Observations & musings

8 essentials to surviving as a mature age undergraduate

Heading back to university after a long absence from studying is both exciting and scary. You’re older and let’s be real, you are not one of them. but you are motivated and you are invested. You’re earning a regular income and not enthused at the thought of giving it up. For some, it’s simply too detrimental, impractical or undesirable to quit the workforce in order to study full time. If you’re one of these people, and are preparing to make those personal sacrifices to get the long-anticipated degree you don’t have, you’re probably stuck with taking on the typical six-years-part-time path. Urrrrrgh!

But don’t fret. There are an abundance of advantages in being a mature age student. If you’re working already, the most notable of these advantages are the financial incentives. If you choose a degree that is work-related, then every book, every fee, every expense, and all your study tools such as PCs iPads and stationary are tax deductible. Even if you choose a different field, there are tax deductibles that apply to you and not to the full timers. You’ll still be earning your current salary so paying the rent or the mortgage will come with no additional headaches. And you won’t experience the barriers that some with re-entering the workforce after an extended absence because, well, you never left.

But it’s a long haul, I know. I just completed my six-year part-time journey. Actually, it took me six and a half years but there’s a reason for that as I will explain later. I learned a few tips and tricks along the way.

Age = Wisdom

Your additional years on the planet have put you are in a very good place. You know a bit more about how life works and how you work than you used to. If you’re really lucky you are comfortable in your own skin. Use that awesome wisdom to your advantage, particularly before you start. It tends to be useful when choosing the degree and study mode. Listen to yourself and trust your judgement. You’re probably correct.

Going to University for the right reasons = motivation where it counts

Society’s norms and expectations are often ridiculous. The idea that you are unlikely to have the same success in your career if you skip university has got to be one of the more ridiculous pieces of rubbish that high school students are told. Regardless of whether you’re 18 or 58, going to University is a time-consuming and expensive commitment so go to university for the right reasons. The fact that many undergraduate students never finish their degrees, or never end up using their degree after university is often very sad. Don’t be that person. If you get it wrong, and there’s a big chance you will, it’ll be a waste of your time and money, two of life’s most valuable and precious commodities.

Ask yourself. Do you really want it? Why? If the answers to these questions don’t contain a lot of instances of the word “I”, you will find the long road to graduation more difficult. Finding that initial motivation when you start easy, but hanging onto it for the full six years is not. There are going to be periods where the going gets really tough, but your vision and what it means to you keeps your motivation motoring along. If you aren’t doing it for yourself, that motivation will cease to exist and you’re in for some misery. Do it because it matters to you and not for someone else.

Choose the appropriate study mode for your current circumstances

If you were one kind of student back in school, such as the lazy one, or top-of-the-class one, or easily distracted one, whatever that was, that no longer applies. You have changed more than you realise. If you have any preconceived ideas of what kind of student you will be and you based that on how you used to be, then prepare to throw those preconceptions out the window because they won’t apply anymore. All that worldly wisdom and life experience means the old you no longer really exists. So base your preferences on the new you and not the old you.

Got kids? Not keen to sit in a room with a battalion of idealistic young’uns that smell of Patchouli or prancing around with limitless energy like the groovy arseholes they are while reminding you that you aren’t that age anymore? Perhaps there are other non-working regular commitments you want to retain? Being adult comes with a set of individual circumstances that can’t be dismissed easily and is no one-fit study model that suits everyone’s circumstances. This might mean you will achieve better results and have a more pleasurable experience if you studied in entirely off-campus mode or partially off-campus. Or perhaps you worry about discipline and you need to be coaxed into going to those 6pm classes in order to achieve your objectives. Be assured whatever that it for you, there is a study mode to suit it, so be sure to check them all out. Each university does things a little differently and the way they deliver the syllabus does change from time to time. So check them all out to find the combination of degree + study mode that best suits your lifestyle and needs. You will probably find you don’t need to change your whole life to accommodate it.

