My experience has always been as an older student, not being “college material” when I was younger. I did not go to nursing school until I was 28, which in and of itself resulted in the inevitable question, “HOW did you DO IT, how did you get back in to SCHOOL after all this time?” Originally, I would reply with some bullet points in an e-mail, sooner or later I cut and pasted them into a WORD document and every time someone would ask I would re-read and edit them. Soon the “rules” took a life of their own. They are aimed at people going to college for the first time as adults so more general, but I think you will find many hold water universally.
UPDATED FOR PRE-MEDICINE
The NON-traditional STUDENT guide to success!
Or â€œHow far are you prepared to go?â€
By Richard Boyd
By now you have already considered, â€œWhat do I WANT to do, if I could be the â€œideal thingâ€? Is there a career you have ever dreamed about? Was there ever a job that you thought, â€œDarn I would do that for FREE if I could afford to?â€ For most in this forum this â€œthingâ€ is MEDICINE be it MD or DO. This is a pretty darn lofty goal, thus you NEED to think big in this first phase, just to get your arms around the idea! It is my FIRM belief that quite likely YOU CAN DO IT too; but one needs to look at all the angles. I have accumulated a few â€œrulesâ€, I call them that but they are perhaps more like â€œpoints to considerâ€. By definition, non-traditional students are different from the typical college demographic and thus have a wide variation of experiences coming in. Additionally, there are â€œmany paths up the mountain, the view from the top is still the sameâ€ so some of my points may not apply, for whatever reason, to your circumstances. I have appreciated that those who have previous academic work, (be it stellar or less than stellar) have some special issues to address and deal with. That said, I have found certain truisms that come up again and again among those who have made the trip.
- â€œBe prepared to do what is necessary for successâ€. This first rule is both the simplest and the most profound. Furthermore, the â€œwhatâ€ can be as different as people are and involve issues in virtually ALL aspects of ones circumstances. However, I am convinced, ones attitude and outlook are the most important factors in predicting success, 80% of what one does is attitude, the last 20% is old fashioned planning and preparation!
Here early in rule 1, some rather deep questions come to mind donâ€™t be afraid of them. These really MUST be considered and analyzed honestly, consider the answers carefully before you start out. This is by NO means an all inclusive list but represents a few that I had to face.
Is your spouse on board with this?
Are the children on board with this?
Are they willing to make sacrifices for you?
The process is much more tedious with a “maybe” and may be impossible with a â€œnoâ€. In the original incarnation of Richardâ€™s rules, â€œget family supportâ€ was arbitrarily placed first, really nothing more than a check off item. Because of the historically nurturing nature of my marriage, I was pretty sure Kathy (my truly better half) would be right there with me.
However, I have observed and appreciated over the years (and most recently in this forum), that the â€œfamily commitmentâ€ for many non-traditional students should be first because it is the MOST rigorous, emotional and troublesome obstacle for many non-traditional students to overcome. Since I know nothing of family therapy and ALL families are unique, I can only share my experience. This part of rule 1 will only relate to the GOALs and not the path to get there!
The best shot at gaining the family support you will need is to present a realistic and honest assessment of the costs both in time and resources (and of course the â€œvisionâ€ you have coming out the other end).
My wife Kathy (and my crew of 6) knew my dream intimately, shared countless times over the years. They were also aware that it represented an enormous gamble with NO guarantees and DOZENS of places to trip up. At each little mile stone I used to quote a line from â€œThe Hunt for Red Octoberâ€, fully aware that I could fail to reach the next milestone, â€œabout a thousand things can still go wrong with this little stuntâ€, to which (wonderfully) the gang would roll their eyes and say mockingly, â€œyeah right dadâ€.
Despite the risk they never wavered, it begs the question (to which honestly I do not know the whole answer), did I â€œdo it rightâ€ in asking them or growing and sharing feelings and philosophy with them or was it just an awesome piece of luck marrying who I did? Make no mistake they have made untold sacrifices for me, I have a deep understanding that for whatever reason these sacrifices were made in incalculable love for me and thus are priceless; I have no comprehension of how to begin to repay them (take note, THIS IS a shameless self-serving example of RULE 16 below).
