A brief guide to university for mature students and those without A-levels


“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was never considered very ‘academic’ during my school days, more interested in sport and misdemeanours than in studying.  My school reports would usually conclude with “Sam could do better if he applied himself”.  After gaining a fairly average set of GCSE’s, I joined the 25% of students who leave full-time education without A-levels1.  At that time, university was not on my radar and I couldn’t wait to enter the world of work.  A few years later though, after I’d worked a few different jobs and gained a bit more life experience, I had a change of heart.  University had caught my interest.  And so I enrolled onto my local ‘Access to Higher Education Science’ course at Leicester College.  An access diploma (or ‘access course’) is the most common route into higher education for mature students and those without A-levels or the equivalent.

The following year I was delighted to accept a place at the University of Birmingham to study sport and exercise sciences.  My ambition at the time was to become a PE teacher and I was part of the 5% of freshers across the UK who had found their way back into education via the access course route2.

Adjusting to life as a student was not easy at first.  Having been out of education for a while, I remember struggling with the fundamental study skills.  Maintaining focus during lectures was not easy, it took me an age to read anything, my grammar was below par, and I didn’t know where to begin when it came to revision strategies.  After failing a couple of my earlier assessments I was close to deciding this venture wasn’t for me.  But things improved.  And three years later, I was stood in my graduation gown having achieved a first class degree.  And the rest is history, as they say.

Looking back, I feel like along with the added challenges, my route into university also helped me to succeed.  I’ve since spent time working in secondary schools on widening access schemes and giving talks to undergraduate students in hope of passing on some of the things that helped me along the way (and continue to do so).  Whilst this post is for anyone taking the time to read it, I am mostly writing to students who’ve also followed an unconventional route into higher education, whether this be an access course, diploma, foundation degree, or perhaps through having had a gap in education before making your return.  You may have faced challenges in getting to this point, but now that you’re here you have a wealth of personal strengths to draw from.

Before I continue, it feels important to make clear that my intention is certainly not to dismiss the conventional A-level route into university.  The messages in this post may resonate with anyone, and I believe every student, regardless of their background and route into university, has an important story to share and a unique set of character strengths to bring to the table.  I hope the reflections I offer below on my personal journey will help you to recognise additional sources of strength, and how to leverage these strengths to your advantage.

It also feels worthwhile to think about what you would like to get from your time at university.  For some students, success might be defined as coming out with a high scoring degree or perhaps getting a particular job at the end.  For others, success may be having enjoyed their time at university and having made the most of the extra-curricular activities available, regardless of the end degree result.  Keeping sight of your personal goal(s) will help you to shape your experience.

The six areas of strength I describe below are based on my experiences.  You may think differently or wish to share your own experiences.  If you do, please add your thoughts at the end of this post or get in touch.

1. You’ve done it your way

There is a very beautiful and powerful type of motivation called intrinsic motivation.  Put simply, when we engage in a behaviour because WE want to be doing do it, we bloomin well do it (think Frank Sinatra “I did it my way”!).  In contrast, when we follow a behaviour because we feel like we don’t have a choice, or for other extrinsic reasons, we usually do so with a little more reluctance.

“Intrinsic motivation is one of learning’s most precious resources. It bolsters us to stick out the tough moments of a challenge and pursue what we love to do.” ―Rachel Simmons

If you’re attending university a little later in life, you’ve probably had a few extra years to ponder over what it is you’d like to be doing there.  Perhaps, like me, you’d previously decided that university wasn’t for you before making a U-turn.  Maybe it just took you a little longer to decide on a degree subject that felt worthwhile.  Or perhaps you’ve always known what you wanted to study but only now have you been able to take the step to do it.  Either way, congratulations!  You’ve made it to university on your terms, studying your choice of degree course, at your choice of university, and, perhaps most importantly, at a time in life that suits you.  Because you are doing this for you, every little accomplishment along the way will feel that bit sweeter.

2. Old habits die hard

Mature students and access students have usually experienced the day-to-day grind that is full-time work.  If so, you will probably be accustomed to an 8-hour day.  You will also probably know what it feels like to drag yourself out of bed on a cold winter’s morning, leaving the house before sunrise, and finishing work just in time to have barely witnessed daylight.  You may even be part of an elite group who have conjured up the motivation to follow this routine day-in, day-out, month-after-month, for a job that is uninspiring and at times ‘not worth getting out of bed for’ (some people will never quite know the level of persistence that requires!).  Whilst job satisfaction (or a lack of) may be the very reason you came back to education in the first place, what you might not have considered is that during this time you’ve actually been carving out a very useful habit that will pay dividends (i.e., ‘work ethic’!).

