A Guide to Life as a Mature Student

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Mature students – those over the age of 21 – now make up a quarter of the UK’s university student population.

The term “mature student” encompasses a big age bracket, with figures from UCAS suggesting that around two fifths of mature students are aged between 21 and 24, a fifth between 25 and 29, and two fifths aged over 30. There are many reasons why people choose to become mature students. Sometimes it’s because they’ve had a short break from academia to gain work experience; others may be taking up their studies much later in life, perhaps while they’re on a career break, or as a retirement activity for the pure enjoyment of learning. Others embark on degrees in order to bring about a change of direction in their careers. The figures suggest that it’s more popular than ever. Yet much of the advice out there for students is aimed at those who are going straight to university from school. Being a mature student brings its own set of challenges, and in this article, we’re going to address them with some tips to help you prepare for this life-changing experience.

What are the challenges facing mature students?

Image shows a family, each with umbrellas.
Universities are increasingly accommodating the needs
of students with children.

Going back to education is a life choice not without its hurdles, particularly for those in the older range of the mature student age bracket. The main challenges facing mature students are as follows:

  • Mature students have often been out of education for a while, which means that their academic skills – such as critical thinking and essay writing – are not as sharp as they used to be. Because of this, some mature students may initially struggle to get to grips with the academic demands of their course.
  • Previously gained knowledge of the subject may have been forgotten. This will usually only be a problem for those taking a degree in a subject they’ve studied previously, or in a subject for which prior knowledge of a related discipline would be advantageous (such as mathematical knowledge for a physics degree).
  • Being older, mature students often have more responsibilities than younger students, meaning that they may have to balance studying with a career, children and possibly a mortgage. These extra demands on their time makes time management particularly challenging for mature students, and university is hard enough without these extra concerns. However, if you’ve been in employment for years, you will at least be at an advantage in that you’re more used to early starts for those 9am lectures.
  • Socially, many mature students find it hard to mix with a lot of much younger people, with whom they feel they probably have little in common and whose inexperience and immaturity may even feel irritating to them. Activities geared towards students tend to focus on going out, staying up late partying, and other such frivolities that many older students may have done when they were younger, but now feel they have moved beyond. Priorities change as you grow older, and even five or ten years between you and other Freshers can make a vast difference to your outlook on life.

It’s not all difficulties, though. Mature students have often made sacrifices in order to study, and this makes them incredibly motivated to succeed academically, meaning that they often outperform younger students, who lack the life experience and maturity. They’ve chosen to go to university after careful consideration, because they really want to and because they’re genuinely interested; it’s not that they’re going because everyone else is or because it’s a rite of passage.


How to prepare for life as a mature student

The UCAS application process for mature students is exactly the same as for every other student, but there are a few extra things you may need to do as a mature student to help prepare you for life at university.

Figure out how you’re going to fund your studies

Image shows a close-up of a cheque.
Struggles with financing university study are something
mature students have in common with their younger peers.

Funding options may be more limited for mature students, so figuring out how you’re going to fund your studies and researching what loans and grants may be available to you will be an important first step. You may be entitled to Government funding if you’re over the age of 25 and/or you’re independent of your parents. However, it’s not easy to tell you what the exact amount you’re entitled to will be, as this will depend on whether or not you’ve completed a higher education degree before, as well as where you live and what you’re hoping to study. This page explains in the situation in more detail. If you have a family, you’re also going to have to work out how you’ll be able to cope with a much lower household income while you’re studying.

Take an online course to sharpen up your academic skills

If you’ve been out of education for a while, you may find that your academic skills aren’t what they used to be. Without regular practice, such skills can easily fall by the wayside – such as the ability to conduct thorough research in an academic library, the ability to analyse a source of information, or the ability to approach a scholarly text critically. You can get your academic skills back in gear prior to starting at university by taking an online course, either in general academic skills such as essay writing, or in the basics of the subject you’re going to be studying. Take a look at our online courses for some more ideas and to find one relevant to your course.

Decide what you’re going to do about accommodation

Image shows a family at a playground that's connected to university accommodation.
Some student accommodation is geared towards
mature students.

Many mature students decide to go to university in the town or city they already live in (or near), and commute to university from their own home. This is much less an issue for mature students than for those who’ve just left school, as the latter are generally much more concerned about their social life, which is likely to be affected by not living in halls of residence. Student accommodation may seem rather too much like ‘roughing it’ after you’ve been used to living in your own house, and it’ll almost certainly be noisier if you’re going to be living among hordes of younger students. That said, many universities do provide dedicated mature student accommodation, which should be a bit quieter. If you’re not prepared to settle for any kind of student accommodation and you’re not going to be able to live at home – perhaps because your university is too far away to commute to – then you might alternatively look into renting private accommodation.

