How to Choose a No-BS Online Course And Get Back to School the Right Way

How to Choose a No-BS Online Course And Get Back to School the Right Way
31 August, 2023 • ... • 2500 views
Daria Zhuravleva
by Daria Zhuravleva

Tonya is a junior digital marketer. This school year, she set a goal to get a raise but experience alone is not enough to achieve it. Tonya spent the last month looking through dozens of online courses to improve her skills but still can’t decide. What if she wastes her time and money on a scam?

For all the Tonyas out there, we’ve compiled a list of red flags to look for when choosing paid online courses. Follow our hero’s story and learn how to tell if an online course is a scam.

Why should I pay for courses in the first place?

That was the first question Tonya asked herself. She’s not wrong! There are many free courses in well-renowned online schools and even on YoutTube that can give you just as much value. However, learning goes beyond passively consuming information. Here’s what you really pay for when you buy an online course:

  • High-quality feedback. When you pay for a course, ideally, you pay for the tutor’s time. They check your tasks and answer your questions, and high-quality feedback can help a lot in your journey — especially if you’re radically changing your career path or you need advanced training.
  • Structure. Let’s say, you want to become a UX designer. This position requires a long list of skills from drawing mobile app pages in Figma to conducting studies. If you try learning all these skills separately, from different sources, you’ll spend way more time and end up with no clear picture in your head. Meanwhile, a paid course provides you with all the necessary knowledge in one place, prioritized by complexity and importance.
  • Certification. Many companies, especially corporations, look for candidates who completed courses from globally recognized providers. Some of these courses, like HubSpot Digital Marketing Certification, are free. However, in niches like data science, a paid online degree from a well-known university can do a lot for your career.
  • Practice. Online courses provide tests and home tasks so you can start applying your fresh knowledge right away. It’s especially valuable for those students who don’t work in the position they’re learning for yet.
  • Exclusive knowledge. Let’s say, you want to improve your competence in a niche field — for example, social media marketing for Chinese restaurants. You found a course run by an owner of a small but profitable dumpling joint franchise. This course will contain a lot of niche-specific, less common recommendations you won’t find in general social media marketing courses. Such exclusive content and advice from experts in niche industries is worth paying for.
  • Schedule. Most free courses are self-paced. Although this format is convenient for people with full-time jobs, some find it hard to keep their learning routine consistent. Many paid courses provide a strict schedule and deadlines, which can increase your motivation and chances to actually finish the course.
  • Networking. When you sign up for an online group class, you can talk to other students and professionals in your field of choice — who knows, maybe you’ll meet your future colleagues or the love of your life!
  • Portfolio. During a paid course, you often work on a project — and, once you finish the program, you get a case for your portfolio. It’s especially useful for those who are learning a new profession and have no prior work experience. You can finish a project using a free course though — however, with personalized feedback from tutors, you’ll refine it to the portfolio-ready state.

Can you learn it for free?

Lindsey is Tonya’s friend, and she’s never paid for online education — she thinks there’s enough free content online to learn whatever you want. Tonya talked to Lindsey and wrote down a list of cases when free courses are enough:

  • You need to learn new software. If you need to perform a certain task in Figma, paying for a course is too much. YouTube tutorials, a knowledge base, and maybe online forums will do the job.
  • You only need the basics. For example, if you only need a general understanding of SEO, the free course from Ahrefs is enough. It’s also helpful if you’re choosing a new profession but you want to test the waters first.
  • You need to master a specific skill. For example, you’re not going to quit your current job and become a software developer but right now you need to create a simple chatbot in Python. In this case, enrolling in a programming course won’t help — but one or two tutorials on developing chatbots and posts on Stack Overflow will.
  • You don’t need it for the job. Imagine you got into photography but you don’t consider turning it into a side hustle. There are enough free materials online on the technical basics, communities on Reddit will help you with feedback on your early attempts — and the rest is practice. Paying to learn about exposure settings is unnecessary in this case.

Tonya revised the list and decided that free courses won’t cut it now — she needs advanced training and some guidance on her career track. Also, her boss said that her soft skills needed work, so a community where she could talk to people would be a nice addition to her education. So, it’s time to choose a paid online course! 

