Choosing to attend college as an adult student can be as overwhelming as it is exciting. Even for those who love learning, the thought of being graded, remembering how to write a proper essay, or taking exams can bring back anxieties you haven’t felt in years. But even if your study skills are a little rusty, don’t forget that you’ve had more years of work and life experience to get to know yourself—your strengths and weaknesses—than students of traditional college age, and it is precisely these insights that will help you steer a course to success.
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If the thought of going back to school gives you butterflies, build up your confidence with these 7 tips for adult learners:
1. Research resources for adult students.
The first decision you’ll have to make is where to attend college. If there are community, private, or public colleges close enough for you to enroll, research what resources they offer to help nontraditional students earn their degrees—full-time versus part-time curriculums, night classes, technology support services, online coursework, and a place to meet with other nontraditional students are all helpful resources for adults in college. A quick and easy way to get started is to visit a school’s website and search with the keyword “nontraditional student.”
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2. Test drive some online classes.
If the degree program you’re interested in isn’t available at a nearby college, or if you prefer not to travel, an online degree program is something you can look into. Many colleges offer full online programs or blended degree programs that allow you to do much of the coursework online at your convenience along with scheduled in-class time to meet with your professor and fellow students. If you don’t feel confident you can learn without being physically in a classroom at all times, try signing up for free online college-level courses to test out how well you like the format before investing in a full online degree.
Free online college courses, also called MOOCs (massive open online courses), are taught by professors from top-tier colleges and universities. Most do not result in college credit, but a few do, and more are expected to be approved by credit recommendation services in the future. Hundreds of these courses in every subject area are available through LearningAdvisor.com. If you find after trying some that you prefer to attend a physical campus, you can still use free online courses to brush up on your college skills before you start a degree program.
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3. Know your learning style.
Educators have pinpointed three main learning styles that students excel in to different degrees—visual, auditory, and tactile (also called kinesthetic). The degree to which you learn best in any of these styles will determine the study methods that will help you be successful.
- Visual learners, for instance, should sit at the front of a classroom so they won’t be distracted by things going on around them. They will also benefit from using study tools like highlighters and diagrams.
- Auditory learners can find soothing music helpful to their study process, and they memorize their material best by explaining it out loud to others.
- Tactile learners must do things in order to learn—clicking on a computer screen, using sticky notes, and taking exercise breaks are all helpful tools for this kind of learner.
4. Brush up on your writing skills.
You know there’s a lot of writing to be done in college, but you may have forgotten some of the formal rules to use when formatting papers from essays to dissertations. The best practice for writing is, of course, writing, so why not shake out the cobwebs with free online college-writing courses? Kaplan University Open Learning offers College Composition I and II to help get you started. Taking these courses is also a good introduction to Kaplan University’s instructional methods in case you’re considering an online college degree.
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5. Practice your critical thinking skills.
Do you remember what it’s like to analyze information, debate opinions, or convince someone of a legitimate point of view? Are you sure even have a legitimate point of view? College is about learning how to think independently, rationally, and reasonably. If you need to brush up on your critical thinking skills, there are free online courses for that as well. Try Logic and Critical Thinking, a self-paced course from the free online education site Saylor.org.
6. Learn more about college research.
If you need a primer on scientific research methods for your major, Saylor also offers a free, two-part Research Methods class that covers the research methods typically used in social science courses. If you need to learn the most effective way to present your research once it’s done, Udemy—another online course provider—offers a low-cost online class on How to Write an Effective Research Paper. This course has received top reviews and includes a free research paper template for your future use.
Of course, today most research involves using computers (even if you go to the library, the old card catalogs have become computer databases), so adult students must learn how to properly cite digital material in their research papers, something we never had to do as students before. Check out your school’s library web page for helpful resources in this area. Many college library websites also list librarian phone numbers and email information so you can ask them questions directly if that’s your preference.
7. Let your experience shine!
Whether you choose to go back to school online or in person, remember that you have a lot to bring to the table. Brush up on your skills and have confidence that you will adapt quickly. From the very beginning of your studies, share your thoughts and experiences with students of all ages through classroom discussions and virtual chat rooms and get involved in campus activities.
After a 20-year career as a firefighter, Camille Theriaque went back to school at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “It is so enriching to be able to meet people of various ages and experiences and to connect with young people,” she shares about her college experience. “You hear in the news that we’re doomed, that the next generation is not stepping up,” she explains, but one thing she’s learned is that young people are interested in what’s going on in the world. “We can impart our wisdom to them in so many ways that they’re not getting from the news and from social media,” she says.
And she has a message to send other adults thinking about going to college—”Do it!”