Succeeding in College as an Adult Student:  Don’t be a Diva

 While most adult students are a pleasure to teach, a few turn out to be “Divas,” demanding star treatment in class. This, of course, does not endear these individuals to the professor’s heart.  In fact, by their attitudes and actions such “High Maintenance Students,” too often destroy any chance they have of getting the very success and special consideration they crave so much.

 Thanks to nationally-recognized author and speaker Mary E. Demuth, here are some ideas on how to be the kind of stand-out adult student that professors will go out of their way to help advance: 

  1. Be confident, but never arrogant. The more maturely confident you are in yourself, the slower you’ll be to react to criticism and the more accurately you’ll be able to discern when a professor is really trying to put you down and when he or she is not.
  2. Meet deadlines early. If you turn in your assignments early, you’ll shock and please your professors and at the same time make a very good name for yourself.
  3. Write thank you notes. You will stand out from the crowd if you occasionally e-mail thank-you notes to professors when you are especially grateful.  But always be sure to make your gratitude specific and genuine, never just kissing up.
  4. Join or form a study collective (even in classes that don’t require one!). Find (or organize) a collective of classmates who get along with you and who can ruthlessly critique your work before you turn it in while you do the same for them. Your classmates may be younger, but they're learning the same things you are. You can help them, and they can help you in exchange.
  5. Put down the phone.  Don’t call professors unless they invite you to do so. A quick e-mail or a visit during their posted office hours is much easier for them to respond to, and causes them far less interruption.
  6. Relax about grades.  Hounding your professor about grades comes across as desperate and scared. Of course, if you have a legitimate question, don’t hesitate to ask, but don’t pester and never plead for points you haven't earned.
  7. Prepare to be flexible. As an adult student, particularly when you’re new at the college game, you’ll have to bend a lot to meet professors’ expectations. No, in college the customer is not always right.  Do it their way, and chalk it up to learning. Later, when you’re more confident and more of an expert in the college game, you can decide when to argue with a professor and when it is not worth the time.
  8. Think before you hit the “send” button.  Before e-mailing a complaint or a “flame,” let it sit and cool for a few hours. Remember that e-mails and social network postings can take on a terrible life of their own, and that nothing you post on the Net ever truly “goes away,” even after it is deleted.
  9. If something is especially good, send complimentary e-mails or postings at will. E-mails that praise something specific in a class never go away either, and can definitely make friends for you. If a class or assignment is particularly good, consider praising a professor to the Dean, department head, or to his or her colleagues!  Word travels.
  10. Do your homework. Before pestering a professor about an assignment, research it in depth on your own. Re-read the instructions line by line, and keep those instructions on you desk, right in front of you, until you are done with the assignment. Simply knowing precisely what the professor expects from you will go a long way toward making you a star student.
  11. Get help.  Never, ever turn a major written assignment in without having it checked over by a pro. That's not cheating or admitting weakness--it's what the professionals do. Most universities have writing or tutoring centers available to check your work. You pay good money for these services in your tuition or taxes, so for heaven's sake, use them!
  12. Go the extra mile. Seek out and attend talks, conferences and presentations in the subject of the class, or in your major. Maybe you’ll meet your professors there!  Read widely on your own, both within and outside of your major. Go to public lectures, seminars, symposia, meetings and films. Take a non-credit class. Try new things. Grow, grow, grow!  Above all, seek to make yourself an expert in your major or chosen field, to start becoming that professional that you want to be. 
  13. Network widely. Join or organize a campus club or professional organization in your major or profession. An adult student with a large network of academic and professional contacts among faculty, fellow students and working professionals in his or her major field will be well on the way toward building a successful career even before graduation, and will be respected by professors and peers alike.
  14. Watch your tongue in class.  Remember, if you establish your reputation as a High Maintenance Student right out of the gate, it’s hard to change first impressions. And even though the university may seem large, it’s really just a small town, and gossip spreads.
  15. If you have to fight, do it right.  If you didn’t like the way a particular professor treated you and you can’t resolve it face to face, go through channels. Don’t spread your anger all over the Net, to fellow students, or to other prof’s. If you spew, other professors will think, “Hmmm… if this student is so ready to slander my colleague, will he or she slander me, too?”
  16. Be a scholar, and look and play the part. If your professor asks you to put up a website, make it look scholarly and professional. If you have a social networking web page, remember that the world can see it, perhaps including professors and future employers.
  17. Never kiss up. Professors know when you’re offering praise just for the sake of getting something in return, and can see right through it.
  18. Be patient. Professors are sometimes terribly busy and often can’t get back to you with grades or feedback on your timetable. Accept that as a given.
  19. Accept feedback. If a professor’s or peer reviewer’s comments on an assignment initially make you angry or defensive, wait to respond, argue or rewrite until your emotions have cooled down. Learn to courteously accept feedback, even when it seems off-base.
  20. Start small. If you’re in college, even as a mature adult student with decades of life-experience under your belt, recognize you still have a lot to learn. Use your first years of college to “learn the ropes” and to become a sharper student.
  21. Above all, be humble. Here’s an irony: Adult students who enter college bursting with themselves and their own mighty wisdom often start out thinking they’re God’s gift to the University, but in reality they are setting themselves up for failure. The most successful adult students soon learn that success at college isn’t always measured by grades, that succeeding, even if you have great talent and years of experience, takes guts and work and sweat, and that when you're ready to listen to professors’ constructive feedback you’ll grow.

Adapted and posted with author's permission from “Don’t be a Diva,” by Mary E Delmuth. Writer’s Digest, August, 2008, 18-9.  Contact Ms. Delmuth at .

 OW 11/08 rev 3/11

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