Make the necessary arrangements

Before you go to university, you’ll need to sort out necessary arrangements with regard to things like travel and childcare, where applicable. These two things can add a considerable amount of expense, but your university should be able to advise on the cheapest ways of doing things. There may, for example, be a crèche on campus so that you can bring your children to university with you, if you have them.

Become more tech-savvy

Image shows someone using an iPad rested against a cat.
Get up-to-date with technology if you have the opportunity.

If you fall into the older age bracket of the mature student demographic, you may not be quite so comfortable using the technology that’s commonplace in the modern educational environment. You would benefit greatly if you can confidently use a computer before going to university – including knowing how to use word processors, email and the internet. These are expected parts of university life, and without these skills, you’ll struggle. If technology isn’t your strong point, consider signing up for a few lessons – or enlisting the help of a younger relative – to help you get up to speed.

Once you get to university

Once your course starts, you’ll have a new way of life to get used to and a lot of settling in to do. The tips below should help you adjust to university life with the minimum of stress.

Adjusting to the academic workload

Your academic workload may come as a shock to the system if you’ve been out of education for a while, and you’ll need to get used to conducting academic research, writing essays and giving your opinions in class. It might feel like being back at school to begin with, but you’ll soon get into the swing of things. Try to allow yourself a bit more time than you think you’ll need for the first few weeks, so that you don’t feel too rushed and you have the time you need to acclimatise gradually.

Impose boundaries at home

Image shows a desk with a laptop at home.
Find yourself a quiet place to work.

If you have children and/or a partner at home, and you intend to do some of your studying at home, you’ll need to impose a few boundaries so that your family knows when not to disturb you. Find somewhere quiet for you to study, put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door, and set aside a regular time so that they know that’s when you’re going to be working.

Learn how you can work remotely if needed

There may be times when external commitments (such as a sick child) force you to study remotely, rather than in the university library. It’s worth investigating what opportunities there are for accessing library resources remotely (electronically), so that you can still make use of university resources when you’re not on campus.

Talk to your tutor

You should be allocated a pastoral tutor when you start university. Your tutor is there to help you and provide guidance, so make full use of their support by going to them if you’re having problems with absolutely anything, either course-related or otherwise. They’ll recognise the extra demands placed on you by the fact that you’re a mature student, and they’ll be more than happy to help.

Take refresher lessons

Image shows an open notebook covered with writing.
Essay-writing skills are vital for many courses.

You may find that your university runs refresher classes for mature students who’ve been out of education for a while, so sign up for any that seem relevant. Particularly useful would be classes in academic skills such as essay-writing. If English isn’t your native language, and you need help to improve your use of academic English, then extra English tuition would also prove helpful.

Join a group for mature students

You may find it easier to mix with fellow mature students, as they’re better able to understand your situation and the specific pressures you’re facing. Most universities have groups dedicated to mature students, so make sure you sign up to one so that you can meet people who are going through the same things as you.

Be open-minded when you meet people

Although it may be easier to befriend other mature students, don’t rule out the idea of making friends with younger students as well, as they will often be glad of an older, more experienced friend who can provide a different point of view to theirs, both academically and socially. You may not think you have much in common on the face of it, but you’re both studying at the same university, and possibly even the same course, so that’s a good start. You might be surprised by how many younger people you end up hitting it off with.

Join student societies

Image shows a cheeseboard.
If you’re not into sports or nightlife, you might enjoy
something like the Food and Drink Society.

The chances are that as a mature student, many of the social activities organised by the student union during Freshers’ Week and throughout the university year – such as pub crawls or club nights – may not appeal to you. But naturally you’ll want to make friends, so you’ll have to explore other avenues for socialising if the main activities don’t appeal to you. You’re more likely to meet like-minded people if you get involved with a society devoted to something you’re interested in; you’re less likely to notice age difference and more likely to notice that you have this interest in common. Go to the Freshers’ Fair and sign up for a few societies – you’re never too old!

Be patient

No student settles into university life overnight, regardless of their age. You will almost certainly find it hard at first; few newcomers to university find the experience a completely easy ride. But bear with it. You’ll soon start to enjoy it and you’ll revel in the confidence boost you’ll get from having the courage to take this brave step towards changing your life for the better.

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