Mature Students: Planning ahead can help smooth the path to a degree

People often worry about money and 'fitting in'. Relax, but be organised, says Tamsin Smith
'I was convinced I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. Although I knew there were lots of mature students at the university, I thought I would be an OAP compared to the bright young things that make up most student numbers."

So says mature student Jan Selwyn, 45, a first year History of Art undergraduate at the University of Sussex. Hers is a sentiment felt by the majority of mature students entering the hallowed grounds of a university campus for the first time.

Though most have held down long-term jobs, or given up successful careers, their self-confidence disappears during freshers' week as they worry about how they will cope.

But they need not fear. Most mature students say that with their previous experience of running homes, jobs and families, they have had more than enough practice at organising themselves and have the right attitude to take advantage of the opportunities universities offer.

And as for age? Well at an institution geared towards individual potential rather than career advancement, it is immaterial.

"I promise, no one notices," says Jan. "You come to university with a clean slate, and you are all in the same learning environment. You soon forget how old you are."

"The key to coping is to make sure you've thought it all through and done your homework," advises Irene de la Mer, 45 and a mother of four, who obtained a degree in art history at the University of Brighton in 1993.

"Doing some research before you start your course will save you a lot of worry later on.

"The most important thing to sort out is your finance as studying is a commitment which will restrict the amount of time you can work. Write to the university and to the local education authority to see what grants you are entitled to.

"It is also worth getting friendly with your bank manager to see if he can help you out with a loan.

"As well as a mature student grant, there is extra funding if you have dependents or special needs and most universities have hardship funds which may be available depending on your circumstances.

"If you have a family, financial limitations, or any commitments outside your course, it is important to consider the demands of your course. Some courses have more hidden costs than others for books or materials, so make sure you contact your department to see what exactly is involved.

"Also, arts and humanities degrees require less time at lectures or tutorials than science courses, so are more flexible for fitting in family life.

"It is also worthwhile considering whether your course can be studied part-time and whether there are childcare facilities available.

"Lots of mothers I know said they found it helpful to study at an institution close to family and friends so they have a well established network of support."

"The main thing is not to panic," Jan adds. "Universities are very well organised, especially for first year students, and you are inundated with information packs telling you what facilities there are and where you can find them.

"If your time-table does not suit you, go and see your tutor and he or she will usually be able to change it - and if you need more time to work on an essay they may even change the deadline for you."

"It is essential you organise your time. Create your own time-table and keep to it. I write down everything I have to do and when it has to be done by, then I allot time for it. That way I know I can study at home when it is quiet or in the library when it is not."