Conquering Back-to-School Anxiety: Emotional Side of Learning

Deciding to go back to college as an adult learner can be stressful, especially when you’re juggling other responsibilities as well, such as work and raising a family, or caring for an elderly relative. Wariness about going back to school isn’t unusual, but remember that stepping out of your comfort zone is a good thing.

An adult student with a laptop and planner.

“The number one thing people going back to college should know is that strategic risk-taking is absolutely critical to success,” Maryville University associate professor of communication Dr. Leilani Carver-Madalon told Life as a Human Magazine in a recent interview. “It is never too late to dream and become your best self.” Although the first major hurdle to overcome is the decision to enroll, keep in mind that you’ll have other decisions to make, such as deciding on a school, choosing a degree, and scheduling study time around other obligations. If you’re feeling back-to-school anxiety, remember that you have a system of support to help you navigate. Take it one step at a time and believe in yourself.

Don’t Let Self-Doubt Overcome You

Dr. Carver-Madalon never thought she’d become a professor. When she was 29 years old, without a financial safety net, it took every ounce of courage she had to quit her secure, great-paying job, leap into the unknown, and start her PhD.

“I was not sure that I could do it. I was afraid of failure, and yet I did it anyway,” she says. “I had never worked harder and never risked more. Ten years later, I love my dream job and cannot imagine doing anything else.”

Although going back to school can be intimidating, you can take steps to ward off negative self-talk and gain confidence in your decision.

Set Up a Peer Support Network

If you’re struggling with back-to-school anxiety, seek friends or acquaintances who have recently taken online college courses and discuss your concerns with them. Be sure to ask your peers for tips on how to make the most of the online learning experience.

Make Learning a Team Effort

Discussing your concerns and fears about going back to school with the other members of your household can help you plan for success. This may include asking your spouse or older children to take over certain household duties, such as laundry and housekeeping, to help you balance your schedule and workload. You can also ask family members to support your efforts to schedule “alone time” for studying. Last, be proactive in asking for help in your learning efforts: Older children can assist by creating flashcards and quizzing you, for example.

Remember That School Staff Members Are There to Help

First-generation college students may not have firsthand exposure or advice from friends or family on how to navigate the college experience, but your advisers, professors, and school administrators can help. As you research colleges, don’t be afraid to ask them about the resources they offer.

Set Achievable Short- and Long-Term Goals

When exploring online programs, map out strategies and timelines for completing admissions and financial aid steps. You should also set goals once you enroll, such as how many hours of coursework you’ll be able to take and how many hours per day or week you need to dedicate to classes and studies.

Proactively Address Time Concerns

One of potential online students’ biggest concerns relates to time management, especially if they’re working full or part time or raising children. Remember that countless adults in similar circumstances have gone before you to successfully earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree.

The key to successful time management is to find ways to integrate your online studies into your daily routines. For example, if you have school-aged children, consider establishing a daily quiet or study time for the whole family. Additionally, setting daily and weekly goals for your studies can help keep you on track.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Adults struggling with back-to-school anxiety should remember that while online learners can control many things, such as setting timelines for projects and setting aside study hours, they can’t control many others, such as age or generational differences with classmates.

While students returning to education after time away may be concerned about an age gap with fellow students, a 2019 study by LearningHouse found that the average online undergraduate student is 31 years old, and the average online graduate student is 34. It’s also worth noting that younger students often view their older peers as valuable resources with a range of life and work experience they haven’t had.

Explore Your School’s Resources

Choosing to earn a degree online doesn’t mean you’ll need to go it alone. Your student adviser can guide you to resources such as virtual tutoring, virtual study groups, and career development support. As you research online degree programs, ask about the resources that each school offers, such as student financial services, technical support services, and online mental health services. Alumni resources and online library resources may also be available.

Believe in Yourself

If you’re anxious about restarting your education, keep your eye on the prize and focus on why you want to go back to school. Do you want to switch careers or gain additional knowledge and skills to help you advance in your field? Consider the many opportunities that going back to school brings, such as meeting new people, expanding your professional network, and learning new things.

Are you ready to take the first brave step toward earning an online bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate degree? Explore Maryville University’s online degree programs, and begin a new adventure.

Recommended Reading

Time Management for Online Students

5 Questions to Ask Before Enrolling in an Online Program

How to Stand Out as a Career Nomad


Anxiety & Depression Association of America, “5 Tips for Navigating the Stress and Anxiety in College”

Educause Review, “Online Student Services: What, Where, Who, When, How, and Most Importantly, Why”

LearningHouse, “Online College Students 2019”

Life as a Human, “It’s Never Too Late for Higher Education”

Medium, “5 Ways to Channel Back to School Anxiety for the Adult Learner”

Verywell Mind, “Common Types of Anxiety Disorders College Students Experience”

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