Is your WORK â€œon boardâ€ with this?
This is really more of a rhetorical question; they wonâ€™t really care and might even be an impediment, so just be sure you can succeed IN SPITE OF work.
Are you willing to QUIT your current job?
How about working part-time or in some â€œlesserâ€ more â€œhumbleâ€ job than which you are accustomed?
Unfortunately, once one is â€œaboard the wild rideâ€, school work MUST be â€œpromotedâ€ in priority to a level (which will be different for everyone) necessary for success and is BEST decided BEFORE one begins. After all, for something like graduate or medical school, if you donâ€™t put pretty darn good (and consistent) â€œnumbers upâ€, the game is over before it starts. I look at it this way, if I must gamble EVERTHING, which making it to medical school requires, it makes no sense not to give myself the absolute best chance at making it.
You must decide the order of your remaining priorities; will you choose, family, job, hobbies or social life? Usually, one can FIND compromises if you are willing to put EVERYTHING on the table (remember the FIRST line of this essay: â€œ[are you] prepared to DO what is necessary for successâ€?)
How about a MOVE to where the opportunities are OR to a cheaper place?
Is your family willing to make do with less (possibly MUCH less) for a time?
Have some idea about financial aid; be aware student debt does NOT go away even in bankruptcy. In many respects those who have never attended college actually have the edge as far as financial aid is concerned!
In our case we did move, from Richmond, Virginia to Sabetha, Kansas (go ahead look THAT one up). We waited 3 years to start the undergraduate work to establish residency and a â€œcommitment to the healthcare of Kansasâ€ as well as in-state tuition to an affordable school. We moved to a house 1/5th the cost (170000 to 34000) of the old one. It was decided it best if I did not work while in school after all if you do not succeed in the classroom all of the sacrifices will come to NOTHING: the game is over. I drove a semi truck during breaks and in the summer (I always took one of the Kids in turn with me for special one on one time with daddy). I lived in the cheapest student housing during the week and went home on weekends, unless extenuating circumstances prevented it. When at home I did not study, Kathy cleared the schedule, absolutely no â€œhoney-doâ€™sâ€ EVER, so that ALL of the time at home was quality time.
The hard reality of my priorities (AGREED TO IN ADVANCE) was: school > family > job with not much else.
These seem pretty stark donâ€™t they? You must return to the opening line of rule 1, â€œARE YOU PREPARED TO DO WHAT NECESSARY?â€ Gaining the support of ones family involves a central and probably the most important two way commitment.
OK are you ready?
If you think so, step right up and board the â€œwild rideâ€.
Remember to keep your hands and feet inside the ride while it is in motion!
- Letâ€™s spend a little time on the last 20%, planning and preparation. Assuming you already have some goals in mind, next consider, â€œHow do I get from here to there?â€ What degree do you need vs. want? What I am getting at here is that some fields have different levels of certification with differences in the scope of practice, prestige and salary. Nursing for example is a great illustration of this, a simple rule of thumb (there is some individual variation) the more advanced the education the more advanced the practice and compensation.
My first non-traditional trip was undertaken at age 28; I attended nursing school and earned an Associates degree in nursing. I learned most of the â€œtricksâ€ or rules while going through that program, some by trial and error. I chose an associates degree program, it was economical, I was able to pay cash and I spread it our over 4 years. This turned out to be important because when I started a 4 year school, I was still a “virgin” as far as student loan & grant amounts, I still had my FULL measure.
There are different levels for fields such as psychology, social work, accounting, engineering, teaching, physical therapy etc. you get the idea. Remember to ASK about the differences, requirements, salary ranges, and levels of autonomy (what you are allowed to do on your own). If it is a â€œfancyâ€ degree with â€œfancy new initialsâ€: RN, PhD, JD, LMSW be sure you get a grip on all of the nuances between these different levels. Check and see if the program of interest has competitive admissions, which mean that more people apply than can be accepted. You must know what the criteria for selection are. Is it objective (i.e. grades, entrance exams) subjective (i.e. interviews, letters of recommendation) or some mix of the two.