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence” ― James N. Watkins

The majority of University courses only have a handful of lectures each week, with the rest of the time being self-paced reading and coursework.  Whilst this freedom is great for building life-skills in autonomy and self-regulation, it also requires a great deal of self-discipline to keep things on track.

My advice here is to continue your old work habits and carry on your high level of persistence and self-discipline.  Treat university like it were any other full-time job.  For example, on Monday through Friday, get up at a reasonable time and work a 7 or 8 hour day (regardless of how many lectures you might have).  You will probably find this routine even easier than before, as you’re getting up to work on stuff that you (on the whole) find enjoyable and worthwhile.  Being disciplined with your time during the day will also allow you to protect your evenings and weekends to do with as you wish.  Believe me, you will be surprised how much more manageable university is when you’re not trying to cram a degree course into half the amount of hours.

3. Stepping up a gear

The lecturers would often describe the purpose of Year 1 as being to “get everyone to the same standard” or to “create a level playing field”.  What this meant for me (and many other students) was a time for digging deep, getting up to speed, improving the fundamental study skills I mentioned earlier, learning new topics, and generally working pretty hard to keep up.  Thankfully, the grades awarded during Year 1 didn’t contribute towards my degree result!

“Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” ― William Butler Yeats

When it comes to Year 2, it can be surprisingly difficult to step up a gear now things really matter, especially for the lucky few who’d been able to take their foot off the gas a little during Year 1.  This is where we see a silver lining for those of you who’ve had to knuckle down during Year 1!  That is, when it comes to Year 2, you don’t really need to do anything different.  There will be no need to break bad habits and find a higher gear to step into.  You’re already in top gear, the fire is already lit, and it’s been burning for the last 12 months.  You will have caught up by this point and will find yourself accelerating fast.

4. Multiple intelligences

Our ‘academic intelligence’ mostly comes from the time we have invested in studying.  Unfortunately, we are often misled into believing this is the only type of intelligence.  After all, our academic intelligence is what’s typically assessed in schools and in the vast majority of university assignments and examinations.

Thankfully, the likes of Howard Gardner have steered us towards the theory of multiple intelligences3.  That is, the many ways an individual can demonstrate intelligence beyond the limited scope of their academic prowess (e.g., interpersonal intelligence, musical intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence and so on).  And what’s more, these various other forms of intelligence are more often developed through our life-experiences than time spent reading text books.

The theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983)

Think, for a moment, about what you’ve been up to during those years before making your return to education?  Maybe you’ve developed your interpersonal intelligence through having to navigate different workplaces, or through investing time into building your social capital.  Perhaps you’ve been travelling and immersing yourself in nature and other cultures (i.e., naturalistic intelligence), or exploring your creative interests in art and photography (i.e., visual-spatial intelligence).  Or maybe you’ve been through some difficult times, where you’ve come out of the other side having learnt a great deal about yourself (i.e., intrapersonal intelligence).  Whatever it is, if you weren’t developing your academic intelligence during this time, the chances are you were building your intellect in another shape or form.

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.” ― Coco Chanel

Of course, academic intelligence will play a significant role in your success at university, but these other varieties of intelligence will supplement your academic intelligence no end.  For example, a person who is more self and body smart will be better able to self-regulate their emotions and stress levels when things are tough.  A person who is music, picture, or nature smart will likely have greater creativity in their work, as well as a host of other hobbies and interests to dive into when a break from academic work is needed.  A person who is people smart will be better able to engage with lecturers, group work assignments, collaborative learning, and generally handle the social side of university with greater ease.

My advice is don’t be fooled into thinking that your academic intelligence is all that matters.  Look into your individuality to discover where your strengths lie.  Think about what you’ve learnt through your previous and on-going experiences (however abstract they may be) and how this might apply to the academic world you now find yourself in.

