Competitive Advantage

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Competitive Advantage

Delivering Tips, Insights and Resources for Success

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Mindset Do’s and Don’ts for going back to college


“You’ll never amount to anything.” This was all Madison* ever heard growing up. “You’re a failure.” “You can’t.” “You’re not going to make it.”

*True story, not her real name

But Madison had a good mind. Her teachers and mentors believed in her. And she was taking steps toward her dream of a college degree little by little.

However, those early soundtracks still echoed in her ears. It was hard to let go of all the things that she heard while growing up and to update her thinking so that she could face the challenges of college.

Mindset can be such a tricky thing. An unhelpful mindset can be downright disabling. It can hold you back from reaching your true potential. It can keep you from taking full advantage of the opportunities that are there. Mindset blocks can be just as big as other barriers (like finances, schedule, or childcare struggles) when you’re thinking about going back to college.

Even when you intellectually know better, it can be hard to overcome mindset barriers. Gaining (and keeping) a good mindset takes practice. Here are 10 mindset tips (5 do’s and 5 don’ts) to remember as you go back to college.

1. DON’T believe the lie that you are a failure

This is a really common one, and it’s easy to fall for it without realizing it.

Signs you might struggle with this:

  • When you mess up, do you instantly jump to the conclusion that you’re a failure?
  • When things don’t work out, is it tempting to believe that it just proves you are a failure?
  • When you think about going back to college, do you “hear” a negative comment that a certain person said about your academic abilities?
  • Do you often fight against thoughts that suggest you’ll never make it?

Don’t fall into this trap. Instead of believing that you ARE a failure (as if it’s part of your identity), try focusing on these alternatives:

  • If something didn’t go well, remember that not everything works out for everyone, but that doesn’t reflect on you as a person.
  • Remember that perseverance is trying again and again until you meet success.
  • Remember that being “successful” doesn’t mean you never failed.

2. DON’T nurse a victim mindset

A victim mindset is one where you tend to think of yourself in the role of the victim when things go wrong.

Signs you might struggle with this:

  • You believe that everything bad always happens to you.
  • It always seems like someone else’s fault if things don’t go your way.
  • You are quick to dismiss your own role and your own choices in how things played out if things went wrong.
  • You are resistant to taking a long hard look at the ways you could have contributed to the situation differently. For instance, you tend to think “the teacher just doesn’t like me,” instead of receiving their feedback on your homework.

If you catch yourself looking at life from a victim perspective, try doing this instead:

  • Remember that if you make different choices, you will typically get different outcomes.
  • Keep in mind that there’s usually a mixture of good things and bad things that happen to people.
  • Start to see every situation as a mixture of chance, other people’s choices, and your own choices (instead of, “bad things always happen to me”).
  • Begin to look for ways to maximize the impact of your choices, and to minimize the impact of chance and other people’s choices.

3. DON’T dwell on the pain of the past

Trauma and painful situations are real, and they hurt. A lot. If you have been through something that continues to haunt you for years, it’s outside the scope of this article to provide real help. If possible, seek help from a professional therapist or counselor to help you process your pain in healthy ways.

However, there are other levels of painful past situations when you can choose to not dwell on the past.

  • Maybe it was a subject in school that you didn’t like and believed you weren’t good at.
  • Maybe it was a specific embarrassing memory that is holding you back from trying that thing again.
  • Maybe it was frustration at seeing other people do something easily when it cost you a lot of work, like remembering how your classmates seemed to effortlessly pass classes when you slaved over your studying
  • Maybe there’s a person who hurt or offended you, and you’re letting them “live rent-free” in your head.

If you notice that your past tends to creep up and negatively affect the present, try these tips:

  • Look for ways to reframe that situation in a more positive light.
  • Remember that since the past situation is now over, the only way it can continue to hurt you is if you continue to dwell on it.
  • Take a small courageous action to face that thing that your painful memory doesn’t like. Maybe it’s as simple as watching a YouTube video about a math concept that you used to struggle with.

4. DON’T let your detractors hold you back

Relationships are powerful, both for good and for bad. When the people closest to you are hurtful and discouraging, it hurts the most, because they’re the ones who should be your greatest cheerleaders.

