How do you choose the right course for you? Rule 1: do what you enjoy and you'll enjoy what you do.
- If you already have your heart set on a career
- If you don't know what you want to do
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What do you want from university?
- Finding out about courses
- New subject possibilities
- Course styles
- What not to study
- Considering courses: A few questions
- How do you know if the course is any good?
IF YOU ALREADY HAVE YOUR HEART SET ON A CAREER, then you can work backwards. What’s going to help you job-wise?
You may need to limit yourself to certain courses. For instance, for medicine, dentistry and various other professions, there are certain bits of paper you have to be able to frame on your wall.
But that’s not true for every career. Even lawyers and teachers — who also require specific qualifications — can start off with more general degrees and then take postgraduate conversion courses.
In many cases, it doesn’t actually take any longer. For example, most Bachelor of Education courses (which qualify you to be a teacher) take four years — but in the same time you could spend three years studying whatever undergraduate degree grabs your fancy followed by a year doing a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education). You end up just as well qualified and, at the moment, most PGCE students can get more funding.
However, if you’re only sure of the general direction you want your career to take, don’t sweat it — just keep your options open. Most graduate jobs need nothing more than a degree in something vaguely appropriate. But that still means thinking about what course might be vaguely appropriate so that when the crunch comes you’ve got the credentials.
For journalism, say, you might want to think about politics or English. For conservation work, you’d be better off with something like geography, biology, or ecology. But for a job in business, you could pick almost anything: accountancy, languages, business studies, marketing, computing, economics.
A word of warning: some courses that may seem career-specific don’t necessarily help. The classic example is media studies. Push isn’t dismissing all media studies courses — some are great, particularly if they focus on the technical aspects of the industry — but if you want to work in TV, for instance, a non-‘media’ degree could actually help you stand out from the crowd more. If the BBC’s making a programme about the mating rituals of wombats, for example, they’re more likely to give a break to someone who studied zoology and worked on their student TV station than to someone who spent three years doing Marxist analyses of Eastenders plotlines.
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WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM UNIVERSITY?
Ultimately, your choice of course depends on what you want from your university. Here’s a quick guide
You want to get a good job: Try to be specific about what kind of good job you want. Then do a course that’s, at best, a direct qualification, or at least, vaguely appropriate.
You might want to consider ‘vocational’ courses. These are any courses designed to teach you a particular career — although not only do they not necessarily guarantee you a job, they may not even help you get one. For more information about employment rates, click here..
Vocational courses — particularly the best ones — usually involve some kind of link with the relevant industry. Sometimes they’re even ‘sandwich courses’ — which means you spend some time actually working for a company (and, yes, you do get paid). There are thick sandwiches and thin sandwiches, depending on the amount of time you spend working. (There are probably club sandwich courses somewhere too, but Push suspects they’re part of a catering degree.) Some universities, particularly the ones that used to be polytechnics, specialise in vocational courses. Many of them have excellent relations with businesses and employers and their graduates get jobs easily. Others don’t .
Sometimes, if you want to get a good job, it doesn’t matter what course you do, so long as you’re at a university with a good reputation.
You want to fill time, improve your CV, and keep your options open: Just study whatever shakes your tree. You’ll get better grades and enjoy it more.
You want to study for the sheer thrill of academic endeavour: Again, follow your fancy. You’re clearly already committed (or perhaps should have already been committed to an asylum).
You want to have a good time: There’s no such thing as a ‘doss’ course at university. If you want to do well, you pretty much have to put in the hours whatever the subject.
Having said that, there are some subjects where the course is rigidly structured — lectures and the like from nine to five, plus lots of work at weekends — and there are others where you get to manage your own time a bit more. Traditionally, it’s the sciences where your daily schedule is wall-to-wall, and it’s arts students who earn the reputation for lying in bed all day. Many arts students, however, work just as hard — it’s simply that they have huge reading lists and are often left to get on with it.
To have a good time, the same rule always applies: pick a course you’re going to enjoy, then grab the other opportunities that student life chucks at you.
FINDING OUT ABOUT COURSES
Quite apart from the bewildering choice of different types of courses, all this diversity between courses at different departments and universities, and all the differences in how courses are organised might make you want to return to the dart-in-the-map plan.
But, when it comes to your degree, these things are going to make a huge difference, not only to how your study works, but how well you do, how much you enjoy it and, sometimes, whether you stick at it at all.
If university’s worth going to at all, it’s worth making the most of it, enjoying it as much as possible while at the same time maxing out on the qualifications.
The good news is that the information you need is pretty easy to find. Here's a guide to exactly where and which sources are to be trusted.
In the meantime, you’ll want to get hold of university prospectuses. They’re pretty reliable when it comes to academic information.
NEW SUBJECT POSSIBILITIES
If you’re trying to choose a course you’ll enjoy, you may want to rule out your A Level/Highers subjects if you’re already finding them boring. And other subjects may also be unsuitable if you dropped them because they were even more boring than that.
The good news is that university offers a whole new range of subjects.
Who knows, you may eventually find them boring too, but at least they’ll be novel for a while.
