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Back to School Tips for Adults


Adult learners, sometimes called mature students or re-entry students, should take a few extra steps in preparing themselves for the transition back to school. Success for adult learners can be just as much about adjustment as it is about academic performance. To pave a confident path back to school, consider the following tips.

Sample Classes

Some adult learners benefit by testing the waters, enrolling in just one or two courses rather than taking on a full course load. Doing this, you may discover college, in the larger sense, was better in theory than in practice, and that your future goals are better met via another approach altogether. On the other hand, if the program fits and the courses click, a lighter schedule affords you time to make adjustments, to falter and recover, to gauge how you would manage a more demanding schedule in the future.

Upgrade Your Know-how

Depending on the technological demands of your personal and professional lives, you may need to school yourself on the technological tools of academia. Professors use email, list serves, multimedia, and web-tools in the classroom. Libraries are digitally enhanced to the hilt. You don't want to waste study time figuring out the nuances of technology. Fortunately, many schools or their libraries offer help in the way of classes or workshops.

Hone In On Your Goals

Be clear about what you want to accomplish, and steadfast as you set yourself to those goals. The transition back to school can be overwhelming and classes can be heady, exhilarating things. On top of this, adult learners are often juggling work, family, and other commitments. It is crucial to choose a program and a major that match up to your career and life goals - you don't want to go to school just for the sake of going to school; the end result should be useful, worthwhile. It is just as crucial to keep daily pressures at bay, keeping in mind the ultimate goal, no matter how distant it may appear.

Manage Your Time

Time management is important for any student but if you are returning to school while working full time or taking care of a family then the limits on your time are severe. Realize that there are so many hours in the day. Some things will have to wait. Some things will have to fall away. Your education is now a priority. Anticipate, prepare, and prioritize. Use calendars and other time-management tools to track your appointments and responsibilities. Make your schedule known to your family, pertinent coworkers, and friends. Learn how to efficiently delegate tasks. Know that the schedules you make may need constant revision and modification. Finally, take advantage of college resources: colleges offer a wealth of information on time-management for students.

Work Through Your Insecurities

Adults returning to the fold of academia often find themselves anxious, intimated, hesitant - unsure if they are up to the rigors and rhythms of higher education, unsure of how they will measure up to younger students, unsure of how they will fit into the mix and atmosphere of school. Remember that anticipatory fear is often worse than the experience itself, fear that can evaporate as soon as you enter a classroom or look at a syllabus. Understand that these are natural and common insecurities. Allow yourself proper time to adjust and forgive yourself initial failures or missteps. Keep in mind that you are one of many new students, and at any age, the mechanics of school - registration, campus routes, library systems - can be confusing. Don't be embarrassed in asking for help or in taking your time to learn something new. Don't assign yourself exceptional or minority status. Drawn on your experience and maturity.

Honor Your Career Obligations

If you are maintaining a full-time job while attending school you need to be vigilant not to let your job performance suffer. Upholding your work responsibilities will rely on organization, time-management, and stress-management. If your employer is assisting with tuition or is vocal about the value of additional education, you may find that open communication with your supervisors and colleagues may help strike a balance between work and school. If, however, your employer has no stake in your academic achievement, you should objectively assess whether or not to disclose the fact that you're returning to school. Some offices can be encouraging and serve as a support system but others may view school as a drain on your productivity. Consider the environment, consider the politics, and take into account the experiences of co-workers who pursued degrees or equally intensive outside commitments.

Prepare Your Family

Your family may be supportive and encouraging of your plans to return to school but they may be unprepared for all the changes to come. Most likely you will need to recruit your spouse or your children to shoulder a heavier load at home. Anticipate how the household will have to run without you: how chores will change, how homework time differs, how meals are made. Everyone in your family will have to adjust to spending less time with you and learn how to make the most of that precious free time you have to spare. Teach them that your study time is not to be disturbed and in exchange provide them family time in your schedule. Consistent blocks of time with your family - even short breaks here and there - can help alleviate a sense of chaos and the fear that they are coming last in your life.

Connect with Others

Whether it is your academic advisor, your professors, or classmates, connecting with those around you will make the entire college experience more enjoyable. This is also true with online colleges, as social interaction can only help hold you accountable for assignments and motivate you to task. Make time for your advisors, professors, and classmates, as well as on-campus groups, whether academic or extracurricular. You may also want to seek out other adult learners, particularly if you find yourself experiencing anxiety about returning to school. Be warned: the social opportunities may be greater than what you can realistically manage - pick and choose, prioritize, and favor those connections that stoke your enthusiasm and motivation for school itself.

  • The Adult Student's Guide to Survival and Success, Al Siebert, PhD & Mary Karr, MS
  • Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students, Carole S. Fungaroli, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
  • The Busy Adult's Guide to Making College Happen, Geoffrey Schmidt, Break Free Publishing, 2008
  • "Adults in Session" by Amy Hoak, MarketWatch (

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