Mean, negative comments are not neutral. They hold a lot of power. Sometimes these comments are very subtle and passive or veiled as a compliment, like “You did a great job! Do you think you’ll be able to finish it?”

Whether the comments are specific or subtle, they don’t have to knock you down.

Here are some ways to keep moving forward when people drag you down and don’t believe in you.

  • Block out their access to reach you with their comments where possible. For example, you may need to get off social media or block certain people’s numbers.
  • Don’t engage with their negativity. Instead of wasting energy contradicting them, invest your energy into the actions that will prove them wrong.
  • Have a “go-to” source of encouragement that you can think of immediately when discouraging comments come your way. Keep this private if possible so that detractors don’t have a chance to attack it, too. Your secret could be as simple as reminding yourself, “One day, I’m going to graduate with my degree, and then they’ll have to take back all the things they said.”
  • For a season, you may need to limit contact with certain people. For instance, you might choose to skip certain family gatherings while you’re working on your college classes. Once you’ve completed your degree you might feel ready to join in with fresh confidence.

5. DON’T focus only on the negative

Human beings have a tendency to focus on the negative first. So if this is your habit, too, you’re not alone.

Here are some signs you might want to watch out for:

  • You can’t remember the wins and highlights of the previous day or week, but you can quickly remember many lows and bad things that happened. For instance, you might think of the low grades you received during certain classes in the past but forget that you also got a lot of positive grades.
  • You frequently catch yourself complaining about something (either privately in your mind, or out loud to someone else).
  • Your watching and listening habits center more around bad news than good news.
  • Your friends or close loved ones have commented that you’re frequently negative.

Things to try instead:

  • Make it a regular habit to seek out the positive aspects of a situation.
  • Try to “catch yourself in the act” of having a good time.
  • Purposely seek out a story where something good happened to someone and tell that story to a friend.

6. DO practice gratitude

Gratitude is thankfulness. Radical gratitude is practicing thankfulness even for things you don’t feel thankful for.

Practicing gratitude is a reliable way to lift your mindset out of a stressed, negative one and into a positive, abundant one. Gratitude can even improve your physical health! It’s one of the simplest, most effective things you can do every day to be happier.

Action step: Try taking 5 minutes each day to write down a list of things you’re thankful for. Do this every day for at least 30 days. You’ll be amazed at how you move from obvious ones (thankful for my food, my health, a warm bed to sleep in), to more creative and meaningful ones as you continue the practice of doing this exercise. Remember to be grateful for the opportunity that you have to return to college, even if it has it’s difficult moments.

7. DO review/recite positive affirmations that lift your spirits and improve your outlook

Positive affirmations are statements about yourself, your situation, your identity, or your future. They are constructive and optimistic ways to help you focus your mind on a good outlook and a good destination. They might be things that you confidently know are true and just remind yourself of, or they might be things you aspire to be in future.

You say positive affirmations to yourself as if they are already true! It seems weird, but there is a scientific basis to saying uplifting words to yourself.

Here is an example of a positive affirmation:

“I am valuable and loved. I am pursuing the things that matter to me and I’m growing stronger, more loving, and better equipped all the time. I am learning and growing every day as I complete my college classes. My future is bright and I am leaving the world a better place by the way I live my life. I am my daughter’s hero and she follows in my footsteps as she grows into a force for good in the world.”

Repeating your positive affirmations regularly helps you to steer towards those outcomes.

Action step: Try writing down a set of 3-5 positive affirmations to start with. Read your list out loud every morning. It can be that simple!

8. DO be kind to yourself.

It’s not necessary to hold yourself to unrelenting standards. Sometimes we instinctively beat ourselves up in the effort to achieve high performance. But that’s not always the best way to go about it. Sometimes you need a nap, or a meal, or a break. But we can tend to be way harder on ourselves than we would be on a close friend who is going through an identical hard time.

Ask yourself, “Would I say to a close friend the same things I’ve been saying to myself?”

For example, let’s imagine I was saying to myself, “I am a loser. I am just a failure. Why can’t I get my act together?” Would I say that to a friend I cared about? If I would feel bad saying it to someone else, that comment probably has no place in my self-talk.