Now, let’s take a look at some possible red flags and learn how to choose a course that’s worth the money.

Red flags #1: Institutes of BS

We suggest starting the background check for an online course with the provider itself. Below, you’ll find a list of red flags for online schools and non-educational businesses.

Disclaimer: All the illustrations below are not the screenshots of real websites and the text on these images is not based on real websites. We created them as (exaggerated at times) examples.

Online schools

There are many well-known platforms for online education like Coursera, Skillshare, Udemy, you get the drill. Opting for the online courses uploaded to these platforms is a relatively safe choice. But these are not the only organizations that sell online courses — and smaller, less popular, more niche online schools focused on a certain niche can be just as good. Here’s what you need to be careful about:

  • The school name is copying a popular brand with a good reputation, i. e. the name of a prestigious university or an already existing online school.
  • If the school in question calls itself “online college”, it’s not accredited by a well-known institution. It depends on the country but if you’re considering a course produced in the US, here’s the full list of organizations that prove the legitimacy of a college.
  • The provider is not approved by CPD or other organizations. CPD stands for Continuous Professional Development, which is a globally recognized certification for online courses. You can check out your course provider on the official CPD registrar. If you didn’t find your provider there, look for other accreditations, like ECICEL, ICE, or other organizations depending on the country of operation. No accreditation doesn’t necessarily mean the course is bad though — many free or paid short-term courses don’t have it. However, the approval from one of these organizations is vital for paid, long-term “online degrees”.
The landing page header for an online course that says “Kickstart your career with the Oxford Institute of SMM. The only course in social media marketing you’ll ever need”
Sounds like the Oxford Institute of Bullshit to us


Sometimes companies start their own online courses as a way to share their expertise in a niche or create a semi-passive stream of income. For example, a lot of email marketing courses were launched by ESPs like Mailchimp or Selzy. 

If an online course is provided by a non-educational business, it doesn’t mean the course will try and sell you something. For example, free courses in Google Workspace tools run by Skillshop, which is part of Google, are meant for onboarding not promotion — they are actually useful for everyone who started working with Google Ads and other platforms. However, not all businesses are that honest. Check out these red flags before enrolling:

  • The company is too young. A startup that launched 6 months ago can’t provide the same expertise as a corporation that’s been dominating the market for years.
  • The company’s products and services are not good. Check out the reviews and social media mentions.
  • The company has no active social media accounts. The especially massive red flag is no LinkedIn account and no employees officially confirming they work here.
  • The company is not legally registered. The checking method depends on the country of operation.
  • There is a lot of negative news and discussion about the company. Especially if it’s not a big corporation, check out local news and mentions in subreddits and Twitter threads dedicated to scams. 

Red flags #2: Self-proclaimed “experts”

Tonya is still perplexed — she checked out the school and it seems legit but good schools can have bad teachers too. And what about the courses that are not affiliated with any organizations? If you’re like Tonya, don’t worry, we got you covered.

The online course landing page, info on the teachers, it says “Learn from the best. Jane Doe is a successful digital marketer and a business owner”.
Yeah, I know a thing or two about marketing, source: trust me bro

When you scroll through the landing page, pay attention to social media links and how the tutors’ professional achievements are described. Here are the red flags to look for:

  • No social media links at all, especially if there are no LinkedIn links or you can’t Google any mentions or accounts of this person.
  • Vague job descriptions like “expert in [industry]” or “business owner” — which business and who said you’re an expert?
  • Wacky job titles like “transformation specialist”.
  • Fake company names or real names but with no proof that the person actually works there.

Compare the example above with this:

Jane Doe is an owner of Doe Inc. consulting agency and a digital marketer specializing in promoting tech startups. She’s worked with Airbnb, Spotify, Uber, and other companies. Check out Jane’s LinkedIn to learn more.

The tutor in question has a lot of big names in her CV — but you can check her credentials on LinkedIn, which is a huge green flag. The takeaway is, look for the proof of the tutor’s expertise, or you may end up falling for a scam.

