computer dies. Something to consider if you don't have a current backup method in place. I have a specific organizational structure in place to keep things organized.

All my class notes live in Evernote. I pay for the premium subscription so I don't have to worry about any kind of space requirements. I have a defined system for organizing things, MeMail me if you want to discuss.

Zotero has been a lifesaver during grad school, and I should have used it more during undergrad. Having a way to organize the references to all my readings, including the numerous PDFs that seem to come with school now, has been a game changer. I use the Word plugin to create in text citation and turn those into a bibliography.

You have to do the reading. I can tell which of my classmates have read the chapters and which haven't, and if I can tell you bet the instructor can.

As for making time for school, here is my advice. Note that I live alone, work a full-time job, and have no children:
- You have to do school every. single. day. Every day. Even if you only spend an hour or so reading and taking notes, you have to make time for it every day.
- You have to be systematic about it. I create a to do list every Saturday morning with all my readings for the upcoming week, and whatever projects/papers are due. Spend time to get this list right and complete, and then just punch through it during the week.

This will be a challenging two years, but two years is a short amount of time in the grand scheme of things. Plug at it, and keep pushing forward.
posted by ralan at 8:40 AM on February 21 [2 favorites]

I was expecting to spend a lot of money on textbooks, but I found when going back for my graduate degree that 1. we were expected to buy literally 50 books over 3 years according to the syllabi for all our classes and that's an insane amount of money, 2. we almost never needed to read the actual books, and 3. the various cohorts ahead of ours had found pdfs of almost all the books and uploaded them to a google drive that was shared with incoming students. Definitely don't buy books until you find you actually need them! College textbooks are a racket.

Universities will usually let you download a free copy of the microsoft office suite as well as reference managers like endnote or whatever they use. I've mostly used google docs (we have a lot of group projects) plus powerpoint (for lectures) plus various note-taking apps (honestly mostly apple notes and now bear). All of my files live on iCloud and I pay $0.99/month for the extra storage. I have an older macbook air and have had no issues with this setup except zoom is very slow. In the past year I've gotten an ipad and apple pencil which I love, although I'm still figuring out my workflow so I'm a lot slower at using them compared to the laptop. I've spent a lot on apps trying to figure out what I like, but highly recommend LiquidText and Goodnotes if you go that route.
posted by autolykos at 8:50 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

Do you know what you will be studying? Have you picked a major? That might influence your answers.
posted by NotLost at 9:01 AM on February 21

I've found it helpful to have a permanent study set up. You may not have the luxury of a dedicated space, but I would specifically recommend keeping a charger in your normal study space at home and another charger in your bag. That way you have a better chance of not running out of battery when you are actually at the college because you left your charger at home. This feels particularly important if you are not a handwritten notes person.
posted by plonkee at 9:03 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

For learning online, test out your audio and video. Start a meeting in Zoom (no need for another person to Zoom with you) and record yourself so you can see what you video and audio are like. I like using headphones and a mic (one of those big, ridiculous gamer rigs) to cut out the noise of my husband rattling around the house. Also, even a relatively inexpensive webcam has a better camera and microphone by far than the one built into a laptop.
posted by BrashTech at 9:04 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

I have a Google Drive folder and use Google Drive sync for all my stuff, organized by class. I also set up Zotero to store files there. If you use it, zotfile is a really useful plug-in.

Your college should have a College 101 course, often 1 credit, that you should sign up for. Ours is Student Development 100, and is designed to orient you to everything.

For articles, sci-hub.se is your friend. Google Scholar too, but you may not need those starting out and depending on your degree. Libgen.rs might be useful on the book front.

There are people at your college who want you to succeed and will support you. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Same goes for instructor office hours.
posted by idb at 9:12 AM on February 21 [1 favorite]

I graduated undergrad in 2010 and did my graduate degree from 2018-2020. I was shocked that paper and notebooks are truly dead (a small exception perhaps of keeping 1 general notebook in your bag when you do need something).

I though “oh no, I like paper, I’ll still use paper anyway!” Nope! Group collaboration is all done through Google sheets, notes are all related to the powerpoints from class and even in discussion based classes it was not uncommon to have a “scribe” for the day who, you guessed it, took notes and shared them through Google docs.

I went to a large state school for my masters and got a laptop from their bookstore. It’s a Lenovo think pad which I already knew had a good solid reputation and because I bought through the school I never had to worry about any tech support issues or difficulties (even things like installing a program for a class, if I needed them to, they did it).

There’s nothing that you listed that needs replacing in grad school. I would put the money aside so that when you’re computer breaks at the end of grad school but you still need one for job applications and the like, you can buy one then.

