Once upon a time, a wide-eyed, enthusiastic student just like yourself – OK, it was you. You entered university, having put countless hours of thought, research, and consideration into just the right choice of both university and course of study. It was a whirlwind of new experiences.

Books were purchased, lecturers were met, friends were made. And after a very short period of time, as you settled into your new routine, one thing became crystal clear.

All of the aforementioned thought, research, and consideration had been completely and utterly… worthless.

You chose the wrong course!

Maybe it was the wrong university!!

Your life is ruined!!!

The icy fist of panic tightens its grip on your formerly joyous little heart.

Sound familiar? If so, resist that icy fist. While it’s not the most pleasant of situations to be in, it’s certainly not unusual. Whether you underestimated the workload or misjudged the content of the course, you needn’t look on the next three or more years of your life as an inescapable waste of time. There are things to be done to remedy the situation.

Here are a few tips for righting the ship.

1. Keep Calm

The world is not ending. Your life is not at stake. The most severe consequence of this unpleasant realisation is that you may be required to take a break from school for a year while you re-group and change course.

I can feel you clenching at the mere mention of that.


192 Emily Butters PhotographyGoing to university is not a sprint to the finish line. Though you may feel pressured to complete your course of study in the “standard” amount of time, once you’ve completed that course, it makes no difference whether you did it in one, three, or 6 years. What’s most important is that you’re following the right course for you, and a gap year can be used in a variety of ways that could easily change it from a seeming detriment to an asset.

Of course, if your income is limited, the additional costs associated with a change in course may seem overwhelming, but it’s nothing compared to the waste you would incur following through with a course of study that’s not for you

2. Identify the Culprit

You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what it is, and there are many possibilities to consider as to why you might feel you’ve taken a wrong turn.

Is it the course?

Maybe you just made the wrong choice. You did your research, narrowed down your options, and when the moment came to choose, you choked. It happens. But what is it about the course that’s causing you distress? Here are some possibilities:

  • Difficulty: The material is too easy or two difficult
  • Workload: There’s just too much to do
  • Professors: Sometimes we can’t all just get along
  • Grades: You’re not performing as well as you think you should be
  • Schoolmates: Perhaps you feel out of place or like there’s not a good fit between yourself and your fellow students

Is It the University?

ChristsCollegeYour parents went there. Your friends are going there. It looks good on a resume. People are impressed that you were accepted. There are many reasons to choose a University that have nothing to do with whether or not it’s the right place for you. Perhaps you’ve chosen the perfect course of study, but the wrong place in which to complete it.

What are some reasons a university might be wrong for you? It could be anything from not getting on well with the other students to feeling like an outcast due to race or social status to an atmosphere that clashes with your sensibilities – it’s conservative and you’re liberal, or the other way around, for example. Or perhaps they’re too focused on the outcome of education without paying adequate attention to the process of learning. Whatever the reason, if the university is the problem, it’s important to know why so that you don’t make the same mistake twice.

Is It You?

Moving on to University can be a major life change, and our psyches don’t always play well with others in the midst of such events. If you’ve examined everything else, and still can’t quite grasp what it is that’s bothering you, you might take a look at your psychological well-being. It’s not unexpected that such a big change might lead to some level of anxiety or depression. A visit to the doctor may be the first step you need to address these issues and realise you’ve been right where you belong after all.

3. Find Help

interviewUniversities are not lion’s dens into which you’re unceremoniously tossed and expected to fend for yourself. It is expected that issues like yours and countless others will arise. Dropping out isn’t a good result for anyone – the student loses out on higher education, and the university’s statistics take a hit for each student lost. That’s why there are invariably multiple avenues to follow for assistance, whatever the issue.

Whether it’s a personal tutor or pastoral assistance through the student union or your department, don’t listen to that nagging voice in your head that tells you that your problem is somehow not important enough to seek help for. This is exactly what these people are there for. If not for students just like yourself, they would have nothing to occupy their time, their jobs would become obsolete, and their families would go hungry.

Put them to good use.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’ll encounter sympathetic, supportive people with just the answers you seek. And if they don’t have the answers, chances are they know who does.

4. Alter Course

There’s a good reason why it’s important to determine exactly where your problem lies. Depending on the answer, the difficulty of your solution can vary greatly.