Red flags #3: Questionable marketing

The main goal of an online course landing page is a marketing incentive, and they’re designed with conversions in mind. However, how the course is described, even if it’s an advertisement, can give a hint or two — if you know where to look. Let’s dig deeper into the matter.

The promised results

Since Tonya is a marketer, she knows how manipulative promotional campaigns can be. She already threw some of the courses off the table because their promotional content looked like this:

The online course landing page that says “Still can’t pay your bills? Stop whining and learn how to 1. Promote on social media with our foolproof content plans. 2. Become a PRO in marketing in 2 months. 3. Earn money right now and never struggle with paying your rent again.” The page has a spelling mistake: “Tiktok”.
Apparently, pros in digital marketing can’t spell TikTok correctly but still have the audacity to promise instant income from their course. Definitely not a scam!

Here are all the things wrong with this page:

  • The “rags-to-riches” narrative and shaming — if a course promises a quick buck, it’s likely a scam, and if the landing page copy is shaming you into enrolling, it’s definitely a scam.
  • The “from newbie to PRO” promises — it’s especially relevant for shorter courses that last two months or less.
  • The “quick first income” promises — no provider can guarantee getting a job after any course, these claims sound scammy, to say the least.
  • The vague “become a Senior Marketer” promises — the clearer the result is described, the better.

Here’s a better example of promised results. Notice how this copy doesn’t promise anything vague or over the top, and each bullet point is very specific:

You will learn how to:

  • Plan the long-term content marketing strategy using our templates for roadmaps that are suitable for any industry
  • Manage the content production in small remote teams
  • Evaluate the financial efficiency of your strategy and test content marketing hypotheses

The course info

The next thing to pay attention to is what providers tell you about the course itself:

  • No or vague descriptions of the program and structure. Both no information and the lack of detail should raise suspicions. The best case scenario is, the full program of the course including tasks and assessments is available.
  • No free demo. This implies that you don’t know what you’ll be paying for.
  • The outdated program. This one is especially relevant for old online courses that have existed for years. Look for outdated instruments and methods in the program description. These can include tutorials on the non-supported versions of Google Analytics, tips on how to promote your business on non-existing social media platforms, and so on.
The social media marketing online course landing page that suggests learning promotional techniques for Vine and use mass following for growing the Instagram followership
Although the Snapchat module doesn’t look suspicious, Vine is screaming 2016, and mass following is not a legit strategy in 2023. The lack of detail is also concerning

Red flags #4: The untrustworthy reviews

It’s not as easy as “look for negative reviews” — they are important but there are more red flags around. Here are some things to consider:

  • Reviews in one source only. No one will trash talk about their product on the landing page — curated testimonials won’t give you enough information. Check out reviews and discussions on websites like TrustRadius, Quora threads, blogs, and social media. And, if reviews in promotional content are the only thing you can find, it’s not good.
  • Common themes in negative reviews. If there are a lot of detailed reviews discussing the same problem, it’s a red flag.
  • Vague positive reviews. If these reviews are mostly vague or over the top like the example below, don’t trust them.
Course review where an unverified user anonymous1333 tells that this course in digital marketing is the greatest in 2023 and a must for everyone and the user found a job the day after finishing the course
Ok but what was so great about the course, dear anonymous1333?
  • Unverified authors. A lot of unverified reviews, especially positive ones, can be a sign that they were purchased by the course provider — or, in case of negative reviews, its competitor.

Tonya decided not to take one of the courses she was considering specifically because of this review:

A 3-star rating review on the course with a title “Haven’t felt so alone and neglected in ages” where a verified reviewer complains about the lack of community management and the teacher not answering students’ questions
This verified reviewer complains about the lack of community management on the course, describing the issue in great detail

Red flags #5: The content that’s not worth your buck

Tonya still feels uncomfortable about the idea of paying for her education, even if the course is legit. “Even if there is a solid free class, there’s no guarantee that the rest of the content will be just as good, and I’m basically purchasing a pig in a poke”, she was thinking. However, the available program description, reviews, and discussing issues with sales managers can give you a general idea of the course’s content — and whether it’s worth the money.

The format

The biggest red flag when it comes to paid online courses is focusing on one type of content. We mean the situation when the course only offers webinars, video lectures, or longreads. Why is it bad?

