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Adult Learner Steps to Success

Follow these tips to succeed in college as a nontraditional student

There are many decisions to consider and responsibilities to balance as an adult learner. If you do your research, use your resources and trust your instinct it will work out . . . maybe not exactly the way you imagined in the beginning, but you'll definitely learn something and meet interesting people along the way.


If you want help choosing a college or training program, a VSAC EOC counselor can help you review this checklist of needs:

  • Program fits my goals
  • Program is accredited and/or has evidence of job placement
  • Advisor is supportive of adult students 
  • Institution is affordable (considering all financial aid)
  • Schedule fits my other responsibilities
  • Program is close to where I live (if in person)
  • Program provides solid tech support (and I have a working computer and Internet) 

You've researched your options, submitted your applications, applied for financial aid, and gained acceptance. Classes begin soon. Congratulations!

STEP 1. Plan carefully.

Planning will help you find that balance among the competing demands on your time, so make every minute of your day count. Think ahead to try to avoid rushing to finish a research paper and study for a big test at the same time you’re racing toward a deadline on a work project or volunteer responsibility. Good planning gives you more time for everything that needs to be done.

STEP 2. Prepare yourself for a change.

Start off strong! Sometimes adults find success difficult to achieve at first; but with preparation and hard work, you can excel at anything. You may have to:

  • refresh or redevelop your study skills.
  • learn word-processing and basic computer skills.
  • relearn test-taking strategies.
  • learn how to use electronic library resources.
  • increase your comfort in participating in group discussions.
STEP 3. Prepare your family.

Life for everyone in your family will change when you go to college. Just as you may be concerned about the change, expect others in your family to be concerned too. Each member of your family may have to take on new responsibilities (including some things you used to do), but this can be positive: Assuming new responsibilities can help everyone grow.

To help meet your study needs, you may want to:

  • set aside a private place that will be your space for studying.
  • put your study time on the family calendar.
  • plan to spend about 2 hours at home for every 1 hour in class.
  • ask your family to agree not to disturb you when you're studying, so you can focus on your work.
STEP 4. Speak up and ask for help.

One of the most important skills you can cultivate to be successful in college is getting to know, early on, the resources available to you and then asking for help when you need it. Instructors, your advisor, and other college staff are there to help you. Talk to them.

STEP 5. Take charge of your thinking.

When challenges arise, you can easily redirect any pessimistic thinking with four simple words: “Next time I intend . . . ” Then simply complete the sentence with a positive idea.

For example, if a speech in your public speaking class didn’t go well, you can redirect negative thinking by telling yourself, “Next time I intend to practice more before I give a speech.” Even if there isn’t a next time, you’ll be training your brain to automatically look for more positive associations. You can do this in any area of your life.