Life Hacks for Learners: How to Balance College As a Working Parent

A young mother kneels on a cobblestone street with her daughter.

If you’re going to college over the age of 25, you’re in good company. There are more than 8.1 million older college students in the United States, and experts expect that number to grow. Most of the time, these adult learners have different worries than those of a typical 18-year-old freshman. They may have job commitments, family responsibilities, or any other number of demands on their time while in school.

Balancing work and family is no easy task—add school into the mix and it's even harder to keep up. Learning to be efficient as a college student won't just make a difference in your educational experience; smart time management skills are essential to your college success.

The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Associate’s to Bachelor’s program (UT A to B) is now available in a 100% online format to provide adult learners with the flexibility needed to complete their bachelor’s degree without putting commitments like work and family on hold. If you are considering going back to school, then we’ve put together a list to help you achieve your personal and professional goals.

Here are 10 ways to maximize time as an adult student

Make a to-do list

A to-do list is a great organizational tool, and a smart way to keep track of all your different responsibilities. It will allow you to organize tasks and track what you need to accomplish.

In addition to listing your assignments and tasks, it may be useful to add short descriptions to each item. This will give you some context and remind you of what’s involved with each item on your list.

If you prefer a tech solution, there are lots of great apps available for managing to-do lists. Todoist, Microsoft To-Do, and Habitica: Gamify your Tasks are just a few options.

Not into tech? A paper list or an old-fashioned whiteboard work just as well. The real trick, whether your list is in-app or hung on your fridge, is to check things off as you go.

Write everything down

A hectic life means lots of distraction, which makes it easy to forget things and miss deadlines. It may be too much for your busy brain to keep track of everything you need to remember. For this reason, writing those things down is key.

Not only will your notes serve as reminders, but the very act of writing might prevent you from forgetting things in the first place. If you have an “aha” moment for your school thesis riding home on the commuter train, jot a quick note before that thought leaves your mind. Like a to-do list, writing things down will keep you more in control.

Set time aside every day to do your schoolwork

This may seem obvious, but establishing new habits and routines is critical to making college fit into your life. If you tend to procrastinate, get distracted, or become overwhelmed, dedicating just one hour a day to college study and organization will help you stay on track to graduate.

Prioritize and organize

One of the best ways to become efficient is to prioritize and organize. At the beginning of each new class, it will be helpful to get all of your due dates and assignments organized. That way, you’ll be able to anticipate what’s due and create a systematic approach to turn those assignments in on time.

Also note that it’s important to be comfortable with whatever organizational method you use. Some people prefer an old-fashioned calendar or homework planner to display assignments and due dates. Others like to use an app with reminders. Choose what suits you—and there’s nothing wrong with using both.

Let go of your inner perfectionist

If you feel the need to be perfect at all times, you're setting yourself up for failure. The responsibilities of college require that you let go of perfectionism, because weighing yourself down with pressure can harm your productivity. Set realistic goals, understanding that you may need to make compromises to get there.

If you have family members who rely on your time and attention every day, this can be especially difficult. But if it buys you critical study time, it’s okay to retire your “Top Chef” apron for some ten-minute meals. It’s important to remind your loved ones that by earning your degree, you are advancing your career and investing in your family’s future.

Ask for help when you need it

As an older college student, it’s inevitable that you’ll face a moment when you feel overwhelmed or stressed. When this happens, it’s best to reach out for help. Many colleges and online programs are equipped to support adult learners. Instructors in these schools understand the demands on their students, and may be able to relax deadlines or offer other academic support.

Before you give up on a paper or tank a big test, explain your situation. Ask professors to help you perform at your best—whether that means extra time, tutoring, or tailored assignments.

Take notes in class

In today’s laptop-centric world, you have an efficient method for retaining information at your fingertips (literally). Some students find they can’t learn and type notes at the same time, but if you can develop your note-taking skills, it will make a big difference in your academic growth. Even if you just jot down highlights from each lesson, you’ll find that recalling important information becomes much easier.

Find a distraction-free study space

It’s important to find a workspace that will help you concentrate, and it's smart to determine where this is early on. Your study space could be somewhere in your home, the local coffee shop, or the school library. What’s most important is that this space becomes part of your new routine, and that it truly is distraction-free. A good study space will ensure that the time you spend on school work is used to its full potential.

Squeeze study time into family activities or tasks

If you spend hours shuttling your child to after-school activities, why not shuttle your laptop too? As a busy working student, you need to seek out opportunities to steal away and do schoolwork. Not everyone can make this work, but it’s a skill that’s worth developing. You may find that while you can’t write a research paper at the hockey rink, you can squeeze in assigned reading. Developing the ability to study on-the-go may make all the difference when it comes to meeting deadlines.

Build a network

Sometimes, it truly does take a village. Set yourself up for success by enlisting your children for support, or reaching out to other family members who can pitch in when you’re overwhelmed. You may also want to develop school supports, such as a study group. School friends can take notes in your absence and can help you learn when academics become challenging.

Fitting college into your life As an adult learner, making the most of your limited time will be critical. Good time-management skills will equal good grades and less stress.

Implementing strategies to help you manage your time and classwork productively may make all the difference for your college experience. When it comes to academic success, structure and discipline will be your new best friends.

This article was originally published on Noodle.com.

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