Webinars alone may not be convenient to students from different time zones or people with full-time jobs. Video lectures, especially without subtitles, are not accessible to everyone, and are harder to revise — especially if they don’t have time codes for certain topics. And buying a bunch of articles you could read for free is just unreasonable. Meanwhile, diversity is good because each format has its own perks. Some topics are more digestible in the written form, and other topics are too complex to watch on your own. And a short summary of each video lecture increases the accessibility for many people.

The practice

First things first, no practical tasks at all is a major red flag — this course won’t be that different from watching a YouTube playlist. Here are other things to look out for:

  • Focus on one format. Online courses offer different types of practical tasks. For example, tests, multiple-choice or open-ended, are often used to solidify the theoretical part of the course.  Some courses, especially those lasting 3 months or more, imply that by the end of the program, you have a portfolio-ready project. And simulators are a relatively new format that uses elements of gamification — they invite you to follow the story of a character who already works in the industry and solve the tasks that emulate the real job responsibilities The problem is, tests, even with open-ended questions, are good for assessing your memory but not how well you understand the material — and whether you can use it for your work-related tasks. And simulators, if fully automated, are not a good choice for newbies in the niche.
  • The lack or the low quality of feedback. If the tutor only provides you with theory without assessing the progress on your project and giving you detailed and personalized feedback, it’s not worth the money. Online courses with thousands of students often use peer-to-peer feedback. However, if it’s used for complex and time-consuming tasks, a review from your groupmate won’t really help you grow.

Red flags #6: No shoulder to cry on

As we mentioned, the community is one of the most valuable things about paid online courses. Pay attention to the following:

  • No designated time for questions. For example, the tutor is not in the students’ group chat, only answers emails in 2–3 business days, and so on. 
  • No managed community. The provider doesn’t create group chats for students and doesn’t check out on them at all — you’ll end up isolated in the learning process. There’s also no dedicated manager to answer students’ questions and resolve issues, so you don’t even know where to go if there’s a problem.
  • No group tasks and projects. The absence of these is not necessarily a red flag but if the course promises some improvement in soft skills, some kind of team work is a must.

The bottom line

Tonya is still choosing the course — but she has a lot more knowledge and she’s less scared of paying for her education. By now, she’s got in touch with three course providers for extra questions. Here’s a quick reminder of what to check out when you’re choosing a paid online course:

  • The provider. Is this company legally registered and old enough to claim their expertise? Has the company been involved in scandals? If it’s a school, is it accredited by CPD or other organizations?
  • The tutors. Can their achievements in the industry be confirmed by their LinkedIn page or via other sources? How are they described on the landing page?
  • The promotional content. Is the marketing copy shaming you into enrolling and using the “get rich quickly” as the selling point? Are there over-the-top claims like “become a PRO in a month”? Is there a free demo of the course? Is there any information on the course’s structure?
  • The reviews. Does the course have a lot of unverified reviews? Does the course have a lot of negative reviews discussing the same thing? Does the course have a lot of vague positive or negative reviews?
  • The content and the learning process. Which content formats does the course use? Does it have practical tasks? Which type of feedback will you receive?
  • The community. Does the course provider give the opportunity to regularly communicate with fellow students and tutors? Is there a dedicated manager that helps students?

We get it, paying for online education is a tough decision for many. So, if you want to get back to school, why not start small and take a short free course? We’re not hinting at anything but Selzy’s email deliverability course can be a good start for you! It’s run by a legit, award-winning deliverability expert Yanna-Torry Aspraki and it contains all you need to know to never end up in spam again — including a 10-point anti-spam checklist. And the best part is, it will only take you 23 minutes, which is a little longer than an average episode of “What We Do In The Shadows”. Skyrocket your deliverability and come back to school the right way with Selzy!

Article by
Daria Zhuravleva
I'm a writer with 3 years of experience, knowledge and interest in all things IT and marketing, and a passion for the English language. As a staff author at Selzy, I see my mission as an educator who makes your life easier by explaining complex topics in a digestible and somewhat entertaining way. Hobbies include birdwatching, all things music and art, writing freeform poetry, and hiding in the woods.
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