Medicine is a little more straight forward, not easier, just very plain. Medicine IS the prototype example of a competitive program, the admissions requirements are straight forward and easy to follow. Many advisors have them written down so you can follow the path, the problem is that the path is pretty darn long and steep!
- DO NOT bite off too much at the start; I recommend no more than TWO or THREE 3-credit courses your first semester, it is a lot like an exercise program. How many people do you know who have joined a gym, then got sore after the first overdone workout and never go back? If three courses are too many DROP one (rule 5 and 6 below). It is ALWAYS better to get TWO â€œAâ€™sâ€ than three â€œBâ€™sâ€ (especially for competitive programs). This new thing will likely affect your life in ways not foreseen, a light load the first semester will enable you to adjust and learn the ropes, (and frankly to neglect something here or there and get away with it, before the â€œmess hits the fanâ€ later when consistency really counts).
- Get a good advisor that is familiar with the specific course of study you wish to pursue! You may need to go through several until you get just the right one, I did. Seek one that shares your vision and has the knowledge to get you from point A to point B. Ask around; see if your classmates are satisfied. There are often advisors designated to assist non-traditional students. A realistic assessment by the advisor is appropriate but once you have committed to the course, they MUST be on board with your vision; never let them give a steady diet of discouragement. I fired one advisor (actually THE “official pre-medicine” â€œspecialistâ€) who, despite a 3.8 GPA (4.0 the second semester, my only B in a freshmen communications course) my first undergraduate year, kept â€œsuggestingâ€ that because I was a more â€œmatureâ€ student, I might be â€œbetter suitedâ€ for a degree in â€œmedical administrationâ€. Problem was he was basing his OPINION through the perspective of advising KIDS!
The first time out, ask your advisor to help you select two or three courses that you either did well in during high school or some other phase of your life. Go ahead and play to a strength (throw yourself a ringer) this first semester, or choose something like Sociology or Psychology or a general education requirement. Hopefully get an “A” AND a bit of confidence. Defer Physics or Calculus until your second semester. The flip side to this idea, of course is NOT waiting or putting off till the end of your program the stuff you THINK will be hard. If you are considering medical school after your “break-in” semester, get into math and stay there until you finish calculus and hard sciences don’t put them off, because the END is when you need time for Organic Chemistry and the MCAT. If you lay out your plan in the beginning and have Organic Chemistry scheduled with a bunch of other hard sciences, you need to go back to the drawing board. Remember, DO NOT just enroll in a bunch of classes haphazardly, this thing is easier if an orderly plan is followed.
Remember, if you donâ€™t get your ducks in a row at the start, it is likely your goose is cooked!
- The “clock starts” when you go to college. All colleges require â€œacademic transcriptsâ€ from all schools you have ever attended, thus, anything you do at the college level WILL follow you for the REST of your career! I often wonder if this is the â€œpermanent recordâ€ referred to by my mom (threateningly) all those years ago.
I have a personal story here, to counter boredom on those LONG Colorado winter nights. I took three â€œtrimestersâ€ of Freshman English at Pikes Peak Community College in 1983 while I was in the Air Force. As spring finally arrived, and my interest was drawn to more seasonal Colorado activities, I began to neglect the English courses, the grades slipped precipitously. I got a â€œBâ€ for the first one, a â€œCâ€ for the second and I did not finish the third â€œWâ€ (withdrawn). Now we FAST FORWARD to my Medical School interview in January of 2004, I was asked â€œWHY DID you withdraw? Were you passing at the time?â€ I was lucky, 21 years and lot of success was between.
My point is this: NEVER open the record if you are not serious. And NEVER quit or take a break in the middle of the semester. It is OK the take a semester off, but even if your goals have changed, always finish the semester as strongly as possible. You might get away with five of six Wâ€™s if (and only if) it happened YEARS ago (the further removed the better), never repeated, and the subsequent and current â€œpre-medicineâ€ work is excellent (I would venture to say the current stuff has to be comparatively better than colleagues academic workâ€¦ you have your work cut out).
