By Mary Emily O'Hara
In an as-told-to essay for College Game Plan, NBC News Digital reporter Mary Emily O'Hara explains what she learned navigating the college admissions process as an adult.
A lot of people, for whatever reason, can’t make college happen at age 18. I was one of those people.
I made it to college, but my path wasn’t traditional. I learned the best way to do it as I went along — and matriculated at age 30. Here's my story.
'I’m smart enough to get a better job'
I was raised by a single mom. I come from a long line of women who did not graduate high school; they worked in the service industry as waitresses and hotel maids, piecing life together.
My mom, an artist, did her own thing, but she didn't go to college and dropped out of high school at 15 or 16 like her mother before her. I too left high school early, just before my 16th birthday.
Later, when I wanted to go to college, I had no idea how it was done, because I wasn’t raised with any information about it.
I got to a point where I was tired of working minimum wage jobs in the service industry. I hit a wall and thought, 'I’m smart enough to get a better job,' but I wouldn't have qualified for any because I didn't have a high school or college degree.
It was frustrating, so at age 30, I went back to school. I started with community college.
12 Questions Answered for Parents of Students Considering Community Colleges
Nearly half of all American undergraduates attend community colleges, according to 2016 statistics from the American Association of Community Colleges, and in 2014 there were 8.2 million college students ages 25 and over.
I got my GED and went to Portland Community College in Oregon. The first semester, I took just a couple of courses; I was working in bars and restaurants, so I only had so much time.
Finding my path to a four-year school
Once I was settled at community college, I began talking to admissions counselors at four-year schools in the area. At Portland's Reed College, an admissions counselor explained that as an adult first-generation student with no money, I would likely have to take out less in loans if I went to a private school. State schools have a limited pool of money and more students. Private schools are seeking a certain diversity and they have resources — scholarships and foundation money — more readily available.
The Reed counselor was right. If you could meet the requirements of a private school, they often had a policy in place where they covered tuition or the entire cost of attending. That’s how I wound up applying to Stanford, where if you make under $100,000 a year your tuition is free. And if you make $60,000 or less like I did, everything is free.
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But as a dropout, you don’t really have a barometer for understanding where you fit in terms of competing with other college applicants. I wasn’t sure I would be be accepted to any four-year school. I applied to 10 different colleges, hell-bent on getting a scholarship.
I did well enough on the SATs, had close to a 4.0 GPA, and when the results started coming in, I was really surprised: I got into every school I applied to, except for the state schools, ironically enough.