Most of the attrition from nursing courses occurs in the first year of study. Devising university strategies to reduce attrition requires an understanding of why students leave. The aim of this study was to explore whether students who leave a nursing course in the first semester leave for the same or different reasons than students who leave in the second semester of study. Seventeen students who had left the course were interviewed by telephone: seven in the first semester and ten in the second. In the first semester, students who leave consider themselves unprepared for university, have competing roles outside university and develop a strong dislike of the nursing course. They decide quickly that the course is unsuitable and leave. Those who leave in second semester would prefer to stay but events in their life create a crisis where they can no longer cope with university studies. These students hope to return to nursing whereas students who leave in the first semester are unlikely to consider returning. Attempts to retain students in the first semester may be futile as these students may be unsuited or uncommitted whereas there is greater scope to retain those who leave in the second semester. �� 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.