7 Tips for Success as an Adult College Student

In 2013, I returned to college as an adult college student. I was 32 years old, motivated and excited to learn. In other words: quite opposite of when I was 18 years old and first attempted to attend college.

At first, I took two classes per session, while maintaining a full-time career in the IT industry. By 2016, I left that career to take classes full time while maintaining a service industry job to make ends meet. It has never easy, but it has forced me to quickly become resourceful.

I am proud to say that after 45 credits, I have a 4.0 GPA and am on track to transfer to a major university with guaranteed admission next year.

Along the way, I have had the chance to learn from my previous mistakes, as well as observe those around me. When you attend college for the first time or are returning after a long absence, it is important to establish good habits from the start. Your time is more valuable than it used to be, and you are paying good money to be there.

Here are my tips for success as a non-traditional college student. Note that these tips can be applied to first-time college students as well, no matter how young!

Show up for class, and show up early!

My Spanish professor told us on the first day of class: “if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you arrive late, you are rude.”

As an adult, you are probably aware that this is excellent advice for any appointment or meeting with a set time. When you go to a doctor’s appointment, you show up a few minutes early to check in and fill out any needed paperwork. When you go to a work meeting, you go in a few minutes early to get a good seat and get settled. This is because when you show up exactly on time, you still need to check in, fill out paperwork and get settled, thus pushing back the actual start time by that few minutes.

A college class should be treated the same way. It takes a few minutes to walk in the door, find a seat, open your bag and take out your classroom materials. You need to get comfortable and prepared.

There is a lot of content to cover in a college class and limited time to do it. The professor wants to use every available minute and will want to start on time. Professors notice those who come to class late. It is an interruption to their train of thought, it is an interruption to the concentration of fellow classmates. It is rude.

There are many excuses you can make for showing up late. However, a successful student does whatever it takes to show up before class starts.

Put Your Phone Away


Many professors will ask the class to put their phones away as a condition of being in their class. The ones who don’t? They still find it annoying. Trust me when I say, they notice you using the device, and they are judging you.

A successful college student does not look at their phone during class. They turn it to silent or turn it off, and leave it in their pocket or bag. Not only is it a distraction to your own learning, but it also acts as a distraction to the professor and to others around you.

Sometimes, you may need it — say, to use the calculator function, or to pull up something relevant to the discussion. But these are rare exceptions in most classes.

Sit as Close to the Front of the Room as Possible

My Geology professor told us on the first day of class: “the further back you are, the further you are from learning.”

When you are closer to the front of the room, it is easier to see what is on the board. It is easier to engage with your professor. You are typically surrounded by others who are engaged. You will find the best study and group project partners.

If it is a large class, your professor will get to know you more than they will know those in the back of the room. This has far more advantages than disadvantages. It keeps you motivated, and it helps form a relationship with the professor. As we’ll see further in this article, this is important.

Always be Prepared

One of my favorite professors was my philosophy instructor. He was a cantankerous old man from Azerbaijan, educated in the USSR. He had no time or tolerance for ill-prepared students.

That said, he gave every opportunity for his students to be prepared. He sent multiple emails in the week before class started, and sent at least one highly detailed email per week, instructing his students exactly what he expected of them that week. And yet students would still show up and say, “I forgot,” which was followed by a very public shaming in front of the class.

“Always be prepared” should go without saying once you are taking college-level courses, but as you see, not everyone heeds this.

There is no excuse, whatsoever, for showing up to a college level class on the first day without, at the very least, a notebook and a writing utensil. This is a mistake made by someone who is just out of high school and has been forced into community college by their parents. This is a mistake made by someone who will not succeed in college.

If you do happen to forget either one of these things, under no circumstances should you ask your professor to borrow anything. Ask a classmate, and then never let it happen again.

Beyond this very basic piece of advice, being prepared also means doing readings and following any instructions. The week before your class starts, you should be logging into Blackboard and checking your school email. Many times, your professor will reach out to you via email and let you know what is expected on the first day. Many times, professors want you to have completed something before the first day, even if it is just to read your syllabus. Even if not instructed to read your syllabus, you should print it out and take it with you to the first day of class if it has been made available to you.

