Why Adults Fear Going Back to School and How to Get Over Those Fears

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By Cynthia Dalton
Always walk through life as if you have something new to learn and you will. — Vernon Howard

The Ghost of Schools Past

It’s perfectly normal to have doubts and fears about tackling something new. But when it comes to us returning to school after a long absence as adults, there are often additional, special concerns with which we need to cope. We fear:

Not doing well academically because we didn’t do well academically earlier in life. This is the ghost of schools past rearing its ugly head. It’s important to remember that we are wiser, more mature, and we now appreciate the learning process. In other words, we now have the right attitude and additional strengths to bring to the task.

That “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We buy into the idea that we don’t learn as quickly as when we were younger because we naturally slow down as we get older, right? Wrong. Just think of all the responsibilities you have assumed and all you had to learn to do so — you are learning new things everyday — you have the muscle!

That others will not support our academic goals. Most of us have been there. You announce you’re going on a diet, and somehow all sorts of cookies, pies, cakes, and doughnuts start showing up out of nowhere that weren’t there before. It seems to be a law of nature that some resistance (in addition to our own) will show up when we venture something new. Be aware that this will happen, and you’ll be able to take it with a grain of salt instead of getting upset — forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

Being out of school too long. We fear we’ll be out of step in some way, such as not knowing newer technologies. Relax, YouTube and other websites have tutorials for just about everything. And, you can access these resources in private, without anyone being the wiser.

Deciding on a major to pursue. It’s not written in stone, you can change majors in the beginning. Maybe, try a certificate program or two first. This adds to your resume and gets your feet wet.

Committing to a major investment of time. Yes, a degree takes time, but remember, an academic program is always broken down into smaller units — you work through your degree incrementally and before you know it, you’re graduating! Look at it this way, Christmas seems so far away in July, but before you know it, it’s holiday time again. The truth is, the time will pass before you know it.

Spending money on ourselves when we feel we should be taking care of others. We feel guilty and selfish — but wait! We really aren’t spending tuition money on just ourselves. When we better ourselves, everyone we care about benefits, either directly or indirectly. For example, we boost our earning capacity when we have a degree on our resume which positively impacts our family, and we model the behaviors we want to see in our children, which automatically points them in the right direction, as well.

Overcoming Your Fears

Here are some tips to overcome a fear of returning to school:

Acknowledge your fears and slay them. Write your fears down on paper and throw them to the mat by challenging their validity. Confront them verbally — become a chronic chanter of “why?” Become the prosecuting attorney, relentlessly exposing the falsehoods of preexisting assumptions.

Remove from your vocabulary self-defeating self-talk. The first to go should be “I can’t.” This is another way of saying “I’m scared” but without the self-awareness and honesty to just come out and say, “I’m scared.”

Adopt an attitude of insatiable curiosity. Get greedy for knowledge. It’s the one thing you can pig-out on and it’s actually good for you, so go for it!

Avoid getting overwhelmed. Have realistic and specific goals. Take each step incrementally and set a realistic time-frame. Then, go back and add a little more time to each step for good measure, in order to avoid building frustration (or worse, failure) into your new plan.

Take any courses or research anything you feel you need for advance preparation. Feel like you need to learn typing or how to study? Make a list of the things you need to know in order to prepare yourself for school, and work through those things first. You gain both confidence and skills!

Develop a support system. This can be a trusted friend, fellow prospective students, counselors, your pastor, and/or family members. Reach out to those you know will be supportive of you and make sure they know you’ll be supportive of them as well.

Accept in advance that there will be setbacks. Life happens. Plan in advance to take setbacks with good humor and plan to get right back on that horse!

More Help

For a step-by-step guide to going back to school, check out mycollegeguide.org, Going Back to School Made Simple – A Step-by-Step Guide. The guide covers everything from identifying your goals to going back to school at age 25, 30, 35, 40, and 50.

What do you think?

  • Are you planning to return to school?
  • What fears or challenges do you feel you’ll face?
  • What excites you about returning to school?

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