Choosing the right degree course

For many people, deciding on the right degree course can feel like a monumental task. There are more choices than ever before and the competition keeps on rising.

In England in 2018, a record 27.9% of the 18 year old population were accepted through UCAS to a university place. That translated to over 400,000 students placed on undergraduate courses in the United Kingdom.

There are now over 150 universities to choose from, the majority providing excellent teaching and extracurricular activities. In 2020 the government is planning to rate courses for quality under a bronze, silver and gold scale. This should help guide school leavers to the best courses possible.

In the meantime follow our guide below which is designed to help you research your interests and narrow down your potential choices to something more manageable. It’s important that you spend a good amount of time thinking about this, as a degree will not only cost you £30,000, but will also take up three years of your life. Choose wisely! 

What undergraduate qualifications can I apply for?

There are a wide range of undergraduate qualifications, typically specific to the subject area that you are choosing to pursue. For example a BA for bachelor of arts, BSc for bachelor of sciences and so on.

These bachelor degrees are by far the most common type of undergraduate study available. Ranging between 3 to 4 years, they can combine a mixture of lectures, coursework and hands-on practical experience either at university or in the industry.

Foundation degrees are also available to those students who may not have the appropriate qualifications. For example if you concentrated heavily on humanities at school but now wish to study a science or if you are an international student who has sat the IB rather than A levels.

Bear in mind that for vocational work such as social care there may be differing vocational qualifications available. Make sure you do your research to find out which is the best option for you.

What subject should I study at university?

Don’t worry if you are struggling to pin down exactly what is you want to study at university. Sometimes work experience at school is limited and often students fall into the trap of thinking they need to study at university what they have already been studying at school.

Generally speaking there are three broad categories which careers and university subjects fall into.

  1. A subject you have already studied at A level or GCSE
  2. Subjects which cover specific career opportunities
  3. A brand-new subject you have discovered because of personal interest 

Known subjects

You may already know what your favourite subjects have been over the past few years, but it pays to think again. Was there a GCSE you particularly enjoyed but dropped because you can only do four A-levels? Perhaps you really enjoy one part of the subject?

Even if you do enjoy it, the real test of course is could you see yourself studying the subject for the next 3 to 4 years? And then working in that area or at least something related until retirement?

Career specific subjects

This varies from career to career  but some job specifications are very strict whereas others are able to look at applicants from a variety of disciplines. For example you won’t get very far applying for jobs as a doctor without a medical degree, but those applying for jobs in journalism can bring a variety of degree qualifications to the table.

Even if your chosen career does accept a variety of degrees make sure you check if there is a preference or bias towards a particular subject or group of subjects.

Novel Subjects

whilst work experience is important in applying to most degrees, it is especially worth doing if you have never studied the subject before. Even having a keen interest and reading around a subject cannot really prepare you for the realities of working life.

There are many misperceptions around  certain careers, mostly propagated by media and films. Examples include chemists always working in laboratories or doctors working in GPs and hospitals. Make sure you read up on all the potential avenues the degree qualification could take you down. You may be surprised by what you find!

Qualifications and entry requirements

The majority of courses expect passes at GCSE, especially maths and English. If the course you are looking to apply to requires mostly A’s or B’s at A-level they are likely to also expect a grade C or 4 GCSE maths.

When it comes to A-levels, the requirements, become a lot more specific. Courses will expect the general theme of your A-levels to match that of your chosen subject.

Make sure to check to see if there are any mandatory A-level requirements. With medicine for example, a strong chemistry A-level is expected across the board as well as similar results in biology. Although some variation between universities, a student without these qualifications would not gain entry to medical school.

Make sure your A-level choices lineup with your career aspirations sooner rather than later. If you do not have the correct A-levels you either have to do choose a different course at university or sit further A-level so that you meet the minimum requirements.

For mature and international students check the alternative qualifications listings on each university website. For older students you may find that qualifications alone are not sufficient and some degree of work experience in volunteering may be expected.

How to compare university courses

Even when university degrees are listed with the same name or the same course code will be variation in both the course content and how the course is taught. Some may be more lecture-based, while others may include projects or hands-on practical experience.

These differences really add up over 3 to 4 years, especially if one enables you to have greater insight into your future career.

As important as the teaching quality of both the course and university. Times higher education [link]  rank these courses for you to compare. the reputation of the course (if it is significant enough) will likely impact on your employability once you graduate.

