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Returning to study as a mature age student

Going to uni for the first time is tough for all students, but if you’ve been in the workforce for a few years or have kids (or both), it can be downright scary. Luckily, there are ways to help ease the stress of jumping back into formal study.

Choose a ‘flexible’ program
When researching courses, it’s a good idea to look out for any flexible options on offer. This may include online subjects, weekend or summer intensive programs, or units that offer evening classes. Although most undergraduate courses run on daytime schedules, some of the more popular classes (usually core units) may be more flexible to cater to students with a busy timetable. Most universities will also allow you to study part time, but keep in mind that your timetable may restrict your work hours.

You may even choose a course that is delivered entirely online or by distance, which enables you to study what you want, how you want and when you want from the comfort of your own home (or wherever else you may be). Online and distance courses are very popular with mature age students needing flexibility in their studies to fit it around other commitments. See Online and distance education for more information.

Get organised
If — like many mature age students — you are dealing with extra commitments in addition to your studies, it’s especially important to get organised before semester starts so that you’re ready to go from day one. After all, a last-minute rush could put your whole schedule out of order and cause unnecessary stress. This may mean organising child care for the days you’re in class, purchasing your books, taking note of assessment due dates (if a subject guide is available) or getting hold of the university’s academic style guide. This will all pay off once classes begin and assessments begin rolling in. Even little things, like making sure you’ve read your assessment guidelines, will help.

Set realistic expectations
One of the golden rules of being a student is that you only get out what you put in. But what if, despite your efforts, you receive a poor mark? Some mature age students will suffer from a lack of confidence and feel out of their depth in the world of study, while others will take comfort in the fact that they are ‘older and wiser’ (or that they already have industry experience) and expect high marks. It is important to find a middle ground and set realistic goals when you begin your studies. Aim high but know that it may take some time to get into the swing of things and find your feet. If you aren’t getting the results you want, take steps to rectify the situation through tutoring, seeking academic support or organising a meeting with your tutor or lecturer to discuss your results and what you need to work on.

Take advantage of support services
Returning to study can be stressful, especially if you haven’t studied in a long time. You may be dealing with unfamiliar concepts (academic referencing, for example) or trying to study while experiencing problems with family or work. Luckily, institutions offer a range of support services, whether it be counselling or academic skills classes to get you up to speed. Look out for study help seminars and bridging programs, as some of these may specifically cater to students who are returning to study. Lecturers and tutors will typically understand that you have other obligations (such as an unexpected work commitment or a sick child) and in most cases will be flexible if you cannot meet a deadline or need to skip a class. It is a good idea to explain your individual circumstances to your lecturers and tutors at the beginning of semester so they will be aware of your needs. You should also look into assignment extension and special consideration policies.

Get the support of those around you
One of the realities of going back to study is that it can cause some friction between you and your family — especially if you have to put work on hold. To help counter some of these issues, it helps to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that you have the full support of those around you. Put measures in place to cope with your absence — for example, distributing the housework differently or changing school pick-up arrangements. You may also want to pin your class timetable to the fridge, add assessment due dates to the family calendar or schedule study nights away from home — perhaps in the (hopefully noise-free) student library. If you intend to work while studying, you will also need to get the support of your manager and colleagues, particularly if you will be adjusting your work hours or taking periods of study leave.

Further information