Returning to College? 6 Tips for Busy Adults

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Usually when working adults and parents consider going back to college to gain or finish a degree, they’re faced with an important concern: Can I manage it all? Often, they feel discouraged before even starting – wondering if they can find and maintain a healthy work-life-study balance.

In this blog we’ll provide six tips on ways to manage your study time as a busy working adult, plus share some advice from learners who’ve found methods to make college work with their schedules.

1. Consider online degree options

Before enrolling in a degree program, you should get a feel for the different options that are available. By comparing several different programs, you can illuminate differences in key factors such as scheduling flexibility, career development opportunities and areas of curriculum specialization or emphasis. In addition, online degree options can be an important consideration for adult learners, as these programs offer a flexible method to balance work, life and school.

Here are a few of the benefits online options provide for busy working adults:

  • Online courses let you learn at your own pace. Typically, online courses offer more flexibility, allowing you to log in and contribute to class discussions on your own time. This is especially valuable for those balancing school with family obligations or full-time work. 

  • With online learning, you can choose the ideal program for you based on duration, tuition and other key factors, regardless of location. You will also save time commuting to and from classes. 

  • Online degree programs tend to be more popular among older or non-traditional students. If you’re concerned about feeling out of place on a college campus, online learning may help you feel more included. 

  • Online learning provides the type of flexibility for earning a degree that many have not previously experienced, especially those who earned their bachelor’s degree from a traditional campus with a set semester schedule. Online learning allows you to manage your degree and schoolwork on your terms.

2. Evaluate your schedule in advance

Before you start your school journey, take inventory of your schedule. You’ll likely be busier than you think, so be sure to list all the activities you take part in during a typical week. Calculate how much time you spend on each activity. Figure out how much free time you have and if there is anything you can eliminate. Specifically, consider your current work and family obligations, and then reflect on how you will find the time to read assigned materials, attend classes, log into class forums, complete assignments and study for exams.

The amount of time you’ll need to devote to school can vary widely depending on your chosen major and course load. Ask a representative at your school how much time you should expect to devote each week to your studies. Are you completing classes online, or do you also need to factor in commuting time? Are online classes synchronous (meaning you must attend at specific times) or asynchronous?

It’s also important to discuss your goals and schedule with your job so they can be aware of your schedule constraints and help you develop a plan that is executable. They may also be able to help you attain employer-supplied tuition assistance to complete your degree. If this is the case, it could be beneficial to pace yourself to maximize your benefits. Tuition assistance programs often have a yearly cap of the funds available, so be sure to investigate the policies and calculate the most efficient number of credits for you to complete each year as you’re working toward your degree.

3. Make a plan

What’s your graduation goal? How many credits will you need to complete in each term to reach that goal? Are your classes available each term? Is your program in a cohort format or do you have more flexibility? These are all factors you will need to consider when making a long-range plan. Be sure to meet with your academic advisor to work out a projected completion schedule. 

For shorter-range goals, review your syllabus for each course. Estimate how much time you will need for each of your assignments and allot blocks of time in your schedule. Use whatever tools work best for you—a paper calendar, electronic calendar, checklist, etc. At the same time, don’t forget Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you allow too much time, you may find yourself being inefficient.

At the beginning of each week, look over the assignments due that week and budget your available time to complete them. See if there are any opportunities to work ahead. By doing this, you may be able to create more buffer space in your schedule. It’s important to work in some breaks for long-term sustainability.

If your classes require you to be available at specific times, make sure there aren’t any conflicts with your work schedule or other activities. Consider allocating vacation or PTO for extra time you may need to complete bigger projects. One graduate we spoke with completed her degree while she was working two part-time jobs by finding creative ways to maximize her time. She recalled, “I would get up in the morning, go to the gym and be reading as I was on the elliptical – basically, looking for any pockets of time I could study.”

4. Designate a study space 

Reserving time and a comfortable place to study can be a challenge when you return to school as a working adult. Find a quiet space that you can set apart for studying, whether that’s a home office, a desk in the attic, a peaceful back porch or a favorite table at the local library or coffee shop. Be sure to keep your designated area as clean and clutter-free as possible to minimize study-time distractions. 

As one student recalls, “Some of my classmates who were busy parents would attend courses sitting in their cars because it was the only quiet spot they could find, but they made it work!” It can be difficult to set boundaries with family members, but up-front communication can help to establish your do-not-disturb zone.

5. Develop a support system 

Have a few people in your corner to help, like trusted family members, friends or even fellow classmates and mentors. Being able to count on people to help you manage responsibilities and even tackle household chores, especially during exam time, can be a big plus. More than anything, though, you’ll need people to encourage you and remind you why you’re seeking a college education in the first place. These are the people you can turn to for support, particularly if you start second-guessing yourself. 

6. Brush up on your study skills

If you’ve been out of the classroom for a few years, you may worry that your study skills are a little rusty. This may not actually be the case, as many mature students find that they are better equipped for the classroom after some time away. But if you’re concerned about your study skills, here are a few tips:

  • Get to know your professors. Even a few minutes talking with them may give you a better sense of their expectations, plus it helps to have a relationship established with your professors.

  • Check out online tutorials. Many educators provide free videos on YouTube and other digital content platforms with advice on essay writing, note-taking and studying for exams.  

  • Take a study skills class. Often, colleges and public libraries offer seminars that help older students learn about the latest study tools and techniques available to them.

Just remember, it’s never too late to learn. In fact, the percentage of students over 25 who pursue higher education is set to increase over the next ten years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With the right commitment and attitude, school can be both fulfilling and invigorating – no matter when you return.

At Accelerated Pathways, we’re experts at helping busy adults earn a college degree at their own pace. We help you evaluate different degree programs by creating a custom College Options Report based on your specific goals, schedule and budget. Ready to find the right degree program that matches your schedule, lifestyle and career goals? Get a free academic advising session today!

Pearson Accelerated Pathways

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