4 Tips for Adults Applying to Top Online Bachelor's Degree Programs

U.S. News | January 12, 2016

Just because a program is online doesn't mean it will be easier to get into, experts say.


The application process for top online undergraduate programs often mirrors that of traditional bachelor's programs.

The first step adults need to take to complete a bachelor's degree online is to apply.

Undergraduate Seamus Yarbrough decided to apply to the University of Florida Online​ in 2014 because he wanted to finish his bachelor's​ degree while working.​ ​

While the 28-year-old says the application process was pretty streamlined and easy, he still had to submit the same kinds of admissions materials, like transcripts, he needed ​when he applied to the school as a potential on-campus student​ years ago. ​

The Tennessee ​resident, a paralegal, had to wait about two months to learn he was accepted.​ 

Applicants should consider the following when applying to top undergraduate online programs.​

1. The process is ​often similar to applying to on-ground bachelor's degree programs​. ​Applicants typically have to pay a fee and often need to submit all admissions materials by a predetermined deadline, says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer at the Online Learning Consortium, an online education advocacy group​.​

[Follow this timeline of steps to enroll in an online bachelor's program.]

​​​Many online programs start multiple times a year, while on-campus programs might only start in the fall or spring, says Pedersen. Programs with a limited capacity, like an​ RN to BSN program​, might only start once a year. 

The timing of admissions decisions varies, she says​. ​ ​

2. Just because a program is online doesn't mean it's easier to get into. The average acceptance rate among the top 25 online bachelor's degree programs ranked by U.S. News is about 73 percent​, according to U.S. News data. ​

And 84 percent of schools with online and on-ground bachelor's programs told U.S. News that admissions standards are the same. 

That's the case at the University of Florida, where online students earn the same degree as on-ground​ students, says Melissa Robinson, director of ​UF Online enrollment management services. Admission to on-campus and online programs is equally competitive, she says.​ ​
"You're taught by the same faculty," she says, ​and the curriculum and the rigor of the program is equal to what students would expect in the on-campus program. Admissions officers use the same ​approach to evaluate online and on-ground ​applicants, she says. 
3. ​Applicants' life and work backgrounds may be taken into consideration.​ ​Requirements for admission ​vary, but most of the top programs will consider applicants' academic GPA​, recommendations, essays ​and standardized test scores, ​according to U.S. News data.

But depending on the school, adult learners or transfer students may not have to submit test scores, such as from the SAT or ACT, says Pedersen, of the OLC.  ​

And many programs look at applicants' ​work and military experience when making admissions decisions, she says. But students who want to receive academic credit for any prior learning, like from those experiences, have to go through an additional, stringent process to determine if they will receive credit at legitimate institutions. ​​

​Margaret Oakar​, associate director of admission services at Pennsylvania State University—World Campus, says the school realizes adult applicants – including those who are over 24, an armed forces veteran or active-duty service member, more than four years from high school or are ​working parents – bring different experiences and ​SAT and ACT scores are not required for these applicants. ​ ​

But they do look at work and military experience, in addition to reviewing previous academic history, she says.

[Find out how to find the right online degree program.]

"We understand that they are going to be a little bit different than the traditional 18-year-old student applying to be on campus in a residence hall," ​says Oakar. 

So, admissions officers take a holistic approach in evaluating applicants, she says.​​

4. Applicants need to own the process – like when learning ​online. Knowing deadlines, staying organized, proactively communicating with others and being self-disciplined are all elements necessary to a student's success​ in an online program – and during the application process, Robinson says. ​ ​

She suggests applicants keep records of transcript and test scores orders, in case there are​ any mishaps, she says, as that will make it easier for officials to track them down.  

And applicants should let officials know if any materials will be arriving under a different name than the one on the application, she says, to avoid delays. Applicants can stay informed by checking their application status regularly to make sure it's progressing – either online or with a school official. ​