Blog post

Applying and coming to university as a mature student: My experience

Second year student Craig MacPhee shares the story of how life circumstances and self-belief held him back from studying at university for nearly a decade, and what he did to turn things around. 

By Craig MacPhee - 28 July 2023

When I left school at the age of 16 in 2014, I had no real sense of what I wanted to do with my life. I had just started studying for my A-levels and came to a realisation that I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted from life. It’s a strange thing for a 16-year-old to be thinking at that young age but that’s just how my brain works.

Due to multiple factors, I dropped out halfway through my first year of A-levels and started working. As the years went by, I started to figure out who I was; what my passions were and who I wanted to be. At 19, I considered going back to college to continue studying when my grandmother was diagnosed with Dementia. I was always close with my grandma, so I put my plans on hold and became her full-time carer, something I did for the next seven years.

Finding what you love

During this time, I was developing one of my biggest passions: filmmaking. I have always been fascinated by stories and knew that that is what I really wanted to do, but I had no idea how, and due to my commitments with my grandmother, I didn’t think it would ever be a possibility.

I started googling filmmaking classes that I may be able to do in order to improve my skills when I came across the course page for the Film and High-End Television Production course at the University of Derby. From reading the outline on the website, I fell in love with the sound of the course and knew I wanted to do it. However, two things played on my mind: who would look after Grandma with me gone? And as an A-level dropout, how would I get in?

Craig MacPhee on set directing his first year short film
On set directing my first year short film

Doubts and decisions

I had discussions with my family about what they felt about the situation. Luckily they were very supportive and after a lot of searching, we were able to find a care company who would be able to meet Grandma’s needs. So that was one of my questions solved, but what about the other? I had no qualifications apart from my GCSEs from 8 years before. I searched on the website and found an option to apply for university starting with a foundation year, which would allow me to enter the course and study on completion of that year.

I was excited and nervous in equal measure, constantly doubting myself at every stage. Was I good enough and smart enough to do this? I’d been out of education for nearly a decade, how would I cope? Several times I stopped filling in my application and changed my mind about applying, nearly talking myself out of it. But I was always drawn back in. After the sixth time doing this, I knew I had to make a decision. Spoiler alert, I submitted my application.

The waiting was the worst part for me. I had put so much work into my application, and I had so much hope. I frequently called Admissions asking about my application, and I was always met with warmth and kindness, reassuring me that I would hear back soon. 

The reply

On Tuesday 10 May 2022 at 9:03 am, I received an email: I’d got in! 

Due to my course being film, the application gave me the option to submit a portfolio of my previous film work, which I did. Based on the strength of this portfolio, I was accepted onto the course directly and did not have to complete the foundation year beforehand. I was over the moon. I was in! In 4 months, I would be going to university. And those 4 months were filled with a mix of excitement as well as fear as the self-doubt returned. 

I was now 25 years old, wondering how was I meant to make connections with 18-year-olds who had just left college? I hadn’t been in an educational environment for nearly a decade, did I have what it takes? Was I smart enough? Talented enough? What had I gotten myself into?

Starting out and settling in

I moved to Derby and started my course in September 2022. I managed to get into the habit of being in education again, I built a relationship with my lecturers and informed them of my anxieties and fear, and they were able to reassure me that how I felt was normal and valid and that they would be able to support me. They also informed me of services run by the University that help with things like study skills.

Craig outside campus on his first day of University
First day of University

At first, the age gap between myself and my colleagues was noticeable to me; they were fresh out of college and straight into university life, living away from their families for the first time. All things I had experienced years before and adjusted to. I was scared that I couldn’t match their energy. A few months in, however, things settled, and I got over my hesitations and anxiety and started really getting to know my coursemates and developing friendships with them. Also, I wasn’t the only mature student on the course, so I was able to bond quickly with those people and have people around me who understood what it is like and who shared similar fears to me.

One aspect I didn’t quite expect coming to university as an older student was the number of times people would come to me asking for advice or help, whether it be course related or not. I am happy to give this advice as I enjoy helping people but it’s also important to set boundaries there as well, as ultimately you need to also focus on yourself and your work. Just be prepared that becoming the course dad or mum is a potential possibility. But overall, it’s a pretty good one.

Age is just a number

If you told me at 16 or 17 that I would eventually be a university student, I would have told you to get lost. At that period of my life, I didn’t think the university would ever be an option for me, as a ‘dropout’. But looking back over the last 10 years, I wouldn’t have changed anything. I was able to learn about myself and experience things I never would have been able to otherwise, which I believe has aided me in my time at university.

If you are someone who is more mature and is thinking of coming to university, I highly recommend it. It has been an extremely rewarding, fulfilling and overall great experience. I have been taught by experts in their field, have access to state of the art equipment and have made some excellent friends. If you really want to come to university then I’d say go for it. After all, age is just a number.

Craig's last day of filming on location for his first year short film
Last day of filming on location for our first year short film

About the author

Craig MacPhee

Craig MacPhee
Film and High-End Television Production student

I am a student on the Film and High-End Television Production course. I am passionate about storytelling primarily through visual mediums. Before coming to university I was a full-time carer. I enjoy writing, gaming, reading and generally being a massive nerd.