Are you contemplating furthering your education but think too late to return to school?  Many potential students see a long hiatus from school as an obstacle to furthering their education.  You always planned to complete that master’s or doctoral degree, but life happens—career, family, obligations.  Things have changed and you’re ready to take that next step.  You want that graduate degree, but is it possible to return to graduate school after a long hiatus?

The idea of attending college as an adult after a hiatus can make anyone anxious.  Seasoned students who took time off from school often have unique academic concerns; however, making this decision doesn’t have to keep you up at night.  When you make the choice to return to graduate school, you are not alone.



Making the Transition Back into Academia

Returning to academia can be difficult for some students, but “traditional students” aren’t the only ones entering college anymore.  Every year, thousands of adult learners who are just as busy, motivated, and financially tapped-out as you are earning college degrees.  Students 25 and older made up about 40% of all college students in 2009, and by 2020, National Center for Education Statistics estimates about 9.6 million older students are heading back to campus.

Since going back to college as an adult can now be considered a norm, there are many resources now to help you along your path to graduation.  One of the best resources for adult learners is online courses, which allow you to start college in a low-risk environment, and get the academic help you need the moment you need it, right at your fingertips.

Get help during the admissions process.  You are not the only one returning to school after a hiatus, though this might seem like little consolation when you are uncertain about how college admissions will view your application.  Take a deep breath.  Speak with an admissions counselor to learn how to best present yourself in your application, as well as help you fill out financial aid forms and other application paper work.

Know the Costs

One question that crosses the mind of almost everyone considering returning to school is whether going back is worth it.  Unfortunately, there is no definitive “yes” or “no.”  Figuring out the worth of a graduate education requires asking yourself what you expect from a graduate degree.  If your focus revolves around earning potential, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that postgraduates in 2013 earn about $12,000 more a year compared to individuals who stop their education after receiving a bachelor’s degree.

Graduate school is expensive.  Whether you already have massive student loans from undergrad or expenses from the “real world,” you don’t want to add to your piles of debt pile.  If possible, meet with a financial advisor and talk about the estimated cost of going to graduate school, then plan your budget with your spouse or family to set realistic expectations.  The key is to live within your means If you are seriously planning to enter a graduate program, you also have to consider how you can pay for your living expenses, plan for emergencies, and make sure your budget balances.  Be sure to take advantage of available financial aid and grants to help reduce your cost of school, you can explore these options in our “How to Find Free Money” blog series here.

The cost of being a graduate student isn’t always monetary.  Graduate school isn’t like undergrad.  It’s no secret that graduate school takes a lot of time away from personal lives and relationships.  The atmosphere from undergrad to graduate school is a complete change of pace, which not all returning students realize after working full time.  Be mentally prepared to live a potentially different lifestyle.  With a full course load, you won’t have as much time to go out on the weekends or participate in extracurricular activities.  However, a discussion with loved ones who may not understand why your school time may take away from home time will help you and them adapt to your new schedule.

Flexibility in a Graduate Program

You will see a lot of change when starting a graduate program and flexibility is one of the most important factors for adults returning to school.  Nowadays, everyone is busy and pulled in every direction.  When programs are flexible, it provides the best opportunities for students to succeed.

Explore Programs Designed For Returning Students

Whether you are 25 or 55 years old, it’s a good idea to look around at which graduate school programs cater to your needs as a returning student.  Ask the schools you are interested in about programs for returning students.  Many programs now are geared towards student returning to school after time away.  Forbes has posted a list of “Great Colleges for Adults Returning to School,” which is an excellent resource to use to start your search.

Find the Right Form Of Instructional Delivery for You

Many students returning to graduate school have work and family responsibilities.  Universities today offer degrees in a range of formats, including on campus, online, and a blend of the two.  Each format offers different benefits that may be the best fit for you depending on your preferred learning style.  Busy parents and professionals often like the flexibility that online learning or blended programs offer.  Choosing the best-fit format based on your goals, strengths, and learning style will help provide the support needed to achieve.

Manage Your Time

For adult students returning to school for a graduate degree, one of the most difficult parts for is time management.  The balance of family, school, work, and personal time can be difficult to maintain.  Make a game plan.  In addition to appointments, classes, and work schedule, list out other activities you normally wouldn’t write on your calendar.  This will be helpful in identifying how much time you spend on each activity.

