How to Handle Anxiety When Returning to School as an Adult

College is, by all accounts, a gateway to a better life. College graduates earn more money than non-college graduates, live longer, have better social networks, and more. So it’s always a good idea to go to college and get a degree no matter what your interests are.

But lots of people in their mid-20s or later have anxiety about returning to school as adults. This is normal, but it’s important to know how to handle this anxiety so you can return to college, get your degree, and maximize your potential.

Why Are Some Adults Anxious About Returning to School?

Our society has a narrative that goes something like this: you graduate from high school, you go to college, you graduate, you get a job, you get a family, and then you work at the same job for 40 years before retiring.

It’s a linear and predictable, if boring, narrative. But many adults don’t go to college right after high school, or they drop out of college for one reason or another, and they often feel like they’ve failed in their life’s natural progression. They might feel that they’ve already failed college and returning to school is a bad idea.

Lots of adults feel anxious when they consider returning to school for a variety of other reasons, as well.

  • Some adults feel self-conscious if they are surrounded by teenagers in class, even though everyone is there for the same purpose: learning
  • Others feel like they have to shirk their very real responsibilities when they go to school, especially if they have kids or a dependent spouse
  • Still more adults can carry deep anxiety about education in general, particularly if they didn’t have much success in public school

Even though all of these anxieties are very common, you don’t have to let them affect your decisions or prevent you from returning to school in the first place.

Let’s break down how you can handle anxiety around returning to school as an adult in detail.

Investigate Schools Carefully

When you’re considering returning to school as an adult, you don’t have to go to the first university you find or the school that your parents chose for you. Instead, and especially with the advent of remote education, you can go to any university that is affordable enough and that offers a degree that is interesting.

You can investigate schools as much as you like before applying, checking out how much they charge for each unit, what kinds of online or in-person classes they offer, and more. Some schools are certainly better than others, but being able to investigate your schools before putting any money down can help to alleviate your anxiety by reassuring you that you’re making the right choice.

Ask an Advisor About Other Adult Students

You might also consider talking to an advisor at a school you may want to attend in the future. Advisors are extremely helpful people (and are usually alumni of the school at which they work) and can answer any questions you might have about the university in question in great detail.

You can even ask them about other adult students and find out whether they are generally successful, whether there are support programs or facilities in place for working adults, and so on. All of these answers can help to alleviate your anxieties and show you that returning to school as an adult isn’t uncommon or at all shameful.

Consider the Benefits

It may help to think about the practical benefits that come along with getting a college degree in any major. For one, college graduates make more money over their lifetimes than those without college degrees on average.

Official data says that a millennial with a bachelor’s degree or more will make $45,500 a year on average compared to a graduate with a two-year degree, who will likely only make around $30,000 a year.

That’s a huge difference! When you put it like that, it’s easy to see that going back to college is a good idea to matter what you want to study. You’ll likely make more money as a college graduate in any field than if you stuck around with no or only some college education.

Check the Stats

The truth is in the math – returning to school as an adult isn’t as rare as you might believe. In fact, more adults than ever before are returning to school after either dropping out or spending some time learning more about themselves before going to college.

Just look at the fact that over 1 million adult students returned to college and earned a degree in 2019. COVID-19 didn’t exactly provide many opportunities to return to school throughout 2020, but it’s clear that adults regularly take the plunge and go back to school to finish or get a degree from scratch because of the myriad benefits having a college education can provide for their careers and families.

You aren’t alone if you want to go back to school. There are millions of other people just like you who accomplished their dreams after taking a chance and cracking open the textbooks once more.

You Can Pursue Goals More Directly

As an adult, you have one big advantage over many of the teenagers who enter college right out of high school. You aren’t necessarily on a timeline!

Lots of college track students are funneled into a university without really understanding themselves or what they want to go to school for. Their parents or peers may pressure them into pursuing a particular degree or concentration, and they may discover 10 or more years after the fact that they really don’t want to spend time in the career they find themselves in.

Adults who go back to school don’t necessarily have these issues. In fact, most adult students know exactly who they are, what they like to study, and what they want a college degree for overall.

That’s a huge benefit. It means that you won’t likely waste years of your life and thousands of dollars pursuing a degree you don’t actually care about. Instead, when you go back to school, you’ll make the most of the time and money you’re spending at a university.

By the same token, adult students are less likely to fail papers or skip out on tests, resulting in having to repeat courses because they aren’t wasting time with friends or parties.

Feel Free to Experiment

But adult students also have more flexibility compared to teenage peers. While you can focus more on specific degrees or majors, you can also experiment – you aren’t on a real timeline, after all, with parents pressuring you to graduate in four years or less!

With this in mind, you can easily attend college and take one or two classes as experiments. Take some classes at a university, see if it’s a good fit for you, and continue if it is. There’s no harm or shame in quitting a specific university or shifting your majors as an adult student.

You can also try out a university by signing up for one or more certificate courses. These are relatively accessible, affordable, and don’t usually require as much out-of-school studying as some more intense courses.

Experimentation is your right: take advantage of it as an adult student and use it to quell any anxieties you might have about your performance or how tough the subject matter in a class might be.

Get a Support Team

Every student, both adults and teenagers, needs a support team in order to succeed. One of the best ways to handle your anxiety about returning to school is to create a support team composed of friends and family members to lean on when necessary.

One great example that’s repeated millions of times across America every year is that of the parent going back to school. When you go back to school, you’re taking on an additional burden that other members of your family will need to assist with by picking up slack in other areas.

Say that your mom or dad and you have a teenage child and a spouse. Tell them what you plan to do and ask them to support you by taking on a little more of the daily chores, particularly on the days when you attend class.

With a support team, you won’t feel as overwhelmed and you won’t need to feel anxious about accomplishing all of your daily tasks while also completing homework from your math course.

A support team can also provide other emotional benefits. Bottom line: find people who will support you in your school journey and you’ll feel a lot better once you start.

Don’t Overcommit

Education is much more of a journey than a destination. Our goal-focused society often misses this point and can teach us to focus on the end results of our efforts rather than the time spent getting there.

How does this help you tackle your anxiety about returning to school? It’ll help you avoid over-committing to too many classes or too many majors when you have to juggle work and family life at the same time as your education.

Don’t overcommit and try to rush through your college years. As an adult student, you know better than anyone else that things take time to develop. You can prove to yourself that you can handle college and get good grades if you take courses at a pace and time that works best for your schedule and your learning style.

It’s easy to lose confidence in yourself if you set yourself up for failure by taking too many classes and trying to match the students who do nothing but study.

Don’t do that! Stick with a schedule and routine that you can manage and your confidence will skyrocket.


Ultimately, it’s quite normal to feel anxiety if you want to return to school as an adult. But the anxiety is just nervousness getting in the way of progress.

You can use all of the tips above and more to get over your anxiety and acquire your degree. Once you start attending your classes, you’ll likely feel more satisfied and confident in your choice than ever before. Good luck!

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