Going Back to College Guide

Going Back to College Guide
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Noodle Staff profile
Noodle Staff March 21, 2024

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You’ve heard it a million times: age is just a number. You want to believe it, but you wonder.

It’s come up recently because you’re thinking of going back to college. Conventional wisdom says it’s never too late. Still, you can’t shake the awareness that you’re not 18 and that many of your classmates will be. How do you deal with that?

First, realize you’re not alone. In fact, approximately 7.5 million fall 2020 college students were at least 25 years old. That’s more than one-third of all college students. People forestall college for many good reasons: the cost of attending, military service, starting a new family, a gap year that turns into several, or a lack of enthusiasm for continued schooling right after high school, to name a few. When you return to college as an adult learner, you’ll be in good company. You might even be able to earn that degree online from a nationally ranked university.

Need more convincing? You’ll find stories online of adults who successfully went back to school. Let them encourage and inspire you. Now, how do you find the degree program that’s right for you?

Returning to school

Congratulations on your decision to return to school! Earning a bachelor’s degree is something to be proud of. Also, a college degree significantly improves your chances of getting a job and advancing along your career path. Maybe you started college at some point but didn’t finish. No big deal, it really is never too late. We have some great tips on how to boost your skills and develop an action plan for your return. The better you prepare, the fewer surprises will await you.

You’ll want to figure out which college credits you’ve already earned will transfer to your new program. Returning to the same school makes things easier, but most schools will accept at least some of your earned credits if your previous institution has accreditation. Did you earn Cs or above? Was your coursework relevant to your new major? Discuss transfer credits early in the admission process with your prospective school. You don’t want to commit to a school only to find you’ll have to repeat lots of courses, if that can be avoided.

Were your previous grades poor? There are ways to mitigate poor grades and showcase your abilities. Many admission applications offer students the opportunity to explain past academic performance. Be humble and honest in discussing your past. Share life experiences that have brought you to this new commitment to school. You might also consider taking classes at a community college to demonstrate your ability to earn good grades.

Working full-time

You want to earn your degree, but you also have a job and/or a family. Balancing your life is already a skilled dance, and you are about to add a new complicated move. Know that many others have done it and are doing it: you aren’t alone. Employ well-tested strategies to find a school that will make your return easier.
Devise a strategy for success before you start your first class. According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, you should expect to study two hours per week for each credit hour you take. That means a standard full-time 15-credit course load will require 30 hours a week of preparation.

You may worry how you’ll do it. Again, others do, so you can too. It probably does mean giving up incessant doom scrolling and lazy do-nothing days. You’ll need to use your time more efficiently to get all your work done.

You may also want to consider attending part-time, especially if you plan to work while you take classes. Are you thinking about keeping your full-time job? You’ll almost certainly need to attend school as a part-time student.
Your school will assign you an academic advisor. Rely on that person to help you formulate your plan for success. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The school wants you to succeed!

Application process

You know that you want to go back to school. You have thought through your action plan and are ready. Now it’s time to start the application process.
Organization is your friend! Make spreadsheets with deadlines, essay prompts, testing requirements, and everything else you need to track to succeed. This process can seem overwhelming, but if you stay organized and keep your motivation, college applications are really your chance to shine.


You will not be alone when you go back to school. You are in the company of 7.5 million other older students who are starting or going back to school. And yet, you are also unique. You have your own story to tell, your own journey that has led you to pursue a college education. Share that story.
When you show up for college orientation, don’t be surprised when you are not the only nontraditional student there. Take advantage of your opportunity to learn from your peers and from your professors. Even those younger students have their own stories to tell. Every peer and professor is a chance to learn and grow.

Now go, chase your dreams and get the degree you have always wanted! It may be the best decision you ever made.

Do you have a question for a Noodle Counselor? Email and if your question is featured we’ll be in touch!

Victoria Knox is an enrollment advisor partnering with students to find the best higher education program for them as well as partnering with them to make a competitive application. Victoria is a graduate of Texas Christian University where she received two Bachelor’s degrees, one in journalism and one in criminal justice.

Dear Expert: I’m 43 years old. I have my bachelor’s degree (I earned it after completing my associate’s degree) but I never got a master’s degree. Is it too late for me? I’m pretty sure a master’s degree would give my current career a real boost—it might even help me launch a new career. Still, I worry whether all of it—school, work, marriage, kids, social life—will be too much. You must speak with a lot of people in my situation; what do you tell them? —On the Fence

The thought of going back to school full-time or part-time as an older adult is undoubtedly intimidating. It’s likely that by now you have more in your life to manage (full-time job, career, family, mortgage, etc.) than you did as a college freshman—man, those were the days! However, whether you plan to continue along an established career path or a seasoned professional seeking a career change, know that it’s never too late to advance your prospects through education.

Here are some questions that I asked myself before starting a degree program along with the answers I’ve found after I decided to just go for it.

1. Am I too old?

There is no age limit on learning. As an older student, you will find that your years of real-world experience will be valued not only by your professors but your classmates as well. I’ve found that my younger classmates look to me as a leader and look forward to hearing my perspective. Some even ask for professional advice. Your life experience may also help you better manage your schoolwork.

Remember also that you will hardly be the only older student in your classes. Unlike if you were going back to undergraduate school, no one will hit you with a label like “nontraditional student” in your graduate program. You will not stand out because of your age.

