Non-Traditional Student Life Hacks

College is a strange, new land, regardless of your age when attending. For some, it is their first time being away from the protection and monitor of their parents. For others, it is a constant reminder that you’re too old for this shit (in my best Danny Glover impersonation). Wherever you fall on this spectrum, college is an experience that everyone should have in some way or another. And not for a good job, pay increase, or status. But for the simple fact that you want to better you. But what is a Non-Traditional Student? And where do they fit in?
Well, if you ask the university, a Non-Traditional Student is a student that is not coming directly out of high school. In reality though, it is that plus anyone that lives off campus, is married, has children, works full time, requires financial assistance, and any combination thereof. Most non-traditional students experience some form of exclusion from their peers and even the university itself. Schools make it harder for Non-TraditionalStudents to succeed and graduate, making room for the traditional student with lottery scholarships or family money to fill the slot. (If i sound a little bitter, I might be) So what do you do? How can you go back to school, or go for the first time, as a Non-Traditional Student?
Here is a list of my “life hacks” every Non-Traditional Student needs to make it in college and survive.

Spoiler Alert: This post may contain affiliate links. Which means that if you click a link I will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. I would never suggest a product I don’t use on a daily basis, have in my home already, or have in the past and would buy again. All commissions go towards running Hot Mess Mom Life and a massive coffee supply to run a business and household. 

Avoid University Clubs.

These will make you feel old and sometimes want to turn to drinking. “But I need an extra curricular for my resume?” Find them in your community. And if you can’t, start a group of your own that doesn’t require student status, opening it up to like minded people of all ages and levels of experience.

You can’t spank your classmates.

Believe me, I’ve asked. Take as many entry level classes as you can online. They tend to be more expensive, but worth it in the long run. It’s hard having life experiences and trying to relate to the children in your English 101 class. With that, you will make the other students cry, either through constructive criticism or sheer honesty, and that’s frowned upon in an academic setting (I speak from experience).

Have good electronics.

I honestly cannot stress this enough. I have seen so many Non-Traditional Students try to make it in with a notebook, pen, and an old school desktop. This simply will not cut it. In my first year back (it was 2010, and I was 23) I had to upgrade everything!!! Do some serious research and find the brand that will meet your needs and work best with your budget. I would also check out the bookstore for your university. More likely than not, they will have an electronics section that you can purchase things and charge it on your student account. That is how I bought my tablet, bluetooth keyboard, and laptop.
I strongly recommend Apple products. They have amazing student apps (which I will list in a separate post) and they exchange information and updates fluidly. I personally have an iPhone, iPad, and MacBook Air. You can trade back and forth between either of the three without having to save (with wifi connection). Conveniently, I could bring my tablet for days when I had a bunch of books, and I could use my cell phone when my other device died.
If you choose Apple, I would suggest getting the MacBook Pro. The Air is lightweight and as capable as the Pro. However, it doesn’t have a built-in CD-rom (it might be called something else nowadays and I just aged myself, but whatever. I told a classmate to just save their work on a “floppy” and print it at school. They were so confused!) This can become very problematic for certain classes that will have a required material downloaded by disk.
Either way you go, do the research and get up-to-date electronics!

Pack a lunch!

I had no idea how important this is! As we grow older, the importance of quality over quantity in regards to food becomes greater. There simply is no such thing as “quality food” on campus. And if you find it, you will be paying out the nose for it! Pack a good lunch, and be sure to include snacks for every 1.5 hours you will be on campus. And don’t forget a good water bottle! I suggest one with a large mouth and lid.

Buy durable bags

While we are talking about packing a lunch, we should talk about what to bring it in. Paper sacks just won’t do it. You’re food will get scattered and smashed, and it’s just not pretty. Invest in a good lunch bag!
Likewise, find a durable backpack that have multiple pockets or a large purse that can carry everything. I personally used a really pretty diaper bag that looks like an extra large purse (mommy habit) but it works great!
Figure out what you will need to carry and work from there. Don’t be afraid to try on a few bags with all of your things before purchasing it. Pay attention to how it will carry on your body and where the weight placement will be. And for the ladies, if you prefer a traditional backpack, make sure it has enough pockets for your purse items and your school stuff, or buy extra pouches for both. You will be surprised how much crap you’re going to carry around.

