What happens if you choose the wrong course?

It happens to more people than you might think. But what should you do if you make the wrong decision when selecting your third-level course?

It is easy to make the wrong decision. But how can it be rectified? Photograph: iStockphoto

People choose the wrong course all the time. It happens: 7-12 per cent of students leave college without completing their studies, with the figure tending to be higher for students from disadvantaged backgrounds than students from wealthier families.

Men are also more likely to drop out than women, and dropouts are more common in services courses, including hospitality (16 per cent), ICT (15 per cent), and engineering, manufacturing and construction (13 per cent) than in education (just 3 per cent).

Those with lower Leaving Cert points are more likely to drop out.

Anne Conway is a guidance counsellor at Clogher Road Community College

There are myriad reasons: the financial stress of college, a lack of engagement in college life and, in more recent years, the isolation caused by remote learning during the pandemic. But the biggest reason is, perhaps, the most glaring: many people simply choose the wrong course and don’t enjoy it.


There’s no blame. No amount of research can necessarily prepare anyone for how third-level will be for them, because life tends to get in the way of the best-laid plans.

Anne Conway is a guidance counsellor at Clogher Road Community College in Crumlin, Dublin 12. “A minority of students know what they want to do,” she says. “Others are not sure.

“Or, sometimes they think they know, but I ask all my students, if you could wave a wand and be in any career you like, what would it be?

“For some students, this question frees them from having to do what their family may expect, and opens up the option of pursuing art or drama, if that is what they love.

“For those students who may not have a family or community tradition of going to college due to financial barriers and differing expectations, it allows them to focus on what they want to do.”

Conway works with her students to explore interests, skills and values, using the site ClassroomGuidance.ie to help them reflect and assess, for themselves, what is of interest.

“I challenge the idea that they definitely know what they want, asking why? If they don’t know, I encourage them to look at the courses, the modules, whether there is work experience and so on, and I suggest broader degrees, where they can specialise at a later date.”

In recent years, Conway has also encouraged students to consider apprenticeships and post-Leaving Cert courses, the latter of which can give students a taster of a subject before they commit to a college degree.

But why do some students drop out and not others?

“There can be a narrative that you shouldn’t ‘waste’ your CAO points on a lower-points course, or that you should pursue a particular pathway,” Conway says.

Courses with higher CAO points are often linked, in the popular mind, to prestige, but it’s really all about supply and demand: courses with higher points simply have more applicants, but most graduates of TUS Midland’s polymer technology course – traditionally low points – is going to earn far more than a teacher.

Conways says there are options for students who, a few weeks or months into college, discover that they don’t really like their course.

She urges students to talk to the student support services in their college as soon as possible, as they can help you to understand your options, but says it’s important to give yourself time to settle in and focus on whether it’s the course, the demands of working and studying, or a feeling of being out of place that is making you feel this way.

“Is there anything you can do or change that might help you stick with the course? If you stick with your course, you will gain many transferable skills that can be applied to future career paths. When you finish your degree, you can then go on to postgraduate study or do a conversion course.

“It is also important to consider the financial implications of dropping out of your course. You may be liable for full fees if you enrol on another third-level course. If you are getting the Susi grant, deciding to leave could affect your entitlements.”

For students who drop out, late CAO applications are accepted up to May 1st, and Conway advises them to research their course options and consider finishing out the year, beyond which they should have a plan – even a short-term one – to keep busy and have a routine.

“If you want to continue in education but think it’s too soon to reapply to the CAO or you’re unsure of what you want to do, a PLC is a very good option. You could also consider an apprenticeship where you combine learning in an education centre/college and working in your chosen profession while getting paid and gaining a qualification.

“Gaining work experience, or volunteering, is another good way to help you decide what it is you want to do. If you work for a few years, you have the option to return to university as a mature student when you may have a clearer understanding of what you want to study. Conway says that what you choose now does not define you.

“I studied art history and sociology in Trinity for four years. I didn’t enjoy it but I got through, and then a computer science masters in multimedia, also at Trinity. I spent eight years as a project manager before retraining as a guidance counsellor. I feel that everything I learned on my career journey has made me better at my role today,” she says.