Notes from a college dropout

Miriam Guiney reflects on the benefits and disadvantages of dropping out of college and filling out the CAO twice.


Around this time last year, I dropped out of college. This year, due to disorganisation, I registered late. My life was beginning to sound like the discography of Kanye West in chronological order: first The College Dropout, then Late Registration. I can only hope it follows through to the third album, Graduation, and stops before we get to 808s and Heartbreaks (or Yeezus).

I was studying journalism in DIT, a course which was the very best answer to the CAO that my post-Leaving Certificate brain could come up with. For whatever reason, I approached it like I was signing the rest of my life away. Making decisions has never come naturally to me; both times I’ve filled out the CAO, I’ve shrugged it off and pushed it away. The first time I filled it out, I put journalism first out of four things. I can summarize my desperation and confusion by admitting one of my most ridiculous and shameful secrets: I employed an online Magic 8 Ball during this decision making process. The genuine answer it gave me: Outlook not so good.

It would be easy to say I left Journalism because I completely hated it. In fact, that’s often what I do say when people ask. It was actually much more subtle than that. Some people say the opposite of love is hatred, and others say it’s indifference. I didn’t leave DIT based on any impassioned hatred, I left because I was uninspired, uninvolved and just disinterested. The decision to leave was instinctive and it’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

I don’t regret putting Journalism on my CAO either. I’m not saying it was the right move, but it wasn’t quite the apocalypse I perceived it to be last year. There’s a lot of pretty major advantages to getting your course choice wrong the first time. They aren’t as obvious as the advantages of getting it right the first time, but they’re still there. One of the most reassuring things you can have in a maths book and in life is a really good and clear example. Every single friend of mine who started and finished a year of college last year may have fumbled the start, but they all stuck the landing. If possible, I would really recommend getting your friends to go through all major transitions and upheavals in life before you do. When it comes round to your turn, they will constantly reassure you. Their very survival is reassurance. Combining this with my own prior experience gave me more confidence in my approach to everything this year, especially settling in. It just needs time.

There are glaring disadvantages to the situation. The confidence and calm I gained from restarting college wasn’t for free. It made settling in much more smooth, but it taxed confidence in other areas. My confidence in my decision making skills is shot to pieces. I’ve never been decisive, but last year buying a shampoo involved a provisional browse and a few days to deliberate before a choice was actually made. With my course decision for this year working out fairly well so far, confidence in that area is finally starting to regenerate. Other areas are still left recovering. I’m occasionally visited by the incredibly specific and obscure fear that I can no longer write quickly. I’m so out of practise. I still haven’t tested this theory, and frankly, I’m still afraid to. The area of confidence that suffered the most is my belief in my own academic abilities. I haven’t read anything more taxing than a Buzzfeed listicle in over a year. According to alarmist, baseless internet articles, my attention span has completely evaporated. I’m still trying my best to rebuild here. This summer, I’ll be entering an exam for the first time in two years. I’m not even sure if I still remember how to sit an exam.

The most intuitive disadvantage has to be being one year behind all my friends. I’ll graduate after the vast majority by at least one year. This can get fairly disheartening; but there’s always the bright side that they’ll be there to walk ahead of me and beat out a path through that transitional period as well.

This also leaves me marginally older than most of my classmates. I was always on the older side of my class in school. My birthday falls in September, so I was among the first birthdays of the year. Now, I’m a full year older, in many cases a full two years and in others even more than that. While I can’t really participate in any conversations about the Leaving Certificate, a year doesn’t make that much difference when it comes to friendships. If I never mentioned it, my classmates would never really know.

It would be melodramatic to say that I returned to college this year with a newfound appreciation for education. I never stopped appreciating education. I would say that I returned to college this year with a profound appreciation for being productive and busy. Last year when I was busy, I was working overtime in a minimum wage retail job. If I was busy last year, you could rest assured I was miserable. Most of the time, however, I wasn’t busy at all. It turns out that all the things you do to procrastinate are only fun when you’re procrastinating.

There’s no glamour to dropping out of college, but when your instincts are telling you you’re taking a step in the wrong direction, I’d listen and I’d listen before it goes on too long, or gets too late. I’m relieved I left before it got to a stage where I was halfway through and I felt I may as well keep going. The year I just had was a long year. I worked a job with long hours and poor pay in the Blanchardstown shopping centre, which is enough to make anyone feel the value of being qualified to earn a decent wage. It was also lonely. Everyone around me had two social circles and I only had one. I relied on knowing I made the right choice, and believing it was going to turn around. It has.

The main takeaway from all of this? Magic 8 Balls are as good a way as any to make a difficult life choice.