5 ways to think about university course choice

With students having until Friday 29th January to submit their UCAS forms, our Director of University Admissions, James Higgins, has some advice for students finalising their course choices:

Choosing the right course for university can be a particularly stressful challenge for students. Often it is the first time where they truly have choice over what feels like a life-setting, direction-defining decision with an infinite number of choices – 37000+ to get somewhere close to the number of UK courses available. So here I offer 5 ways that I think students can go about choosing their course.

What lies at the heart of choosing the right course, is finding an area of study that the student has a real interest in. As I put it, I want to find something that causes a reaction in them.

Students often feel pressure to pick something related to a future career they can see themselves in but I think this is only the right way to pick their degree for a small number of professional fields. So whilst this is number 1 – it’s more to get the select areas where it does apply out of the way.

1) Future career… if that career is Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Science, (Engineering and possibly Architecture).

There will be a few other instances where it is necessary to base your decision on career but the main ones are covered here. The reality is that most graduate jobs do not specify a particular degree that is required to apply to their organisations. Get students to look at The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers so that they can begin to understand this.

2) A levels

Students may have a clear favourite subject that they are already studying or have studied. What I would urge them to do is to think a little more specifically about exactly what they do and don’t enjoy in each subject area. They may want to be a little more granular in their subject choice – so rather than studying English, a student might specialise in Literature, or Creative Writing, or Linguistics or Journalism…

3) Heroes/Villains

This refers to my earlier point. We want to encourage students to notice what causes a reaction in them. This will get them to think outside the box to reveal subjects that they might not have considered for university before. 

Can they think of famous people that they admire and what that might inspire them to study? Likewise, public figures that they dislike might also give rise to a course choice. I often use the example that Trump* might push me to consider a degree in Politics, Climate Change, Human Rights… what we want is a feeling to be caused in the student and then for them to link that to a potential study area.

(* Written prior to the Capitol Hill events – US Constitutional Law might spring to mind for some now!)

4) Outside Interests

This is about getting students to reflect on where their attention goes when they’re not doing things that are obligatory. When they are not completing schoolwork, communicating with friends or doing chores, what do they spend their time on? What kinds of documentaries do they watch, what sort of books do they read, what are they drawn to watch on Youtube, what do they do outside of the house?

5) Read

It is no coincidence that lexicon permits us to say “I’m going to Oxford to readclassics”, or to read Mathematics or to read Medicine. There is a lot of reading to be done at university no matter the discipline. If a student can not engage in reading around the subject in the few months running up to application, they might consider why they would want to then do it for three or four years during their degree. Read around the subject as a check for genuine interest – the added benefit is that this is the single best way to become a strong applicant for the very best courses.

A final note…

It is not easy to determine to which university course a student wants to commit. Ultimately, they will begin to understand that they not bound by this decision for ever more; that their career, and their life, is unlikely to be linear and that this should be embraced. There are many routes that they can travel on this journey that may or may not lead to what they think is the destination. Therefore, reflect on things that have importance to them now and that hold their interest. Then engage in reading about them as an acid test for whether that subject will be a compelling start to their academic and lifelong journey of discovery.