College Survival: The Nontraditional Student’s Guide to Surviving College

For the older student, going back to school can be a frightening experience. Many people choose to go back to school to obtain the degree that they have always wanted, to effect a career change, loss of employment, and for many other reasons.

Continuing your education is hard work. You must be able to prioritize and organize. Balancing school and home life can be extremely challenging, and more so if you have children at home. There are many things that you can do to help you manage the college work load, ease your stress, and increase your chances of college success.

What are your goals? If your goal is to take a class just to gain knowledge, you will be better off to take a community education class that doesn’t require grading and homework. Many community colleges offer community education classes, and the fees are usually low. If your goal is to obtain a degree, have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and reaching your goal will be much easier.

If you want to succeed in college, you need to determine what is the most important to you. During my college years I had classmates that had low grades or failed because the football game came before homework. Movies came before homework. Traveling came before homework. Procrastination only hurts you as a student, and shows that you are not serious about your education.

Planning your finances while in college is something that every college student must do. Nontraditional students often have back-up sources of income such as a working spouse, parents, or other family members that can help with the cost of college. Financial Aid is also an option, and your school will have information on how to apply. Planning for expenses outside of college also has to be included in your financial planning. A solid financial plan will help minimize leaving college due to financial issues.

Choose your major carefully. Decide what you want to do after graduation and choose a curriculum that corresponds with your needs and desires. Pay close attention to when classes are offered by your school because many required classes are offered semiannually or annually, and you might have to spend extra time in school just to get one or two required classes. Try to take the required classes first, then take any electives. I always enrolled in the required classes that were offered each term and enrolled in an elective class to fill any gap in my mandatory credit load.

Managing your time is essential to succeeding in college. Each class requires at least two hours of study time outside of class per hour spent in class. For example, if your class is meets three hours per week, your study time for that class is six hours per week. A time management tool such as a day planner is great for time management. You can use a calendar, notebook, or anything that works to help you with time management. Time blocks can be designated for studying, homework, research, work, family time, errands, and a multitude of activities. Balancing school and life isn’t easy but it can be manageable.

Class attendance is critical to your success because it is a supplement to your textbook and other course materials. Many instructors and professors include attendance in their grading system, and missing classes can cost you points. Attendance affects your grade, and missing class when it is not due to illness or other extenuating circumstances is self defeating.

College classes are taught at a very fast pace. A math class that takes all year in high school is taught in one term in college. Planning your homework and working ahead when possible are things that will help keep you on track. Know when your assignments are due, and don’t procrastinate. Writing a term paper the day it is due almost always guarantees a low grade because your concentration is on getting the paper done, and things such as facts, citations, spelling and grammar errors are often overlooked.

Ask questions and get involved in class discussions. Learn your instructor’s teaching style, expectations, and preferences for assignments. If you don’t understand something, meet with your instructor after class or schedule office time to go over what you need help with. If you are getting low grades, seek tutoring in those subjects. Many colleges have tutors on campus that provide free tutoring to students.

College provides a learning environment to students who want to learn, but it is up to you to go to class, seek help, study, and ask questions. Your investment in your education is what determines your return so make the best of it. Think of it as money in the bank; the more you put in, the bigger the return you receive.

College changes your life. You will have good times and difficult times, and the rewards are greater than the sacrifices. The college experience is unforgettable; it is a time to learn and try new things, meet new people, and make new friends. It takes persistence, commitment and dedication to get through college but you can do it. Use your support systems to help you through the rough times, and don’t give up.

When you make it through, celebrate your success and make a toast to your future.

According to the United States Department of Education, non-traditional college students make up 47% of the overall student population. Other studies and experiences show that older students bring life experiences to the classroom that are related to family, work, and culture.

I went back to school in my early 40’s, and did extremely well. I had to sacrifice personal and family time, projects, and many other things. Time management, diligence, and a strong desire to learn became my friends. I really enjoyed my college experience and made the best of it. You can too.