Advice on Succeeding as a Nontraditional College Student

Three nontraditional students walking to parking lot after class.

Although it may seem so at times, you’re hardly alone if you’re considering returning to school after time spent in the workforce. The constant unfolding of new technologies, a still-shaky economy, and an increasing competitive workforce are driving experienced workers back to the classrooms. So-called “nontraditional” learners are not only the fastest growing and largest portion of the student body; they’re arguably among the most driven and self-determined students as well.

While the direct path from high school to undergraduate and graduate level studies has its definite advantages (it’s designed specifically to work that way), it is important to remember that your personal history has prepared you in ways the traditional path could not. And as intimidating as making the decision to return for an advanced degree can be, it may be one of the best decisions you’ve ever made.

Having spent several years or more out of academia and in the real world can be a strength rather than a weakness — if you stay on top of your game, you’ll find yourself a more capable student this time around than you probably ever imagined.

To help you on your journey, here are 7 bits of advice on how to succeed as a nontraditional college student.

#1. Know your peers.

It’s easy to get caught up in the obvious differences (age and experience) that separate you from your classmates, but it’ll be in your best interest to remember, first and foremost, that you’re all in school for the same reason. You simply took a different path. As much as appearances may contradict it, these people are your peers. And while it’s not necessary to infiltrate their social group, it will be infinitely helpful if you’re able to establish a healthy rapport with them. School is their life experience. Traditional college students have, after all, spent over three-quarters of their lives in a classroom.

#2. Know your professors.

While you shouldn’t expect all (or any) of your instructors to act more familiar with you than your younger classmates, your age may still work in your favor here. Many of your professors may see in your decision to return to school a greater level of seriousness and maturity than within many of your peers. By all means, prove that inference to be accurate. Ask insightful questions. Participate meaningfully in discussions. Be a model student. Risk being viewed as an overachiever. Establish a rapport (but never lose sight of who’s in charge).

#3. Use the available resources.

Every school provides its student body with helpful resources; like a career center, student groups, internet access, health services, specialized library collections — and it’s important that you become familiar with what your school provides. Many things have likely changed since you were last enrolled in school, and while standbys like musty library stacks may never go out of style, they’ve made vast changes over the last decade. Use your career center to network, gather information, and contact employers. Take part in student gatherings to make friends and supporters. And obviously, computer/internet access is everywhere: Whether it be computerized classrooms, online libraries, or study sessions, the ubiquitous nature (as well as the ultimate necessity) of the computer and internet in all walks of student life shouldn’t come as a surprise to you.

#4. Stick with good study habits.

Searching for the Ultimate Foolproof Study Method? Stop! No matter what your benefactors say, there is no one right way. Grape soda, potato chips, a forty-watt bulb, a notebook, and three sharp Number Twos might work for your premed nephew, but you might not like grape soda. What then? When it comes to study habits, you have to assess your current study behavior and discover what works best for you. Whether you find studying in short spurts or marathon sessions more effective, or studying alone or in groups, consistency is a must.

#5. Strike an emotional balance.

It’s all too easy, when the pressure of school is combined with that of work and family, to view these as three opposing forces. The outcome of this kind of thinking is to inevitably play one off of the other. The commonly prescribed remedy to this problem is to simply not take your problems from work — or in this case, school — home with you. As good as it sounds, this may neither be the most feasible nor most advisable course of action to establish a proper balance between school and everything else. No, your difficulties at school should never be taken out on your family. But it may not be possible to simply leave your work at school — and if not home, where else can you bring your problems? Just be constructive about it, without slipping into habitual negativity.

#6. Get to know your limitations.

Accept it. You may not be able to cram a month’s worth of lessons into one night of studying like you used to or like some of your fellow classmates. Keep in mind that professors generally assign a few key readings per class so you can consume the information in small chunks. Remember to always follow and plan ahead using the syllabus. Take good notes, and review them as often as is necessary. After all, if you’re juggling a family and/or a part-time work life, how many more panicked all-nighters do you think you have left in you?

#7. Finally, relax.

Remember, you’re in school because you’re exploring possibilities, and you can’t do that if you’re obsessing over details. You held the big picture in mind when you applied; don’t forget that big picture now, when it’ll get you through the crunch to finals and through periods of self-doubt. School is a ton of work, and even more if you’re balancing work and family, but how many people get the chance to do what you’re doing? Have fun — it’ll be over before you know it.

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