Changing or leaving your course

Our practical tips will help you make the right decision about leaving or changing course and understand the steps to take to see it through in the best possible way.
It often takes greater courage to admit that you've made a mistake than to stay on a course where you're unhappy.

Changing or leaving your course: understanding what's wrong | planning your next move | questions to ask yourself | making the most of your present course | broaden your experience | choosing an alternative course | applying for an alternative course | financial implications | taking a break | leaving your course | market yourself to employers

Some students find that higher education is not for them or that they've chosen the wrong course. This guide provides practical, easy to follow advice to help you make the right choices at what can be a stressful and confusing time.

Understanding what's wrong

Be honest and try to think what it is about your current situation that makes you want to change:

  • Subject – it's not what you thought it would be like; the work is too easy/difficult; you find it boring.
  • Course – the assessment style doesn't suit you; you don't like the lecturers or lecture styles; the course seems poorly organised.
  • Personal – you're homesick or lonely; you've suffered a bereavement or illness in the family; you feel out of your depth; you find it difficult to balance studies with family/home commitments.
  • Financial – you find it difficult to meet your general daily expenses; you have childcare expenses; you're worried about getting into debt.
  • Career – you're having second thoughts about your chosen career path.
  • Institution – the university or department is too big/too small; you prefer to study in the city/country; your accommodation isn't what you expected.
  • Disability or health issues – you may find you need adaptations to your study/living space; you feel unable to cope emotionally; you suffer an illness during your course.

Planning your next move

Take time to think through your options. Before making any major decisions, you should:

  • Continue attending lectures – and hand in all your assignments on time. If you decide to stay on the course, you want to be doing as well as possible.
  • Seek advice – from your course tutor, careers adviser, student counsellor, student finance adviser or disability adviser. Family and friends may also be helpful as they often know and understand you better.
  • Research your career options – our advice on jobs you can do with your degree subject will give you some ideas that should help you get started.
  • Research sources of financial help – if money is your main issue, finance advisers in student services and/or your student union can advise.
  • Gather information about the financial (and other) implications of any move – leaving a course can affect future funding entitlements so check with your student finance body (see GOV.UK – Student Finance) and any other relevant funding bodies, for example if you're on an NHS-funded course. For information on student finance in other countries of the UK visit the Student Awards Agency Scotland, Student Finance Wales and Student Finance ni websites.

New students should seek advice as soon as possible. Speak to your course tutor in the first instance and then to a careers adviser; the earlier the better because you may be able to switch to another course without penalties.

If you're an international student, check with student services about how a change in your course could affect your student visa.

If you're nearing the end of your degree or current academic year and feel able to continue, it's probably better in general to do so. It will look better to have gained something from your studies rather than quit near the end.

Questions to ask yourself

  • Can I stick out the course I'm doing?
  • Would a different course better meet my needs?
  • Should I choose a different course but stay at this university?
  • Would a different university, but the same subject, be more suitable?
  • Would a different mode of attendance work better – perhaps studying part time, and getting a job?
  • Should I take a break before returning to study?

Making the most of your present course

If in general you enjoy the course, but you feel that some elements aren't right for you, see if you can make alterations to it before deciding to leave. Consider the following:

  • If you're in the first year – the modules you dislike or find too difficult/too easy at the moment may not feature in later years.
  • If you're taking joint honours/modular degrees – it may be possible to swap subjects.
  • Tailor the course – most courses incorporate more options as they progress, so you may be able to adapt the course more closely to your interests.
  • Find out if it's possible to tailor your dissertation, projects or essays to your planned career direction.
  • If you're struggling with study at degree level – you may find that there's help available with study skills. Contact your course tutor for advice.

If you feel that your present course of study remains unsuitable, but you still enjoy the subject, you could consider a different way of obtaining a degree, for example online or via a part-time route.

Broaden your experience

Employers expect more than a degree when recruiting – they also look for a range of skills and personal qualities. You can develop these by taking part in activities available through your university and beyond:

  • Extracurricular activities – get involved with sports teams and societies or take an active part in the running of your course as a student representative.
  • Paid work experience – you may need to work during term time and/or the holidays for financial reasons. Your primary motive may be money, but you'll pick up valuable skills and experience relevant to a graduate career.
  • Voluntary work/work placements – check whether your course offers a work placement or speak to your careers service or students' union about opportunities with local voluntary organisations or charities.
  • Student mentoring – take on the responsibility for welcoming new students and mentoring them through university life.

You'll find plenty of internships, placements and work experience vacancies and advice on TARGETjobs.

Skills you're likely to acquire from both the academic and social sides of your student life include:

  • subject-specific knowledge
  • effective communication
  • team working
  • flexibility, self-motivation and determination
  • research and data analysis
  • working to deadlines and under pressure
  • planning and organising your time

For more information, see skills and competencies for graduates.

Choosing an alternative course

If you wish to change your subject of study, gather as much information about the new course as possible before making an application:

  • Is the course modular – will you have flexibility within the course?
  • What subject options are offered?
  • How is it assessed?
  • What modes of attendance are available, such as combined studies, part-time, specially tailored programmes of study, distance learning and online courses?
  • Is there a work placement on the course?

