Going Back to School as a Mature Student
Hi, my name is Karen and I am a mature student. I am twenty years older than some of the people in my classes but, surprisingly, I'm also more than 20 years younger than some of them as well. Going back to school as an adult is becoming increasingly popular, and not just for those of us experiencing a mid-life, mid-career crisis, but also, admirably in my opinion, for many who have finished their career but aren’t quite ready to finish their quest for new knowledge.
Reasons to go back to school later in life are many and varied. You may not have had the time or money at a younger age. You may not have had the relevant qualifications (most schools have different entry requirements for mature students that take into account life experience as well as, or instead of, formal qualifications). You may not have needed college level qualifications for your job and now you do. You may want to change career, or you may have retired and want to study purely for personal interest and stimulation.
Whatever your reasons, you’re unlikely to be alone. You may be amazed how many other retraining middle executives/returning to work moms/over 65 year olds there are in your classes. Certainly some of the 18 year old recent high school graduates are often surprised by how many “wrinklies” there are in their classes and sometimes staggered by how well some of us tend to do with our studies (perhaps they think that anyone in their 30s, 40s or above is too much of an old dog to learn any new tricks, and boy are we determined to prove them wrong).
Mature students, you see, tend to do well. This may be because we have more relevant life experience to lend complexity and examples to the theory we’re learning. It may be because juggling work and family life has helped us develop good organisational and time management skills. It may be because funding our degrees ourselves gives us focus and motivation. It may be because we’ve learnt the hard way that things worth having usually have to be worked hard at. It may even be that after spending years lecturing our kids about the importance of doing well at school, we don’t want the embarrassment of having to admit to them that Mom got a C-. And it doesn’t hurt that most of us don’t spend lectures hiding behind our laptops facebooking because, well, let’s face it, once you hit 30 your social life somehow becomes just another part of your life rather than the driving force behind your will to live.
So if you are planning a late-in-life return to education what are some of the things you should consider?
How to fund it.
Presumably your parents aren’t going to want to pay for your education once you’ve left home, had a few jobs, a few kids and maybe one or more spouses. You will have to pay your fees and support yourself this time around, but don’t despair. Student loans are available for mature students and if you are a parent or senior you may find you’re eligible for extra financial help and/or tax breaks.
Also ask about scholarships, bursaries and work on campus – work you may be far more qualified for than many younger students. Don’t rule out your employer as a source of funding. If you study part-time and stay in full time employment some employers may be willing to pay part of your fees if your course is related to your job.
Most mature students do work part-time, but then so do most younger students. The recession is biting and many parents can’t provide the support they used to for their college bound offspring. If you’re changing careers, now might be a good time to get some part-time experience on the bottom rung of the ladder you’re hoping to climb.
Where to study.
Some schools have a lot more age diversity than others. Check out the campus you want to attend to see if you think you would feel comfortable there and see if you can talk to other mature students already attending. Some schools have a requirement that mature students start off studying part-time (depending on their educational background). This can be a good thing as it lets you "try on" a new life and decide whether you can commit to it full time.
Many mature students don’t have much of a choice. We tend to go to school where our life is. It’s hard to pick up and move somewhere else if we have kids in school, a house with a mortgage, a spouse with a job or maybe an ex-spouse who we still co-parent with who has a life in a certain area.
Don’t be put off going back to school because you don’t have the choices you may have had at 18. Research the options, and make the best of what’s available. If some courses you want to take aren’t available at your local school look into online courses (make sure your school will accept the credits you earn online) or find out if you can travel a bit further one day a week to take a certain course elsewhere and use those credits towards your final qualification.
One quick warning. Studying online often seems like a great option for a mature student but some qualifications aren’t accepted by employers the same way campus based qualifications are, especially when it comes to degrees. Be very careful to thoroughly research online degrees and make sure they are legitimate and widely accepted in your industry before parting with any money.
What to study
Mature students tend to put a lot of thought into what to study. We tend to have a plan in going back to school and be very focussed on an end goal. You rarely find older students pursuing undeclared (and undecided ) majors because they just wanted to go to college. If you have a career plan in mind going back to school make sure you meet with an advisor early on to make sure you have all the pre-requisites you’re going to need, especially if your degree, for example, is one step in a bigger plan to go on to graduate school or obtain other professional qualifications.
One area some mature students really enjoy can be optional courses. If you have to complete a certain amount of electives and you have complete free choice, don’t be afraid to pick things that really interest you. By now you probably know your own mind better than you did as a teenager and this can be a great opportunity to pursue your true passions, whether it’s art, astronomy or gender studies. Take advantage of the fact that you’re not an 18 year old who has no idea what he wants to do (which may lead him to pick elective courses based solely on the fact that they don’t start at 8.00 am Monday morning).
How to study
So it’s been a while... It can seem overwhelming to return to school after 10, 20 or even 50 years out of the formal education system. You will, most likely, have forgotten how to study effectively, if indeed you ever learned in the first place.
The advantage you have is that you know you need to learn to study. Many high school graduates think they know it all. They just graduated after all and they can’t have forgotten how to study over the course of one summer. Unfortunately college level studying is very different from high school level studying, and most people who use the exact same techniques discover this very quickly. Don’t be afraid to attend study skills workshops run by your school’s academic services. I've written whole articles about how to learn, or re-learn, good study techniques. You can check one of them out at the link below.
When I first went to college 20 years ago the mature students tended to stand out. They looked different, acted different and dressed different. They didn’t always seem to have a firm grasp on technology. They seemed to have more in common with the professors than the other students. These days things are changing. Whether you’re in your 40’s or your teens, you’re still likely to wear jeans and a hoodie, listen to an ipod and own a laptop.
Combine this with the fact that there are so many older students on campus anyway and it’s probable that looking like you fit in won’t be a problem. Feeling like you do could be more of a challenge. It’s easy to feel disconnected from other much younger students and question what the hell inspired you to think you could do this. The day I overheard a teenage student talking about the date she’d been on, and how she’d got so drunk she’d thrown up I went home and told my husband I’d made a mistake. College was not for me. As I recall I also had a few glasses of wine – but I didn’t throw up. I drink good quality wine these days and didn’t want to waste it.
However, I’m back on track now and a big part of that has been realizing that everyone does their college years differently, and that’s OK. Connecting with other mature students is a help. So is connecting with your professors. You also need to keep your goals in mind in times of doubt and crisis. And remember if you do screw up your kids will get a lot of pleasure from saying “Wow, Mom (or Dad),I can’t believe you got a C-“.
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