5 Do's and Don'ts for Fitting In as a Nontraditional Student

As a nontraditional student, it’s common to feel a sense of apprehension that the majority of your classmates will be typical college age, just entering adulthood. It’s also common for older students to feel a sense of superiority over their younger classmates. Don’t be that guy or gal. Here are some tips for fitting in as a nontraditional student without compromising your educational goals.

01
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Do Network, Don't Be Condescending

Friends - Tom Merton - Caiaimage - GettyImages-554392199
Friends - Tom Merton - Caiaimage - GettyImages-554392199

Do consider other students your peers. Networking in college is important. A full 50 percent of the reason you are in college is to meet the right people and advance your career through whom you know, rather than just what you know. Make friends, be nice, and invest as much as you can in the lives of those who may be younger than you both in years and in maturity.

Don't be dismissive or condescending while getting to know your younger peers. Whatever you may feel about your fellow students, try to remember that you will be graduating with the same degree. These are your peers, your collaborators, your future co-workers and your competition. Always be supportive and cooperative.

02
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Do Get to Know Your Professor, Don't Try to Leverage the Relationship

Student with professor - Sam Edwards - Caiaimage - GettyImages-595349203
Student with professor - Sam Edwards - Caiaimage - GettyImages-595349203

As a returning student, your professor may be the one person in class closest to your age. That might give you some immediate camaraderie, not to mention shared pop culture references. Networking with your professor is a great way to secure some post-graduation positions and to advance your career. The professor knows about formative internships and has contacts that could really help you.

But don't try to leverage this relationship to get preferential treatment in class. Though you and the professor may see eye-to-eye on a number of topics, don’t make it awkward by excluding everyone else from the conversation. “The Cold War... I mean we lived it, right? You know what I’m talking about, professor, right?” That’s one surefire way to become ostracized from the rest of your class and earn the ire of your professor.

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Do Participate in Class, Don't Be a Bore

Speaking in class - Marc Romanelli - Blend Images - GettyImages-543196971
Speaking in class - Marc Romanelli - Blend Images - GettyImages-543196971

It's okay to use your life experience to your advantage in class. It’s likely that your past experience has given you insights into certain topics that your fellow students do not have—these might really help give dimension to class discussion.

Don't think you know more than everyone else, however. It’s possible that when something comes up in class, you feel that you have a great deal to say on the subject. I’m not saying stow your insights, but be judicious in what you share. Some of the information you have will be useful, but make sure you are being clear and not dominating the conversation. Younger students have valid points and a perspective that you may not have considered. Stay open-minded, and know when to keep your well-formed opinions to yourself. Nobody likes a bore who dominates every conversation.

04
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Do Take a Leadership Role, Don't Steal the Spotlight

Group project - Hill Street Studios - Blend Images - GettyImages-533767823
Group project - Hill Street Studios - Blend Images - GettyImages-533767823

Bringing your knowledge to bear—especially in group projects—can be very useful, and it’s possible that what you bring to the table will make a significant difference in your grade. It’s natural that as a more mature student you might want to settle into a leadership role. You may have better organizational or communication skills than your fellows because of time spent in the workforce.

But don't steal the spotlight and take over a project. If you opt for a leadership role, make sure you are not mad with power. Give your fellow students space—even space to fail, if that’s what it takes. As the more mature team member, you may want to delegate, but instead try to allow the others to take responsibility for parts of the project. This is good practice for later management efforts in your career, too.

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Do Participate in Extracurricular Activities, Don't Buy the Beer

Group - Holger Hill - GettyImages-81981042
Group - Holger Hill - GettyImages-81981042

I know that nontraditional students are often busy with life, family and work, but find a way to participate in something. One good place to invest your time is in a short-term project like volunteering for a specific event. This often takes a concentrated effort, but the time commitment is fairly minimal. Again, this is about networking and getting the most out of your college time. You are paying for these resources.

But please don't be the one who buys the beer. There's no need to channel Will Ferrell’s character in —you should be past that by now. Give the kids a chance to be kids and take your own studies seriously without falling into old habits. Remember, this is the first time many of these students have forayed into the world without their support system, and they can cut loose and sometimes even act plain stupid because of this. What’s your excuse?

Ultimately, it’s crucial to recognize what your maturity adds to a school setting, but it’s equally imperative to realize that the perspective of every student is valid and useful. Again, your classmates will be the people who help you achieve your dreams. Play nice, be a resource, and don’t be a know-it-all, even if it means letting a few of your fellow students fall on their faces every once in a while.