How to embrace university as a mature student
(Last updated: 1 March 2021)
So, you are looking at starting (or going back to) university as a mature student. This is the first step towards furthering your education – congrats! Once you get over the mildly offensive label, there is actually quite a lot to discover, digest, and consolidate before you embark on your studies as a mature student. So included in this blog post are some of the key points you should bear in mind.
What is a mature student?
You may only be a year or two into your twenties, but technically, if you’re aged 21 or over and starting an undergraduate degree, you’re classed as a mature student. Although the term “mature student” is often synonymous with people close to or over 30, according to UCAS, 52% of all mature students in the UK are aged between 21 and 24.
Being a mature student: what to expect
Whatever age you are, going to university after an amount of time out of education can feel daunting. If you’ve never been in higher education, then just like every undergraduate student out there – mature or not – you’ll be going to university with fresh eyes. This can be a great thing. You have limited expectations, and your time as an undergrad won’t be tainted by any prior experiences of higher education.
If you’ve completed some higher education before and you’re returning to it as a mature student, then you’re approaching it with some experience under your belt. Use this to your advantage. Take what you learned and apply it to your studies now. Perhaps you learned a lot about how you study best, or a note-taking system that works for you, or how many weeks to give yourself to write great assignments.
If you’re a returning mature student, the degree to which universities have moved on obviously depends on how long ago your studies were. There may have been changes in teaching and learning, and how assessments are conducted.
Regardless of whether you are a returning or first-time mature student, always remember that you’re not on your own. For the 2018/19 academic year, of all undergraduate entrants to UK universities were mature. Mature students made up 53% of postgraduate entrants. Once you start your course, seek out and sign up to societies and events specifically catering to the needs and interests of mature students. It’ll likely help you feel connected and secure to be amongst others in a similar position to you. Which leads us on to…
Returning to university: how to cope with imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a common feeling amongst students who are returning to university. After some time away, it can feel like you’re not worthy, ready, or able to jump back into education. These feelings are all of course valid, but not always the most helpful.
A key ‘lightbulb’ moment for many students during mature study is when they realise how similar everyone’s fears and worries are about going back to university. This is why it can be really beneficial to find ways of linking up with other mature students before and/or once your course starts.
Although everyone’s background will be different, all your fellow mature students will likely have some anxieties about this significant change in their lives. Some may have started to build a career, working hard in a job before deciding to go back to study. Others may have spent some time travelling, experiencing a digital nomad’s time in far-flung locations. Some may have been busy caring either for parents or other family members. Some may even have started a family themselves. The permutations in the backstories are almost endless, and each one of you will have a different story to tell. However, going back to university is something you are all doing together – the fact that it’s equally new to all of you can have a rather levelling effect on group dynamics.
So join the postgraduate society and listen to other people’s worries and experiences. Find out what they have learned since becoming a mature student and see whether you can benefit from those lessons. But most importantly, shed any looming feelings of imposter syndrome. You have earned your right to be there! The people who made the decision to admit you onto the course are convinced that you have what it takes and that you have something valuable to offer. You are in the right place and people are believing in you, so you better believe in you too, however hard that feels sometimes.
Finding your way around campus – literally and virtually
The shift from on-campus provision to increased online learning has been going on at universities for some time. COVID-19, however, has increased the pace of change. Coupled with this and the fact that Freshers Week may not have the same appeal to you as a mature student, studying remotely may be an attractive option. (There are some potential pitfalls too, but more on those later).
If you’re wholly distance learning, then your student ID together with your password are the keys to your new world. You can access resources, re-watch online lectures, join clubs and societies, catch up with people, ask for help – all at the push of a button. That said, it may be worth introducing yourself to your personal tutor, and maybe even doing so in person, if that’s possible. Tutors are not so much the gatekeepers, but guardians of knowledge and advice. Having a relationship beyond them knowing your name can only be a positive thing and may stand you in good stead at a later date.
Knowing where to turn for help, and how
Whether you’re studying online, living on campus, a returning mature postgrad or a first-time mature undergrad, your university will have a myriad of resources to help you. If you’re struggling with your learning, consider turning to your department or personal tutor. If it’s a logistical or practical issue, such as where to find an online resource or how submissions work, consult your university’s administrative department. If you need help emotionally or mentally, don’t be afraid to reach out to your university’s student support arm – often these come in the form of a welfare department or support services.
There are many benefits to studying online, having copious online resources, and virtual learning environments. However, sometimes the proliferation of these can lead to a paralysis of choice. Be prepared and proactive. If you’re feeling overwhelmed at any point, clarify with yourself what it is you need and then follow signposts, virtual or otherwise, to access help.
The wonderland that is your university library
This may be a personal thing, but don’t you find the library at least a little bit of magic? Granted, you may not have ever stepped foot in a university library. But know this: starting off a search on a certain topic and getting lost in a wealth of resources is immensely pleasurable – and a tiny bit overwhelming!
If you’re a returning mature student, then this is not your first rodeo. You’ve been here before. But, if you’ve been away a while, there may have been changes in systems and software in the library. So make sure you grab online seminars covering topics like:
- How to conduct a systematic literature review in your discipline
- Where your university’s guides are for the different referencing conventions that are operated in your department
- Anything you need to know about using the library for your course
If your library has subject-specific advisors or librarians, use them! Whilst their sheer never-ending knowledge at times seems a bit intimidating, they are never happier than when they can share that knowledge with eager students. Know what’s where if your library or department operates different sites. Pay attention too to what the opening times are – despite many university courses being virtual, when it comes to physically borrowing and returning books, it pays to know when the humans are present!
