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Online college: Do you need test scores?

Many colleges rely on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT because they put all applicants on a level playing field. After all, a B average at one high school might be equal to an A or C average in other schools. And then there are home-schooled applicants--their moms probably give them all straight As, right? To up your chance of getting a good score, you can take the official full practice test, study with friends or enroll in a prep course. Didn't like your results? You can retake the SAT--many find that their scores improve with more practice and preparation.

Do all online schools require an SAT? A fair number of online and campus-based colleges do not require standardized tests; they may look at your ranking within your class, have you write an essay, or evaluate your work history, volunteer activities and letters of recommendation.

Transcripts of your high school and college coursework

You will almost certainly have to provide your online college with transcripts from every school that you attended starting with ninth grade. But you can't just drop by your old school(s) and grab a few copies, because some students might be tempted to "upgrade" their records before passing them on to colleges. The transcripts have to be sent directly from your old high schools and colleges to the ones you are interested in applying to. These days, you can generally get your class records online. Just go to your school's Web site and fill out the request for transcripts or send them an email. You'll also have to prove that you are you and pay some fees. One more thing--if you left your old school with unpaid parking tickets, bounced checks at the book store, or you never got around to paying your lab fees, the school can and probably will withhold your transcripts until you pay up.

Taking an online class means you need equipment

It's not your grandpa's college--besides books and traditional school supplies, you'll need a little bit more specialized equipment.

Naturally, the most important apparatus is your computer. Ideally, you want one with a decent-sized monitor, a reasonably speedy processor and a fair amount of memory. Most schools still operate with Windows-based systems, but others (especially if you will be studying graphic arts) may have switched to Mac, so check with your school before buying anything.

Then there are your peripherals--you may be able to spend less on your PC if you choose a desktop rather than a laptop, but then you need to add the cost of a desk, chair, etc. Laptop users can get away with study pillows and lap desks. In addition, a laptop gives you the freedom to study away from home. You'll probably want a printer and perhaps a scanner (students with small workspaces may choose an all-in-one that faxes, scans, copies and prints). Depending on the class, you might need extra technology such as a digital camera (no, you probably can't use your smart phone for your photography class!).

Got class? You need software too

You'll need a working email address, but if your address is something like pukingpartyanimal@isp.com, you might want to get something a little more dignified for communicating with your professors. You also need a good word processing program like Word for writing assignments (Open Office is free), and you may need a spreadsheet program like Excel if you take business classes.

If any lectures will be broadcast live via webcam, you need some form of multimedia software such as Flash in order to view the class and participate. Most of this software is available for download free of charge. If you take a graphics class you might need Photoshop or other software; many of these are available in student versions that cost significantly less than what is sold to the public. You may be able to order them through your online school.

Nice but not necessary

Smartphones can be helpful to time-strapped online college students, particularly those with family obligations and careers. However, campus-based students may have greater need for this technology because they may spend all day at school and away from their computers--a smartphone helps them keep up. Ditto the iPad--most experts tout it as a portable stand-in when you don't have access to a regular computer but it doesn't have the workhorse capability required for most college classes. Internet television is another one of those luxuries that might be nice to have--you can download your entertainment and share it with a roomful of buds--but unless you have very generous parents or a high-paying job you should probably save your money.

Online classes and world domination

According to research firm Ambient Insight, by 2014 only 5.14 million students will take all of their courses in a physical classroom, while 3.55 million will take all of their classes online and 18.65 million will take some of their classes online. So even if you aren't completely sure if you will get a degree online, you should plan to get access to the appropriate technology just to be prepared.