So… you’re thinking of going back to college after taking many years off.  Maybe you’re wanting to finish your bachelor’s degree or get a master’s.  But you are so OLD now.  Right?  Wrong!  But still, the idea of returning to college after 10, 20, even 30 years is scary as hell.  

Just thinking about getting back into the habit of going to classes 2 and 3 times a week is daunting, not to mention the studying, the tests, and the papers you’ll be writing. 

The studying and class time may be hard to fit into your already busy life… but it CAN be done and you will thank yourself for it (as will your family) for many years to come.

I might be a weirdo, but I really enjoy going to school.  I’ve taken countless college courses over the years ranging from bowling (yes, bowling… a PE credit was required) to abnormal psychology to organic chemistry.  I love learning and often take classes without the intention of getting a degree.  I will be starting a master’ degree program in the fall and, as I’m gearing up for the next challenge, I’m reminded of the success I’ve had as a student. 

Now that I’m ancient and, what politically correct people would call a non-traditional student, I find myself doing the un-cool things I would never have done at 21. 

I sit in the front.  I ask questions during the lecture.  I raise my hand to clarify what the teacher said before moving on.  I shoosh other people.  Yes, I’m that person.  The geeky, old, stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb person I made fun of when I was in my early 20’s.  But now that I’m, uh, not in my early 20’s, I could care less what they think.  The amount of money we’re spending to be in that class is absurd and you can bet I’m going to get my money’s worth!  […she screams to the passersby on the street.  Who in god’s name is she yelling at?] 

Part of my journey in recreating myself on a regular basis is being involved in higher education and spending time with fellow adult-learning junkies.  I’ve developed some helpful tools and habits along the way that have led me to success.  Here’s some advice on how I get A’s, excel in taking tests, and write exceptional essays and research papers:

  1. Take notes in an outline form. While the teacher is lecturing, pick out broad topics (he/she will likely already be introducing her lectures this way anyway).  This makes them easier to digest when reviewing them and gives you a structure for studying.  Write them on a line by themselves and label them using roman numerals.  Then write subtopics in the following lines using the alphabet (a, b, c, etc.) followed by short explanations or follow up categories.  You can break them into additional sub-categories by alternating numbers and letters.  Use abbreviations you can easily understand.  Here’s an example:

*Don’t get too caught up in whether the outline is laid out correctly.  The most important thing is that there is a flow of topics and they are broken out into digestible sections. 

2. Take 10 minutes to review your notes after class. Highlight major areas he/she covered. Don’t highlight entire sentences or paragraphs – that will negate the point of highlighting.  Just highlight a word or phrase that captures the topic.

3. Set aside time to study in the library (at school or at the local public library). It can be difficult to study at home with all the distractions.  Do your best to find time to put in 1-2 hours of focused studying in a distraction-free environment.  2 hours of focused studying is much more effective than 4-5 hours of distracted study.

4. When studying for a test: 

a. Review your notes and readings from the chapters that will be covered.  

b. As small as you can possibly do it, write abbreviated lists of definitions, concepts, lists and formulas onto one side of a piece of paper. Fit as many on that page as possible.  Read over the page several times.  As you do this, you will begin to take in the information and remember where it is located on the page.

c. When it comes time to take the test, picture the page in your mind and you’ll be able to recall where on the page the answer was.  This will help immensely in remembering what it said.

5. Develop a relationship with your professor/s. You don’t have to spend a lot of time and energy staying in touch; just a few minutes speaking after class here and there and sending the occasional email (if he/she accepts them).  When the teacher sees your commitment, and knows you’re giving it your best shot, they are much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when grading your papers.  When I took organic chemistry at age 37, I was no spring chicken and very rusty on math.  I saw the professor a few times in his office and made use of the study groups when I could fit it into my schedule.  He bumped my grade up a level (it was a GIFT for sure) because he knew I was giving it everything I had. 

I think professors are sensitive to how hard it is to go to school when juggling a full-time job and a family.  I think they admire the work ethic it takes and are more than fair when it comes to grading on a curve or adding a couple points to bump up your grade from a B to an A. 

In another class I took, the entire grade was based on 3 tests.  My grade averaged around 85 on two of the three tests.  I got an A in the class.  When I saw the professor later in the year, he told me that my overall grade was technically an 88 (B+) but he gave me an extra 2 points to bump me to an A because I had done so well on the final and he saw my commitment to learning the material.   

6. When writing an essay or paper, you want to get clear on your topic. Whether you’ve been given the topic or are having to come up with one on your own, decide on the topic as quickly as you can.  The topic is not as important as how you break it down and the words you choose to get your point across.  

Write your introductory and closing paragraphs first and then make an outline of the points you want to hit in the body of the document.  When writing in typical MLA format, one page equates to about 2 – 2.5 paragraphs.  So, if you need to write 8 pages, do the math: 2 paragraphs (intro and closing) = 1 pg, so 7 more pages = 14 paragraphs.  Look to your outline and organize the points you want to make in a coherent order.  Build a thought around each point and make the point in approximately 3 sentences. Its ok if you need 2 paragraphs to make 1 point.  Now you have a format and steps to take in more digestible chunks.  To make it less painful, try writing 2-3 paragraphs per day and then you just have to put it together and edit on the last day. 

From personal experience, I know these strategies work and you can absolutely get good grades as an adult learner. And more importantly, you can learn the material and enhance your life as a result of your continued education.  Your experience in school not only broadens your professional horizons but also exposes you to new people and potentially new networking contacts.  But most of all – you have proven to yourself that you are capable of anything you decide to do.