- Guard your GPA like the family jewels. PLAY the strategic game well; all colleges have a “drop without academic penalty” day where if you drop a course before that time it will not count against you. There is no record of it, not even a â€œWâ€. (Avoid Wâ€™s though, if you are in a competitive program, they WILL ask about them.) If you get to the drop day and you are not doing a B or above (or feel you WILL be able to get a B or above) DROP IT… you lose the money… but the money can be replaced… Damage to your academic record cannot be, and will follow you forever!!! Do not allow a â€œDâ€ (or an â€œFâ€) to appear on you transcript PERIOD (the ONE occasion a â€œWâ€ is desired), the â€œDâ€ will pass you, but if you are in a competitive program it might as well be an â€œFâ€. Do not forget to allow flexibility for your graduation date for just such occasions. It is a HUGE pitfall for an older student to look at the calendar, worry about ones age and feel like you â€œgotta get it doneâ€ in a hurry (SEE rule 7).
Understand also that eventually you WILL need to take the courses you have just dodged the bullet on, do not try to cram them in and already full schedule, remember admissions committees do not grant some sort of accomodation for finishing in a hurryâ€¦ they only send rejections for lousy marks.
- GO easy on yourself at first, while keeping your eye on your long term goal for perspective; DO NOT focus on how FAR you have to go… I allowed myself to â€œmaster the possibilitiesâ€ only a few times a semester, particularly when planning for enrollment. Then, I concentrated one the matters at hand, focusing on only tomorrow or the few days ahead, the next QUIZ; the next EXAM etc. Try to avoid ruminations like â€œDarn look how much FARTHER I have to goâ€, if one sticks to the fundamentals of a well designed plan the â€œfar aheadâ€ things will fix themselves! As mentioned above, if your plan needs to be adjusted the sit down and carefully consider ones course of action and adjustments and with your advisor set up a revised plan. As soon as the new plan is done put it in your desk drawer and get back to considering what must be done NEXT.
DO NOT be discouraged (or intimidated) looking at others with higher course loads (note my philosophy on â€œclubsâ€ below); the cumulative 4.0 will look as good on your transcript with 12 hours as theirs with 18 hours.
The skinny on â€œpre-professionalâ€ clubs:
Everyone has different experiences with these, but I found it USELESS personally to hang out in â€œpre-professionalâ€ clubs. Often the focus is on informing young people who have never existed OUTSIDE of the school experience, what some profession might be like. (In MY OPINION ONLY) They were always, to me anyway, enthusiasm vacuums and â€œblack cloud gatherersâ€; there are enough disappointments and frustrations that crop up â€œnaturallyâ€ without a steady diet of very bright 20 year old prodigy telling you how impossible the goal; reminding you that only 1 in 10 â€œpre-medâ€ students ever matriculate.
A very common interaction I have observed (this example was from the ONE and ONLY time I attended the â€œpre-med clubâ€) is for these kids to complain (in poker they call it â€œsand baggingâ€) about how â€œpoorlyâ€ they are doing, â€œOH woe is meâ€¦ I ONLY have a 3.88 after 18 creditsâ€.
The result, whether intended or not, for me was to think, â€œWOW how in the heck am I [fill in the blank, smart enough, young enough etc.] to compete with THIS? I had no need of it, because after all is said and done, I have an edge they cannot hope to haveâ€¦ I am an adult, with REAL life experiences, responsibilities and focus. If you like the â€œpre-professionalâ€ club thing and find them useful (and are NOT intimidated by the â€œposturingâ€), then by all means participate, they do have a useful purpose.
- Seek tutoring EARLY, donâ€™t be too proud, get in there and use the services. Let the proud people wonder â€œwhat ifâ€? Tutoring is especially helpful for non-trads, someone who has been out of the game for a while, it will help you in the transition from adult to student, help recall stuff that is too basic for the college course you are in (or learn new stuff you did NOT in high school). I had not taken ANY math in 22 YEARS (I did poorly even then). The study habits and help you get can cover a world of shortcomings.
