So you decided to take a gap year — or three or five or 10 — but now you’re ready to head back to college and finish your degree. While this doesn’t sound like the traditional path college students take, it is the reality for many in the U.S. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 38% of college students are over age 25, and this number is expected to continue to climb. But you probably already know this because these are your friends, your neighbors, your brothers and sisters.
» MORE: Is college worth it?
Now that you’ve made the decision to resume your college education, NerdScholar wants to help you don that cap and gown. To do this, we asked the experts for tips to help you balance work, life and everything else that gets thrown at you. Here’s what they had to say.
[Starting over from scratch? Check out our freshman year checklist: 10 things you can do now to succeed later.]
1. Don’t leave class credits on the table.
“Check into the possibility of receiving credit for your prior learning at your college or university,” advises Janice Karlen, professor of business and technology of the City University of New York. “This could be from training at work, military experience or training, volunteer activities, or hobbies you have,” she adds. Just because a class or credit title doesn’t match exactly something offered at your new school doesn’t mean that it won’t transfer. Go over your full transcript with your advisor and seek help from your admissions or transfer office.
2. Be realistic with your course load, especially at first.
“Limit the number of courses you take in that first term when returning to school after time away,” says Sheri Buono of U.S. Army Education Services at Fort Riley, Kansas. “This first term back should be about reacquainting yourself with being a student, and if you take too many courses at the outset, you may become overwhelmed and discouraged.” Also bear in mind the minimum number of credits you need to be eligible for financial aid, veterans benefits and the like. Take enough courses to challenge yourself but don’t push your limits while you’re still readjusting to campus life.
3. Get to know your academic advisor and instructors.
“In your return, meet with your academic advisor regularly to plan your class schedule and to map your pathway to the completion of your degree,” Mark Moffitt, director of adult and transfer admission at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, says.
“In the first week or two of classes, take the time to introduce yourself to your instructors,” Wendy Yoder, coordinator of academic counseling at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, adds. “Allowing them to become familiar with your background can be immensely helpful if a situation arises in which you need to work around a time conflict involving work or family.”
4. Contact your human resource office for financial aid.
“Non-traditional students currently employed should contact their company’s human resource office for employer-sponsored scholarships, grants and (especially) tuition reimbursement,” says Mary Cannon, director of financial aid for Hondros College in Westerville, Ohio. “Do not assume that your coursework/major must be directly associated with your current position. Many employers find continuing education a valuable tool to promote personal and professional growth and retain talent.”
5. Build your support network.
“Find out about support activities such as tutoring centers, study groups and online research assistance,” Karlen says. “If you need help, remember that you are not alone. Some colleges even have child care in the evenings where you can bring your kids and they can do homework or participate in supplemental activities.” Talk to your boss and co-workers about your decision to go back to school so they can be a part of your support network as well.
6. Set clear expectations with your family.
“Secure your family’s support and let them know how things are going to be now that you’re in school,” says Melanie DeSilva, director of marketing at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s University Without Walls program. “If you have kids, this is an opportunity for them to learn to be more independent. If they can reach the counter, they can get that glass of water themselves,” she says. Framing expectations and boundaries in the beginning will help get your college re-entry off on the right foot and will signal to your family how important this opportunity is for you.
7. Honor your life choices.
“Your life experience does count. Many [non-traditional students] feel intimidated by coming back into the classroom with younger, more technology-savvy students,” says Monique Anair, assistant professor of film and media studies at Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico. “The fact that you made the choice to go back to school is huge. Honor that and also realize that your life experience and the knowledge you bring to the classroom setting is important.”
Not everyone takes the same path to and through college, but however you choose to complete your degree, remember why you made that choice and be proud of it.
Adult college student photo via Shutterstock.