The key is to plan ahead as much as possible.  Set a goal to spend at least half of your time in a day invested in productive activities.  Write down a list of daily tasks or keep a calendar of due dates for assignments, if you try to plan each day can make the most out of every hour.

If you find yourself easily distracted or guilted into immediately responding to other’s needs, you may need to take some precautions.  Ask your friends and family not to interrupt you while you work, and consider putting your phone on airplane mode so you are not distracted by calls, texts, or emails.  Also, be sure to reward yourself for achieving a goal.  For instance, tell yourself you can respond to messages after locked into homework or research for two hours straight.

Get Support

Attending graduate school can be extremely rewarding, but also full of challenges.  Graduate students know they cannot survive the demands of graduate programs without a support system.  Knowing whom to turn to for help and support is key for success.

Consult an Academic Counselor

Once accepted into a program, talk with an academic counselor.  Although, ideally, students pursuing advanced degrees should be able to plan their coursework and research largely on their own, consulting an academic counselor is never a bad idea.  They can help plan your program path and ensure you get credit for applicable coursework you completed as a college student your first time around.

Talk to Your Boss

Balancing school and a full-time job is tough for even the most organized student.  Find out if your company has a policy for tuition reimbursement; sometimes, students have to keep a specific GPA to be reimbursed.  Not all companies have a tuition reimbursement program, but some companies have money set aside for employee’s classes that can be considered training.

Talk to Other Students

Talk to friends, family, and colleagues who have gone back to school after taking a hiatus, see what their experience was like.  If you can, talk to the program’s existing graduate students, they may not have all the facts, but they will definitely give you their blunt opinions.  They may have advice and help you manage your expectations, as well tips on effective time management.

Get Your Friends and Family Onboard

One of the biggest difficulties returning students face is balancing other obligations with their studies.  If you have a friend or family member also pursuing a graduate degree, you will be able to commiserate about the experiences and pressures involved in being a student.  Make a point of regularly talking about your classes and goals with your support system.  Obviously, your friends and family cannot do your homework for you, but sharing your homework (such as attending lectures or reading a book) and have learning together is a great way to get them involved.

Set Goals

If you know what you want, going to graduate school will be a time of growth and learning.  Make sure your goals align with your time spent at school to be as beneficial to you as possible.  Help yourself by choosing a program that will lead you towards your professional goals.  Talk to professors about career options and students in the prospective program about their dream job and professional desires.  Opportunities will surface as you research and find your passion.  Decide how you will balance your time between all obligations to help you feel successful.  Decide what is important to you in addition to your educational goals (i.e., health and fitness, social and family, and personal goals).

Also, consider writing your goals down and create subtasks under each goal.  In order to track and measure your progress, set deadlines so you can meet your overall goal on time.  Remember to be flexible.  If your goal isn’t working out, don’t be afraid to assess and change it.

Have a Clear Goal for Going Back To School

Do not return to school without having an identifiable purpose for doing so.  You need to be very clear on what you want and research whether graduate school is a necessary to follow that path.  Are you wanting to advance in your profession or earning potential?  Are you looking to make a career change?  As with any task, it is best to go back to school when there is strong motivation, having a clear plan can help keep you motivated and moving forward while in the program.

Be Realistic About What You Can Do

Going back to college is a big decision.  You have to be in the right frame of mind to finish your degree.  To avoid going through the stress of an advanced education, it’s important to set reasonable expectations of yourself.  If family or work obligations are going to make it difficult to be committed to a program full-time, consider enroll in classes part-time and build up, or explore opportunities as a non-degree seeking student first, before committing to a program.


Students drop out of college for a variety of reasons: finances, family responsibilities, work commitments, and academic difficulties are all factors in students’ decisions to leave school.  The good news is, many adults are now returning to school with more motivation to succeed, such as the jumpstart you need to start a new career.  Nevertheless, as life demands different things of us at different stages, it’s important to consider whether it’s the right time for you to make such a commitment.  Not everyone realizes that the higher education experience is long-term.  Do you have the support you need?  The commitment isn’t just two or three semesters, but two or three years.


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