Building Momentum: Five Tips for Continuing Your Education after a Break
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Building Momentum: Five Tips for Continuing Your Education after a Break

It can be difficult for adults to consider re-entering higher education after a hiatus, but by keeping these tips in mind, they can get onto the path to success.


Getting back into the swing of things when returning to school can be challenging. Perhaps you took a break from your education because you relocated or started a family. Or the recent economic downturn may have resulted in a layoff, and you’ve decided to return to school to change careers. Regardless of the reason, you might have some apprehension about showing how your diverse experiences qualify you for a college program. Follow these five tips to put your past in the best light in order to reach your educational goals.

1. Know that experience counts

Remember that school is, ultimately, a preparation for life after school. The skills and experiences you bring to a program are meaningful, and programs typically seek to create a cohort with a variety of backgrounds so students will gain the benefit of indirect experience from their classmates. There’s no need to feel like you should apologize for your past, and you certainly don’t need to make excuses for either your choices or the circumstances beyond your control that have had an influence on your life path. Even if you’re returning to school after losing a job, that experience will allow you to contribute to class discussions.

2. Present yourself as active and dynamic

What have you been up to during the break? If you were mostly occupied with raising a family or with a job search, don’t underestimate the small things. Did you volunteer, especially if the volunteer service was related to your career goals? Were you able to do some studying on your own to prepare for the program? What about travel? Have you experienced a different culture or learned a new language? Take a second look at your time away from school and show you’ve made an effort, however small it may seem to you, to continue building your skill set.

3. Be honest and positive

Although you want to be seen at your best, make sure you’re not stretching the truth. Keep in mind that your background will be double-checked before you’re offered admission to the program. In addition, even if things have happened to you that were negative at the time they occurred, let the college admissions officers see how you have grown from those experiences.

4. Focus on the present

One of the most common mistakes made by applicants returning to school after a break is spending too much time in their essays and interview on why the break occurred. Even if you are directly asked to explain the gap, the admissions officers are still looking to know how you’re currently prepared for the program. Be factual about what happened but move quickly to how you made good use of the time away and where you are now.

5. Show passion and purpose

The second biggest mistake non-traditional applicants make is assuming they cannot compete with other applicants who don’t have breaks in their education. Not true. College programs are clear about the qualification requirement of the program, and you will need to meet those minimums in order to have a good chance for acceptance. However, they’re also looking for people who genuinely want to participate in the program and the applicants who will gain the most from joining the program. Show you’re not casually applying to the program. In every part of the application, let the admissions officers know that your goals are clear and you have a strong sense of purpose.

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2 Responses to Building Momentum: Five Tips for Continuing Your Education after a Break

  1. Marc Pearson Reply

    2014/09/03 at 11:29 am

    Many people want to return to higher education but find the application process intimidating and confusing. This piece highlights some of the key elements of this process and goes a long way in helping adults to kick-start their education.

    I agree with Hickey’s tips that there needs to be a balance between referencing prior experience and not dwelling too much on it, to show drive and purpose. It’s also helpful to demonstrate how their educational plan fits in with their career goals.

  2. Helen G. Reply

    2014/09/04 at 9:20 am

    Adult students have a lot to contribute to higher ed, but the culture within the academy is, unfortunately, biased against them. Sure, there’s always a part of the application where prospective students can list prior experiences, but from my time working in the enrollment office, I know these aren’t considered with as much interest as previous educational background. For example, at the previous school I worked in, at least, we were told to ‘red flag’ applicants who had been away from school for a long time. They might not be able to handle the ‘rigors of higher education’ or they weren’t a ‘good fit for a degree program’ is how we used to put it. It’s a shame, because some of them seemed like they would have benefitted from that school’s programs.

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