2. Why now?

Why the heck not? According to the Council for Graduate Schools, 22 percent of graduate students—that’s more than one in five—is 40 years old or older. In fact, 8 percent are over 50; compared to them, you’re just a kid! And according to a Georgetown University study, graduate degrees can result in significant boosts to your income. How much depends on your field of study: in the sciences, the income premium can range from 50 percent (geosciences) to 137 percent (healthcare). The report lists 120 fields in which a graduate degree results in an average income increase of 20 percent or more. Compounded over the rest of your working life, that’s a hefty return on your investment. And not only will you earn more, but you’ll also enjoy wider options as you scan the job market for your next opportunity.

3. I’m going to feel out of place

You’ll find that adult learners come from a wide variety of professions, ages, and backgrounds. This diversity results in engaging class discussions and invaluable knowledge sharing (not to mention the networking opportunities).

4. I’m not good with technology

Tell me about it—I still can’t figure out how to use the remote for our TV! Learning how to navigate the technology will be part of your orientation (especially if you decide to study online). Also, I found that my tech-savvy classmates are eager to provide me with “quick tips” and shortcuts to make things easier. Developing new skills is just one of the windfalls of returning to school.

5. Graduate school is going to be a lot of work

It is. But you can do it and know you won’t be alone. With the help of my Student Success Coach, I’ve been able to break down coursework into manageable chunks. I have learned to be a student again; being an adult student has made it easier than it was last time around! I’ve also subscribed to a text-to-talk software that helps me get through the reading assignments much faster.

6. It will take too long to get my degree

Many master’s degree programs can be completed in one or two years. The sooner you start the sooner you’ll finish. Wouldn’t it be great at this time next year to be celebrating how much you’ve learned, grown and accomplished rather than wishing you got started? Besides, time is going to pass whether you go back to school or not. Once you get started, who knows where you’ll stop? Once you’ve earned your master’s degree, you’ll be one step closer to a PhD (if you’re so inclined)

If you’re still on the fence about higher education, start by taking one class. Not only will you build your confidence and learn something new, you’ll also be starting your journey toward that degree and your dream job!

Do you have a question for a Noodle Counselor? Email and if your question is featured we’ll be in touch!

Germyce Williams is an Enrollment Advisor at Noodle and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership at Mills College. A former teacher, Germyce has over 20 years of experience working with students from grade school to college-age. She has a passion for helping students achieve their personal and professional goals by developing strategic action plans. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and entertaining.

Did you drop out of college due to failing grades, or leave under academic probation? Whatever the reason, if your first shot at school didn’t work out, that’s okay. Balancing work, life and finances is no easy task—and colleges understand that many students who drop out may one day decide to return to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Even with bad grades or a less-than-perfect transcript, you can make a fresh start. Here are some helpful tips on how to reapply to college to finish your degree.

Decide where you want to go

Do you want to return to the same institution where you started your degree, or begin a new academic experience elsewhere? This will determine your to-do list and course of action. Deciding to return to your previous school is a personal one; maybe you had a negative experience at your old school and want to move on, or feel the prior program lacks the academic major you now seek. Reasons to stay? You liked the program and you’re at a point in your life where you can stay on course. Many students want to begin at a new college but don’t know how. Read on to learn more about starting at a different school.

Get an official copy of your transcript

To position yourself for re-admission, evaluate your transcript and academic record. Did you have any incomplete grades? Pro tip: This isn’t a bad thing! Incomplete grades may present you with an opportunity to finish the class. Contact the school to see if this is possible. Were you placed on academic probation?

A transcript dotted with bad grades may be disappointing, but it’s helpful to know your academic history. Surprisingly, at some schools a GPA of a 2.0 and below, allows you to qualify for a clean slate. These colleges will not hold your low grades against you.

Trade in your bad grade for a new one

Some schools allow students a do-over. If you failed a class, you can take it again (typically for the full fee). The new grade will be placed on your permanent transcript and the old one will be removed. This may allow you to improve your grade point average, which could advantage you in transferring to a new school or applying for a scholarship.

Determine your status as a returning student

Figuring out what you need to do to return to college can be complicated. You’ll need to research the school’s policy on re-admission. Some schools may classify you as a re-entry student with conditions for returning. Two of the most common conditions may be that you’re in good financial standing (you’ll need to settle any unpaid tuition), and earned a minimum GPA. Others may require you apply as though you are an entirely new student.
There’s also something called academic renewal.

Students accepted under academic renewal can have their failing grades removed from their transcript and get a clean slate. Most schools require students to have been out of school for a range of one to five years to qualify for this. Because the conditions for academic renewal vary by school, you will need to check with the institution to learn of their specific requirements.

Consider the advantages of community college

There are many advantages to attending community college: There are fewer distractions without the lure of dorm life and partying. Staying local may fit better with your lifestyle if you need to work full or part-time. Many community colleges also have partnerships with 4-year state colleges, and community college students with B averages and a certain number of credits may be eligible for guaranteed admission to a 4-year partner school.

Seek out an open-enrollment college

Many colleges offer an open enrollment policy, which means there are no academic requirements for admission.

Earn your degree online

Your return to school may benefit from a different learning environment, and there are many/ advantages to choosing online study: lower costs, convenience, and flexibility. If you need to work full-time or care for family, earning your bachelor’s degree from the convenience of your laptop is now a popular and respected option.

Build your case

If you have your heart set on returning to your original academic institution, you may need to present a strong case for re-admission. Address your situation with humility and honesty. Many young students flunk out, but if you can demonstrate your maturity and a readiness for college this time around, you’ll likely find a receptive audience.
Although many institutions work with returning students, re-admission can still be challenging. Luckily, most schools believe that students like you deserve a second chance.

(Written by Nedda Gilbert)

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