The thrilling yet daunting feeling of standing on the cusp of a transformative journey back into the world of education as an adult might seem new to you.
But, it’s an experience shared by many.
While I haven’t experienced this challenge firsthand, I have many friends, family, and colleagues who have — I have even studied under one!
Throughout this article, I’ll take you through the top 13 tips I have gathered from vicariously living with these remarkable people. Hopefully, these will help you overcome the nervousness of embarking on this journey and maximize your success ahead.
What You Need to Know Before You Go Back to College as an Adult
Before enrolling in a program or degree, adult students returning to college need to be prepared for a number of things just like all students do. According to this study, adult learners are at high-risk for academic underachievement and dropping out.
These are the most important questions to ask yourself when you’re preparing to resume your educational journey —
Know Your Goals and Motivations
- What made you want to return to school?
- What goals do you have for college?
Some common reasons why adults choose to go back for their degrees are to increase their earning potential, find a new career path, complete their degree, or to gather new skills.
It’s good to have clear motives for returning so you can make better decisions regarding your program or degree.
Know Your Options and Opportunities
- Which different programs or degrees are available?
- Do they match your goals?
- What are the eligibility criteria, expenses, and advantages of these programs?
Making an informed selection and identifying the option that best suits you will be made easier with comprehensive study and comparison.
The adaptability, duration, accreditation, curriculum, and reputation of each program are a few things you might want to take into account.
Know Your Resources and Support
- What are your financial aid options?
- What are your academic support services options?
- Do you have personal support networks to help with challenges?
Financial aid options include loans, scholarships, grants, work-study, and employer assistance. Academic support includes tutors, advisors, mentors, and counselors.
As for personal support, friends, family, and peers make up the most of it. Having these systems available to you are necessary for a successful academic journey.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
- Which abilities do you now possess, and which do you need to develop?
- How do these abilities fit into your selected course of study or degree?
- What potential difficulties may you encounter?
You may overcome study-related problems including burnout, bad time management, meeting deadlines, cramming, and revising by making an accurate evaluation of your skills and shortcomings.
Know Your Duties and Expectations
- What obligations do you have to yourself, and what goals do you have for yourself?
- How do they impact your ability to combine job, life, and school?
- How can you effectively handle them?
Finding balance between what you need to do and what you expect can help you advance in your academic journey.
Some important factors to consider while assessing your expectations and commitments are: maintaining attendance, submitting assignments on time, part-time working, tending to family, and finding time for rest.
13 Tips for Adults Returning to College
I’ve asked adult learners in the U.S. who were going back to school, especially those between 25 and 45 years old, about the reasons that inspired them to pursue higher education and the best suggestions and guidance they had for others who were following a similar path.
From the answers I’ve gathered, I put together these 13 tips that were commonly mentioned.
1. Set Clear Goals
Clearly define your reasons for returning to college. Is it to change jobs, get a new degree, or pick up new skills?
Knowing your objectives will keep you motivated and focused.
To set proper goals, follow the SMART method. Make sure your goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
For example, instead of “I want to get a better job,” say, “I want to get a bachelor’s degree in accounting by X year and apply for a senior accountant position at Y company.”
By doing this, you can not only track your progress but adjust your goals if you need to.
2. Choose the Right Program
You should also set goals that you are passionate about and enjoy doing. Choosing a major or program that aligns with your values and interests, reflects your personality, and is worth the effort will make the process less tasking. Plus, its total costs should fit in with your budget and annual income.
The program’s flexibility is measured by how effectively it can take into account your specific demands, learning preferences, and timetable.
You could favor part-time enrollment over full-time enrollment, for instance, or online courses over those offered on-campus. Programs that provide accelerated, self-paced, or competency-based options can also be considered.
Looking at the course offerings will give you a good insight into whether the quality, variety, and relevance of the courses that a program provides covers the topics and skills you are interested in.
Also the duration of a program is also important since it will determine when you’ll get your degree. You can choose from a program that has a shorter or longer time frame, depending on your busyness, budget, and goals.
3. Financial Planning
Before applying, thoroughly look through the cost of registrations and the availability of financial aid programs for your target colleges. This includes scholarships, grants, and loans.
Then, create a budget to monitor your spending. If necessary, also look into part-time jobs or internships.
Consider the cost of your education, which includes tuition, fees, books, supplies, and other expenses. Compare program and school costs, factoring in potential lost income or career advancement while studying.
Explore financial aid options like scholarships, grants, loans, work-study, or employer assistance to help fund your education. Research eligibility, terms, and conditions of each type of aid.
