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When University sucks...

“Lane” (name changed for this story) emailed me in July of 2022 to tell me that he was struggling with his engineering degree and for the last 2 months of his first semester at Uni, he had avoided going to many of his lectures and labs. He knew he was going to fail half his papers, and telling his Engineer father and Scientist mother that he was unhappy at Uni was filling him with dread.

In working with me and completing my career search questionnaire and coaching session, we identified that his love was with teaching, but an engineering degree had been promoted as the best option for smart young men by his parents and by his high school. Lane was struggling with sleeping, had withdrawn from his friend group and knew he would feel ashamed at being told not to return for the second semester, once his grades came out.

Unfortunately, this is a common story.

Many New Zealand high schools encourage their Year 13 students to go to University – it’s a lazy solution for school guidance counsellors who don’t have the time and knowledge to provide personalised contemporary career guidance.

So, they resort to the solutions: “Just go to University, the first year is free” and “Pick your favourite subject in Year 13 and do that at University.”

But here is the truth – University isn’t for everyone. And that's OK.

Most schools take the stance that going to University is the pinnacle after high school, and below that is Polytech, a gap year, an apprenticeship or getting a job.

So, students feel pressured to go to Uni as they THINK they are seen as a dummy or loser if they don’t. Indeed, many of the young adults I work with don’t even know that polytechnics exist and for those that do, they think that a degree through a polytechnic isn’t as good as a degree through a University.

Going to University after high school is ONE option – it’s not the ONLY option and it’s not the BEST option – the best option is one that works for you!

Before the pandemic, about 15% of students didn’t complete their first year of University studies in NZ, but the data is suggesting this has grown, with remote learning being unexciting for some students and the family pressures around earning causing more students than normal to exchange studies for a paying job.

In 2022, the biggest area of growth for my business was first-year University students who were unhappy in their studies – they wanted me to help them decide IF university was the best pathway for them, and if so, perhaps they had just chosen the wrong subjects, or perhaps they didn’t have a vision of where their degree would take them, in order to keep them motivated to study.

Here’s some points to consider when a young adult is unhappy at University:

1. Are they studying something they are good at, or something they are INTERESTED in? There is a big difference!

2. Do they prefer a more practical focus in their studies, for example through learning hands-on skills or acquiring knowledge that can DIRECTLY be linked to work?

3. Universities in NZ are mostly “investigative’ in nature – they are focused on teaching theories, historical concepts, and building a foundation of knowledge on which to know how to research, problem solve and address issues.

4. Polytechnic courses typically have a stronger link to the world of work, with a clearer link to practical skills, relationships with employers and work experience opportunities – this can suit those students that want to get into their area of expertise quickly after graduation.

5. Are they having issues outside of the lecture theatre? For example, are they stressing about paying their rent, fitting work around study, being separated from friends, feeling isolated, struggling to move to the focus on self-motivation at Uni?

6. Can they see the point of their studies at Uni? That is, what career pathway this leads to, what kind of roles they are likely to be qualified for on graduation. What is the market like for those roles? Will the relevant salary be worth taking on the student debt?

7. What is their level of excitement about their studies? Do they share what they are learning, talk about their assignments and seek additional learning outside of the required assignments?

8. Do they have enough ‘richness’ in their lives outside of Uni? Friends (even a few close friends), a few activities and interests, and a part-time job?

9. Have they established healthy living and study habits while at Uni? If they are sleeping all day, missing deadlines and not eating well, these are habits that will have consequences in years to come, so need to be addressed now.

10. Does Uni give them the opportunity to mature, get to know themselves, explore the world of study and work (some students need Uni to give them that time to evolve their personality and views) – if so, then that is just as important as their subjects and needs to be encouraged.

If your young adult is showing disinterest or wavering about continuing at Uni, here’s some key messages that you can share with them:

1. They are NOT alone in feeling uncertain – it is very common for most first year students.

2. This uncertainty is not a sign of failure, it just suggests that they need a new plan or some professional guidance, to help them see the big picture.

3. Being unhappy with some aspects of your life is normal (think of the 80/20 rule – 20% of Uni might be a drag, but if 80% is exciting and fulfilling, that is fine!).

4. The messages in their heads, and their self-talk, are NOT always true, they are just passing thoughts…let them pass.

5. Their mental and physical health comes first – if they are compromising this to get good grades or to pass their Uni subjects, then they need a new strategy.

6. They may feel shame about failing a paper or not being excited about Uni – talk them through this, praise their courage in speaking up, and boost them with 80% positive, uplifting conversations, and 20% worth of tough questions.

7. Don’t answer the “should I continue at Uni?” question for them – instead, work with them so they can think their way logically to a decision that works for them.

8. Tough situations don’t last, tough people do – these experiences build resilience, and that will set them up well for the world of work.

9. Consider using a non-emotionally involved professional, like me, to bring data, expertise and an empathetic approach to resolving the issue - I can guide your young adult and ask the tough questions, thereby preserving your relationship with your child.


I'm Tracey Beard, a Career Expert, Coach and Strategist - my specialty is working with teenagers, young adults and tertiary students aged 16-25 across New Zealand.

I help students to navigate the challenges of picking a study pathway and career that excites them and enables them to find purpose in work! I'm changing the way young adults think about their career options - having worked with 5000+ clients over the last 10 years, I know the pressure that young adults are facing, so I partner with them and ensure they don't feel alone in making decisions.

Get in touch if you want to talk about your needs, or check out my Career Coaching Packages here! or phone / WhatsApp me +64-21843537

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