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Applying to college as an older student

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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

See also the page school ethic versus work ethic.

Some ways your situation differs:

  • If you've already started earning money, and have got on a career track, going to college has greater immediate opportunity cost.
  • 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. However, it's worth noting that many students don't develop these habits in high school, so you may not be at much of a relative
  • 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.

On the last point, this quote is relevant:

"Another interesting aspect of Lovell’s and Rosenbloom’s cases is that both involved students of “nontraditional age,” a little older than their peers. In my experience, older students have a greater tendency to get into trouble in college, in no small part because, having lived in the “real world,” they are far less prone to accept the patronizing, infantilizing, and unconstitutional behavior of college administrators. They know their rights and are willing to expose the violations enacted by the campus judiciary, unlike younger students who have never learned these valuable lessons in high school or college." Lukianoff, Greg (2012-10-23). Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (Kindle Locations 2876-2880). Encounter Books. Kindle Edition.

How to determine if college is your cup of tea

The following approaches might help you determine if college is appropriate. Note that some of these are valuable even for high school students on track for college. But most such students are already immersed in the academic experience and the decision to go to college doesn't have huge downsides or opportunity costs. As an older student, you have to make the college-going decision in a more considered manner. So the suggestions apply more to you.

  • 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

We do not have reliable sources that colleges take these credentials seriously, but they are worth considering. You should consider calling or contacting your college admissions offices or using other means (such as Quora or College Confidential) to evaluate the desirability and suitability of these credential-getting approaches.

  • 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.

Alternatives within and to college

  • Rather than directly applying to four-year colleges, consider going to a community college and then transferring to a four-year college from there.
  • Consider applying to easier colleges within a state college system where the best colleges are good.
  • Consider going to a coding bootcamp or some other sort of trade school to learn relevant skills quickly and acquire the human capital without all the overhead of college.

See also