Choosing a university is about finding the course which feels right for you, discovers Eleanor Doughty

University of St Andrews students on their traditional graduate Pier Walk  
 Credit: University of St Andrews

Your time has come to find a university. It’s exciting – you’re about to enter the real world. I remember it well, browsing the bookcases in the sixth form common room filled with prospectuses, each one as much of a mystery as the next.

But how should you go about choosing a degree? Should you select the university, and then the course – or approach it course-first? The latter is by far the most persuasive. That is to say, focus on the course content when making a decision, and then consider other factors that make up the student experience.

Of course, you might not have a sense of what you’d like to do post-university, nor of which subject to choose. ‘Don’t just pick your least hated A-level – that’s a hiding to nowhere,’ says Anna Rogers, head of Higher Education and Careers at Tonbridge School in Kent. Instead, think big. ‘What else do you give time in your life to? Is it sport, film, US culture?’ Some subjects – medicine, architecture, and nursing – provide a clear professional pathway. Others, such as law, are more open.

If you are not set on a specific career path but wish to make your degree both interesting and useful, a joint honours degree might suit: computer science with business; Arabic and Japanese; art history and management, and many more. The University of Exeter offers hundreds of joint honours courses, making traditional subjects such as ancient history fit for the 21st century: its ancient history and archaeology with employment experience degree has a third year in industry. 

Lancaster University

Think around the traditional subjects on offer, too. Say you like geography and economics – why not look at global sustainable development? This course is available at Warwick University, if you have three As. Other non-traditional subjects, such as American Studies – offered by 16 universities nationwide, including Swansea University, where you don’t need any specific A-levels to enter its four-year course with a year abroad – provide an alternative scheme that might appeal to both your interests, as well as academic strengths.

When considering courses, it is worth remembering that you are going to be studying towards this qualification for three years or more. Finding the right one is critical – and by ‘right’, that’s ‘right’ for you, rather than your parents, teachers, or friends.

‘If you’re enjoying your course then you’ve always got an anchor to the university,’ says Rogers. ‘If you’re not, then you’re not going to be motivated to go. Everything that comes from that – anxieties around whether you’re in the right place, and the beginning of imposter syndrome – can be alleviated if you pick the right course to start with.’

Computer Science at Aston University

While ‘the right course’ means ‘the right course for you’, you might wonder what ‘right’ actually means. After all, there are over 50,000 degree courses in the UK to choose from. Even with the subject nailed down, how do you know which course is The One?

Consider what – and how – you like to learn. ‘With economics,’ says Rogers, ‘if you don’t like statistics then you can avoid the heavily statistical courses. Likewise in English, you might want to avoid Beowulf. With medicine, how is it structured? At Oxford and Cambridge you essentially do a science degree first.’ 

Then think about how you like to learn. Would you enjoy small groups, and a more personalised environment – or the anonymity of a large institution? 

Olivera Raraty, headmistress of Malvern St James Girls’ School in Worcestershire is seeing more of her pupils inspect the course content before applying to university. ‘Students are becoming much more aware of not just where they go in terms of lifestyle experience, but also the type of course they’re going to be studying,’ she says.

Beyond the size of the university, consider how you like to be assessed – using exams, or coursework. Geography might factor in too: do you want to live in a cathedral city, a metropolis, or a campus in the countryside? Perhaps London takes your fancy. If so, the city has 40 universities, each with its own character. 

You’ll never believe who is best for…

History of Art – University of Kent (5th)
Engineering – Swansea University (9th)
Maths – Heriot-Watt University (12th)
Philosophy – University of Dundee (10th)
Management – University of Bath (7th)
French – University of Southampton (4th)
Pharmacology – University of Strathclyde (2nd)
Arabic – University of Westminster (9th_
Social work – Robert Gordon University (6th)
Music – Royal Holloway, University of London (6th)
*According to the Complete University Guide

There are also more personal factors to bear in mind. ‘Students are looking for specific needs from the institutions as well – including the support that’s available,’ says Ben Jordan, policy manager at UCAS. Success rates aren’t the prerogative of the university critera; a student is also asking the same questions. So while universities are looking to recruit individuals who will flourish post-graduation, students too will be asking how will they do on the course, do we have the right facilities for them, the right support services? ‘That element of student success is the total package,’ says Jordan.