If you’ve simply chosen the wrong course of study, the simplest solution is to choose another that better suits you. While that may seem easier said than done, it’s probably not as difficult as you might think. Ideally, a university would much rather that everyone make a choice and stick with it, they know that that’s not a realistic expectation, and statistically speaking, they’d much rather help you change course than lose you altogether. The ease with which that can be accomplished can depend on a variety of factors, including timing and course competitiveness.


This one’s simple. The sooner you recognise the problem, the better the likelihood of a relatively painless transfer. If you’ve been at it for over four weeks, it’s much less likely that you’ll be able to transfer directly without taking a year off. If it’s only been one or two weeks, though, you’re much more likely to be able to transfer without a break. While it’s true that a gap year can end up being a quite positive experience, headaches and stress levels can be reduced greatly by avoiding that necessity.


258 Emily Butters PhotographyThis one’s also straightforward. If you’re transferring from Advanced Boredom Studies to Extreme Awesomeness Studies, you may have a harder time getting in on short notice than if you’re going the other way around.

But suppose you transfer to a new course and then decide you’re still not in the right place? This is another time when it’s good to put that student support staff to work. They’re not only there to help you identify problems, they’re there to help you solve them. They can help counsel you as you settle on a new course of study, and often they’ll even arrange for you to attend lectures from other courses to help determine what’s right for you.

The point here is that changing courses, as opposed to changing Universities, is always going to be cheaper, easier, and much less of a bureaucratic nightmare.

5. Run Away!

If you’re having trouble putting your finger on exactly what the problem is, your best course of action may be to just get away. Remove yourself from the environment of the university. This can mean leaving altogether, but unless you’re sure that the university is the problem, that’s probably not the best choice. What you might need to do instead is to separate your worlds. Think of the university as the place you go to learn, and find other places to plant your personal and social life.

You might find a new place to live farther away from the halls of academia where not all of the other residents are fellow students. This is something that’s not uncommon among older students, but it can seem a novel concept their younger counterparts. The usual university experience includes a strong social component, and you certainly needn’t give that up altogether unless you simply find yourself not at all getting on with your schoolmates. What can be helpful, though is to maintain a well-defined section of your life that is not defined by your identity as a student.

If you’re not ready for a complete change of schools, however, and the partial separation mentioned above doesn’t seem enough, there are also more formal ways to get some time away to reassess your situation. Options like a year spent abroad or in industry can often be just what’s needed to give yourself some distance and time to regroup. It will generally lengthen your studies by an additional year, but it’s certainly not time wasted, and most importantly it can help you clarify exactly how you wish to proceed with your education.

6. Have Your Cake and Eat it Too

dnaJust because you’ve chosen a particular course that you’re no longer sure about doesn’t mean you’re physically shackled and confined to a single lecture hall. Often what’s happened is that things were narrowed down to two paths, and now you wish you’d taken a left turn instead of a right.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that your choices came down to either Biology or Chemistry. While they are different courses, it’s important to note that there is a fair amount of overlap between the two when it comes to specific modules that can be taken. While it’s true that your early studies may be restricted to a proscribed path specific to your course, in later years of your studies you’ll have more freedom to choose modules, and there are many that are applicable to both Biology and Chemistry.

Focusing on the places where your two interests connect and choosing your modules accordingly can often give you the best of both worlds. You’ll avoid the headache, expense, and inconvenience of changing course completely, and quite possibly widen your options for employment upon completion of your degree as well.

7. Keep Moving Forward

The information above is all fine if you’ve recognised your predicament in the early stages of your studies, but what if you only realised toward the end of your degree that what you’ve been studying isn’t likely to land you the plum job you’ve been hoping for? This is far from cause for despair for a couple of reasons:

  1. There are countless jobs waiting out there that can be landed with any degree.
  2. Even so-called “unprofitable degrees” can open doors to a variety of great careers.

But if you’re still despairing, take the advice of Walt Disney and “keep moving forward.” It’s important to realise that university education doesn’t necessarily end with an undergraduate degree. A growing percentage of people are opting now to pursue an advanced degree upon completing their undergraduate studies, and conversion courses are also available to facilitate transition into another profession. Humans should really never stop learning, and more education can really only serve to broaden your employment options down the road.

So, if you’ve suddenly realised that your chosen degree is not the one for you, regardless of where you are in your studies, there are still a wide variety of paths you can follow. Take a breath. Assess your options. And remember that life is a journey, not a destination.

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