A Guide on How to Go Back to College: Part Seven

Planning a Successful First College Semester as a Non-Traditional Student

By Beth Dumbauld

This is the seventh installment in a multi-part series about how to go back to college. In earlier parts, the guide looked at how to create a personal and career inventory, explored fast growing occupations and helped with assessing any academic gaps. Past sections explored online college options, the overall college choice mix, and how to transfer college credits. We also looked in depth at the costs of college and how to pay for it through financial aid, grants, and scholarships. In this section, Part Seven, we will look closely at how to plan a successful first semester as a non-traditional college student.

Stepping into the role of a student can be challenging as an adult. Going back to school as a non-traditional student doesn’t come with the same built-in support system as it does for a student just out of high school. A non-traditional student typically doesn’t live on campus, works (often full-time), and more than likely already has a family and many commitments outside of school. Non-traditional students are generally trying to incorporate a college education into their already over-scheduled life. This is not an easy task. As such, having a plan steeped in flexibility and a commitment to educational end goals are essential for educational success.

Non-traditional students need to develop a strategy when it comes to a workable schedule. Here are a few reasons why:

  • 78 percent of undergraduates work while enrolled.1
  • On average, employed students spend almost 30 hours per week working.2
  • About 25% of full-time students work full time.
  • One-third of working students describe themselves as employees who study. These individuals—most of whom are older and attend college part time—continue to hold the jobs they had prior to enrolling in college.3
  • Two-thirds of working students state that their primary reason for working is to pay tuition, fees, and living expenses.4

Finding the time to obtain a college education, no matter how busy you are, can help you attain personal and career goals. Yes, it can be difficult to anticipate how much time you’ll need to take college courses successfully as an adult. It can be easy to underestimate what a college program will expect from you and to over-schedule your life. Anticipating what kind of schedule flexibility you require before registration may mean the difference between good intentions gone bad and success.

Here are some tips to help you succeed in your first semester as a non-traditional student. Consider them a heads-up of what you are about to get into so you can set yourself up for success, and ultimately graduate.

Assess Course Catalog:

Many students returning to college at a later stage in life are doing so for professional reasons. After assessing your own personal and academic goals, you probably have a good idea of what you would like to major in. Be sure to review your college’s course catalog. Generally available online, this catalog will provide a listing of courses available in given areas of study and what prerequisite classes are required before you advance. From this, you can build an academic road map. The beginning of your college experience is the time to enroll in a writing class or introductory math classes, like introductory algebra. Consider this the time to invest in the building blocks on which the rest of your academics will follow.

If you plan on earning credits for your prerequisite courses at one school and then transferring credits to a different college, be sure you understand both schools’ transfer policies. It’s important that you take the appropriate classes initially so you can stay with your college plan and earn equivalency credits at the school you’d like to transfer into. Paying attention to, and signing up for classes in your current course catalog that are considered equivalent to other courses at your transferring institution can save you money and at time, by not having to repeat (and pay for) classes consisting of material you’ve already mastered.

1 Acenet Issue Brief, Working Their Way Through College, May 2006, p.1 (PDF DOWNLOAD:)