Create and maintain a budget to manage your income and expenses. Determine available funds, required expenses, and savings or spending plans. Regularly review and adjust your budget based on your actual financial situation.
4. Time Management
Time management is crucial. Create a study schedule, use a planner, and prioritize your tasks. Learn to say no to non-essential commitments during busy periods.
Balancing work, family, and school can be tough. Plan your class schedule and study time carefully. Online courses or evening classes may provide more flexibility for working adults.
Your class schedule should align with your availability, preferences, and learning needs. Avoid taking on too many or overly challenging classes simultaneously.
Create a study schedule to manage your time for classes, assignments, and exams. Specify when, where, what, and how long you’ll study. Consistently follow and adjust the schedule as needed.
Utilize a planner to organize tasks, deadlines, and reminders. Choose one that offers a clear view of your daily, weekly, or monthly agenda. Opt for a planner that syncs with your devices, provides event alerts, and tracks your progress.
Develop the skill of prioritization to identify important or urgent tasks. Rank tasks by difficulty, value, or deadline. Prioritize based on your goals, preferences, and energy levels to maximize efficiency.
5. Build a Support Network
Share your goals with friends and family so they can provide support and understanding. Connect with fellow students, especially adult learners, to build a study group or support system.
Support services such as counseling, tutoring, and career services are available for most colleges. If your target college offers these, take advantage of these incredibly helpful resources when you need help!
Tutoring services are great for adult learners because they can help you get back into the flow of learning. Utilize online, in-person, or appointment-based tutoring options.
At times when you’re feeling stressed, dissatisfied, or trapped, get help; consider using a private counseling service that’s either free or inexpensive.
Make use of career services from advisors or coaches for assistance when job hunting, changing careers, or advancing in your field.
Lean on your friends and family, who know you well and genuinely care. They can offer emotional, practical, and financial support in challenging times and moments of celebration by sharing your goals with them.
Connect with fellow students who understand your academic journey. They provide academic, social, and professional support, so engage with them for study sessions, socializing, and networking opportunities.
Most of all, turn to other adult learners who share your experiences and challenges. They offer empathy, inspiration, and guidance, making them excellent study partners or sources of motivation and mentorship.
6. Stay Organized
Keep all your class materials, assignments, and important dates well-organized. Consider digital tools like calendars, apps, or physical planners to help you stay on top of your responsibilities.
Gather your class materials, including textbooks, notes, and handouts, and store them in a designated folder, binder, or digital cloud storage. To stay organized, label, sort, and update your materials regularly.
Track your assignments, such as essays, reports, and quizzes, in a separate folder, file, or document. Be thorough in reviewing assignment instructions, requirements, and rubrics to ensure successful completion.
Remember crucial dates like deadlines and exams by using a calendar, app, or planner. Set reminders, alarms, or notifications to stay on top of important dates and meetings, keeping your schedule in check.
7. Stay Healthy
Prioritize self-care! This means you need to get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and eat healthy meals. Your physical and mental well-being is crucial for your academic success.
Support your health and performance by maintaining a nutritious and balanced diet.
To ensure you don’t fall sick, opt for foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber while avoiding foods that are high in fat, high in sugar, and high in salt.
Incorporate regular exercise into your routine to enhance strength, endurance, and flexibility. Try to get around 2 hours of physical activity per week. You can try activities such as walking, jogging, swimming, or jump-roping.
Make sure you receive enough restorative sleep, ideally seven hours every night, by adhering to healthy sleeping habits.
Establish a regular bedtime, avoid caffeine and alcohol before sleep, and power down electronic devices to promote quality rest for your body and mind.
8. Effective Study Habits
Develop effective study habits. Find a quiet and comfortable place to study, eliminate distractions, and break your study sessions into manageable chunks of time.
Choose a quiet and comfortable study location that aligns with your preferences and needs. Ensure it offers sufficient space, good lighting, and proper ventilation. Seek out a place free from disturbances, noise, and distractions.
Minimize distractions that could disrupt your focus, motivation, or productivity. Silence your phone, computer, or TV, and resist the urge to check email, social media, or messages during study sessions.
Break your study sessions into manageable time intervals by adopting techniques like the Pomodoro method. Study for 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break, allowing you to tackle tasks in smaller, more achievable increments.
9. Seek Academic Assistance
If you need assistance with your coursework, don’t be afraid to ask for it. You can get help from your professors, tutors, and academic advisers.
Professors are the experts who teach and evaluate your coursework. They provide valuable assistance by explaining concepts, addressing queries, offering feedback, and providing guidance. Connect with them through office hours, emails, or class discussions.
