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Applying to college as an older student
This page is for people who are notably older (at least 2-3 years) than the typical college applicant, have finished high school (or obtained equivalent certification) but have been out of formal schooling environments for a few years.
Should you go to college at all?
In general, going to college is advised for smart and intellectually curious people because it is a mainstream option, and it's advisable to stay mainstream until you have demonstrated success doing unusual stuff.
Recall of generic reasons to go to college
- Human capital (you learn valuable stuff).
- Signaling to potential employers and others that you have the relevant abilities or acquired the relevant knowledge.
- Consumption: The college experience is rewarding.
- Networking: You get to network with other people.
How your situation differs
- The very fact that you didn't go to college straight out of high school could be indicative of problems. The details depend on the reason you didn't go to college. If the constraints were purely financial or circumstantial, and the situation has changed since then, there is not much to worry about. On the other hand, if the constraints were based on behavioral problems or academic difficulties, you should consider whether things have changed since then.
- You've spent several years not studying, so you may be more out of touch with good study habits.
- Since you are older and have a different profile and history compared to many of the other students in college, you will have a more difficult time connecting with other people.
- Your greater age and maturity, and the fact that you are more likely to be paying your own way than relying on parents, could make you take the college experience more seriously than most students do, and therefore derive more value.
- Your greater age may also make you less likely to accept the strictures of school. It's often been found that older people who return to college have trouble adjusting to the rigid behavioral norms of the classroom.
- If you've already started earning money, and have got on a career track, going to college has greater immediate opportunity cost.
Further information: school ethic versus work ethic
How to determine if college is your cup of tea
The following approaches might help you determine if college is appropriate:
- Start by watching opencourseware videos such as MIT Open Course Ware or Khan Academy (or some of our online mathematics learning resources). Can you sit through the entire video? Can you understand the basic material? Can you answer questions after watching a lecture?
- Consider signing up for massive online open courses such as those at Coursera. See how far you can push yourself to learn, and the extent to which you enjoy it as well as learn from it. Try to take a few courses with certification.
- Consider sitting in on college classes at a college in your geographical location. You may often be able to do so for free, and can use this to judge how well you would do in a college environment.
Getting your application ready
Typical materials to get ready
- It is probably advisable to retake standardized tests (the SAT and ACT) even if you took them earlier. Your scores may not be valid any more, you may be able to do better now, and colleges may consider your application more seriously if you show you've taken the tests more recently. Formally, colleges simply take the best of your test scores that are still valid, so you do not need to worry about doing poorer than last time.
- You probably need to get recommendations from your past high school teachers, and preferably also a recommendation from somebody that can explain the "gap" in your education.
- You need to get your transcripts and other materials ready.
Activities to do to have more credentials
- Consider taking MOOCs with Coursera that offer certification.
- Consider taking Advanced Placement tests. These tests can be taken only through a high school that offers Advanced Placement classes. However, some high schools allow you to take these tests without enrolling in their courses.
- Consider sitting in on college classes and using the opportunity to interact with professors and students. This could give you potential sources for the additional recommendation that could explain your post-school gap.