Tips for Succeeding at Online High School

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Last week, we explored reasons to attend an online high school or to consider taking a few high school courses online. Whether you’re an adult learner returning to school, an ambitious senior pursuing college-level credits, or a student living in an underserved community, online high school could be a perfect fit for you.

Even so, it might take some tailoring to achieve that perfect fit, especially if this is your first experience in online education. You probably know that online education offers convenience, flexibility, and the freedom to attend class in your favorite cosplay gear without being judged. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Succeeding in an online high school environment will require you to adjust your thinking, shift your expectations, and adapt your approach.

For a sense of what’s out there, check out The 50 Best Online High School Diplomas.

If you’d like to learn more, follow our tips below and make the most of this unique opportunity!

Prepare for Your Independence

Online high school may be your first self-guided learning experience. Succeeding in online classes will require you to work independently, manage your time effectively, and stay on task. Nobody can stop you from playing Candy Crush while you really should be paying attention to the lecture. It’s on you to stay focused, budget your time, remain motivated, and find ways to stay engaged even without the watchful eye of a teacher.

That’s not all you need to consider. If you’re moving into online high school full time, be sure that you won’t feel isolated by this new experience. For many students, the social dimensions of high school are an essential part of coming of age. For others, the trudge to graduation day is an interminable grind, beset by indignities such as communal locker-room showers and asking somebody for permission to go to the bathroom even when you’re, like, 18 years old.

For most of us, high school is probably some balance between the two.

Some days, you’re happy to be around the buzz of your classmates, to hear your teacher’s corny jokes, to stay late for your extracurricular passion. Other days, you’d just rather prop up on a pillow and do your schoolwork while simultaneously shame-shopping on Amazon.

Before you dive into online high school, consider the dramatic difference this will make in your high school experience, indeed, in your teenage years in general.

So, if you’re a self-starter, an independent learner, a person who moves at your own pace (be it faster or slower), somebody who can use online education as a way to overcome the limitations of traditional high school, this could be the path for you.

Family Support Is Critical

Independence doesn’t mean isolation. If possible, find support through a personal network. In the absence of classmates or a face-to-face teacher, your parents and siblings could be your best bet for real educational interaction. Parental involvement can make a big difference as you work through homework questions, study for exams, and explore your subject matter through natural conversation. If you’re considering online high school, find a family member or mentor who can support you through the process, from enrollment to exam preparation to graduation.

Know What’s out There

Before you choose your online high school, be aware of your options. There are four primary types of online high school: public, private, charter, and university-sponsored. The one you select will depend on a combination of availability and need.

Public online high school programs are typically sponsored at the state level. This means that most of these programs are free of charge. On the down side, you’ll usually need to live in a given district or state to access a specific program. Public online options may or may not be available in your community, and where available, roster spots may be limited.

If you do have access, this is a great opportunity. The curriculum is consistent with traditional public school curriculum, public online options are typically stable, and the school will likely be regionally accredited. (We’ll discuss the importance of accreditation in the next section.)

Online charter high schools are technically considered public schools as well, and likewise are often available to students free of charge. The primary distinction is that charters sometimes adhere to their own curriculum, learning strategies, and hiring standards.

This is positive if you feel you could benefit from an alternative approach to the traditional high school curriculum. Pursuing a diploma with a STEM, arts, or technical concentration may be possible depending on the online charter schools available to you. As with public online high schools, access to charters is often dictated by one’s place of residence. Likewise, space may be limited. The drawback with charter schools is that their independent governance and private management makes them highly variable in quality, stability, and longevity. While one charter school may provide an excellent opportunity and a stable environment, another may close mid-semester due to flagging profitability. Choose wisely.

The same is true of private online high schools. Here, accreditation will play an increasingly important role. These programs are frequently provided by for-profit education companies. As such, both quality and cost will vary widely. Test, college, and career prep courses are usually offered by private companies and can be a great way to get critical skills in each of these areas. On the other hand, the private online education sector is also crawling with low-quality programs and degree mills. Learn how to spot a degree mill and steer clear of shady, fly-by-night private education companies.

The final category of online high school refers to university-sponsored courses. Many community colleges and four-year public and private universities have partnerships with states, districts, and schools that allow select students to take university-level online courses while still in high school. This will allow you to participate in dual enrollment courses that earn credits both toward your diploma and your future undergraduate degree.

Your personal situation will determine which of these outlets is both accessible and appropriate for your needs. As you proceed though, keep accreditation in mind.

And to learn more about your dual credit options, check out Seven Ways You Can Earn College Credits While Still in High School.

Yes, Accreditation Matters

For online high school, accreditation is crucial. When you’re out there applying to colleges, the admissions officer reviewing your file isn’t worried whether your education was online or in-person. Whether or not that school was regionally accredited matters more. Accreditation provides a quality assurance that can allay any prospective concerns about the legitimacy of your online education.

According to U.S. News & World Report, “the federal government does not oversee accreditation of any elementary or secondary schools the way it recognizes accreditors for colleges.”

