How to...
Overcome the challenge of being a mature student

A substantial proportion of new management students are "returners" to education, sometimes building on skills and learning they acquired previously, sometimes embarking on a whole new programme of study aimed at broadening their career choices or shifting them into a different setting. For these mature students, re-entering education, sometimes after a gap of several decades, brings its own, quite daunting challenges.

Perhaps the most common problem reported by mature students is that they find it hard to get back into the mindset of studying: reading textbooks, retaining information heard in lectures or found in articles, making notes that you can still make sense of when you read them back later.

All of these skills can be difficult to master at any age, but because they are almost exclusive to academic work, the longer you've been out of that sort of study, the more evasive they can appear.

Learning to learn again

There is no magic wand to wave over this issue, unfortunately. Mature students need to accept that they will have to re-learn how to study; and that it may take some time and a lot of effort. Be patient with yourself and remember that your increased life experience and maturity give you advantages over new school leavers in other aspects of your studies.

You may also find it valuable to book onto additional study skills courses offered by your college or university to help you brush up on the areas you feel you're weakest. In the end, the ability to study effectively is a matter of practice and motivation. The mature students are generally the most highly motivated in any group, so you start with at least that advantage.

The work-life balance

The next major challenge facing mature students is balancing the requirements of study with all the other "grown up" parts of your life that 18 to 20 year olds are unlikely to be bothered with yet.

Mature students often find themselves juggling the demands of families, partners, work, etc. and can struggle to find time for classes, study and assignment writing in addition to all these things.

Affordable, high quality childcare is a problem for many; sustaining happy and fulfilling relationships is the biggest hurdle for others; most mature students have a level of commitment to people and groups outside their studies that goes way beyond that of the traditional undergraduate.

The best strategies for dealing with these issues involve seeking out the help and support of other people. As a starting point, check out the student support services offered by your institution: many offer crèche and childcare facilities, for example; professional counsellors are a ubiquitous feature of modern campuses; and chances are, your college or university will also have a mature student group or society where you can meet others in the same situation as yourself and share stories and solutions.

Your tutors and lecturers will mostly be sympathetic to your need to balance life and learning and generally appreciate only too well the difficulties you face. Don't be afraid to tell someone if you're having problems, or to ask for help or extra time if you need it.

It's not all doom & gloom

Before it sounds as though life as a mature student is all doom and gloom; it is worth reminding yourself that you in fact possess a number of qualities in greater abundance than your younger colleagues, and that you can draw on all of these to help you succeed.

As mentioned earlier, mature students tend to be more highly motivated when they enter higher education. They are returning to academic work out of a personal desire to learn and develop and not to meet someone else's expectations of them, or because they couldn't think what else to do with their lives. This means that they are engaged with their subject and make more effort to do well. A positive attitude and willingness to work always confer an advantage on a student.

Use your work experience

Mature students bring a range of transferable skills from other areas of their lives to bear on their studies. Whether you have been a full-time member of the paid workforce or managing a home and raising a family before returning to education, you will have developed aptitudes for time management, teamwork, communication and a host of other life skills that are just as important to the successful completion of your studies as exam technique or essay writing skills.

Anyone with work experience has a particular advantage in studying management and business because they can relate the theories they are taught in class to actual situations they have observed or been part of. This personal experience is a great help in developing a proper understanding of, and critical perspective on, the material under review. What's more, when you share that experience and understanding with others, you enrich their learning and understanding as well – mature students are a real boon to management classes.

Don't hold back

There is some irony here, because the biggest factor which holds mature students back in higher education is their relative lack of confidence. Although these students have so much to offer, they tend to be the most anxious and worried about their own performance, seeing their additional years as a hindrance rather than a help in academic life.

The truth is that, like students of any age, they bring a mix of strengths and complexities to the classroom, which add greatly to the learning experience of all. And with support and recognition of their particular problems and requirements, there is no reason for mature students not be every bit as successful in their studies as anyone else. Indeed, these are often the students who finish the course with the highest grades in their cohort.

The result really is worth the effort!

Further reading

One mature student in the UK writes in the Education Guardian about the trials and tribulations of being "Stuck in the middle with youth" (, June 28 2005).