Top tips to make mature study easy
Something you have at your disposal as a mature student is the power of being, well, mature – even if only by a year or two. The extra time you’ve had in life experience puts you at an advantage compared to your younger peers. You don’t need to feel the same social pressures as fresh undergraduates. If and when the lure of the pub with your peers calls, you can say “no” much more easily. Use all of your worldly wisdom to help you prioritise the things that really matter (finishing this course successfully) over the things that don’t (waking up with a stinking hangover). That said, it can be difficult to balance. You do need to build and sustain relationships with your new support network of fellow students, and socialising is part of that.
The same is true, of course, in relation to your tutors. Always seek contact and put up a metaphorical hand if there is something you are not sure about and think you may need help with. Most mature students (especially postgraduate) find approaching their tutors less of a challenge than undergraduate first-time students. If you’re a little older, you may find that your tutor is more relatable, which will make contact with them more natural. Tutors, just as librarians or support staff in resource centres, love you to ask questions. Questions mean interest, and that’s music to their ears. They’d rather explain something again, or even again and again, than find at the point when an assignment is due, big gaps have accumulated and some students, mature, postgraduate or otherwise, find it hard to catch up.
Many mature students balance paid work with their course. This is often a necessity and universities are experienced in helping mature students manoeuvre the competing demands on your time. Many of these demands don’t contain an element of choice. So it is not whether to address them, but how and when. Work backwards from any important deadlines and make sure you have enough contingency built into your system (see the next section on staying organised below).
Make sure important people in your life know how important your studies are to you. They need to see how seriously you are taking them and support you. For the duration of the course, there will be lots of pulls on you – be prepared. Yes, you will end up working on those assignments during the wee small hours at either end of the day and sleep will feel like a distant memory at times. But you also know why you are doing that and what reward is in store for you in terms of the new qualification earned.
Finally, one more important top tip: make sure that you attend all your lectures and seminars. This is crucial, even if they are ‘only’ delivered live online. It may seem tempting to de-prioritise your attendance as you are juggling all your commitments, hoping you will catch up later. But there is sturgeon evidence that correlates attendance with the grades obtained. And when it comes to revising for exams, there will be plenty to do without having to catch up on missed lectures!
How to stay organised
Staying organised as a mature student can be even more of a challenge than for non-mature students. You may have all sorts of commitments pulling you left and right – or you may just be really out of practise (or both). Here’s a really great tip: when studying, don’t just read systematically – organise your notes and references systematically from day one, too. It may seem obvious, but this could make a significant difference to the ease with which you move through your course. If you procrastinate with your notes, or put off recording a reference, it can wreak havoc later down the line. By systematically taking notes recording your references as you go – i.e. every time you’re reading or researching – you will steadily build your knowledge. What’s better though, is that you will also be able to cross-reference and plan future readings and explorations ahead of time. If you’re the type who keeps their notes and references beautifully organised then of course, this tip doesn’t apply so much to you. But if you have a tendency for sloppy organisation, take heed.
What about other issues relating to planning? What’s your time-keeping like? Do you balk at the thought of a last-minute deadline, or do you thrive under the pressure? There are those who would argue that success is all in the planning. If this is the case, you’ll be wise to make lists, and get them ticked off in good time. Hopefully, your mature-ness will be put you in good stead here: your life experience may well have forced you to build your organisational skills. Such skills are transferrable, and that should help you make the most of your course. And don’t forget, there will be guides available through your resource centre or library that relate to different study skills.
When mature study doesn’t feel right
This is a delicate issue. All advice is personal – to us and to you. This goes for academic writing, staying organised, and it especially goes for pastoral issues. Make sure that you take your self-care seriously. There is a lot of work involved with higher-education learning, whether you are a mature student or not. This is especially the case for mature students studying at postgraduate level. At a minimum, when you’re head down in studying, be sure to make time for restorative breaks at regular intervals. Whether it’s vigorous exercise, simply going for a walk, or reading something that is not course-related – you know what works for you. Build in downtime and to help avoid burnout.
If, despite all your best efforts, you’re finding mature study a struggle, remember that there is no need to suffer in silence. There are many support facilities and individuals at every university who are there to help. And no, you are not a nuisance – helping is what they are there for. And frankly, what may seem an overwhelming issue to you is something they may have encountered before or, at the very least, know in which direction to point you.
Embarking on a course when you are a mature student comes with its own considerable challenges and potential pitfalls. This is especially true if you’re a mature student and looking to do a postgraduate course. Postgrads tend to have a vast and diverse number of additional responsibilities beyond the university that need their energy and attention. This is recognised widely, and national initiatives, such as those promoted by Student Minds, are there for you to access. There are online tools, as well as 24/7 telephone helplines staffed by trained and experienced staff or volunteers. Do get in contact if you think you need help, even if you are not one to talk about your own stuff, there is help out there.
Leaving your course is always the last option that we’d recommend pursuing. But of course, if things aren’t right and you’re unhappy to the point of unresolve, then discussing your decision with your department is the best place to start.
Mature study: enjoy it!
Despite the rather serious (but necessary) note of the previous section, there is so much to enjoy about being a mature student. The companionship amongst your fellow students on the course, the budding relationship with your tutors, the luxury of having had time away from education before diving back in… It is in many ways a privileged position in which to be. Wherever you can, try and enjoy it and make the most of it. Embrace the opportunity, embrace the fear and go for it!