I'm an Adult Student: Where Do I Start?

Group Adult Students

Going back to school as an adult is a choice that shows you want more for yourself. As an adult student, you’ll have life and career experience that you can apply to your studies. You may even feel a new sense of motivation to earn that degree — whether it’s to get a better-paying job in your field or to switch to a new career. You’re not alone: Studies show that over half of employed Americans considered a career change in 2020.

However, the process of applying for both college and financial aid can feel intimidating, especially with everything else on your plate. All you will need is guidance to make sure you’re following the right steps. Here’s how to get started on your path back to school — and forward in life!

Learn More About Yourself

As an adult, you may think you know everything about yourself, but there’s always more to learn! Now is the time to reassess your interests before you decide what degree to get. Fortunately, you probably have a better idea of your skill sets and where you can still grow. You know what type of work bores you and what work inspires you.

At College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC), we have resources for students of all ages and education needs. Create a free account to access helpful tools on the CFNC website and NCCareers.org. Start with the Interest Finder as a quick self-assessment to help you find occupations that align with your interests. Other helpful tools include the Skills Matcher and Work Values Sorter. Once you have an idea of careers that interest you, you’ll want to find the right school to help you earn that degree or certification.

Research Schools

To find a school that’s right for you, you’ll need to dedicate time and effort to your own research. First, think about the essentials: what are your highest priorities for a school, and what are dealbreakers? You can ask yourself questions like:

  • If I must keep working while in school, can I take classes part-time?
  • Do I prefer online or in-person classes?
  • If I plan to attend classes on campus, is the commute manageable?
  • Can I transfer any college credits I already have?
  • Is there a good support network for adult students at this college?

Now that you have a better idea about what’s important to you in a future school, use the CFNC College Search tool to research schools that match your needs. Look for schools that interest you and accommodate your needs.

Note the pros and cons of each school by referring to your list of essentials. For example, one school may be an easy commute for you but won’t accept your college credits, while another school that is further away will accept them. Would the cost of the commute over time be more than what you would save by transferring your credits? These are all questions to think about as you narrow your search.

Start Applying to Schools

Once you’re ready to apply to schools, use the CFNC Application Hub to submit your applications and keep track of important deadlines. If you have specific questions about a school’s application process for adult students, consider contacting an admissions counselor at each school to help guide you through the process. You may want to schedule an appointment to go over all the components of the application, such as essays, interviews, and transcripts.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be upfront. As an adult student, don’t worry about sharing information from your past, such as a poor academic record. Colleges want you to speak your truth about how you got where you are. They know that sometimes the best students previously struggled in school but come back strong with life lessons and a sense of purpose that makes them successful.

To give yourself maximum options, plan to apply to multiple schools, not just your top choices. Most experts recommend applying to five to 15 colleges to give you a broad range of options.

Apply for Financial Aid

calculator displaying financial aid

Paying for college as an adult student is often the top concern when adults decide to go back to school. The first step is to apply for financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). There are no age restrictions when it comes to the FAFSA. It will determine your eligibility for grants, scholarships, federal student loans, and work-study programs.

The FAFSA begins accepting applications each year on October 1; for the following academic year. Keep records of income, taxes, and other documents right at hand to make the process go as smoothly as possible. If you have questions about completing the FAFSA, CFNC has helpful online resources. You can also watch this free webinar to answer common questions you may have about financial aid, applications, researching careers, and more! You can also contact the financial aid office at your future schools with specific questions.

Don’t forget to apply for additional scholarships and grants to get even more money to pay for school. Just like FAFSA, most scholarships don’t have age limits, but read the eligibility requirements carefully and then apply for as many scholarships as you can. Finally, make a budget to plan how you will afford daily life during school.

Stay Organized — and Celebrate!

Once you’re accepted to your dream school (congratulations!), remember to look out for mailings, phone calls, and emails from your school. Stay up to date on when orientations, webinars, and other events occur so you don’t miss vital information.

Seek support from the department or office — if there is one — that focuses on facilitating adult learning at your school. For extra support, start or join a Facebook group or other online forum, and chat with other adult students who relate to your experience.

So, what are you waiting for? The future is calling! Create a CFNC account, and let us help you as you begin this exciting journey!

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