Accreditation is particularly inconsistent among private online high schools. Public and charter schools are likely to be regionally accredited simply by virtue of having earned a state- or district-recognized charter. Accreditation of university-sponsored courses will depend on the accreditation status of the university itself. Again, here, you’ll be looking for institution-wide regional accreditation from one of the following associations:

Visit the Department of Education’s database to determine if the university sponsoring your course is properly accredited. As for private schools, the importance of accreditation will depend largely on your career or academic goals. Some certificate or skills-based programs may lack formal accreditation but may provide marketable skills for test-taking, college readiness, career readiness, or trade mastery. Whichever of these is your primary goal, seek out a school with a positive reputation. Again, know how to avoid diploma mills.

Check out the Federal Trade Commission’s online resource, which monitors the legitimacy of online high schools in the private sector:

Know the Costs

Private schools and university-sponsored online courses may require tuition. This varies greatly for private options. Be sure you’re getting your money’s worth before you enroll in a costly option.

Costs may vary among university-sponsored courses as well, though students who excel may be eligible for scholarships and grant opportunities.

Beyond that, some basic costs may come with attendance at any type of online high school. Computer and web access are mandatory, which means basic technology and equipment costs. Books, materials, and access to online modules, libraries, or databases may also cost money. As you evaluate your options and resources, be conscientious of the costs of both access and participation. This may impact your decision about where to enroll.

Bone Up Your Technical Skills

Speaking of technology and equipment, be sure you know how to use it, troubleshoot it, organize your data, and protect your privacy, identity, and secure information. Now that you’re an online student, you’ll need to be online. (I know. I just totally blew your mind.) This means that your productivity will hinge in part on how effectively you use the technology at your fingertips.

Many of you already know how to use a computer and navigate the web. But if it’s new to you, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with this world before you attend your first online lecture. You don’t want to miss critical class time fidgeting with your settings or trying to figure out why that update download has been stalled at ninety-seven percent for fifteen minutes. Get all that annoying stuff out the way before classes start.

If you already know how to use all of this stuff, consider ways to enhance your productivity. All kinds of applications and strategies can make you more productive, more efficient, and better organized. For more on these options, check out our triple feature on the subject:

Find out About the Teachers and Curriculum

Learn as much as you can about the educational experience of each school on your radar before you make any decisions. You’ll want to know a few facts before you lock onto a school.

Start with teacher qualifications. If the instructors at your online high school are not state-certified educators with advanced degrees, that’s a good indicator the school lacks credibility.

Other dimensions of the educational experience may be indicators of quality, or simply matters of preference. Find out how you will be interact with your instructors and classmates. Will you attend live web conferences, watch prerecorded video lectures, participate in live classroom chats, or some combination of all these?

And what about the curriculum? Are course content, texts, assignments, and lesson plans driven by the same content used in traditional schools? Or does your online school employ an alternative curriculum?

The same questions apply to the evaluation system. Will you be graded by performance or mastery? Will you receive letter grades or competency-based assessments? And transcript or a certificate?

Other questions worth asking concern student-to-teacher ratio, access to personal support from tutors or guidance counselors, and whether or not your program offers extracurricular opportunities.

How you answer each of these questions will depend a great deal on access and personal preference. First determine the options available to you, then aim for the type of online high school experience you’d like to have. Weigh these factors as you make your decision.

Look at the School’s Track Record

Once you’ve locked onto the right type of experience, make sure the schools on your list deserve your interest. To put it bluntly, it’s a lot easier to operate a low-quality or downright fraudulent school in the online sector. This is especially true for private online high schools. As a consumer, it’s extremely important that you do your research before diving in.

Research your school’s background first. How long has the online high school been in business? New schools spring up all the time, and a short history doesn’t necessarily indicate poor quality or low credibility. However, a bit of history gives you both a sample size to review and some confidence in the stability of the school itself.

And if a school does offer some history, it’s a glimpse into its performance in areas such as graduation rates, college admission rates among graduates, and employment rates among graduates.

In addition, Google your school of choice in search of online reviews, teacher ratings, and even news articles. If articles mention scandals, fraud, or government-led inquiries, then you may want to steer clear. Another good source is the Better Business Bureau, where you can determine whether or not any major consumer complaints have been levied against the school you’re considering.

As you know, any school you apply to will be looking closely at your performance, track record, and background. Show them the same scrutiny.

Tell Your Story

Your decision to attend online high school makes you unique among your peers. Whatever your reasons, you chose an unconventional path that says something about your learning style and your educational ambition. You’ll want to highlight this choice as you look to make the transition from online high school to college — whether online or on-campus.

The personal essay section of your college application is an opportunity to discuss your experience as an online high school student, and perhaps to explain to admissions officers why this was the ideal path for you. Your personal essay is a chance to set yourself apart from the crowd. Your online pursuit of a high school diploma is certainly a distinguishing feature. Explore this feature in your essay and cast it in a favorable light.

All the qualities that we’ve discussed above — those that make online high school appealing and those that underscore your independence and personal determination — deserve the spotlight.

Now that you know how to make the most of it, check out The 50 Best Online High School Diplomas.

And stay tuned. We’re working on an update to that ranking list as we speak!

Take the next step towards your future with online learning.

Discover schools with the programs and courses you’re interested in, and start learning today.

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TheBestSchools.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured programs and school search results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other information published on this site.
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