Work placements at university

Depending on the intended career at the end of a degree course, some universities provide a year shadowing or participating in a work placement.  if you do intend to go into vocational work as a career these practical out of university experiences are a great item to feature on your CV. Not only will the skills gained be immediately applicable to any future career path they will also give you confidence and motivation in your academic work.

Considering that international opportunities are often available, university work placements can be an exciting adventure in their own right. They can be a welcome respite from the strain of academia and provide instant feedback on your efforts so far.

Speciality modules

Speciality modules are another great way of refining your CV and angling your knowledge base so that you are best prepared for work. Typically only available in the second or third year, these modules help specialise your understanding ahead of graduation.

Chemistry students for example may have the option of choosing between forensic chemistry, atmospheric chemistry and chemical theory. Because of the underlying knowledge required to study these subtopics, the first year of any degree course tends to be the same for all students to ensure a good level of working knowledge across the board. 

How to find the best university for you

We are fortunate in the United Kingdom over 50% of our universities are featured in the QS world university rankings of 2019. Three out of the top 10 universities in the world are based in the UK, with the other seven being in America.

With so many great universities to choose from, it is vital that you do proper research. The first step of course is to simply visit each university website and review the courses available as well as the university culture, the student union website and any other related information.

Once you have an idea of the University lifestyle, don’t forget to check what the surrounding cities like as well. This doesn’t just mean nightlife but access links via car and train, the price of food and accommodation and even postgraduate employment opportunities.

One of the best ways to really get an idea of student satisfaction however as to go to one of the many university open days. this will give you an opportunity to see what the student really think and experience for yourself the university grounds and student union. 

Check the official TEF university ratings

Running since 2017, the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework is a government run study monitoring university quality nationwide. It was designed as a framework for universities to improve upon their existing offering, however it is very useful for students looking to compare universities across a consistent standard.

This can often be very useful when dealing with conflicting opinions regarding universities and courses either through speaking face-to-face or through reading online forums. Bear in mind however that not all universities have signed up to this process and therefore rankings will be unavailable for these institutions. 

There has been some controversy since the rankings of been introduced as some less well regarded institutions receive significantly better outcomes than those with long-standing history of excellence. 

There is a three tier medal system of bronze silver and gold. Although bronze is the lowest award that can be given, it represents a standard of teaching excellence that meets the UK national guidelines for higher education.

As of 2018 around half of universities have received silver status with the remaining universities equally split between bonds and gold. Don’t get too hung up on the awards however as universities will move between them from year to year.

What matters most is that you gel for university culture and feel inspired by curriculum and the experiences of past students.

Your Future Career path

You cannot forget that the whole point of doing a degree so that you can pursue the career that you really want in the future. When you’re planning your university and course choices make sure that they match up with what you want to achieve later on in life.

Many students understandably don’t feel that they know what they want to do five or 10 years in the future. In these cases it is best to concentrate on degree subjects which have a wide variety of applications rather than studying something very specific or with known limited career opportunities.

All the help you can get

Spending a long time in the same piece of work can make it hard to see the wood for the trees. Get as many opinions as possible from trusted friends, teachers and family members. They will be able to give you an all-important third party opinion and give you an idea of what it’s like to read your university application and personal statement.

Ask them if they think that your university choices and courses match up with the impression that you’ve given over the last year or so. Do they think that the course is well suited to your strengths and weaknesses? Are they surprised by the choice or is it a subject area you bring up often?

These outside views are very important, but remember that end of the day the final decision is up to you!

Choosing your Top Five

In a lot of cases it can be helpful to list both your favourite universities based on your research and a separate list of your favourite courses. This way you can prioritise the best of both worlds. Although university prestige is important it is nowhere near important is ensuring that your studying a course that you actually enjoy over the next 3 to 4 years.

Choosing the right degree course

We hope this article has given you a clear idea of all the things you need to think about when applying to university. We can’t say enough that research is paramount. Make sure you yourself are happy with both the University and the course, don’t rely on hearsay or reviews of others. 

Once you have your course and university in mind, doublecheck your future employment prospects to ensure all your hard work isn’t for nothing in a few years. 

Studying for a degree is an exciting prospect which opens up a world of opportunities upon graduation, best of luck with your application!

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