To name but a few of the degree courses not often studied at A level: anthropology, philosophy, sociology, archaeology, accountancy, law, business studies, education, engineering, psychology, politics, gender studies and zoology. There are also the weirder, wackier options like brewing, golf course management, pop music studies and cybernetics.
You may want to get a taster of these courses before committing yourself to studying them for three years. Most universities offer open days which, at the very least, usually have introductions to courses by the people who teach them, but they often also feature sample lectures. Worth a try.
There are over 15,000 degree courses on offer in the UK. If you can’t find at least one that interests you, you should probably look in the mirror and ask whether it’s really the subjects that are boring.
On the other hand, you may be overwhelmed by the fascinating range of courses on offer, and may be loathe to limit yourself to just one.
These days that’s no problem. Not every course is just ‘single honours’ (as it’s called). Oh no. Indeed, most courses require students to take some kind of subsidiary course.
What makes it like it is?
Without getting too philosophical here about how anything comes to be as it is, there are certain fool-proof signposts to how a university is likely to be.how it’s set up. The physical layout affects how the place feels. Feng shui doesn’t have anything to do with it, just how it’s likely to work in practice....
- THE ACADEMIC BALANCE
Goldsmiths College (part of London University) specialises in arts courses — drama, dance, English, art history and so on. They also do maths and other things, but most students are doing creative courses. No surprise then that the place is buzzing with creative types. The atmosphere of the place is defined by it and, in turn, what the students think of as fun is also defined by who they are.
So, for example, if your idea of a good time is spending a night playing Dungeons & Dragons and watching reruns of Star Trek: TNG, Goldsmiths is probably not going to offer you too much in the way of entertainment. But, if you’ve ever seen an old movie where Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney stand in a barn and shout “Hey, why don’t we do the show right here?” and you’ve thought how cool that would be, then Goldsmiths might be more your thing.
Whether it’s just a single site or a whole university, each subject affects the atmosphere in its own way. Although a well-informed guess will usually tell you how the influence will operate, it is just a guess, and don’t assume too much if you want to avoid disappointment.
For example, there are the places that get tugged in two directions at once. Take UEA (East Anglia) for example: a campus university on the outskirts of Norwich. It does the usual range of courses, many of which are quite traditional, but it is particularly widely respected for English and American studies, and for environment-related courses (including geography, geology, meteorology and messing with plants’ genes at the John Innes Centre). Although these schools don’t account for the bulk of students, they’re fairly influential in setting the university agenda.
Then there’s Bath, a modern campus on a hill outside the city that looks like (and often is) a set for a Merchant Ivory movie. The University’s courses lean towards sciences, with a tendency to the vocational. Not what you’d imagine to be the perfect breeding ground for lots of luvvie thesps and arty types. However, perhaps because it boasts good facilities for all manner of arty-fartiness, it’s a bit of buried treasure when it comes to theatricals and the like.
Meanwhile, there are the more techy places — Brunel and Imperial College, to name but two. These places aren’t necessarily more boring or less outrageous just because most of the students are scientists. They’re just exciting and outrageous in a different way, a way that suits the students there.
You can say the same about places dominated by any area — or areas — of study, whether it’s social sciences (like LSE), vocational courses (eg. Leeds Metropolitan or Middlesex), medicine (any med school), agriculture (Silsoe College — part of Cranfield University) or even religious education (Heythrop College and The School of Jewish Studies).
The same influence operates when a site within a university specialises in some subject — perhaps more strongly than the way it affects whole universities. Business studies, for instance, is often given a site to itself, a site that is often full of students in suits carrying briefcases — the highly professional Emm Lane site of the otherwise most laid-back Bradford University, for instance.
THE COURSE STYLE
It’s not just what courses a university offers that affects its atmosphere, but how they’re taught — one teaching method may work for you, another may not.
If the timetable is heavy — full of long lectures, seminars and practicals — then it doesn’t leave too much time in the day for the favourite student pastime of sitting around, drinking coffee and chatting. That means the place feels less laid-back. But ‘laid-back’ may not be what you want anyway — that’s your call.
It may also mean there’s less time for other activities, such as sport. Many universities don’t schedule any academic commitments on Wednesday afternoons. (I don’t know why it’s Wednesdays, it’s just that’s when it’s always been.) They do this so that everyone can get muddy on a field together or whack balls over nets — you know the sort of thing.
It’s not compulsory and plenty of students just use Wednesday afternoons to do other things like play in a band, rehearse a play, write the student paper or, of course, to sit around, drink coffee and chat.
Some even choose to study. Whatever milks your cow.
Another example: part-time students. Some universities go for part-timers in a big way. Derby, for instance, has as many part-time degree students as full-time ones. Meanwhile, at Birkbeck College (part of London University), well, they don’t have anything but part-timers.
And, being part-time, they’re not around as much.
They aren’t necessarily any less committed to their courses or to their university, but most of them are part-time because they’ve got other lives to lead, whether a job, a family or whatever.
Such things don’t do much for creating a lively atmosphere. Imagine a party where everyone drops in for half an hour — it might have short periods when it’s a blast, but for most of the time it’s more like a bus garage.