Prepare to empty that favour bank

It’s time to call in some favours from family, friends and work colleagues. You will need encouragement and probably some practical support at busy periods so be prepared to ask. When your final assignments are due and you have to put yourself into a bubble in order to pass those end of semester exams, don’t plan on having time to do much else. Use your friends and allies during these times. They will give you a helping hand if you are prepared to reach out to them. Don’t be too proud thinking you can do it all. Accept those limitations. If you have the financial means, consider getting a cleaner to come once a fortnight so you can dedicate that time you would have spent cleaning to studying instead. Get your shopping delivered so you don’t have to spend that hour at the supermarket that week. Simple strategies like this will allow you to claw back more time that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.


Assuming you have taken a Commonwealth Supported Place, HECS in the old lingo, you’ll have a hefty new debt accumulating for each unit of work you do. If you have the means, have your employer start deducting the required payments from your salary when you start your degree rather than when you finish. Even for the more expensive degrees, you’ll finish with a lot less to pay. Take advantage of that when you’re working and studying at the same time.

Engage and interact with the young’uns early

The degree will contain units of study that require varying degrees of computer literacy. You’ll likely face online lectures, submission of work via electronic means, online testing, discussions forums, all of which will occur regardless of whether you’re an on-campus or off-campus student. These demands will be problematic if you haven’t had the exposure to the types of technologies that school-leaver students have had. Regardless, you must manage this learning curve and the course content in a relatively short time frame – a single semester. And it is an unfortunate reality still that many universities don’t give adequate support to mature age students in managing these aspects of the transition to university life. In short, expect to be on your own and you won’t be disappointed.

But those bright and chipper young’uns can help a lot, so engage them early. If you don’t feel comfortable engaging them face-to-face to start with, then engage with them online by posting a cheery hello and a short introduction to yourself on the forums. They will be pleased to greet you because you have life experience that they don’t, so it will be a two-way street in terms of what you can learn from each other so it is important to consider the school-leaving students as your peers. Behaving as if your age and life experiences afford you greater authority will see you alienated and rightfully so. Nobody likes a tosser. And given that many degrees require group work and group assignments so working with these students productively will be essential if you are to succeed in your course. Yes, it may feel a little odd at first, but that will pass quickly. The fact that they have come from a different world than you is a good thing because these differences in perspectives can provide a lot of help when you are faced with not only learning the coursework, learning the unknown and unpublished expectations of the university.

Find a hobby to keep your sanity

You work full time and you study part time. If you happen to work in an office-based environment, this is particularly nasty give you will be faced with spending more time in front of a computer than what is healthy. You need time away from all of this to maintain optimal productivity and interest. So make sure you schedule time each fortnight doing things on the basis of pure enjoyment and happiness. Take up a hobby, get outside, volunteer, go see a film. Do something, anything, which allows you to forget your work/study workload. You’ll find the breaks very refreshing and going back to the books the following day won’t feel so cumbersome.

Take a break if you have to

In the second half of 2008, my brother in law announced his engagement. The wedding was to be held in Baltimore, USA in May of 2009. My husband, the groom’s brother was to be the best man. But when I heard about this, I could see trouble brewing. The month of May for an undergraduate is not pretty. Your second and sometimes third assignments for each unit of work you are undertaking are due. Exams are in early June. So I was faced with heading to the USA, trying to enjoy the wedding and the get to know my new sister-in-law, spending time with my US-based family friends who I don’t get to see very often. If I was to attempt the semester, I’d have to take my work with me and complete my assignments and prepare for exams while in the US at the same time. As soon as the wedding was over, I wouldn’t be able to stay. I would be forced to fly home immediate to undertake my exams. Ask yourself. How would you go under these conditions? What price is simply too much?
It wasn’t a hard decision to defer the semester. I could take essentially a 9-month break from studying, enjoy the wedding and spend quality time with the family without any coursework constraints. My family deserve that and I felt that I did too. And the single semester break at the four year point of the six years was rather refreshing readying me for my final haul of units. If you need a break, or some circumstances are such that demand it, don’t ignore these needs and be tempted to plough on at all costs. Deferral is your friend.

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