‘Do your research and make sure you're getting what you want at the end of the degree. Sometimes people get strung up on picking a subject and don't focus on where you want to be as you finish University’.
Stonewall Talent Programme 2011 participant
Before you even begin to think about where you’re going to study you need to think about what you’re going to study, and think very carefully. You’re going to spend three or four years studying this subject (although - don’t fear - many universities will let you change courses if things don’t quite go as planned) and it has to be something that you’ll enjoy and is going to be useful in future. If you pick something that you don’t enjoy you’ll either have a miserable time or risk dropping out or being kicked out and end up wasting a lot of your time and money.
The first thing to look at when you’re picking a course is to be clear about what you enjoy at the moment and what sort of person you are. If you’re a sciencey person who loves studying about space and time and particles and gravity then it makes sense for you to look for something like Physics. Similarly, if you’re arty and spend all your free time working on your A2 portfolio then an art based degree is probably right for you. You can read advice on how to get into particular fields, the degree choices that may help you into your chosen field plus additional activities you might want to consider in our career spotlight section.
What you enjoy now is probably going to be a good indicator of what you’ll enjoy in the future. Make sure that your choice of course is exactly that: your choice. Don’t be forced into studying something because your parents think you ought to, or your friends think it’s cool, or because the guy/girl you met last week on the campus tour is studying it. It has to be right for you.
That said, of course some students find that when they get to university the subject turns out to be entirely different from what they studied at school. Many a Maths student who’s completed FP3 has gone on to university to find degree-standard Pure Maths to be something completely different. Other students have been disappointed by what they see as going over old ground in their degree, when they wanted to do something new. Even more important, different universities teach different things – politics and international relations courses may vary between universities. English at Swansea might be very different in terms of how it’s taught, what’s covered and what options you have to English literature at York or Bristol. The prospectuses that universities publish are generally fairly comprehensive these days so make sure that you check them out. If you have questions unanswered, give the department a call.
Doing what you’re good at versus a new challenge
It’s also important to look at what you’re good at and play to your strengths. After all, there’s no point in spending your time studying something you’re going to struggle with. The idea of studying the philosophy of art might make you sound interesting but if you hate art it’s not likely to be a fun ride. Remember that you need to demonstrate your ability for this particular course to the admissions tutors so you should be able to explain why you could understand and do well at the course. Some courses at some universities will have particular pre-requisites before you are accepted, for instance, most economics courses require you to have studied maths at A-level and each course will have different entry requirements, which will vary from uni to uni. Finally, there are some subjects like Law and Medicine which require you to sit an admissions test when you apply to certain places. It is a good idea to check these tests out and try some past papers before you apply.
There are some subjects which you might not have had the chance to study at school, such as midwifery and geology, and you shouldn’t be put off applying for these subjects. But do take a look at the courses and ask questions on open days to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s likely in an increasingly tough jobs market that some people might decide that they want to opt for a more vocational/professional degree. But that doesn’t mean that you have to study a degree in the area that you want to go into. Many newspapers, for example, would rather hire a history graduate as a journalist than a media studies graduate, though that’s not a hard fast rule. Even professions in medicine and law can be entered at a later date through a conversion course. If you’re still really stuck then UCAS has its own online ‘Stamford Test’ to help you make up your mind about what course to study and even what you might want to do.
What type of course?
It doesn’t end here. When you’ve decided what you want to study you need to decide how you want to study it. There are loads of different ways to study. Do you want to study full time, part time, or via ‘distance-learning’? Do you want to move away from home or would you rather stay in your hometown near all your friends and family?
Most people will pick a full-time course especially if heading to university straight from school, but increasingly more and more people are choosing to study part time. This is a great option if you want to work whilst studying or you have family commitments. But bear in mind it can be fairly intensive and means you miss out on some of the more fun aspects of university life. If you have lots of university deadlines it can be nice to be surrounded by people going through the same thing. Distance learning (pioneered by the Open University) is becoming increasingly popular, and sometimes having an attentive long distance tutor can be better than being one of 300 in an impersonal lecture theatre.
Full-time courses will come in all shapes and sizes. Some will be modular, allowing you to pick and choose from a range of options, including some unrelated to your main degree courses. Others, especially those in Scotland, won’t require you to specialise until you’re well into the degree, so you can continue doing a number of subjects before deciding which one you want to graduate in. So again, read the syllabuses carefully. For people who want to get some real world experience the sandwich course is becoming increasingly popular. This allows you to spend either a year abroad studying or a year in a work placement, which is a great way to get some time out before your final year.
Every degree will end up being unique to you and there really is no substitute for good research. The most important thing is to pick a degree which suits you and which you’re going to feel comfortable studying at such an in-depth level.