Going back to school for grownups

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After six years in the working world, I’m back at school. I’m a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, and let me tell you — getting back in the education swing is more than swapping your summer break for the schoolhouse.

I picked the experienced and knowledgeable brains of a handful of local university administrators and found 10 ways to keep cool about going back to school.

Research

List the school and programs that peak your interest. Visit websites, call admissions offices and read, read, read. That’s why that information’s there.

“Start with the admissions office, so when you get to students and faculty, you have a better idea of what you want to ask them,” said Cate Lagueux, director of graduate admissions at Columbia College.

Organize

Save everything, bookmark useful websites and find a good organization method whether on paper or electronic. Any collaborative or online documentation programs can be handy if you will be researching from different locations or from different devices. I used Google Docs to create documents and folders for my grad school research.

Budget

Julie Collins, associate director of the office of graduate admissions and financial aid at Northwestern University, said to start financial planning early, and be realistic with spending.

Check credit history and start trimming your budget, Collins said. For those with a family, she said it could be more complicated.

“Every school’s cost of attendance is based on a single student,” she said. “You really have to sit down with a financial aid person to find out what support there is for a parent.”

Focus

“With adult learners, they tend to be a lot more focused,” Lagueux said. “You don’t go for a graduate degree because you’re casually interested. You want to further or start your career.”

Make the most of your time and your dollars by attending every class, asking questions and spending extra time on projects if necessary.

Be open to changes

Don’t worry about being older or different from other students.

“You’re a student just like they are,” said Manuel French, associate director of admission at DePaul University. “As an adult student, you will have had experiences that you want to certainly rely on.”

At the University of Chicago, Daniels said she lets adult learners know the same thing.

“In classes today, even at a campus like ours, where the majority is full time, the reality is that you are seeing a lot more diverse classrooms than ten years ago,” she said.

Manage time

“If you plan to work and study at the same time, have realistic expectations for what your free time is going to look like,” Lagueux said.

Use a day planner, wall calendar or your cell phone. Jot down important dates and deadlines at once, and check this calendar many times during the day.

Brush up on tech

Not so comfy with computers? French said you don’t have to be a computing whiz, but just be comfortable with using computers and accessing information online.

Many colleges are moving toward paper-free or paper-light classrooms. Your syllabus, quizzes and assignments may all be given to you electronically, and you may also be expected to turn them in this way.

Patience

“Give yourself permission to ease back into school and to take it seriously,” said Mary Daniels, associate director of the graduate student at large and returning scholar program at the University of Chicago.

“Typically courses are not respective of travel or personal commitments,” she said. “This is part of what you’re signing up for.”

Network

Lagueux said networking doesn’t have to just be awkward cocktail receptions and swapping business cards. Work with professors or other students. Each person you encounter is part of your network.

“If you happen to know someone and can email them directly, all these little things over time add up and can be the difference between getting an interview and not getting and interview,” she said.

Relax & enjoy

Remember: This is your choice, and you’re doing it to get better at something.

“Don’t be discouraged if in the first few week’s you’re struggling,” Lagueux said. “You have to flex those muscles before they get strong.”

Daniels said to not forget the importance of doing something for you.

“You have a life, professional experience, other commitments and obligations,” she said. “Success in education depends on your ability to do that and do that well.”