Surviving college after 40

Sunday, August 3, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:22 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

I just found out that a friend of mine is thinking of returning to school to get his master’s degree. And although this gentleman is about a decade younger than I, he is certainly past the average age of a college student. What he is contemplating is admirable, but I must warn him that college ain’t what it was when we were 20.

I’m not talking about the way kids dress or the latest fads. It’s just that at 40-something life is tougher. Just getting up in the morning takes effort. Add attending lectures, writing term papers and studying for tests and the idea of attaining a higher degree is downright daunting.

I went back to get my degree in journalism later in life (although not as late as my friend.) So I think I qualify as someone who knows the feeling of being out of place. Following are a few pointers on how to succeed in college when you’re old enough to be most of your fellow students’ parent.

1. Dress code — some would say there isn’t one, but I disagree. Just observe the masses as they swarm from the buildings between classes. You will see a sea of denim. When I went back to school, I made the mistake of dressing like an adult complete with heels and hose. My advice is to downplay your clothes. If you don’t have a pair of jeans at least wear a shirt that hasn’t been ironed. And for goodness sake, don’t wash your hair every day. That greasy just-out-of-bed look is really in. Oh, and lose the socks!

2. Where to sit in class. It definitely isn’t cool to sit in the front row. However, anyone past the age of 30 MUST sit there. Not only is our hearing and sight failing, but also I found the professors enjoy lecturing to adults who actually listen and take notes.

3. Tests! Now listen up! This is the most important part of school. If you flunk the tests, you flunk the course. But to us late returners, anything lower than a B is a disgrace. I became so paranoid about tests that my preparation became obsessive. First I would hole up in my husband’s office where there were no distractions. Next I would rewrite my notes onto 4-by-6-inch note cards. Then I would use them as flash cards trying to memorize every word. Finally I would make up questions I thought might be on the test. Unlike what most professionals suggest, I never got a good night’s sleep before a test. I’d go home around 2 a.m. and sleep until 5 a.m. lest I sleep too long and forget what I had crammed into my aging brain. It didn’t matter if the test was at 3 p.m. I’d still be up before dawn. Finally, I would go to a certain restaurant an hour before the test. I always got the same booth (I once asked a couple to move) where I would sit and drink coffee and go over my flash cards one last time. Believe it or not, my method worked. When I walked out of the room after turning in my test, I knew within four points what my grade would be. (It’s a little dicey with an essay test.)

I must add a cautionary note about tests. Booklet tests have always been the worst for me. As a matter of fact, they have scarred me for life.

With these tests you are given a booklet containing the questions with multiple-choice answers. Then you are handed an answer sheet that you must fill in the letter of the answer you have chosen.

On one particular test, I circled the questions in the booklet when I wasn’t sure of the answer. What I didn’t do was circle the same number on the answer sheet. I walked out thinking that I made a 96 out of 100. Imagine my shock when I went to the board where the grades were posted and my grade was a 63!

I raced to the professor’s office and, after asking her to produce the answer sheet, showed her that by putting the fifth answer in the fourth slot all of my subsequent answers were off by one giving me a failing grade.

Her eyes widened and she nodded her head saying “Yah,” (she was German) “Das is vat you did.”

“So you’ll change my grade?” I asked thankful she understood my plight.

“No, this is a good for you. You vill never be so careless again, yah?”

It took me the rest of the semester acing all the rest of the tests to eke out a B. You’d think I learned my lesson, but alas I did it again on an LSAT exam only that time I put an entire section in the wrong place. I’ve always wondered if I would have been a good lawyer.

If you have a comment or need more tips for aging adults attempting higher education, please e-mail me at

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