Advice Column, Education, Mainstream Education, Parenting, Tween & Teen

Dealing with first year failure- temporary setback, not lifelong failure

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  • Category Advice Column, Education, Mainstream Education, Parenting, Tween & Teen

Thousands of first year students receiving their end of year results are having to face up to the fact that their dreams for the future are not materialising quite as they expected when they walked through the doors of higher learning at the start of the year. And while many of these students may consider throwing in the towel, that would be a mistake, an education expert says.

“First-year dropout rates are sky-high in South Africa,” says Peter Kriel, General Manager at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest private higher education provider, “but students who don’t successfully make the transition from school to university on their first attempt shouldn’t be discouraged. Instead, they should re-assess their situation and continue on their higher learning path with a new strategy.”

While statistics vary, it is estimated that more than 40% of students quit their studies after their first year. Some put the figure as high as 60%.

“If you failed or performed badly in your first year, you should not view this as an eternal pronouncement on your ability (or lack thereof) to make a success of your studies and ultimately earn a degree,” says Kriel.

“There are many, many young people who don’t achieve optimally right from the start, and by asking yourself a few questions about your direction and looking clearly at your options, you can still go forth confidently and make a success of higher learning,” he says.

Kriel says while there are many underlying issues which contribute to first year failure, including factors such as difficulty adapting to the new environment and workload, as well as socio-economic or personal factors, a major contributor to first-year dropout is the fact that many students didn’t thoroughly do their homework before deciding what to study and where.

Too often, prospective students simply go the traditional and some would say outdated route of signing up for a generic degree at their nearest public university, and then find themselves having to burn the midnight oil trying to digest information in which they have little interest, and which doesn’t seem to correlate closely to anything practical that can be applied in the workplace.

“As a result, there is this disconnect between what the student is required to engage in day in and day out, and what they envision will be necessary to get their foot in the door in the ‘real world’ of work.

“So the first step for students who either failed their first year, or who passed but just can’t see themselves continuing on their current path, is to take a step back and re-assess what they want and where they are going.”

Importantly, they need to approach this with the commitment that they will continue and see through their studies, even if it means finding a different approach that makes more sense for them personally, Kriel says.

Then they should do one (or a combination of) the following:


The volume and complexity of the workload increases exponentially between school and higher education. If it is simply a case of you having misjudged what is required of you, undertake to start afresh next year and put in the effort consistently, from day one.


Sometimes too much time and attention are given to one or two areas of work, while others are neglected. Sometimes the way you approach certain tasks is not as efficient as it could be. Here is it helpful to ask your institution’s career centre or student advisors (a good institution must offer these services), for help and guidance with  your study strategy.


If a student isn’t pursuing a field that makes them excited about their learning and ultimately their future career, they are bound to lose momentum and interest in completing their studies. If it is clear at this stage that a first year’s chosen qualification isn’t working out, it is better to pursue a new path, rather than spending time and money trying to make the wrong one work. But very importantly, when considering a different qualification, students must ensure they properly research all available offerings. There are many new and exciting fields with work-focused qualifications that students may not even have been aware of in the past.


Higher education is no walk in the park, and making the transition from being assisted by teachers who know your name at school, to being a number sitting in front of a lecturer who needs to get hundreds of students through the year’s curriculum, can be daunting. That is why it makes sense to find a higher education institution which is able to offer smaller class sizes and individual attention, which makes a marked difference to individual student outcomes.

“Our message to discouraged first years is to not give up. Don’t view your past year as a wasted one – no education is ever wasted. Take the lesson and make the corrections where needed, and build on what you’ve achieved thus far,” says Kriel.

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