Invest in good parking

I cannot tell you how many times I lost motivation because I had to ride the city bus to school. And when I did get a parking pass, I still had to ride the shuttle onto campus. Good parking will be your make it or break it 90% of the time. As a NTS you have life going on all around you. You might have had a sick kid, family function, or you worked until 3am the night before. Having to dig deep for that extra motivation to get on a bus will break you every time, I promise! Do yourself a favor and invest in that good parking pass on campus.

Make time for tutoring

It does not matter how smart you are or how accomplished you are in the “real world.” College has it’s own set of rules and regulations that change with the wind. Math alone will destroy your soul if you try to do it alone. And you’d be surprised how easily you will forget the basic student information. Make time for tutoring, and also checking in with your advisor regularly. They will help you stay on track and pick up the things you naturally forgot over the years. Again, I had only been out of school for 5 years and I needed the help! Go get it. You’re life will be much easier.

Introduce yourself to the professor the first day

Life is going to happen throughout the semester, I promise! You will have Parent-Teacher conferences, Field Trips, and the sniffles. Things will come up at work and home that will come first. It is better for your professor to know ahead of time that you have a real life, and 99.9999999999999% of the time they will be more than willing to work with you and help you out. I have personally only had one professor (for thirty minutes) that refused to work with NTSs. She made a big to do about not allowing children in her classroom. That you would be kicked out if you brought them and dropped from the class for a single absence. That’s just unreasonable in a NTS’s life. Find out your prof’s policies and find a compromise, or a new teacher.

Have 10 childcare backups

Like I said, life will happen. A required class might put you home an hour after your kid gets out of school. Your kid has a fever that keeps him out of daycare on the day of a big test. Your first choice sitter is out of town/sick/out of commission and you need a backup. Have 10 backups! Talk with your family, friends, and neighbors. Build your community to help you succeed. What happens if all of these backups fall through (it can happen)? Then you’ve already talked with your professors about your situation. They can work with you to either take off the class or bring your kids with. Build your community.
I want to add here that you should never be afraid to bring your kids to class with you. I have done it pregnant with two in toe. I’ve nursed a baby in class. You are a human and you payed to play the game.

Learn about technology BEFORE you start

I cannot begin to tell you how stressful it is to get a powerpoint presentation assigned on Monday, due on Wednesday, and have absolutely no clue how to make a powerpoint!! And to top it off, you’re getting taught how to make a powerpoint by your 7 year old daughter, and now you not only have to translate her instructions, deal with her judgmental looks because “you don’t know”, and you still have to do the assignment in time. Don’t do this to yourself! Get through all the learning curves of PDF, Word, Powerpoint, and EXEL before you have an assignment slated at you. This will go back to getting a tutor and talking with your professors beforehand as well.

Ask for the syllabus in advance

When you register for a class you will be given the information for contacting your professor. I strongly suggest emailing them immediately and ask for the syllabus as soon as they have it available. In the syllabus you will find all of the course objectives for the semester, plus the reading schedule, paper due dates, test dates, and you might luck out and get your paper prompts as well. All of this is extremely useful information that will give you the one up (and take a load off your workload) when classes begin.

Read the books beforehand

More times than not, you will have about two months before classes start to sign up and get your reading list. If this is the case, I strongly suggest you start plowing through the required reading as soon as you can, and as fast as you can! Again… life happens! Trying to stay on top of your readings will become overwhelming at times, and you run a serious risk of falling behind. I had several semesters where I was reading 2k pages in a week, on top of the five papers due that I was reading for. It’s a mess and you will become delirious really fast like that. Save your sanity and read before start of the semester.

Read for quotes

While you’re reading ahead of time, read for quotable information throughout the text. You have to remember that you’re not reading for fun anymore. There’s a purpose to this information and you have to find it. If you were able to get the writing prompts, color code your quotes by paper, then write down page numbers for those papers on your syllabus. If not, focus on the objectives. They will give you a clear idea on what the prompts will be focused. By reading with the sole purpose of finding information to use, you will be able to do your work quickly and more efficiently later on.

