Basic Skills Needed to go Back to College

Returning to college as an adult can certainly be overwhelming! Being back in a classroom will force you to use some mental “muscles” that you might not have used in a long time. You’ll also need to develop some other skills that (depending on how long it’s been) might not have even existed when you were in school!

Here are my Top 6 Skills For Adults Returning to College.


Most degree programs include at least one math course as a core requirement. As a beginning student, you will probably need to take a math placement exam before enrolling. Generally, a placement test will evaluate your skills, and determine which level math class you should start in.

It’s possible you may need to take one or more lower-level math courses before taking the course required for your program. Don’t feel discouraged or insulted; this will help you in the long run. Math skills build upon each other; a solid foundation will help you succeed at higher levels.

Math Anxiety is a very real issue for many adults returning to college. Your younger classmates may be only a year or two out of high school, and much of their math skills will be fresher. Most colleges offer free tutoring sessions; take advantage of this excellent free resource!


Along with Math, you may have to take a placement test in Reading, to evaluate your reading skills. Based on your score, you may be advised to take a basic reading comprehension course to build up the skills you will need to succeed in your college career.

In college, there will of course be a lot of reading to do. Academic reading is very different from reading for pleasure! Not only will you need to read a lot of material quickly, you will need to to absorb it.

Ideally, you want to first skim over the material to get the general idea. Have a dictionary close by, and look up any unfamiliar words. Take notes on important points. Perhaps even keep a running list of vocabulary words (this will become a great study guide!). Then go back and read it more thoroughly.

Many textbooks will feature summaries, discussion questions, and exercises at the end of chapters. The summaries will pull together the most important points of the chapter. This is very valuable information to study from. Also, take a few minutes to work through those questions and exercises, even if they weren’t assigned as homework.

If you’re dead tired, and having trouble focusing, don’t force yourself to keep reading. You probably won’t retain anything you’ve read. You’ll only have to read it again anyway. Better to just take a break, and go back to it with fresh eyes when you’re more rested.

My best advice to you about college reading: Keep up with your daily/weekly reading assignments! It’s so much easier to read twenty pages a week for fifteen weeks than it is to cram 300 pages the week before final exams!


As mentioned for Math and Reading, you will most likely have to take a placement test in Writing, as well. Most degree programs require at least one college-level writing course.

College writing is very different from the writing you use in your day-to-day life. Papers will need to be written in a much more formal language than what you use in, for example, memos and emails. Abbreviations and Instant Messaging slang are never appropriate in college work. Spelling and grammar do count!


Critical thinking is loosely defined as being able to analyze information and make a good judgment as to whether that information is reasonable and logical. We generally don’t get a very good education in reason and logic in American society (but that’s a rant for another day)!

Critical thinking especially requires you to have a healthy skepticism towards much of what you see and hear in the media. For example, when researching information for a term paper, you will need to be able to evaluate whether or not a website or article is a credible source: is it a true fact, based on solid evidence… or just someone’s opinion?

In college, you will also be presented with many new ideas and perspectives. Many of those ideas will challenge your beliefs, and this could be uncomfortable at times. But this is why you are in college- to broaden your horizons. Learning requires an open mind. I’m not suggesting you necessarily have to change your mind, but in the long run, being fair and tolerant to other opinions is a helpful quality.


Things were very different when I was in college the first time, a few (coy smile) years ago. The only computers on campus were in the registrar’s office and in the computer science department. If you weren’t majoring in programming, you might never touch a computer. Today, campuses are wired for the internet, and there are computers everywhere. Computers are a way of life on campus.

If you have basic computer skills (using Microsoft Windows and using the internet), you have a very good start. Expect to learn new software applications, such as MS Word for typing papers and Powerpoint for making slide presentations. There are many great books (the “For Dummies” and “Total Idiots” series are super) devoted to learning computer software, as well as online tutorials. If your college offers a basic course dedicated to common applications used in schools and offices, definitely take it.


This ties in somewhat with #5 (Computer Skills) above. You may remember something called the library. It was a quiet, almost holy place, filled with books.

Library and Information Technology has drastically changed with the rise of the internet! You will of course still use actual books in your research for papers and projects, but there are now many other resources: academic databases, websites, ebooks, and more.

Internet research is a lot more than just typing a keyword into; as mentioned in #4 (Critical Thinking Skills), your professors will expect you to cite credible sources. Ask your librarian for help finding academic databases and credible websites.

The amount of available information is vast. Your college library will be a vitally important resource in your education. Ask your librarian for help. Librarians are there to help you find the information you need!