Finding the right course

Help! I don't know what course to choose - what do I do?

By Andy Gardner (Careers Adviser) - 09 June 2014

Student thinking about her future

So the one thing you know is that you want to go to university – the hard bit is deciding on what to study, and where. Here’s how to turn thousands of UCAS courses and more than 300 universities and colleges into five clear, confident choices.

To help you get inspired, we headed to a sixth form college to ask university applicants what and where they've chosen to study, and why:

 

Not sure what subject you want to study yet? Our degree subject guides reveal everything you need to know about studying a subject at university. 

Which subject?

This is an important one to get right – you don’t want to waste your time and money on a subject you don’t want to do (or end up dropping out of). To help you decide which subject area is right for you, break down your subject shortlist (or longlist) into three possible routes, questioning your reasons as you go.

Is it… a subject you have already studied?

For example, maybe you loved English literature at GCSE and A-level / Highers and you read novels for pleasure in your own time. Is an English degree right for you?

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Will you still be interested in that subject for a further three or four years – enough to motivate yourself to work and research independently?
  • Any thoughts on life after university – what do you want to do and could your subject choice affect this? You may get to the end of this degree and still not know how you are going to earn a living! On a positive note many careers will consider graduates with a wide range of subjects.

Is it… a subject that relates to a career idea?

For example, perhaps you did work experience in an estate agent office, and are now considering a degree in real estate management in order to become a professional surveyor. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to be a journalist.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • How is the subject you’re considering viewed by the industry it is connected to? Do you need to take it to actually go into that career? You don’t have to do a journalism degree to become a journalist - many degrees are considered!
  • Have you done any/enough work experience to see if this is the right career for you?

Is it… a subject that relates to something new?

For example, maybe you’ve always been interested in computers and the internet at home, and enjoyed maths at school, so are considering a degree in computer science, a course subject you probably won’t have studied before.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you know what’s involved? Try speaking to a careers adviser, researching online and exploring in detail the type of modules you’ll be studying on different computer science courses.
  • What’s your principal reason for taking the subject? Get this clear in your head. Is it because of a particular career path, because you’re fascinated by how computers work or you just want to broaden your horizons? Or is because your brother or sister did it or because there’s a uni close to home that offers this course? Question if your reasons are honestly the right reasons for you.

Still not sure…?

It’s also worth thinking about:

  • Joint honours – this could be a mixture of a subject you are already familiar with and something new, eg geography and something related to a career ie planning.
  • Scottish university courses – many Scottish universities let you apply for a named degree ie politics, but you’ll cover a wide range of subjects in your first year. In the second year you can carry on with politics or specialise in some of the other subjects you tried out.

Which university?

Once you’ve got your subject choice sorted, start looking around for where you want to be based for the next few years. Here are a few pointers to get you thinking...

Course content

Remember this might differ drastically from university to university, even if the courses have the same or similar names. On the other hand, it might be that the course you choose has to meet, or be accredited by, a professional body, such as civil engineering.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Have you actually read the outline of the course content provided by the university? In detail?
  • Could you do any wider reading that relates to the course to prepare yourself? (in any case, it would be good for your personal statement).

Type of assessment

For example, you’re doing a coursework-assessed BTEC National in business studies, but the course you’re considering is mainly assessed by exams. There might be a big step change moving from college to university studies – could this pose a problem to you?

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Which methods of assessment best suit you? Exams, coursework, practicals, group projects and presentations could all be in the mix in differing quantities.
  • Every university course will include a % breakdown of assessment as part of a new key information set it’s required to display on its website - have you checked it out yet?

Grade requirements

You have to identify five courses that you have a realistic chance of getting the grades for as part of your UCAS application. Based on the universities that make you an offer, you’ll then have to decide which is going to be your firm (first) choice and your insurance (second) choice.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are your five course choices sensibly spread, including a safe bet alongside a more ambitious option, based on what you’ve been predicted to achieve?
  • Does your insurance choice have lower entry requirements than your first choice? It should do!

Location

You might want to stay at home for financial reasons. You may prefer a city campus, an out-of-town greenfield campus – or a college that offers degrees.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Will living at home be a more affordable option for you? What will you pay in tuition fees in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
  • Have you visited a few different universities on open days to get a feel for which environment best suits you?

Explore our individual university and college profiles to get a feel for what it could be like to study at a particular place, including details of the local area and environment.

Reputation

League tables, friends, family, teachers, advisers - all can make suggestions of courses you should consider, but beware of over-simplified notions of what’s viewed as a ‘good’ university.

When you’re looking at a university, course content, assessment methods, grade requirements and location should always be your top priority.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • If you’re looking at the league tables, are you only considering universities higher up the table that you have heard of - why not explore some of the others?
  • What do other students think? Take a look at student satisfaction scores – plus head to a uni’s profile page where current students have shared what life’s really like on the ground.
     

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