All of this will come into student decision-making about where they should study. Once you have constructed your own set of filters, then you can imagine a clearer picture for yourself and your future degree. ‘Students are more like customers now,’ says Ali Clark, head of student recruitment at the University of Stirling. ‘You’re not going to buy a car without test-driving it, and it’s the same for university.’

Lucy Waweru, careers and higher education adviser at Rugby School in Warwickshire also favours the course-first approach. Sometimes, when her charges draw up a menu of universities, they find that some don’t offer the subject they’ve got in mind. Engineering is not taught at St Andrews, for example. 

‘It’s important that they start from “what do I want to study?”,’ says Waweru. Would-be freshers, she adds, ‘get’ academia. ‘They have been studying since they were three, so they know what they’re good at, but what they don’t know is universities. If they’re going to make an error, it’s likely to be the university and not the course.’

Of course, it’s essential to actually like the subject. There’s no point in pretending in order to get into a particular university, says Diana Morant, head of school and university consultancy at William Clarence. ‘We are often asked by families who are thinking about Oxbridge, if we applied with this course, is it easier to get in? If you’re not applying for what you have a passion for, then you’re not going to get in. You must be applying for what you really want to study.’

Huge emphasis is put on the Russell Group, an assembly of 24 universities, but it can be misplaced, says Clark: ‘we often get approached by parents and students asking if we’re in the Russell Group, but when you ask them what the Russell Group is, they’ve got no idea.’

Ali Clark, University of Stirling

Just as bigger is not always better, however, sometimes higher overall university rankings do not mean that you are getting the very best course. For those interested in reading history of art, the top five universities for the subject according to the Complete Universities Guide reads thus: Cambridge, Oxford, St Andrews, Warwick… Kent. The first four are in the top 12 universities nationwide, while Kent is number 45, and its entry requirements for history of art are BBC, compared to ABB at Warwick, where there are 24 variations on a history of art course to choose from.

And for would-be engineering students, Aston University in Birmingham is ranked thirteenth in the country, though its overall university rating comes in at 47th. The highest entry requirement for its seven engineering courses is BBC. These might suit you better than the courses on offer at Queen Mary, which is ranked eleventh for engineering, and for which you need AAB. 

There are hundreds of similar examples. Huge emphasis is put on the Russell Group, an assembly of 24 universities, but it can be misplaced, says Clark: ‘we often get approached by parents and students asking if we’re in the Russell Group, but when you ask them what the Russell Group is, they’ve got no idea.’ 

Out on the water at Stirling University

For those looking to study marketing, Bath University ranks number one; for forensic science, it’s Strathclyde; and for social work it’s Lancaster. None are Russell Group members. 

What is important, says Rogers, is to match the university ‘level’ to your predicted grades. ‘You need to be in the right academic cohort. If you’re coached to within an inch of your life and you get into Oxford and you’re bumping along the bottom, that’s a horrible place to be. Similarly, you don’t want to go to a university when you’ve got four A*s, and everyone else has got in on BBC.’ And if you’re going to spend three years there, you’re going to need to like the place: ‘it’s about arriving and feeling a sense of someone saying hello to you,’ adds Rogers.

My own experience bore this out; interviewing at a university in the global top ten, I left feeling cold. It goes to show, says Clark, that just because ‘there’s a high-ranked university that offers the course, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the course is right for you.’

These rankings, says Clark, are not always helpful. ‘Students need to focus on the things that are important to them.’ If the ranking is important to you, that’s great – but the chances are that atmosphere, reading lists, and student life might bring more to bear. Rogers puts it best. Get the course right, and the rest will follow, she says. ‘We do well in the things that we like.’ 


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