I did like using my kindle to read articles and readings for class on the bus/waiting for the bus but it was a nice bonus not something I would spend money on if the dollars were right.

Do not take any campus job that is less than $18 an hour. Ask 2nd year students what classes need TA’s and what you need to get the position and try to build rapport with those professors so you can get a tuition waiver and TA them your second year
posted by raccoon409 at 10:21 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]

I did college as a broke single mom with three kids back in the dark ages before personal computers and internet. I started at a community college, ended up at a fancy grad school.

Lots of good advice above especially about textbooks.

Budgeting your time is going to be even more important than budgeting your money, especially with three kids. If your kids are old enough now is the time to get them to do routinely take on their share of housework including laundry and cooking. (Any kid old enough to play video games is old enough to figure out washer and dryer and simple food prep.) I found that by the end of the day after going to classes ferrying kids around feeding kids supervising kid homework I was too exhausted to do my own homework. The two solutions that helped the most were treating college like it was a full-time job, spending 7 or 8 hours a day on campus doing my work. The other one was going to bed when my kids did and getting up crazy early, like 4, to have some quiet study time. Another time mgmt thing was grocery shopping and cooking. Plan ahead, buy in bulk when feasible, cook simpler meals.
Consider starting a regular exercise regimen if you're not doing it already. If the campus has a gym use it. A friend who went back to college a few years ago bought herself a good treadmill so she could get exercise at home in any weather. Get yourself in the best possible physical health you can. You're going to be running a marathon.

Feel free to memail me.
posted by mareli at 10:37 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]

Re: textbooks, many campus libraries will have copies on reserve for students to check out, which can save you a lot of money. You can go on your library’s website now and look for a link that says “Reserves” or “Course Reserves” to see if your future classes will have textbooks available; they usually stay the same for a while.
posted by stellaluna at 11:52 AM on February 21 [3 favorites]

1. Learn Anki - it's an awesome app for memorizing anything that neeeds memorizing
2. A nice gelfoam seat cushion
posted by dum spiro spero at 12:20 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]

I have been an adult student at three different higher education places in the last ten years. Know that most things are online- including the library. And there are so many great products that can keep track of your school work, the main thing is to find one and stick with it. And also figure out a method of how you identify your work- I use the course name as the first part of the file name "LBS750 Date Due Assignment." I also make templates at the start of the semester in the style of university uses- generally MLA or APA (depends on the discipline). OWL by Purdue is a great resource for all things writing.

The online learning management systems can be hard to navigate because it seems that each professor will do things very differently, and none will follow the methods outlined by the maker of the software. I found myself missing all sorts of things on Canvas because of the way certain professors created their courses. Also- with online classes there is a lot of busy work like "discussions" where you are graded on replying to people- but the replies are not very academia. Hopefully your program is different! I tend to get annoyed with this type of work, but it is just something that needs to be done.

In terms of budgeting, know that you can use loans and scholarships to support your life- so if you need to have extra money for takeout because going to school and cooking is hard, it is possible to use funds to supplement your income. Same with paying for parking or other things. Obviously you want to use that money conservatively, but as a single mom getting my BA and then my masters, having an extra cushion each semester that I could use was helpful to me.
posted by momochan at 4:53 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]

Lots of great advice on here. As someone who is currently teaching college classes AND taking college classes as a career-changer, I would add that yes, make friends with your library.

Don't buy any books at all until you have figured out if a copy is available online or in hardcopy at your library.
Textbooks are insanely expensive and basically a scam: the same text is ever so slightly modified every couple of years and then cranked out as a new edition, so everyone thinks they have to but a new one. Wait till the first week of class to find out if you actually are going to need the text book, if your prof is going to provide pdfs of it, or if its ok to use the older edition. Older editions are cheaper to buy second hand, and there is a higher chance your library has a hard copy you can borrow.

And even non-text book required readings: get the library copy, use it in the class, then figure out after you've read it whether you actually want your own copy to keep on your bookshelf for the rest of your life.