5. Underdog mentality

Whilst an access course sets you up incredibly well for university, there are moments when these alternative routes can be a source of insecurity.  In the first term especially, I remember having moments where I felt at a disadvantage, and to some extent, like I didn’t belong in the arena quite as much as those who were fresh out of school.  There are, however, two sides to every coin, and whilst feeling like an underdog had its downside, it also brought with it a source of strength.  At times feeling like an underdog gave me added fight and resilience.  I had come to university with a clear agenda ―To make the most out of the experience and of myself.  I wanted to prove to myself that I “could do better if I applied myself” (to quote my old school reports!).

The fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable. ―Malcolm Gladwell

There’s also scientific evidence that explains how underdogs sometimes come out on top.  Firstly, there is the psychological impact it has on the individual.  Feeling like an underdog offers some relief from the pressures that those with greater expectation can sometimes feel looming over them.  For example, the underdog will usually be praised for ‘putting up a good fight’, even when ‘winning’ isn’t the outcome.  And when the underdog does flip a finger in the face of expectations, the resulting sense of achievement will be enormous.  As the saying goes, ‘it’s a lot harder to stay in front than it is to do the chasing’.

6. Gratitude

It’s been suggested that less than 1% of the world’s population holds a degree.  Others estimate this figure a little higher at around 6.7%4.  Either way, we are very fortunate to be a part of this minority, and this is something I found worthwhile holding in mind.  In reconnecting with education after a period of absence you will hopefully discover a love and appreciation for learning that is stronger than it has been in the past.

During my transition from full-time work to undergraduate student, I began learning more in a single day than I had previously learnt in an entire week.  Although this took some getting used to, I soon began to enjoy the process of learning (i.e., enjoying learning for learning’s sake), rather than seeing learning as simply a means to an end.  Some might refer to this as ‘becoming a geek’ (and I do embrace some truth in that!); however, I put it down to having genuine gratitude for the opportunity to be where I was.  Walking around my university campus, I would often find myself looking up at the historic red brick buildings and famous clock tower, pinching myself that I was actually part of this environment.

“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions. The more you express gratitude for what you have, the more likely you will have even more to express gratitude for.” ―Zig Ziglar

I believe that if you discover a passion and gratitude for the learning process, the particular topic or piece of work you happen to be assigned becomes of less importance (within reason!).  This gratitude also influences other aspects of university.  For example, making the most of assignment feedback you receive by paying attention to what you did well and in what ways you could improve.  Assignment feedback is also a good opportunity for you to have a chat with your lecturers about anything that doesn’t quite make sense.  In my experience, staff are more than happy to embrace your enthusiasm and hear your views.  And it’s a win win scenario – at the very least you will get to know your lecturer a little better and gain additional insight into the subject, and if you find you’ve uncovered a discrepancy in the marking, you might even leave their office with a few extra percentage in your pocket!

If you have discovered an enjoyment and passion for the learning process, you are definitely one of the lucky ones, as you will find it makes your learning so much easier!  Having gratitude for the opportunity also goes a long way.  Next time you’re finding your studies tough, take some time out, have a walk around campus to get some fresh air, and think about the valuable opportunity you’ve worked so hard to provide yourself.

Concluding thoughts

If you’ve made it this far into my post, thank you for persisting and I hope it has offered some encouragement on your journey through higher education.  I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes of all time:


Whether it be a presentation, degree course, or job interview, sometimes if you wait until you feel 100% ready before taking the next step in your journey, that day might never come.  Instead, go for it, and as the quote says, you will grow to meet the challenge you have set yourself!

Please share this post with anyone to whom it might be of interest.


About the author.

After leaving school without A-levels, Sam Cooley completed an Access to Higher Education Science Diploma at Leicester College in 2007.  After graduating in Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham, he now holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, and has since returned to Leicester to complete a doctorate in Clinical Psychology.  Sam is passionate about supporting others in reaching their potential.  He has spent several years working with schools on widening access schemes and with homeless young people on their journey to reengagement with education.



1 https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2017/05/young-people-are-taking-fewer-a-levels-as-qualification-reforms-kick-in-and-per-student-spending-falls/

2 http://www.accesstohe.ac.uk/AboutUs/Publications/Documents/Key-statistics-16-17.pdf

3 Gardner, H. E. (2000). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. Hachette UK.


One thought on “A brief guide to university for mature students and those without A-levels

  1. Mary says:

    Thank you for this Sam, it was a brilliant read and so much great advice and food for thought! So much resonated as a mature age student and someone who did it the unconventional way 🙂

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