A third and final example of a factor that can influence course style (I could go on for ages, but I’ll spare you): students’ motives.
Some courses are purely academic. Take, philosophy, say, or Ancient Greek. You can hardly call them job-oriented training — the demand for philosophers just isn’t what it was in the days of Plato, nor for people fluent in Ancient Greek.
Other courses are nothing but training. Medicine and dentistry are obvious examples, but there’s fashion, accountancy, pharmacy, textile design, tourism, catering and thousands more.
If a university focuses on the more career-oriented stuff, it’s reflected in the students. They’re at university to get a qualification for a job, not necessarily to broaden their minds. As a result the atmosphere can be less broad-minded.
Just like all this stuff on atmosphere, that might be no bad thing. If what you want from university is to get a qualification for a job, then so-called ‘mind-broadening’ experiences are nothing more than time-wasting distractions that can take your eyes off the prize.
As you’ll probably have realised by now, in the same way that different universities and different sites can have a different atmosphere, so can different courses. Sciences, for instance, tend to have heavier scheduled workloads than arts subjects, but arts students often end up working late into the night keeping up with their reading lists or essays.
- MIX OF STUDENTS
Same name, different game
A course might have the same name at different universities and be just as different as the universities themselves. We’re not just talking about different lecturers, different rooms and stuff.
Take English, for example: one university’s course might be focused mainly on the novel, giving you a choice of options to study ranging from the nineteenth century novel to postmodern American fiction. You can even submit creative writing as part of your work. Another university also has a course called English. Theirs stretches a bit further back, taking in options in classical dramatic traditions, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Old Norse, Chaucer through to Shakespeare, and also looking scientifically at language itself and how it evolves.
Neither university necessarily offers a better degree in English than the other, just different. It’s down to you whether you’re more excited by the prospect of studying Beowulf or Bridget Jones.
Then there are the subsids. Most single honours courses allow or require students to take subsidiary courses but, while English at one might offer you a particular buffet of side dishes to accompany your main course, at the other you might find a wider choice, a narrower choice or even no choice at all. Maybe you won’t be allowed to take a subsid, even if you want to (often the case with joint and combined honours courses). Maybe it’ll have to be a language or a science or an arts subject or a computing or vocational qualification.
All these things can differ and a lot else besides. It depends on the university.
Prospectuses are the most reliable place to fill in the details beyond the course title. Failing that, you can try websites or a quick phone call to the department to ask what options are available in the course. (The list of options may well change before you get there, but it’ll give you an idea.)
What not to study
Up until now, admit it, school has been fairly easy. But with A-level choices looming on the horizon the scary thought, that what you choose now will decide what options you have in the future, might just rear its ugly head.
Just in case that wasn’t enough pressure, a group of universities called the Russell Group have published a guide announcing which of their universities prefer certain subjects and, more scarily, which subjects they consider too ‘soft’ to take into account.
What does this mean?
A few years ago a think-tank called The Policy Exchange published a report, with the to-the-point title of ‘The Hard Truth about Soft Subjects’. It listed A-level subjects on application forms that top universities were tossing into the rejection pile.
Privately the universities know exactly which subjects they look for and which they avoid and the report’s made that information public. With that information, it’s a lot easier to match your subjects with universities that will actually appreciate them or, if you’re starting early, match you subjects to your uni of choice.
The list of ‘soft subjects’ includes media, travel and tourism and even law. Not studying these at A-level, particularly if you want to, might seem a bit odd if you’re planning to study the same subjects at uni but if you have your heart set on Edinburgh, Imperial College, or any of the other Russel Group universities it might damage your chances to do so.
Like with wine, chocolate or anything else in life, moderation is the key to impressing these unis. Their guide stresses “students who take one ‘soft’ subject as part of a wider portfolio of subjects do not experience any problems applying to a Russell Group university.”
Alternatively, you can study what you want and see what happens, not every university agrees with the Russel Group after all.
Who’re the Russell Group anyway? Click here for more info.
What exactly is a soft subject? Click here for more info.
Considering courses: A few questions
- What career do you want?
- What course or courses might help you get it?
- What do you enjoy studying?
- What course might you enjoy, but haven’t tried yet?
- Would you like to do more than one subject?
- Would you like a vocational element to your course?
- How much flexibility would you like about your course once you’ve started it?
- For any course you’re considering, have you checked what the course includes? (Remember: it varies from university to university.)
- For any course you’re considering, have you checked out how it’s taught? (Remember: it varies from university to university.)
- How would you like your course to be graded? What form of assessment suits you?Which Uni?
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THE COURSE IS ANY GOOD?
Once upon a time, there was the pretence that all universities' degrees were equal — a 2:1 in Law at Oxford was no better or worse than it would be at Thames Valley University.
No one even pretends any more. Just like their students, every department at every university is assessed and given a series of grades. A whole bunch of numbers are produced, some of which are helpful in judging how much you're likely to gain from one of that department's courses.
The list of statistics available is growing every year, which on the whole is a good thing, but not all of them are that helpful. No one should ever pick a university just because of a single statistic. But some of them can be very handy when making that choice.