Students are no longer limited by the bricks and mortar walls of their high schools. Almost any academic course you can imagine is available in cyberspace, many of them for college credit.
An online course could be just the thing to dazzle college admissions officers, boost a student’s Advanced Placement count or even trim college costs.
“More and more students over the years are turning to online courses in the hope of gaining an edge in the highly selective admissions process,” says Brian Taylor, director of The Ivy Coach, a college admissions counseling service in New York City.
There are several options:
In most states, dual-enrollment programs allow high school students to take community college classes (online or off) for high school credit.
MOOCs (massive open online classes) let you take classes with other learners from around the world. They’re often free, though for an extra fee you can get a certificate verifying that you mastered the material. The most well-known MOOCs are those offered by EdX, a collaboration of nearly 40 schools – including big names like Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College – that offers more than 300 classes. Coursera also pulls together free college courses from major schools like Duke, Yale and Stanford universities.
Colleges both near and far may offer their own online classes.
But, if you’re a student with an already hectic life, why do it?
Reason No. 1: Your college application needs a boost.
You’ve got honor-roll grades, varsity sports and some weekend volunteer work on your high school resume but want a little something extra to make you stand out. An online course or two might be just the thing to convince the admissions board that you have the drive – and the ability – to perform at a college level. And if you are applying for a specific major, a targeted course can impress the admissions office with your dedication to your field.
“It’s another credential within their application that shows they are really eager to learn and really pursuing their interests and education outside the classroom,” says Rachel Lapal, communications manager for EdX.
Reason No. 2: You want more than your high school can offer.
Are you looking for Advanced Placement classes that aren’t a part of your school’s curriculum? Do you love biology so much you’ve already taken all the courses your school provides? Online classes could be a good choice.
EdX offers self-directed AP classes designed to prepare you for the AP test in subjects like English and environmental science. The Virtual High School has more than 20 AP courses. These 36-week classes cost $900 each.
EdX also runs courses on topics ranging from the everyday (computer science, psychology) to the unusual (the science of happiness, Asian architecture).
And if you choose a dual-enrollment option, most of your community college’s online options will be available.
Reason No. 3: You’re worried about the cost of college.
If you start your freshman year with credits already in hand, you can shave time – and money – off your college experience. Online classes give you a few ways to achieve this goal.
Taking AP classes or AP test-prep classes online and then scoring well on the test can earn you college credit at many schools. Then there’s dual enrollment. Credits for classes you take through your community college often transfer to four-year schools.
“It can speed up the process of earning your bachelor’s degree or your two-year degree,” says Tammy Reichelt, senior program associate for the American Association of Community Colleges.
Online learning may be convenient, but it is not necessarily easy. These are, after all, college-level classes.
“You do have strict deadlines and timelines – you have to be very disciplined to do an online class,” says Reichelt.
Before signing up for a class, make an honest assessment of your current workload, your spare time, and your ability to get work done without teachers and classmates reminding you daily that the big history project is due next Friday. If you are unsure, be careful about choosing a for-credit class – having a low grade or uncompleted class on your transcript could hurt more than it helps.