Coming to university as a mature student can be both exhilarating and challenging. Whether you have been to university before or not, there is plenty of support on offer to help you extend your qualifications, improve your employment prospects or indulge in an interest for its own sake.
Despite a wealth of life experience from work, home or prior training you may feel unsure of what is expected of you in the unfamiliar environment at university. The challenges and dilemmas you face will be different to those of younger students.
1. Adjusting to university life
Mature students often work very hard, and make considerable sacrifices to get to university. Often they find themselves questioning whether they have made the right decision - an understandable reaction to the changes. It can take time to adjust, both to being in an educational institution and to the learning experience itself. In your first weeks you feel any or all of the following:
- I'm overwhelmed by the amount of work
- I'm out of practice. I don't have the skills
- Everyone else seems so young!
- I don't have enough confidence
- Time is running out. This is my last chance. I've set my standards too high. There's too much pressure on me to succeed
- I'm worried that when I do get my degree it won't be worth it
- I'm not getting the support I need from partner/children/friends
- Because of my other commitments I'm missing out on aspects of student life.
As well as all this, you may have to balance the demands of running a home, perhaps working part-time, with your course requirements.
2. Managing your time and work
Studying as a mature student can require all your organisational skills. It may need a radical reassessment of priorities. It may help to recognise that being a mature student does bring special pressures. This may particularly be the case if you are also attending to the demands of a family and children.
As far as your academic work is concerned, you will find it will help to divide tasks into immediate and less urgent, and prioritise ruthlessly. The more you break down your work into small tasks the more you're likely to find the time to do them. You may find that it helps to set aside a special place and time for working. This will help to create the right mood for working. If you have small children, probably the only time available to read and complete coursework will be when they're in bed. As time goes on, you'll find you get used to making the most of all the time available.
Try not to put extra pressure on yourself by being perfectionist – acknowledge it will take time to get back into the rhythm of studying and that it will all seem unfamiliar at first. Talking to others – whether students in the same situation or your tutor or supervisor – may help to put things in perspective. You also may not be giving yourself enough credit for non-academic skills that you have acquired.
It is important to allow some space for yourself, however impossible or unrealistic this seems at times. Try to spend some time doing things that make you feel better, whether by being with friends or relaxing on your own. Trying to make yourself work when your head is full of other pressures will never work. It sounds simple, but often the best thing to do is to take a break. If you feel overwhelmed and troubled by conflicting demands to the extent that it is affecting your work and enjoyment of life, it may help to talk.
3. Make use of the help available
The most important thing to do if you are experiencing problems, particularly if they are affecting your work, is to ask for help. Your department or college have a number of people who will be able to advise you, from your tutor or senior tutor, college advisor, director of graduate studies, supervisor, students trained as Peer Supporters, college doctor or nurse, common room welfare officers, or chaplain. There is also a range of support services across the University that you can access:
- speak to your tutor or supervisor if you feel you need extra help in managing your time and work
- help is available from the Counselling Service for students who lack confidence about their academic and study skills
- the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) Vice President (Graduates) is responsible for the mature students' campaign which puts on social events several times a term and offers the chance to meet other mature students from across the University. If you would like to join the mail list contact email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details
- OUSU also runs a free and confidential student advice service, offering support on any issues affecting students. Email email@example.com to make an appointment to see one of the advisors.
4. Updating your skills
The University offers a range of courses to help you develop your skills. IT Services offers courses in computer skills, including in office software and specialist programmes used for research, for a nominal fee. The Bodleian Libraries also provide training, including how to carry out online literature searches. The Language Centre run classes or individual study. If you feel you need to develop a particular skill, do speak to your tutor or supervisor to discuss how to find support in this.
The University aims to assist wherever possible in the provision of childcare. For more information, visit Childcare Services.