Mature Students: How do I get there from here?

The first step can seem the hardest. But, as Lee Rodwell explains, help is available if you look in the right places
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Teenagers applying to university while they are still at school or college have teachers who can offer guidance and advice. But how do you go about things if you have long since left school?

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - known to all by its initials UCAS - produce a Mature Students Guide to Higher Education. They can also supply a copy of their handbook, an information leaflet and an application form.

The handbook lists university courses, but for details of entry requirements you need to consult UCAS' university college entrance guide, aptly nicknamed The Big Guide. A copy should be available at your local Careers Office (check the phone book for the location) and your local library. Alternatively, you can visit the UCAS web site (see below).

Universities often relax stringent entry requirements if a mature student can show they are motivated and suited to the course they wish to study. The best first step is to write for more information to the admissions tutor at the institution you are considering . You may be invited for a preliminary discussion before you make a formal application.

Some universities offer courses on a modular or part-time basis, which may fit in better with other commitments. Many may give you credit for study done in the past, or for more informal learning acquired through work or other experiences.

Even so, if you have not studied for a long time, it may be advisable to do some kind of course such as an evening class, weekend study course, an Open University module or a Kite marked Access to Higher Education course, first. An Access course may provide guaranteed entry to a specific degree course, but any study will not only brush up your skills and add to your knowledge, but also demonstrate that you are motivated to learn.

Once you have made your choice it is a good idea to fill in a trial application form. Careers offices often have sample forms you can use for practice. You can also apply electronically via the UCAS Web site. Press officer Ross Hayman says UCAS encourages people to do this. "It minimises the chances of errors - if you enter the wrong course number you will be alerted to your mistake. However, the most common error people make is to put the day's date down as their date of birth."

The maximum number of universities or courses you can apply for is six. However, as many mature students only apply to one local institution, UCAS charges a reduced fee for a single choice.

For those hoping to begin a degree course in the autumn of 1999, the date to focus on is December 15 this year. Providing UCAS receive your application form by then, the universities guarantee they will consider your application.

Ross Hayman suggests that would-be students visit the universities they are thinking of applying to. "You will be spending three years of your life there. It's not just the course that matters, it's also the environment."

Birkbeck College, which is part of the University of London, has been catering for mature students for 175 years. The average age of a Birkbeck student is between 25 and 35. The oldest is 80. Most people apply direct to Birkbeck, rather than going through UCAS, with the bulk of applications being made in August and September. Applicants are usually interviewed and given an aptitutude test.

Universities which were once polytechnics, often have a supportive approach to mature students which has been carried over from the past.

Manchester Metropolitan has a centre for mature students within its faculty of humanities and social science, the students' union has a mature students group and the university has a learning support unit which can help with basic skills such as note-taking, essay writing and examination techniques.

The University of East London, where two-thirds of the students are mature, has a range of pre-entry services. Lynne Chiswick, head of the the centre for Access advice and continuing education (CAACE) says: "We appreciate how difficult it is to get back into education and we try and make it easy for people to come and do a degree."

Linda McGowan, deputy president of the Mature Students Union, agrees that some universities are much more mature student-friendly than others.

Her advice is to do some research before committing yourself. "Find out how many mature students there are at the university of your choice. How are they treated? Contact the students' union to see if they have a mature students' society. Or get it touch with us - we may have anecdotal information we can pass on."

UCAS, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, GL50 3SH


For more information about the Mature Students Union write to them at 6, Salisbury Road, Harrow, HA1 1NY.