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Making a U-Turn: Why Setbacks Can Be a Blessing in Disguise

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A few weeks ago I stood in Greek heat peeking my nose over a hotel wall. What should have evoked happy holiday memories of six years earlier jogged something quite depressing instead.

‘The scene of the U,’ I reminded my sister, who questioned my preoccupation.

I was in Year 12 in 2017, where I failed an exam for the first time in my life. A combination of a tough syllabus, too much time spent ignoring my studies in rehearsals for my school production of The Lion King and a teacher who had been about as equipped to teach as I am to fly a jumbo jet. 


The Setback

I was on holiday the day I received a personal call from my very puzzled headmistress, and after this, the trip was pretty much ruined. I genuinely believed my place in academics was over. I would hardly get a spot at any university, which meant I would never get a job, which meant I would have no money, which meant my life beyond the age of seventeen was to be bleak. 

Just under one year later, I was jolted awake by an unexpectedly early email congratulating me on my place to study English at my first-choice university. For the purposes of encouragement, and not to sound boastful at all, my firm choice was one of five Russell Group universities to offer me a place. While it did help that I wasn’t required to declare my fateful U on my UCAS application, it gave me the incentive to act as though I didn’t know about the grade either. 

If I had let it define my work ethic and marks, I would not have brought them back into less shameful territory. It was a wild amount of work, but I came out with a B in the end, and that was that. I had, quite genuinely, forgotten all about my U. 

University After The U

I had chosen a popular and high-ranking university on the south coast, where I studied English with a minor in French. Freshers’ week was an overwhelming blur of lessons, freedom, colour and clubs. Professors were formidably smart and classes filled with painful ice-breakers. Presidents of every society, from martial arts to medieval reenactment, fluttered pamphlets at me and my flatmates on campus. There were seven of us, and we were thick as thieves, naively cliquey and intensely close. Until seven weeks in we went house-hunting, disagreed, all fell out and were never friends again.

It would be wrong to say my imploded friendship group was the cause of things going pear-shaped. But it was the event, and my suffering afterwards, that led me to realise I just wasn’t ready for uni. I found it very hard to pick myself up in the mornings, to meet my deadlines and fill a day with plans. Personal life low points were really taking their toll, and what one morning should have been a quick chat with my French teacher about an assignment became a serious meeting about my wellbeing.

Despite pressure from family to stick it out, and wondering if I should change my course, I dropped out the following Spring and when I did, I was convinced it wasn’t circumstances or timings, but me, who had been the problem. 

Life After University

The following autumn I watched my sister don a cap and gown and cross the stage, and I was proud, but not jealous. I felt no resonance at all with the concept of graduating, a degree, or anything university-related at all.

I nannied for a year, wrote a book, learned a little bit of Russian and some Italian. I focused on getting better, getting active and in time, things became a little clearer. 

The pandemic hit and I count myself incredibly lucky to have found lockdown therapeutic. Despite the unpredictable horrors going on outside, I was safe in my house, far away from the demands of daily life with a new and simple routine.

According to figures from the Student Loans Company, UK university drop-outs are at an all-time high since the pandemic, with more than 18,000 students dropping out by February in 2022

I can imagine, having been through the experience, every one of these 18,000 students went through the same or similar feelings of doubt, self-criticism and disappointment that I had. 

But I am proof that it shouldn’t be seen as wholly negative.

It’s OK to take a step back and wait until things become a little clearer.

The Clarity And Confidence I Needed

In time, dropping out proved beneficial. 

I decided to give uni another go, starting afresh at the University of Surrey, where I am much, much happier. 

So far, I have had several incredible years, making friends for life, (the bridesmaid kind of friends), learned new skills for my studies and career beyond, and feeling a real sense of dread that this time next year it will be over.
I have lived abroad in Australia for the past year, learned to dance in ballrooms, and grown to understand how to live independently, supporting myself and preparing for life after graduation. I mean it with total sincerity when I say I am very glad I dropped out of my first university

So, here are the key takeaways:

•    There is no harm applying to university with predictions lower than the requirements
•    There is no harm in applying for a course with subject requirements you didn’t take (I did this! And got into 5 universities!) 
•    There is no harm in leaving a course that you thought was going to be your dream 

You can always try again, and there’s a strong chance it will be better - everything is better when you’re ready.

If you’re considering changing paths and you’re not sure how this might affect your career prospects, consider utilising our free Graduate Mentor service. 

Free and impartial advice from experts in their field, devoting time to ensure you’re on the right path to achieve your goals. 

Book your free one-to-one session and get support on a wide range of issues covering your job applications and career search.

Isobel Kavanagh is an English Literature and Creative Writing student at the University of Surrey, preparing to enter her final year after studying abroad in Australia since July 2022. Aside from writing and university life, she loves building memories while travelling abroad, musical theatre and Ballroom and Latin dancing.

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