- It is possible to use â€œall the birthdaysâ€ as an advantage! OK, this one is not â€œpolitically correctâ€, however I â€œdiscovered itâ€ while doing nursing and have successfully used it in 16 different semesters right up until medical school. IF your schedule allows; take some classes during the day (especially the general education stuff), when more traditional students (teens) take them; the rationale is simple… many 18, 19 and 20 year olds don’t want to be there (mom’s making them; avoiding real job, trying to â€œfind themselvesâ€ etc.), or are interested in â€œother aspectsâ€ of college life (â€œsignificant otherâ€ attachments or troubles, parties or hang-overs, sewing the wild oats etc.), so a non-trad (showing interest, motivation, sacrifice etc.) in that milieu will rise to the top at ONCE in the eyes of the instructor.
- Introduce yourself to your professors (this goes with #9), the importance of this cannot be overemphasized, get to know them… Often young people tend to be (unintentionally) self absorbed and simply do not consider â€œgrown-upâ€ type of common courtesies. For example, if you are going to be absent, even if attendance is not required, send your instructor an e-mail regretfully explaining the absence. Or approach the instructor after class or during office hours and ask some clarifying questions about the lecture. The â€œgood willâ€ dividends here are incalculable (especially if you are seeking admission to some competitive program where letters of recommendation will sooner or later be required). Even if you have done well in the course, how can you expect a good letter if the professor does not remember who you are? Get to know them so that when you come knocking with your cover letter and personal statement they will remember your name (or at least your face)!
- DO NOT GRIPE AND WHINE especially publicly or in class AND get away from (or avoid altogether) those who do. Most of what one is able to accomplish as a student is by ATTITUDE! (Remember rule 1) In the same way one can â€œcatch a draftâ€ off the energy and enthusiasm of the younger set, a â€œnegative vibeâ€ is equally catchy. School is simply loaded with people (youngster or non-trad) who found a way to MAKE it work. Anyone can make an excuse, there are a thousand reasons why you canâ€™t do something, but only YOU can make the decision to succeed. I consider continued formal learning the closest I have ever come to a fountain of youth. A solid â€œcup half FULLâ€ attitude will pay off, it will also raise you above the rest… (How 'bout THAT for a soap box)
I have observed the ODD (and frankly non equitable) dichotomy regarding non-traditional students life experiences, the only difference that I can distill is regarding the OUTCOME:
The terrible costs and sacrifices made by one “Grown-up” student are regarded as perfect and desirable “REASONS” for ones success.
Similar terrible costs and sacrifices made by another “Grown-up” student are regarded as unacceptable “excuses” for ones failure
I have been in school with hundreds of non trads over the years, I can almost PREDICT FAILURE, hearing the following, â€œI am [fill in the blank, non-trad, married, working, divorced whatever] and I shouldnâ€™t (or should) have to (be able to) [take thisâ€¦, miss thisâ€¦., do thisâ€¦, be allowed toâ€¦] differently than everyone else. This segues nicely to a discussion of â€œhoopsâ€.
- The two general rules of the â€œhoopsâ€:
General rule #1: Every program of study has certain requirements. That is benchmarks or milestones that everyone in the profession has to accomplish. I think of them as â€œhoopsâ€. Everyone who accomplishes this goal has jumped these hoops. Medicine is the archtypal example of hoop dependence. Understand, being older, having a degree, great grades, even recently, outside of the proper medical pre-requisites will NOT in any way shape or form exempt you from jumping the many immovable â€œmedicinal hoopsâ€. It is best to warm up to this concept right out of the gate because, fair or not that is the way it is!
General rule #2: The â€œfancierâ€ the program, new initials MSW, RN, PhD (MD in particular) the more tedious and strict the requirements (the hoops) most fields viciously guard hoops as a way of preserving the added value of the ENTIRE profession. Nobody will ever (especially in medicine) knowingly help you bypass your particular set of hoops. Furthermore, "medicinal hoopsâ€ (specific hoops) have to be jumped in order, high enough (grades) and recently enough.
The Non traditional label is handy in many ways such as showing focus, discipline and initiative. It is also helpful with getting help like tutoring. However, being an older student will never excuse you from THIS particular set of hoops. DO NOT EVEN TRY HOOP SNEAKING.
