11 Questions About Returning to College as a Non-Traditional Student ANSWERED!

non-traditional college student admissions

If you’re planning to return to college as a non-traditional student, you likely have a lot of concerns about the process. Read on for the answers to 11 of the most common questions from a college admissions expert:

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1. Am I at a disadvantage with admissions counselors by being five, 10, 20 or more years older than the average student?

Absolutely not. Non-traditional students are a vibrant part of the college environment, and schools will view you as being able to offer a meaningful contribution to the classroom. Your experience, maturity, and real-world know-how can bring insight and depth to discussions.

2. How can I explain “gap” periods on my resume?

Honestly. The biggest mistake that non-traditional students make in explaining gaps is either over – or under – explaining them. If you took time away from school and/or work to raise a family, care for loved ones, travel or recover from an illness, simply state so clearly and succinctly. After that, quickly move on to your current goals for your education and career.

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3. What are the most significant ways that the application process differs for adult students?

Insignificantly. For better or worse, you’ll need to go through the same basic process as traditional students. Expect to submit an application, essays, letters of recommendation and — if required — an interview.

4. Admissions essay topic questions are often geared toward graduating high school students. How can I make them work for me?

Get creative. Depending on the prompt, it may be a matter of answering the question you wish you had been asked instead of the one you were actually asked. As long as you stay parallel with the general topic and answer with meaning, your essays are going to work to your advantage.

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5. Are there any advantages that admissions counselors see in adult students? How can I emphasize these skills and traits?

Yes, many! As stated above, colleges want non-traditional students in the classroom. Having only people who are fresh out of high school in a class doesn’t make for the best representation of the real world. Focus on your stronger organization skills, clarity in your goals, and ability to draw from a broad range of personal and professional experiences in order to achieve success in your degree program.

6. What can I do if I suspect age discrimination?

Report it immediately. Contact the office of the school’s president or chancellor. If you do not feel that you are being heard or taken seriously, contact a larger governing body, such as the system of colleges (often for state schools) or the regional accrediting agency. All of this information should be readily available on the school’s website.

[Read more tips for adults returning to college.]

7. How can I possibly include my years of experience on just one page of a resume? Should I use multiple pages or pare it down?

Pare it down. Unless the school asks for a CV (very rare), admissions officers want to read about your most significant experiences as they relate to your desire to attend college. Highlight the experiences that have shaped your skills and mindset to make you a better student.

8. As an older returning student, will I be required to take standardized tests? If so, how can I ensure success?

Depends on the school. Some schools are very strict about standardized tests while others do not require scores for students who were born before a certain date. If you do need to take a standardized test, reach out to secure the resources that you need. You can find other non-traditional students online to be your study partners, and don’t forget the numerous resources at your local library.

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9. How can an older student juggle the challenges of applying to college with family responsibilities?

Make a plan. Work with your partner and children (if they’re old enough) so that they can know when you’ll be studying and when you are available. Be open and share this experience with your loved ones, including the opportunity to be a role model as someone who is taking action to make a brighter future for yourself and your family.

10. What are some financial aid options available for older students?

There are more than you might think. Aside from the federal options available to almost all students, there might be grants or scholarships available to you from places that you may not have imagined. Research professional organizations, local groups, and any specific demographic to which you belong (e.g. disabled, immigrant/child of immigrants or current/former military) to see if they offer grants or scholarships.

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11. Are online courses a good option for adult students? What are the challenges of choosing this route?

They are — but know the reality. The biggest challenge that students of online courses have, regardless of age, is realizing that online courses can actually be more difficult and work-intensive than classroom courses. Don’t expect to “squeeze in” a class in between work and home life. If you make time for your online courses, they can be an exciting and fulfilling education option.

What questions about returning to school as an adult student would you like answered by an expert?


non-traditional student questions answeredRyan Hickey is the Managing Editor of 
Peterson’s & EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants.

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