Be clear about what you like/don't like about your current course, read prospectuses carefully and speak to tutors and careers staff. If you want to apply to a different institution, visit the university and local area to 'get a feel' for the place.

Application process for an alternative course

The admissions tutor for any new course will need to be satisfied that you have the necessary academic ability. If you wish to transfer to a course within the same institution, you may be able to complete an internal form. If applying to a different institution, whether for first year or advanced entry, you'll have to apply through UCAS.

Make an informal approach to the course admissions tutor to check on the availability of places and discuss the possibility of acceptance.

If you can transfer credit for any work you've successfully completed to another course, make sure you get a transcript of your academic credit before you leave.

If you decide during the first few weeks of the course that you want to leave, you may be able to transfer straight to another course relatively easily provided there are places remaining and the tutor is prepared to accept you.

Financial implications of changing course

Changing course can affect your funding entitlements, so speak to student services at your university about any financial implications. They'll also be able to advise you about how the transfer will affect any bursary or scholarship you've received from your institution. Notify your student finance body and any other funding bodies of your plans and find out from them what level of funding you'll be entitled to. Depending on when you change your course, for example if you start again in a new academic year, you may end up with less money and have to pay some of your own fees.

International students may be able to change to another university but must usually apply for permission from the Home Office first. See the UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs) website for details.

Think about the implications of your choice of course for any future career plans. Will it lead to any particular career area or is it a more general course? Speak to a careers adviser for advice about the long-term career options with your chosen subject.

Taking a break from study

You may not want to change or leave your course, but just need to take some time out from study. This could be for a number of reasons:

  • Health/emotional – if you've been ill or other personal circumstances are affecting your studies.
  • Finances – it may be that financial concerns are affecting your studies and you need to take time out to stabilise your financial situation.
  • Work experience – your course doesn't offer the opportunity of work experience.
  • Re-sitting part of the course – if you haven't achieved a satisfactory level of results, you may have to resubmit work or retake exams on a part-time, self-funded basis.

Financial considerations

Before taking a break from your studies, you must inform your university and your student finance body in writing. Your student finance body will calculate the tuition fees you're required to pay and will process a refund if due. Your refund entitlement will depend on the date you officially withdraw from or suspend your studies. Rules vary between universities, so check with your institution. Any monies paid out after the official withdrawal date will need to be repaid. Check with your student finance body whether you're still entitled to a student loan when your return to study.

Use your time off effectively

Whatever the reason you decide to take some time out, it's best to have a plan of action:

  • Work experience/placement. Some students consider taking time off to gain work experience or a placement in their chosen field. You may be able to negotiate time off for work experience directly with your department, and they may be able to provide relevant contacts. Getting relevant work experience can help you to decide whether a particular profession is for you and is valuable when applying for jobs. International students will need to check their visa conditions.
  • Time abroad. Spending time abroad can expand your horizons, give you fresh ideas and help you to gain skills and experience that will enhance your CV. Options include organised gap year projects, work with charities and study. See Working abroad.

Leaving your course

Leaving a course part way through may leave you feeling disappointed, angry or lacking in confidence. However, it often takes greater courage to admit that you've made a mistake than to stay on a course where you're unhappy. You now have an opportunity to take a step back, look at other options and take time to get the decision right.

Before leaving your course:

Seek advice

Talk to a careers adviser or your course tutor about your choices before you leave. Update your CV and make sure you understand how and where to look for jobs. Research employers who may offer support for study in the future and be open and flexible about your options.

Get credit for what you've studied

Confirm what credits for study, if any, you may be entitled to by contacting the faculty or department office. Completion of a full academic year may entitle you to a university certificate or diploma. You should also find out how long your current studies would remain valid if you decide you want to return to study.

Check out the financial implications

You still have to repay your student loan if you leave your course early so you'll need to let your student finance (or other funding) body know. Also, find out whether student loans will be available if you wish to return to study in the future.

Check whether you have to repay any other outstanding monies to the university, for example scholarships or bursaries. Ask whether you have any monies owed, for example a refund on fees paid. If you're in accommodation, you'll need to let the landlord or accommodation officer know in advance as there may be a notice period.

International students should check with student services about whether they are entitled to any refund on fees paid.

Once you have all the information in place and you're sure you want to leave your course, you can contact your university and officially withdraw.

How to use the experience and market yourself positively to employers

You'll be surprised by what you've gained from the whole experience of leaving your course. It's important that you reflect on the positive when selling yourself to employers:

  • Academic experience – what have you learned or achieved from the course? Think of any modules that you passed or completed and any pieces of work that could be used as evidence when applying for jobs.
  • Personal skills – what personal skills have you acquired from your studies? Have you learned any new skills such as IT, essay writing, teamworking or research? What about personal skills such as managing your own finances and managing your time between study and work? (See our job hunting tools for tips.)

This information will be useful to add to your CV or application forms and will help you see where your best attributes lie when applying for jobs.

What will employers think?

Employers are likely to be impressed by a student who has taken proactive steps to rectify a situation and achieve stability. This can be a useful skill when dealing with difficult situations or changes at work. Ensure any time you take out is used productively.

Written by Maria Duncan, University of Hertfordshire, 2015