Going back to school is a big decision at any point in a person’s life. For people in their 30s, the idea can seem especially daunting because the college experience has changed so much since they were 18. Student debt and the responsibilities of work and family can weigh heavily on the minds of adult learners. Fortunately, many of today’s colleges are accessible and affordable, with programs and coursework designed around the lives and schedules of busy adults.
If you’re in your 30s and looking to change careers to pursue a dream job, or you want to advance in your current role with a new skill set, read on to learn great ways to prepare yourself to return to college.
1. Explore Your Options
Traditional colleges aren't the only option for today’s students in their 30s. Nontraditional students can choose from a variety of higher learning options, including online colleges like WGU, that help students balance family and work responsibilities with academics.
Learning about the different degree options offered at the college or university you plan to attend is a critical first step. Career guides are a helpful way to explore interesting careers and discover the kinds of jobs and in-demand fields that are available. As you map out your career path, determine which credential is right for you: a certificate, a professional certification, or a degree.
A certificate is a document stating that a student has completed training in preparation for a certain job or career. Most certificate programs are designed to prepare people for technical or skills-based jobs in fields such as nursing or IT. A professional certification is the process by which a person passes one or more exams that demonstrate they have the knowledge, experience, and skills to perform a specific job and the tasks in which they have been trained. Students seeking a degree typically take some general education courses as well as a wide range of classes related to their field of interest. This breadth of education serves to expand career prospects and can give you a solid foundation for your chosen field.
2. Leverage Your Experience
By the time most people reach their 30s, they’ve gained valuable professional and life experiences in real-world situations. Leveraging experience against the skills they learn about in their books helps students understand the task at hand. Students in their 30’s can find programs that accept transfer credits, work credit, or emphasize what a student knows through competency-based education (CBE). CBE is a teaching model that measures educational experience by asking students to demonstrate mastery rather than by time spent in a classroom. As pioneers of this education model, WGU is the only institution offering competency-based degrees at scale.
3. Celebrate Your Decision with Friends and Family
Milestones are meant to be celebrated, and the decision to go back to school as a 30-something student is made easier with the support and encouragement of friends and family. Having a strong support system that can also help out in other areas of your life, such as babysitting kids when exam time rolls around, is an important way adult learners can feel confident about returning to school.
4. Stay Organized
In day-to-day life, it can sometimes be challenging to handle multiple responsibilities. The busy schedules of students in their 30’s often involve work and family and make the idea of keeping up with schoolwork a difficult concept.
Creating daily and weekly to-do lists can help you feel grounded and organized. Managing time and creating a schedule for studying and attending classes helps you to get more done in the day. Online degree programs and the ability to obtain a degree from the comfort of home and with a flexible schedule is an ideal solution for busy adults navigating many of life’s responsibilities. Taking advantage of learning resources, including learning communities and web-based tutorials is a great way for adult learners to have access to the tools that make learning efficient, effective, and enjoyable.
5. Designate a Study Space
A big part of being a student is studying and completing schoolwork, which takes concentration and focus. A key to success for learners of any age is to create a space for studying and/or attending online classes, which also offers a more efficient way to learn. As circumstances change for students in their 30’s, including taking on more responsibilities, learning new skills, and restructuring existing schedules, the ability to adjust and adapt is an important part of succeeding.
A space for studying in your home eliminates the distractions often found in shared areas, such as coffee shops or other public places. Suggestions for effective study areas include a quiet guest room, a primary bedroom with a desk moved in, or a partitioned-off living room.
6. Don’t Burn Yourself Out
Avoiding burnout is a big part of navigating increased responsibilities including family, work, and school. Students in their 30s often manage course loads and classwork during their “downtime” or when they’re not taking care of job and family responsibilities.
Completing schoolwork can seem hard, but prioritizing time and not doing everything all at once is a smart way to avoid taking on too much, which leads to burnout for many people. Simple ways to prevent burnout include making time for physical activity, eating healthier foods, and staying hydrated to improve concentration and alertness, reduce stress, and enhance cognitive function. Getting a good night’s sleep is also necessary when juggling the demands of work, family, and school.
7. Find a Good System for Note-Taking and Studying—or Create Your Own
As previously mentioned, things have changed since the last time the average 30-something was in school. Note-taking and studying traditionally involved taking material and transcribing the information learned in class into notes using pen and paper. Today there is no one-size-fits all approach to note-taking. Rather, there are many strategies to use including taking well-organized notes in outline form, structured notetaking, mapping notes, or using the charting strategy.
8. Embrace the Technology
Technology is all around us, and in college, students rely heavily on the resources and tools that make learning and studying easier. Students in their 30’s will benefit from embracing the technology used in school, including Learning Management Systems (LMS), which are online means of submitting, grading, and tracking assignments, and online learning resource hubs. Familiarizing yourself with the ins and outs of the software used in school will help you reach your academic performance potential. Don’t hesitate to reach out to professors if difficulties emerge while becoming familiar with the technology in place.
9. Participate and Ask Questions
Engaged students are often the ones that excel in school. Understanding coursework and reaching out to professors and other students to ask questions can help you feel more connected and is a way to truly learn the material. By participating, you can increase your own enthusiasm about the learning experience, and it is a great way to feel challenged and enthusiastic about the learning experience. For the 30-something student, their real-world experience may help other students see a different perspective about certain concepts taught in class. Adult learners, however, shouldn’t assume they’re expected to know everything. Professors and instructors are there to help and to set students up for success. Taking advantage of mentor support and student communities can give students in their 30s the confidence they need to do well in school and feel positive about the progress they’re making.
10. Find Ways to Manage Stress
Stress is a part of most people’s lives, and for student’s in their 30s, it’s especially important to find ways to cope with the demands of work, family, and school. Learning new stress management techniques or relying on the ones that have worked well for them in the past can help students as they take on new challenges and maintain balance in their personal, professional, and academic lives.
Going back to school in your 30s doesn’t have to feel overwhelming. Recognizing how far you’ve come and envisioning the future you see for yourself can help you stay motivated and focused about your new and exciting academic journey.