Back to School – Adult Edition

Helping to get the kids prepared for back to school is always equal parts chaos, sadness, and relief.  But for millions of adults across America, back to school means putting their own nose back to the grindstone.  With almost 20 million students attending higher education in the US this fall (NCES, 2019), it is just as important that we take the time and resources to support adults making the ‘Back to School’ journey as well.  

For those just out of high school, the study routine may be fresh in your minds, but colleges or trade schools or universities are an entirely different animal.  And for those who left education years ago and are just now making the journey back, the idea of sitting down in a classroom or logging in online to see your homework assignments pile up can be a daunting task. 

70% of adults may agree that “higher education holds the key to career prospects”, but that doesn’t make the hurdles any easier to jump.  

Time, family, work, and the rising costs of higher education are only some of the things standing between adults and obtaining an advanced degree.  This is why it is even more important that we help those adult students in our lives to succeed as much as we do our younger learners.  

We’re skipping the ‘Hacks’ for this one, as it is all the more important to nail the basics here.  So – for all the adults heading ‘Back to School’, here is our list of Top Tips to succeed in school.


#1 Get Organized for Back to School

Yeah, I know, not exactly an original suggestion, but it really does help. Half of the stress and sense of being overwhelmed in school or even in a particular class comes less from the coursework than trying to keep track of everything.

With that in mind, there are 3 things that will help you get, and stay organized. And yes, these even apply to online students. No class is fully digital and keeping a tangible record of assignments, deadlines, and subject notes will help keep things straight.

  • Get a Planner. They’re in the same section as the calender’s or on the ‘Back to School’ sales shelves. Some of you may already use them for family events but get one JUST for school. Preferably in a gaudy color so it’s easy to find. The best ones break down by week with monthly calendars between. Planning by the minute just creates more stress, but keeping a maintained to-do list and writing down deadlines can help keep things straight in your head. Online calendars and apps with alarms can help, but there’s nothing quite like paper and pen for this.
  • Get a Backpack. No, not a purse, not a stylish laptop bag. A backpack, one that is just for school. And yes, you will feel like a dork. But having all of your school things in one bag lessens the chance of losing an important piece of paper or your lecture notes. Your bag should have; wide shoulder straps, a padded laptop section, one main pocket, and only one small section upfront for your pencil case/planner/snickers…
  • Get a Binder. Again, you will feel like a dork. Do it anyway. Print out your course outline the day before class, most are available online. Include scratch paper and any other printed documents that might be useful. No, the school rules won’t help. But the grading rubric for papers might. Get it all together in one place and walk into, or logon to, that class feeling prepared. You can do this.

#2 Set Aside Study Time as an Adult

The other reason why a lot of students struggle is, in all honesty, they don’t study. Attending class twice a week is, not enough to expect to pass a class, or at least not enough to really learn the material. Your brain just does not work that way.

Set aside time each week, blocked off, to study. The usual rule of thumb is you need as many hours as the class is credits. So, for a three-credit class, set aside three hours a week. It does not have to be all at once, an hour and a half twice a week work just as well, or one hour three days a week. But you need to set that time aside.

Lie if you have to – no, I’m not kidding. Say you joined a yoga class, or have an appointment, something with no phones allowed so no one can reach you. Then go, and sit you butt down someplace quiet, plug in your headset, and you glue your face to those course materials for no less than an hour minimum. Do that every week and, may the force be with you, you will nail that midterm.


#3 Talk to your Teacher

I’ve known a lot of adult students who, when they get stuck on a subject or a concept, will spend hours floundering around on google or watching YouTube tutorials trying to understand a subject rather than taking five minutes to ask the teacher, or even their fellow students.

The reason for this, usually, is one of two things; either embarrassment or ego. No one wants to be the thirty-five-year-old in a class full of people not old enough to drink and be asking for help. And likewise, a lot of those 18-22-year-old seem to be operating under the assumption that they should be smart enough to figure it out on their own. But you know what they say about assumptions… so here’s a reality check.

School is hard. There are going to be things that you don’t understand or struggle with. Stop sabotaging yourself by struggling in silence and just raise your hand. Most professors have open office hours where they are available to help you. If you can’t make those hours try and talk to them after class. Or talk to your fellow students. You might be surprised to find you aren’t the only one struggling but that, between a group of you, you can figure most things out. That won’t happen if you remain silent.


#4 Finding your Study Zones

I’ve already mentioned how important it is to set aside time to study, but doing it in the right atmosphere is equally important. Everyone’s brain works a little differently, but finding an environment that allows you to focus makes a huge difference in the results.

For some, it’s the kitchen table, for others it’s coffee shops. I once knew a kid who, no lie, could only seem to get any studying done when he was in a club or a bar with the music and party going full blast around him.

I should mention that he aced Organic Chem while I, who studied in an appallingly messy room and was constantly distracted by things I should be doing around the house, flunked. Twice.

Since then I have figured out the magic spots for me seem to be libraries or coffee shops (I like having food on hand if I marathon study) with my headset in and a YouTube playlist of ambient sounds/study music going in the background… which is exactly what I’m doing right now. The important thing is to find what works for you, set aside your dedicated study hours, and go there. Use your environment to make the most of the time you have.


#5 Build a Support Team when Going Back to School as Adults

Okay, so you’re going back to school. You’ve probably talked about it with your significant other (this is definitely not a decision that should be made solo). You may have told your friends and family, you may have told no one. My suggestion – TELL EVERYONE.

Tell your partner (obviously), tell your family, tell your kids, tell your friends, tell your work. Tell them that you are going back to school. Tell them what you are going back for, what program, what class, what degree, what certification. Tell them WHY you are going back. Tell them why this is important to you – and it IS important. No one just decides to spend this much time and energy and money on something that isn’t important to them. Explain that you might not be so available in the coming months, explain that this class or these classes ARE going to take some of your time.

Don’t try and reassure them that you will still be available for weekly lunch dates, because you may not. And if it comes down to lunch or studying for your midterm, you don’t want to have to even think about that decision.

Tell them. Tell them why this matters to you. And ask them to have your back. Maybe your weekly lunch date turns into a drink by the pool while they read a book and you read through your lecture notes. Maybe coffee gets canceled every so often. Maybe you need your spouse to stay late with the kids so you can review a bit before you head home. Build a support network of friends and family and teammates who are willing to have your back. If you tell them that you may be unavailable but also why this matters to you, well, there’s a particular quote for this I believe;

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

Dr. Suess

Going back to school is no easy thing. If it were, everyone would be doing it. But putting one foot through the door is, quite literally, the first step. Never be afraid to try, tackle one class at a time, and set yourself up to conquer whatever comes your way.

Just know that whoever you might be and wherever you are on the ‘Back to School’ journey, that I am incredibly proud of you.


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