Back to school as an older student? Here's what's changed.

Things have changed since he was last in school

If you’ve been to college before and want to return in middle age, don’t think it’ll just be more of the same.

I went to grad school when I was 42, and thought I knew what was coming. I didn’t. Things turned out well, but not before I had to do some adjusting.

Drawing from my own experience as well as comments from some college counselors, I’ve made a list of things I think older students may notice when they hit the books the second time around. And I’ve included comments on how I handled it — for better or worse.

1) You’ll probably have more discipline than most classmates. Work tends to drum in the importance of deadlines and doing a thorough job. It often requires working late and attending early-morning meetings, so the idea of an 8 a.m. class might not phase you. And if you needed to walk into meetings prepared, chances are you’ll walk into class prepared — something your professors will appreciate.

How I dealt with it: When I wasn’t in a formal study group, I tended to study alone to avoid the chatting and procrastination that some of my younger classmates engaged in when studying together.

2) But you’ll have less energy than them. Just as adults wind down in the evening, most students will be ramping up — usually after having a few beers with their friends. They can probably study longer, too. Working long hours on the job requires energy, but it’s not the same as the stamina required for hours  ofreading and note-taking.

How I dealt with it: I learned to study as early as I could — often before breakfast.

3) You’ll be closer in age to your professors. You may even be older than some of them. Either way, chances are you’ll be able to talk to them as equals. They might even take you more seriously that the kids. (In my case, I noticed the tone they used with me versus the tone they used with my younger classmates.)

How I dealt with it: I tried to leverage that adult connection to get more time with my professors, engaging them more and asking more questions. It paid off in more help and understanding from them.

4) You’ll be less distracted in some ways. If you have a significant other or have reached a certain maturity, the parties, hanging out and endless exposure to the opposite sex won’t be the temptations they used to be.

How I dealt with it: I was able to bow out of activities and spend time on studying and research instead.

5) But you’ll be more distracted in others. While many younger students will enjoy simple, low-maintenance living in dorms with Mom and Dad footing the bill, you’ll be dealing with issues at your job, at home, with the kids and relatives.

How I dealt with it: Juggling the home-school issues was my single biggest hurdle. I dropped more balls than I wish I had. It strained my relationship with my fiancee, which in turn made studying difficult at times. I learned to plan more than I ever did in college — but I still could have done better.

6) Your tolerance for academic hassles will be lower. A lot of students don’t question the inefficiencies of college administration or the personality quirks of professors, usually because they don’t know any other system. Older students have some basis for comparison. I exited one class taught by a young jerk, because I didn’t want to waste my time with him, while some of my classmates suffered through. And I sometimes questioned — to the irritation of some faculty — why things were disorganized at school.

How I dealt with it: I wasted some time being irritated about some things I couldn’t change, but also saved time and grief by avoiding professors and classes I knew weren’t right for me.

7) You’ll be more confident about some things. You’ll probably have a good idea what you want out of college, and from your life and job experience, you’ll know a lot more about how the world works and what you need to get where you want to go. You probably won’t sweat the small stuff like some of your less experienced classmates.

How I dealt with it: I chose classes based on what I knew I needed. I always knew why I was learning the material at hand, which gave me a lot more motivation when study time came.

8) But you’ll be apprehensive about others. How does this computer program work? I had no idea Microsoft Word could do half of what it does. Why does everyone but me have access to the online reading list?

How I dealt with it: I made a number of time-wasting mistakes, but soon got younger classmates to help me with the tech stuff. I know so much more now.

9) You may be wiser, but not necessarily more intelligent than them. Real world experience is great. It adds context to the material you learn. And you may be able to remember certain material — such as history — because you have actually lived through it. But theory? Raw facts? Those young folks might be able to zip through it all faster than you can.

How I dealt with it: I had enough humility to ask for help from some younger colleagues. Good thing I did; I learned a lot from them.

What about you? Have you noticed other differences? How have you dealt with them?

  • Nice post, Alex. I’m not planning on going back to school anytime soon, but I found this interesting.