I have discovered that it is perhaps TOUGHER for folks who have degrees and successful careers to understand that medicine requires the prototype series of hoops to jump (the shining example that other career fields can only dream about) there are very few short cuts, in fact the ONLY one I can think of is the â€œpost-baccalaureateâ€ programs for those with degrees and stellar GPAâ€™s that need no patching. But even these do not bypass the core hoops and the same requirements apply: specific courses, specific grades, and specific time frame.
A word of warning, if you go to a school that claims in some way to bypasses hoops (hoop sneaking), like the â€œMBA-every-other-weekendâ€ , you will not get the kind of status, respect, privileges (and money) that those who jumped the hoops did. IN fact these may be a GIANT rip off and you will get nothing but a LOT of student debt, the test for a â€œhoop-by-passerâ€ is to check and see how much of their courses transfer back to a traditional school. Pre-medicine requirements are even worse; they are as immovable as the constellations in the night sky, even if you get away with some short-cut as an undergraduate, all you will get from an admissions committee is a form letter â€œregretfully informing youâ€¦â€
- SIT in the FRONT ROW dead center (or frontish dead centerish)… within a WEEK the professor will make eye contact with YOU and will lecture to you (almost personally) the rest of the semester… he will read in YOUR face if you “don’t get it” and will more likely STOP and restate a point… all this without a word being exchanged (or you having to â€œraise your handâ€ and stop the class). This is especially useful in the huge lecture hall classes where it is impossible (or possibly NOT allowed) to raise your hand and stop a lecture to 500 chemistry students.
- Always remember; it WILL get easier as you get used to it! Keep in mind the FIRST â€œintroductory courseâ€ is ALWAYS the hardest, because you must learn everything “from scratch”, thus they have the steepest learning curve! ALL subsequent and more advanced courses in the same area will invariably re-teach the same thing plus adding a smaller proportion of â€œnewâ€ material. Thus, if you really have to work hard in â€œBiology Iâ€, you can be assured that â€œBiology IIâ€ will likely revisit much of â€œBiology Iâ€ and be MUCH easier. The take home message here is this: DO NOT PANIC if you feel over your head at first, hang in there (another justification for starting out slow).
- Finally, remember it is a long race, you will find things you learn easily and others you struggle with. Do not be discouraged; if you mess up a section do not let it beat you (DO NOT QUIT unless before the â€œdrop dayâ€). Sit down and figure out what went wrong, was it a knowledge or complexity problem? Was it a study problem? Redirect and refocus your efforts, get tutoring, get a different book and take the steps necessary to FIX the deficits and only then press on (remember cumulative semester finals will revisit this material) and plan to do better next time!
Remember, this idea of self analysis is particularly important for pre-medicine. You will need to do well in nearly every course in the pre-requisite constellation, so be sure to KNOW how you are doing at all times. I remember thinking, “there is no such thing as an unimportant quiz”. Remember if you miss the “drop without academic penalty”, exit you need to have the ability to tease out what went wrong and know where to find the resources to fix the problems real time!
Most people can get away with ONE isolated “C” or a “W”, (one FREEBEE) but the alarms should be RINGING if you use your freebee in your first semester.
The best analogy I can think of is this: How many of you when watching “Who wants to be a Millionaire” can predict the contestant is in deep trouble when they use up all of the lifelines before they get to $25,000?
- Lastly (and most importantly) remember to enjoy yourself! I am always baffled reading in some first time posts here. “If I had it to do over” (why not?)… I am amazed that a person in middle age could be anything but THRILLED at the possibility of getting to live and learn much like an 18 year old! I was always envious of college friends when I was younger, so when I got MY CHANCE, I made the most of it. The great advantage was that I was NOT 18 anymore, and made 38 year old decisions and did not squander a single opportunity.
Take advantage of the friendships you will make. Involve your spouse and family in as much as possible. Enjoy and take up the sheer energy of youth exuded by your colleagues (remember many will close to you even in medical school).
Realize that what you are doing is special and no matter what the course, you will find yourself richer in ways you would not now be able to predict!
Be sure to share credit and frequently (and publicly) acknowledge and thank your spouse and family for the sacrifices they have made! Lastly, never forget to offer encouragement to others. You might be surprised how great you feel lifting another up.