Other reasons to get to know your college library: the librarians are amazing resources for all kinds of academic learning. Not sure how to do research on a topic? Ask the librarian. Can't remember how to write a bibliography? Ask the librarian. And so on. Academic librarians are a great resource that are amazingly under-utilized by students.
posted by EllaEm at 5:07 PM on February 21 [2 favorites]

If this is chiefly for budgeting purposes and you're 1-2 product cycles behind, I would earmark some money or begin to save toward a replacement laptop at some point--hopefully you won't need a new one, but if yours dies you won't want to have to panic about affording the replacement and you probably won't have a ton of time to shop around.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 6:49 AM on February 22

I have not read previous posts, so hope this isn't repetitive. A few things that come to mind:
1. Even though you don't plan on taking notes by hand, I have always found that an agenda where you can keep track of assignments physically is super helpful - sometimes your agenda program is frozen or someone says something you want to jot down there and then. It just helps keep track of moving pieces.
2. MS Office suite - it is used so often that you'll want to have a copy installed on your computer if you don't already. Most schools offer it to their students for pretty cheap, so shouldn't be a major expense.
3. Backup storage for your files. Seriously. Back up frequently. Ask me how I know.
4. Consider also getting cloud storage if you don't have it already - when on campus you might need to access programs that for whatever reason you can't have on your computer (depends on your program and major of course) - nice to be able to quickly and easily pull files off a cloud and to save them there. It is likely your institution will give you some cloud space, but good to check on this.
5. Printer. I know you said you're not much of a physical notes sort of person, but if you're reading lots of papers your eyes will get tired and sometimes it is nice to just print the thing and write your comments in the margins or whatever. Especially for when you'll be working from home, it might be a really nice thing to have. There are also some files that just make that much more sense if you can just print and look at them. I've had success finding pretty good quality used printers for cheap on NextDoor, and I always buy knock-off ink -- never the printer's manufacturer because those are bound to be pricier.
6. Another good thing to look for on reselling sites and NextDoor- external monitor. It can be really nice to plug in and look at things on multiple monitors when working on assignments.
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 10:34 AM on February 22

PS... on textbooks... I am not sure how this happens exactly but I have managed to find copies of a few textbooks for cheap or free online in PDF format. And in my grad program I definitely got a few such copies from classmates. Where they got it? I don't know. But it did save money... just something to look into.

To save money - also worth asking the professor if the previous edition of the book would work just as well. Often what changes from edition to edition is pretty minor (but not always) . This is going to be especially true for textbooks that have many editions. If it's something that gets updated every 2-3 years or so, more likely to be true. If it's a book that has had a decade between editions, then you probably really do need the new edition because it is likely that significant things have changed from version to version.
posted by dubhemerak3000 at 10:38 AM on February 22

I went back to college recently. Some of my useful starting points were reading Make it Stick by Peter Brown and A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley. I recommend reading them both if your library has them (even if you're not doing science or math, the second book has some useful ideas). If your local library has something else on how to learn, read that. There was stuff in there I hadn't come across before and hadn't been taught to do in school.
As a corollary, I find Anki, a flashcard app to be my most useful learning tool. It helps you space out how often you see a card you're learning, so that something easy quickly vanishes out to not be seen for months, but that card you just can't remember will turn up again tomorrow. I rarely reread my textbooks, because I take notes that get batched into Anki as cards to learn and I rarely need to look something up again -- only stuff I missed on the first round, basically. It's dramatically better than the actual index cards I used to use in high school.
I also read a bit about bullet journaling. I find it useful for keeping track of what needs to happen, on a quarterly, weekly, and daily basis. I basically sit down at the start of the quarter with a syllabus for each class and make a detailed list of what assignments are due each week for each class. One class grades participation based on whether you've posted at least 2 comments and one response to someone else's comment each week. I have discussion comment, comment, and answer on my list (I mean, it says disc c c a, but that's what it means) which means that it actually happens. Each week, I write those as things to accomplish that week and each day, which specific ones. I honestly really like that I can basically give equal weight, if I want, to going to my student job, reading a chapter of textbook, baking with my kid, or calling my mom. It's incredibly helpful to keep track of a lot of things. (Any tracking system that works for you is the one to use, of course. But if you don't have a solid one, look into that soon.)
You can probably find out now at least some of the resources your school will offer you. Mine is pretty proactive about the free office 365 they offer and the food bank on campus. It's less advertised that the cultural center takes donated textbooks and will give them to any student who needs them, that the food bank is currently mailing out grocery cards, or that you can get a seriously discounted transit card. There will probably be tutors, there may even be tutors who specialize in teaching techniques like in Make it Stick -- my college has one. Do reach out and ask about some of the resources, and look into what grants and scholarships you might be eligible for.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:21 PM on February 22

If you don't understand something, go to office hours and ask. If office hours don't work for you, schedule another time. You college may also have ways to support you financially in ways that surprise you, e.g. emergency funds. There's a nice little twitter thread here about first-time college students who had to learn the hidden curriculum, i.e. "how to college".
posted by idb at 6:21 AM on February 26

I forgot to mention, Anki is free and doesn't have ads.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:24 AM on February 26

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