How to Succeed in College as an Adult Student

Higher education isn't exclusive to high school graduates. Adult learners have much to gain by going back to college or attending for the first time!

Thinking about joining the ranks of adult college students? If so, you’ll be far from alone. “Many people are now taking advantage of the opportunity to either attend college for the first time or return to it after being in the workforce or starting a family,” says Pierre Morton, Executive Director of Career Development at Franklin Pierce University. “For others, it’s an opportunity to pursue a different career path.” 

While pursuing such goals isn’t uncommon, potential students may find the proposition overwhelming. After all, adults often face challenges not typically experienced by recent high school grads. Full-time jobs, parenthood, and other responsibilities tend to fill up busy days. Additionally, the gap in time since previously attending school may bring insecurities about keeping up with other students. Simply, it may just be hard to get started with something that demands a big time commitment. But such challenges can be overcome. Here’s a look at some no-nonsense strategies for making it as a nontraditional adult college student.    

How to get started

The first thing to do in your college journey is to do research. That means asking some basic questions. Staring with the most important: what college will you attend? If you plan to study locally (which is common among adults, who are less likely to relocate for educational purposes), find out what schools are located within commuting distance. If there aren’t any, identify schools and locations that you find attractive. (The same goes for online offerings.)

The next step

Check out school websites for details such as admission policies, degrees and programs offered, costs, and course calendars. When narrowing down your choices, also review details such as any special programs for adults and course descriptions for programs you’re interested in: Do you want a two-year degree? A bachelor’s? A graduate degree?

The last step

For any schools still on your list after this review, apply for admission by following the steps described on the college’s admission web page. During this process, it’s best to connect with an admission representative or other staff member and have a personal exchange rather than just relying on the info you’ve gathered. A campus visit would also beneficial at this point, but if that’s not possible, pose questions through phone conversations or email.

Related: 4 Things Adult Learners Should Look for in Higher Education

Getting off to a good start

Once you’ve chosen a school and been admitted, you’ll be faced with a number of choices. Setting a goal of beginning (or returning to) college is great, but you’ll eventually need to think in more specific terms.

Selecting a major

At some point you’ll need to select a major, but at the outset you have room to experiment. In fact, Beverly Magda, Associate Provost at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, suggests starting slowly. “Take one class to start getting used to being back in school and to get a feel for the workload and study habits,” she says. After the first term, you can increase your load if time and resources allow. When considering programs, strive for a balance between personal interests and abilities and the potential impact on your future. While learning for the sake of learning can be its own objective, ideally the effort you put in as a student should lead to enhanced career prospects. Your degree could qualify you for an entirely new career, or it might help you advance in a field in which you’re already working.

Attending on campus or online

Some of your choices will focus not just on the content of courses and programs but how it’s delivered. For example, the opportunity to complete studies online shouldn’t be overlooked. In some cases, this means combining online and traditional in-person courses. In other cases, an entire academic program can be completed online. Either way, these courses provide great flexibility for those working around busy schedules with jobs or family responsibilities since the assignments can be completed when you have the time to complete them. Before taking either online option, be sure to check out all the requirements. Students in online courses generally need to be able to work more independently than in classroom-based courses, so be sure you’re a good match for this type of learning. Completing just one online course before proceeding further could be a good option if you’re unsure about it.

Connecting with others

Early on and throughout your time as a college student, connecting with peers will be important to your academic success. Some schools place students in cohorts with other students pursuing similar programs, but if this isn’t the case at your institution, reach out to other adult students.  “Know you aren’t alone in being an adult learner and that there are plenty of others who are in the same situation,” says Lisa Buentello, Assistant Director of Admissions—Transfer Recruitment at the Texas A&M University Prospective Student Center in San Antonio. “Find them and work together as much as possible.”

Related: 4 Things Adult Learners Should Look for in Higher Ed

Taking advantage of support services

Some colleges have special programs for adult students. For example, the University of Wisconsin–Parkside operates a Center for Adult and Returning Students. The center acts as a resource for both potential and enrolled students, providing advice and advocating for adult students across campus. If such services are offered at your school, be sure to take advantage of them. You may be contacted by college staff and encouraged to participate, but if not, it’ll be worth your time to make the initial effort.

If adult-focused services are not available, don’t overlook other programs and services. Every college offers a wide range of support to help students succeed. Advisors focus on helping you choose the right courses. Career counselors offer advice on choosing career paths and identifying job opportunities. Other counselors help in dealing with personal concerns. Common campus services include tutoring, special support for students with disabilities, financial aid counseling, food banks, emergency funds, and more.

 “Take time to think about your personal needs, your strengths, and any area where you anticipate challenges so you can fully explore your support options before you need them,” says Katherine Louthan, Dean of the School of Adult & Online Education at Maryville University. For example, if your institution offers tutoring, don’t procrastinate until the night before a big exam to get help understanding a concept, make sure you’ve checked out your resources in advance so you know what to do when you need help.

Connect me with Maryville!

As you move through your higher education career as a nontraditional student, there are bound to be hurdles. But with persistence and the help of the professionals you’ll meet along the way, you can achieve your college goals.  “There is a support team at every school to help students, whether it’s your fellow classmates, your instructors, the student affairs team, or your department chair or dean,” Magda says. “Faculty and staff want to see students succeed. Take advantage of that and develop relationships with all of them.”

Trying to decide which college to attend as an adult learner? Use our College Search tool to find the best fit for you.

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