College learning is an interactive, transactional process. Both the instructor and the student need to give 100% for it to work.

In general, assignments in a college course do not come as a surprise. The professor lays out the entire agenda for the semester on the syllabus, and most times lists all assignments up front. A successful student does not wait until the day of the assignment to go over it. At the very least, they will go over a summary of assignments ahead of time.

A successful college student will read and review the material to be covered in a class before the day of the class. This helps familiarize the student with key terms and concepts and fosters participation and engagement in the class, which in turn, fosters the retention of knowledge.

And professors notice who comes to the first class prepared, and who doesn’t. Some professors, like my professor of philosophy, will call you out and shame you in front of the class. Others won’t do that, but believe me, they remember. Those who are prepared are far more likely to succeed.

Learn How to Use Blackboard and School Email

This is your very expensive laptop. Learn how to use it!

This is the modern era of technology, and higher education is at the forefront. I am shocked and amazed by how many students, even younger students, do not realize this. Professors have been using email and Blackboard to communicate with students now for nearly a generation. It should be ingrained into any college student that they need to have constant access to their email and should be logging into Blackboard every day.

A successful college student does the following:

  • Have their school email synced to a mail app on their smartphone
  • Checks, reads and responds to emails as needed at least three times per day
  • Logs into Blackboard and checks notifications and assignments for each class at least two to three times per day

Build a Positive Relationship with Your Professor

Being successful at all the above items helps foster a positive relationship with your professors. The concepts of “teacher’s pet” or “suck-up” do not exist in the college environment. Anyone who still uses those terms has no business in college and should have been weeded out based on their lack of success in high school.

College students and professors are all adults and are all there for a purpose. Students to learn and develop valuable skills to be used in their desired professions; professors to teach and foster this process.

Think if the above tips as a points system. Every time you show traits of success, from showing up on time, to engaging in the lectures, showing preparedness, following instructions, and showing a desire to learn and participate, you are building up positive points with your professor. Every time you do the opposite, from showing up late, forgetting assignments, and not engaging, you are building up negative points.

When you need help, on which group of students are professors more likely to spend their own valuable time and energy to help succeed?

When engaging, be thoughtful and ensure that you are positively contributing to the classroom. Ask questions, and don’t be a pest. Don’t seek handouts; seek advice, and be prepared to follow the advice given.

A positive relationship with your professor can be the difference between a C and a B or a B and an A.

A negative relationship? Your professor is going to be less likely to want to help you out.

In addition, maintaining a positive relationship with professors can pay dividends down the road. Many professors teach multiple courses in their discipline, and it can be advantageous to take a new course with the same professor who already knows you, and where you already know them. And of course, for academic and professional references — for scholarships, entry to higher level courses, and graduate school. A professor is not going to put their name out there for someone they don’t believe will be successful.

Finally, if something does happen in your life which requires special accommodations, having positive points with your professor will make it far more likely for them to help you out. If you have a positive standing, you have credibility and trust. You won’t sound like someone making excuses, but rather someone in genuine need of assistance. If you don’t show up to class, don’t engage and don’t form a positive relationship, you will sound like you are making excuses.

Utilize Campus Resources

As an adult, non-traditional student, you may be tempted to attend your classes and then head straight home. This may work for some people, but for most, there will be an additional boost when campus resources are utilized.

Learn how to use the library for studying, as well as finding research material and sources. Books still exist, and can quickly be tracked down and gleaned from additional information and sources in your research. Ask a librarian how to use the available online databases. Your school (and by extension, your tuition) pays good money to access valuable academic and professional databases that you cannot access once you are no longer enrolled. The learning and source material is endless.

Need assistance with writing and editing a research paper? Most schools have writing centers, with paid professionals and talented students who can help you ensure that your paper will stand out and is free of typical mistakes. Need math tutoring? Your school likely has tutors who are available to you at no additional cost.

Remember — these are all things you are paying for through your tuition. Don’t be afraid to use them, and use them often.


Returning to or starting college as an adult or non-traditional student can seem daunting. But being successful in your dream of being successful in college is well within your reach. Following these basic tips will help you reach your goal!

Want more of these tips and other articles about the adult college student experience? Visit the Adult Student Resource Center, a resource for adult students, by adult students!

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