Examples of self-talk that’s kind to yourself:

  • “I can still succeed, even if I got a C on my test
  • “I’m only one person, and I’m fighting a hard battle, and I’m doing my best.”
  • “I am a resourceful problem solver, and just because I haven’t found the solution yet doesn’t mean I won’t find it soon.”
  • “I commit to taking the best care of myself possible. I can’t give myself what I need when I’m hungry or thirsty or need sleep or a shower.”

Action Step: What is the kindest thing that would make you feel supported and loved if a respected friend said that to you right now? Write it on a card and pull it out several times over the next 24 hours. Review the message on the card and practice saying it to yourself with meaning and authentic kindness.

9. DO pay extra attention to the good things that happen.

This is the flip side of not focusing only on the negative.

We’re often wired to pay extra attention to the bad things that happen. Compensate for this by purposefully giving extra focus to the good things that happen, even if it’s taking the time to laugh at the funny example given in your literature class today.

Action Step: Look for stories, situations, or events that match the following words:

  • Good
  • True
  • Admirable
  • Wholesome
  • Enjoyable
  • Lovely

If you put this on your radar and scan your environment for these things, it will subtly boost your outlook. You’ll start to train your subconscious mind to highlight these things to attention. You’ll start to notice more good things than you ever realized were there. And that will help you to feel happier and more positive.

10. DO celebrate your achievements.

You are not a robot, and your brain is not a machine.

If you work endlessly without any celebration or tangible reward along the way, it can backfire. Fatigue can set in and you lose sight of the end goal, and you’re at risk of giving up.

Instead, it’s a great idea to give yourself a treat once in a while.

  • Figure out something that would be rewarding to you.
  • It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money or time.
  • It can just be as simple as one cookie that you eat with delight.

Example: If you’re feeling stuck writing a paper, you could set up a series of tiny rewards (e.g. chocolate chips), and then say to yourself, “If I write with focus and refuse distractions for the next 5 minutes, I will eat one chocolate chip.” This kind of thing can get you further than you think!

Action Step: Define what reward you’ll give yourself when you reach the next milestone, and then follow through. Caution — If you don’t keep your word to yourself, your brain won’t cooperate with you next time to work towards the reward.

Tips for doing this well:

  • Don’t space your rewards too far apart, or you won’t get the motivational benefit from them.
  • Also plan bigger rewards and celebrations for bigger milestones. For example, maybe at the end of the semester, you save up and go out to a nice dinner.
  • However you reward yourself, try to genuinely celebrate the achievement and savor the experience. This will help keep your momentum strong to keep going all the way to the finish line of your biggest goals.

Recap of the 10 mindset tips for adults going back to college

  1. Don’t believe the lie that you are a failure.
  2. Don’t nurse a victim mindset.
  3. Don’t dwell on the pain of the past.
  4. Don’t let your detractors hold you back.
  5. Don’t focus only on the negative.
  6. Do practice gratitude.
  7. Do review and recite positive affirmations.
  8. Do be kind to yourself.
  9. Do pay extra attention to the good things that happen.
  10. Do celebrate your achievements.

What mindset tip stood out the most to you? What helpful mindset practices do you engage in to keep yourself productive and moving towards your goals, whether they are related to college or other life milestones?

The power of a healthy mindset

Madison worked steadily on her mindset during her college studies. She constantly looked for ways to develop a healthier mindset and leave her unhelpful thinking behind.

While working full time and also caring for a toddler, Madison graduated Magna Cum Laude from community college with her associate degree! She was the first person in her family to earn a degree.

She then earned several scholarships that allowed her to attend the state university to pursue her bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Her toxic family might not have believed in her, but she didn’t let that hold her back. And she is proud of giving her son the safe, healthy upbringing that she never had.

What about you?

Maybe you’re like Madison, with a lot of negative feedback to overcome as you pursue your dreams of a better life. Maybe you’ve completed some college credits in the past but have never finished.
C2C has helped thousands of students like you to go back to college. We help you overcome the barriers that returning adults face. Participants even get partnered with a C2C Coach, who can help encourage you with positive feedback as you work toward your college goals. Complete the easy registration today to head toward your degree finish line!


C2C is a state program that helps Mississippi adults who previously attended college earn a degree and create a brighter future.