Ten Practical and Inspiring Tips for Adult Learners
Returning to a formal education environment as an adult can be an intimidating experience, even to the most eager adult learners. High-achieving working professionals must grapple with challenges they may not be used to. Education can, and should, be unsettling from time to time–that’s part of what makes it invigorating. You will start to make connections that you never saw before, or learn to think in ways that you never imagined could be possible. The more you learn, the more you realize that you know a lot less than you think you do, which is actually one of the marks of an educated person.
Below are 10 practical and inspiring tips for adult learners considering returning to college.
1. Research the Best Program
Your time as an adult learner is limited and valuable, so be sure to carefully consider which program is going to best serve your needs. Do some research, and that doesn’t just mean checking out a bunch of different websites. If a school interests you, contact them to see if they can put you in touch with current students or recent graduates who might be able to give you an insider’s perspective. Read online reviews, and seek out recommendations from mentors, friends, and coworkers.
2. Let Program Staff Know Who You Are
Develop a relationship with the academic advisors and program administrators at your school. Do not treat them like customer service representatives, however. Approach them as the professional counselors that they are. Education is not a product you buy off the shelf. Keep in mind that when you pay tuition, you aren’t paying for a particular grade, and certainly not for a degree itself; what you are paying for is the OPPORTUNITY to learn from, and have your learning assessed by, experts in their fields.
3. Prioritize Your Education
Striking a balance between your work, family and social life, and your schooling is something that all adult learners are navigating. Carve out physical and psychic space for your studies, and honor that space by removing distractions and perfecting your ability to focus. It doesn’t matter how you schedule yourself, just that you keep to a schedule that works. If 2-hour study sessions are too much, for example, break them up into shorter sessions. It’s OK to reorganize when necessary. The key is to remember that you have to do the work to achieve the results.
4. Keep the Long-term in Mind
It can be dispiriting for a prospective adult learner to think, “I’m 32 and just starting with my master’s degree and at best it will be three years before I finish. I may never get there!” Conquer these types of energy-sapping thoughts by imagining what life will be like when you’re 38, and have been walking the earth for three years already with your master’s degree. You’ll be sure to appreciate how young you still are and how much you have accomplished!
5. Don’t Let the Big Picture Overwhelm You
It will be easier to prioritize your education when you focus on what you can do with the time that you have, and not allow yourself to dwell on all of your responsibilities at once. Many adult learners find themselves planning weddings, having babies, dealing with caretaking duties, or suffering bereavement during the middle of the term. It’s no wonder some consider giving up altogether. Those program advisors mentioned above can help you if you have an urgent issue that interferes with your studies. The key is to maintain the wherewithal to let them or your instructor know immediately—they might be able to help arrange extensions, so don’t wait until the end of the term when fewer options may be available.
6. Technology is Your Friend
Computer and other resources are there to help. Make sure that you have adequate solutions for any technical requirements related to your courses before each class starts. In the early days of word processing software, people would often forget to press “Save”—it’s heartbreaking to think how many millions of essay pages or other work was lost in this way! Today, it’s a good idea to have backup plans in case your Internet service or e-mail goes down.
7. Need Clarification? Ask Questions
Adult learners should expect certain concepts and procedures to challenge you in new ways. There’s no need to grow frustrated, instead, be patient with yourself and ask questions when you need help understanding topics or assignments. Whether you take an online or in-person class, you’ll have opportunities to interact with instructors and classmates that are certain to improve your learning. Engage fully in your class time and attend office hours to help yourself go deeper into the subject matter.
8. Pay Attention to Academic Honesty
Some adult learners, especially those who come from abroad, may not be aware about what constitutes plagiarism, and therefore may find themselves before the academic policy committee having no idea why they are being accused of cheating. Don’t let this happen to you. Take the time to find out how to properly cite sources in your written work, and remember that it’s your own work, and not someone else’s, that the instructor wants to read.
9. Beware of Taking Out Loans
During your research for programs, be sure to investigate any financial aid options if you are in need, but be careful to scrutinize any offer. Make the school tell you what the repayment options are and know how much risk you’ll be taking. There’s a terrible student debt crisis in the United States now, and you don’t want to join the 45 million who are carrying an average of $30,000 in debt for their degrees. The object is to live more thoughtfully and find fulfillment in the world—not to become an educated wage slave!
10. Become a Life-long Learner
Studies show that people who have great relationships with others, and who also maintain their intellectual curiosity, live the happiest lives. Once you have developed, or resurrected, your study skills, you’ll see improvements in your work and daily life that you would not have expected. As the poet W.B. Yeats may or may not have said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
You’ll always thank yourself for making time to expand or deepen your knowledge, to sharpening your skills, to build a larger professional network. Going back to school can help you do all these things and more. Make the most of it!