Take notes on your readings

This was something I learned really late in the game, and wished I’d known sooner. Nine times out of ten, the class lectures will just be a reiteration of the points made in the reading for that day. However, the key points the professor will want you to focus on will be the points mentioned during class. If you take notes on your readings, as well as on lecture, you will be able to sift through the extra stuff and find the meat of the class.
Once you have your notes from the readings and lecture, as well as your quotable materials, you can combine them together to create your study guides for tests without any real work involved. I personally take class notes on my laptop and write reading notes on looseleaf paper. I rewrite my lecture notes on paper later, then put everything in order in a portfolio. Keep these. They will come in handy later on in your academic career.

Keep books in your field

With almost every degree focus, you will find that your materials will transfer over from class to class. I cannot stress how important it is to build your library in your field from the very beginning, even traditional textbooks. When it comes to my history degree, I was able to tie in information from my US history text into my Islamic history class, Greek art history with Revolutionary France, and a million and one other combinations. Keep your books!
By keeping your texts, you’re also able to take notes within the books. I did this religiously! It helps keep things organized and in one place. If you don’t feel comfortable writing in the books, invest in a buttload of post it notes and slap them on pages you want to make stand out.

Google Scholar and the University Library will be your best friend!

Google Scholar weeds out the analytics of search engines and leaves you with peer reviewed articles and information. This is extremely important when it comes to writing research papers and will give you a serious edge on your work! Most of the time, when I had to write a research paper, I would use Google Scholar to look up what others were writing about and what references they used. This will help you build your bibliography and take several hours off of your workload. And when your an NTS, time is of the essence!
Most university libraries have a website for looking up resources either on the shelf or in digital copy that can be downloaded to your computer in PDF form. They will have keywords at the bottom that will direct you to other resources on that subject. Here is an example:
USE THIS!!! It will save your life, I promise! A quick list of sites you need to save in your school folder right away include:
  • Your university’s library (or a large university near by if you go to community college)
  • Google Scholar
  • JSTOR (Archive of Acedemic Journals on every subject known to man)
  • PerdueOwl (Quick online reference on citing your work, writing a citation, and rules on every writing format i.e. Chicago, MLA, etc.)

Keep extra index cards handy

These are great for taking quick notes on things throughout your day. I served tables and tended bar throughout college. I kept a handful of cards in my server book in case I had an idea for a paper due or wanted to take notes on a reference someone told me about. If you’re standing in line at the store and you have a moment of genius, you don’t want to rely solely on your memory (trust me, it doesn’t work).


I want to really talk about agendas right now. I am obsessive when it comes to agendas and I have tried them all. For me, a physical agenda is the only way for me to stay on track. I understand that many people use the calendars on their phone, and it works great for them. Me personally, it turned into “out of sight, out of mind.” Do what works for you, however I strongly suggest you invest in an agenda! I’ve seen many students use both types, and I will say the most successful (as well as professors) use a physical agenda…
For school, I used the At-A-Glance planner with the hours marked out. I used the monthly view to keep track of family appointments, due dates, and off days from school.
In the daily section, I blocked out my schedule for each class. In those blocks, I would take my syllabus and write out the assignments, due dates, tests, and any other information I needed to know. I also wrote down the exact readings I needed to complete for the next class. Once I completed an assignment or reading requirement, I highlight it in yellow so I know what is finished with and what needs work still. Plus, seeing a whole days worth of highlighted assignments feels good.

The “College Experience” is a lie!

If you get nothing else from this post, I hope you walk away with the realization that college is not for someone else. You are not going for an exciting experience or pretty piece of paper equivalent to Wonka’s Golden Ticket. You are going for YOU! College is for bettering yourself and broadening your mind. You will have an experience, but whatever that experience is will be solely up to you.
College isn’t about having the right answer, it is about finding all of the answers! Ask questions. Push topics. Engage! Learn about other cultures, religions, viewpoints, and ideas. I made it a point to play devil’s advocate as often as I could to broaden discussions and force critical thinking. I asked the “dumb questions” everyone was afraid to ask. And I learned so much more about people and the subject at hand by doing that. You are the only one that will give you the college experience you need.


Do you have anything to add to this list? Was this helpful? Let me know in the comments below! Be sure to like and share this post and signup for your FREE Worksheet for writing a paper. It will come in handing when reading next week’s post. You can also check out more Life Hacks and School information on my Pinterest page.

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