Step-by-Step Guide for Single Parents Returning to School

When single parents decide to return to school, they may feel overwhelmed by the process. Indeed, it’s an impressive list of things to do. But taking it one step at a time, staying organized, and starting gradually, you will soon gain confidence and realize this is an achievable goal.

As you work your way through the process, let your children and other family members become accustomed to the change in routine, and learn their new roles in the family. And start early. Even a year or so in advance is not unrealistic.

Getting started

Get yourself organized and set up a checklist of things to do.

  1. Locate copies of your transcripts and tax records.
  2. Request reference letters.
  3. Set up a system for names and phone numbers or email addresses of people you contact so you won’t waste time later. Jot down notes of conversations and information.
  4. As information comes in, store these all in one large envelope (or a folder on your computer) so you don’t lose track of what has been done, or forget where you put vital papers.
  5. Start compiling a list of your accomplishments, awards, and recognitions along with notes of community service and volunteer positions. Add to these as you think of them.
  6. Make a list of names, addresses, titles and contact numbers for anyone you would like to use as a reference. Be sure to let them know you are doing this.

Get familiar with financial aid sites.

  1. While you are waiting for records and letters, register with and get to know the site These are free government sites, and they have a ton of useful information. Make notes of questions you want to ask your college financial aid officer and follow up on ideas you get from these two sites.
  2. Apply for a federal Pell grant, which you can do by filling out the FAFSA application.
  3. Don’t forget to ask your employer if you qualify for assistance. reports that about 87% of large corporations offer some financial aid. This caps at $5,250. The company may expect you to remain employed for a certain number of years and maintain a minimum GPA.
  4. Contact the college or university you are considering and speak with someone in the admissions office or financial aid office. They have the most current information for that school’s aid and may have specific financial packages that apply to you. They also know about your state and local programs. Also ask the college representative if the school provides childcare services, tutoring, or a study skills center.

Many states offer assistance for single parents, and these will usually cover tuition and books, and may help pay for childcare expenses associated with your return to school. Some of these state scholarships are targeted to only certain areas of the state.

  • Line up support for personal responsibilities. The time will come when you must have some help with childcare, household chores, or running kids to activities. Expecting and preparing for unexpected situations lets you handle them with minimum stress.

Look for scholarships

Scholarships are not just for traditional students so don’t assume you won’t qualify. In fact, some are reserved for older students. A quick way to search is through FastWeb and FinAid, which report that there are “1.5 million scholarships worth more than $3.4 billion.” FinAid lets you search for these through their clearinghouse system.

Look for unusual scholarships. Yes, there are some are for left-handed students, those who are very short or very tall, and for people with specific last names, just for starters. You can scroll through the odd and even amusing scholarships at

Start early on scholarships and financial aid, long before the deadline for enrolling. Many scholarships disappear fast, and private funds may have a limit.


Visit your old high school guidance counselor where you may learn about other financial assistance programs, and the counselor may be able to give you ideas of tutoring assistance if you think your math and writing skills are a bit rusty. Many retired teachers would be more than happy to help. Also, check with your local employment board or library and see what skill-refresher classes are available.

Or enroll in a night class at a local community college, or an online class from an accredited institution. This will give you a chance to establish your new routine, dust off your skills, and get your family accustomed to their new role in helping you and giving you space to study. A simple refresher class in math or writing might be just the thing. You’ll begin your ‘real classes’ with confidence.

It isn’t easy being a parent or a student, and managing both takes dedication, organization, and support. Set realistic goals, begin with good habits and routines, and it will get easier.