Tips for nontraditional students

by Jennifer Johnson,

  • Willamette University

It’s been years since you’ve cracked open a textbook, but you’ve finally decided to go to college. 

You’re not alone. Nationally, nearly 74 percent of undergraduate students today are considered “nontraditional,” defined as age 25 or older with children, and currently outnumber students who start at age 18. 

Although you will be applying as a new student, your application process will be a little different because of your life experience. A few things to keep in mind: 

Be realistic about the workload you can handle. Can you be on campus for a full-time schedule or do your family and work responsibilities require more flexibility? Identify priorities before you apply. 

While it may seem manageable to attend school and work full time, especially with the mass availability of online courses, it’s not true for every institution. Willamette University, for instance, requires a full-time, focused commitment — students are expected to engage with faculty and other students during class. No online classes are available and very few night classes are offered.

Apply to colleges (very) early. Will Lomer ’22, an economics major, spent years working in the oil industry before attending Willamette. He applied to 20 colleges and nearly the same number of scholarships. It consumed more time than he imagined — it was nearly a part time job after he returned home from work. 

Lomer began applying to schools in October, almost 10 months before he planned to enroll. Even then he missed deadlines for some colleges and scholarships. If he could do it again, he suggests starting at least a year in advance.

Track every deadline. The number of deadlines related to the application and scholarship process can be dizzying. Lomer used phone alerts to help him remember. 

Share your story with admission. Speaking to a counselor can make a big difference in how receptive they are to your application.

Lomer had a weak high school transcript. Once counselors understood why, they suggested he write a letter of hardship explaining how his personal experience reflected on his GPA. The call allowed him to explain his background and what he’s trying to accomplish in the future. 

“I think it not only showed my maturity, but also that I knew how to take initiative and do what I needed to to get where I wanted to be,” he said. 

Identify each institution’s support services. Getting back into the classroom may be like riding a bike for some, but more complicated for others. If the idea of classwork is still intimidating, figure out what tutoring, writing or language groups are available.

You may wonder if you’re still making the right decision. 

Know that a college degree is still the most reliable entry point to financial gain, job stability and career satisfaction. The vast majority of employers not only value a degree, they view it as a minimum qualification. 

Sue Corner, senior associate director of admission, said, ”While Willamette is primarily a traditionally-aged population, we highly value the nontraditional students we welcome each year. When students arrive here who are not directly out of high school, they add nuance and perspective to class that brings educational value for their classmates of all ages.”

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Will Lomer ’22

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