Tutors are available to aid you with academic subjects like math, writing, or languages. They can help you review material, solve problems, enhance your skills, and prepare for exams. Access their support online, in person, or by appointment.
Academic advisors serve as counselors for your academic journey, offering guidance on your plan, progress, and objectives. They assist with course selection, credit transfer, meeting requirements, and exploring educational options.
Connect with your assigned advisor, visit the advising center, or attend advising sessions to benefit from their expertise.
10. Stay Persistent
Although there may be difficulties along the path, perseverance is the secret to success. Remind yourself of the reason you started this adventure.
Adult students in the United States have a low completion rate for bachelor’s degrees. According to a study by Berker, Horn& Carroll, only 62% of students complete their bachelor’s degree within six years of their first enrollment. The researchers found out that, graduates are more persistent in their studies than dropouts.
Persist in your pursuit of goals, maintaining a positive attitude, strong will, and a growth mindset. Learn from mistakes, conquer fears, and actively seek feedback to overcome difficulties and obstacles.
Stay motivated by nurturing a clear vision, a strong purpose, and a rewarding outcome. Visualize your success, discover your passion, and celebrate incremental progress to fuel your drive and action.
Recall the reasons that prompted your return to college as an adult. Reflect on your values, interests, and aspirations to stay committed to earning a degree, acquiring new skills, or pursuing a career change.
11. Flexibility and Adaptability
Be prepared to adapt to changes and unexpected events. Being adaptable is important since life may be unpredictable.
Develop a flexible attitude characterized by resourcefulness, innovation, and open-mindedness. Explore various options, devise alternative solutions, and be willing to make compromises as needed.
Foster adaptability to effectively navigate changes and challenges. Develop resilience, take proactive measures, and maintain a positive outlook. Learn new skills, seek fresh opportunities, and embrace new experiences to enhance your adaptability.
Embrace a flexible mindset characterized by a curious, humorous, and optimistic outlook. Ask questions, find humor in challenging situations, and focus on the positive aspects to effectively handle uncertainty and complexity.
12. Celebrate Achievements
Recognize and celebrate your achievements, whether it’s taking an exam, completing a challenging project, or reaching a milestone in your program.
Don’t be afraid to appreciate your efforts, progress, and results. Take pride in your achievements, keep a journal, share success stories, and, most importantly, reward yourself.
Express happiness and satisfaction by celebrating your successes. Cultivate gratitude, stay positive, and find joy in your accomplishments. Celebrate achievements with parties, trips, or enjoyable activities.
Celebrate academic, personal, or professional milestones, whether it’s taking an exam, completing a project, or earning a degree. These achievements can be a source of motivation and encouragement.
13. Maintain a Work-Life-Study Balance
Striking the right balance between work, family, and study is crucial. Communicate with your employer and family about your commitments to ensure support.
Balance work responsibilities by managing time and setting boundaries. Share goals with your family for support and involvement in your education.
Nurture personal relationships with family and friends. Seek their support and share your goals to maintain a balanced work-life-study dynamic. According to a study on Adults who attended weekend college programs, students who are satisfied with their school and have support from their family and workplace tend to experience lower stress levels.
Pursue academic goals by prioritizing tasks and rewarding yourself, ensuring harmony in your work-life-study balance.
Reasons to Go Back to College as an Adult
While some people drop out of college to find their purpose, many others find themselves going back to complete their educational journey.
The common reasons among adult learners going back to college to pursue their degrees are —
- Increase your earning potential and advance your career.
- Start a new career path or change your field of work.
- Finish your degree or pursue a higher level of education.
- Learn new skills, knowledge, and technologies.
- Fulfill your personal or professional goals and interests.
- Enjoy the academic and social benefits of college life.
- Inspire yourself and others with your achievements.
To sum up, returning to college as an adult can be challenging, but it’s extremely rewarding once you experience it. You can thrive and reach your goals while still having fun on your learning journey with the correct preparation, a clear plan, and support.
I really hope that these tips will enable you to maximize your education and fulfill your potential. Good luck with your studies!
- Adults returning to school: the impact on family and work (2004 Jan) by Peter G Kirby, Joan L Biever, Isaac G Martinez, John P Gómez
- Examining the Experiences of Adult Learners in Higher Education (2021 Dec 17) by Jyotsna Kalavar, Kirsten Magda, and Raquel Ariyo
- Returning to College: An Exploration of the Perceptions and Experiences of Adults as Undergraduates
by Sweeney, Nancy J.