9 Things a Non-Traditional College Student Should Know About College

Let’s be honest. A 4-year graduation track is designed with traditional college students in mind, but you have not been shut out of the race. It is still within the realm of reality to graduate in 4-years, but as a non-traditional student, there may be more obstacles in the way of doing so. These challenges will make the finish line that much sweeter.

College is possible for all walks of life: veterans, returning adults, parents, disabled, international students, etc. Regardless of your own personal journey, you can have a successful academic career as a nontraditional student as well. As a nontraditional student, here’s what you should know.


#1 It’s possible to graduate in 4 years

Let’s be honest. A 4-year graduation track is designed with traditional college students in mind, but you have not been shut out of the race. It is still within the realm of reality to graduate in 4-years, but as a non-traditional student, there may be more obstacles in the way of doing so. These challenges will make the finish line that much sweeter.

As a non-traditional student (NTS), school might not be your first priority. You might have kids or a full-time job to take care of. Needless to say, your education is a long-term investment so it must be high on your priority list.

Treating it as a high priority will prepare you mentally to make the necessary sacrifices to get the work done. I encourage you to talk with your academic advisor and career counselors early and often to craft a plan specific to your circumstances to help you graduate on time.

With that being said, it’s okay if you don’t get it done in 4 years. The world will not crumble at your feet (even if it feels like it will). You might be out in 5 or 6, but trust me. If you keep your eyes on the prize, you will get out.


#2 You should be involved in campus activities

I know your attention is being yanked in a 100 different directions. If one of those directions is pulling you toward campus, then follow that one specifically.

Seriously. As a student, especially an NTS, it is vital that you are engaged in on-campus activities. These are peak opportunities to network with peers and industry professionals who can help you sharpen your skillset and launch your post-graduation career forward.

By no means am I encouraging you to run rampant with 100 different organizations. You don’t have the time for that. Pick 1-3 organizations you believe will help provide a well-rounded college experience and help you further yourself academically and professionally. Participating in these organizations is another value-added benefit of going to college and being a student. When possible, seek leadership opportunities as well. I know it sounds like I’m asking a lot as an NTS and frankly, I am.

As an NTS I expect you to stay on top of your grades, participate in organizations and seek leadership opportunities. You’re in college to be excellent and invest in your future. Not because it was easy and straightforward. To reap the rewards, you have to put the work in.


#3 You will be tired more often

This probably goes without saying, but you will be tired. Bone tired. Some days (weeks even) you’ll be running on an average of 5 hours of sleep. I don’t say this to discourage you- only to prepare you for the worst case scenario.

Most traditional college students don’t know what it’s like to work a full or part-time job, go to school, take care of dependents and participate in campus activities.

The concept of sleep will most likely become foreign to you and that’s okay. Use Sundays to refuel and hit the pavement running the next morning. Yes you will be tired but it so, so worth it.

(With that being said, it’s important to practice self-care periodically or you will crash and burn. As amazing and strong as you as, you are also human. Take care of yourself.)

#4 Sometimes people just won’t get it

I’m specifically talking about students who have little to no responsibilities outside of college. They don’t get that you can’t get wasted on Thirsty Thursdays because your daughter has a volleyball game or on the weekends you do stuff like mow the lawn or run your kids around or take care of your parents. Some people don’t get that you just can’t quit your job and just do school all day.

Don’t let those people frustrate you. They’re not in your world. It doesn’t make sense to their minds and that’s okay. It’s not your job to enlighten them. There is no cure for willful ignorance. Just move on.


#5 You can’t do it alone

I’m serious. You can’t. You probably feel like the whole weight is on your shoulders and in a lot of ways, it probably is but remember how I was telling you earlier that you’re human?

Well, a part of being human is realizing that the weight of the world on your shoulders will crush you.

You need a support system.

It’s impossible to go to school full time, parent full time and be involved on campus and keep your sanity. Honest to goodness, you need some help. I’m talking about mental and emotional help.

Who do you turn to when it hits the fan? Your spouse? Parents? Childhood friend? Spiritual advisor? Family? Honestly, you need someone. Find people who are cheering you on and want to see you succeed. (Your academic and career advisor should be a part of this team). They are your go-to people when it comes time to ask for help. (Notice how I said when, not if).


#6 Find people who understand

I mentioned earlier that some people won’t get it. Well, the good news is that some people will COMPLETELY understand. Find these people and learn from them. Find out how they did it. Create a community. Offer support for one another.


#7 Your career advisor and academic advisor are your best friends

They are literally your best friends throughout your academic career. They will help you navigate the landmines and make the best decisions to get you to graduation in one piece.

Sometimes things feel like they’re up in the air as you’re just trying to figure things out one step at a time. Your career and academic advisors help bring things to ground level and make sense of all the chaos around you. They make sure you are on track and all this craziness is worthwhile.


#8 Embrace weird hours

As a nontraditional student, you have to get used to weird hours. Sometime your classes will be super early or super late to accommodate your other priorities. Embrace the craziness in all its forms. It’s hard, but you can do hard things.


#9 School doesn’t have to be number 1 but it does have to be on the list

I get it. Your kids and parents come first, but school needs to be second.

No seriously, you are investing too much time and money into your higher education to not make it a priority. It doesn’t have to be #1 or #2 and chances are as an NTS it can’t be #1 or #2 but has to very high on the list otherwise you are wasting time and resources better spent elsewhere.


At the end of the day, you are doing this for yourself. Even if someone else might be the motivation for going to college, you are still doing it for yourself. Think about it. Even if you are doing it for your kids, who will be a better provider if you finish college….YOU! That’s why it’s so important to make this important. Take it seriously.


What other advice would you give to non-traditional students? Were you a non-traditional student? How was your experience in navigating college?


2 thoughts on “9 Things a Non-Traditional College Student Should Know About College

  1. I am a non traditional college student. I started community college (while working full time) just a few weeks shy of my 53 birthday. I was able to take the majority of my classes on line. This was important because I didn’t want to deal with feeling uncomfortable in a class full of kids the same age as my sons. I found out that my fears were groundless. The other students were curious and then inspired because I was changing careers at middle age and several told me that they told their parents about me. I am now “attending” University for my online Bachelors degree and am fortunate that I don’t have to work for the next year. I plan on graduating early by maximizing my credit load and taking summer classes.
    My advice to others?
    You are not alone. 1/3 of the commencement group for my AA was non traditional. Let your education be what YOU want it to be. Don’t worry about clubs and campus activities (sorry I know that is not your advice) unless you need that socialization.
    Talk to your advisers and instructors. Let them know how you and your learning is different. You may find them treating you with more respect and insight because you are generational peers.
    Tell others what you are doing. I kind of hid it or at least didn’t volunteer the knowledge for the first year – it felt weird to explain that I was a professional who had never gone to college. Then I realized it was a big deal and I needed to celebrate it rather than hide it. I’ve received support from unexpected places and inspired others that I didn’t know needed it.



    1. Thank you so much for your input and advice! I’m glad you’re doing what’s best for you! I don’t mind your advice being a little contradictory to mine. My goal is that students make it in and out successfully! (Like you) 🙂


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