It’s easy to be swept away by the excitement of applying to university, and sometimes
that tunnel-vision focus –no matter where you go, or even what you study, so long as you get those UCAS
offers rolling in – may lead to regret. With the benefit of hindsight, many students may wish they’d taken a
step back and thought more critically about what they really want from the next three or more years. I know
that the pressure of choosing a subject – and worrying about how that will translate to a career in the
distant future – all at the age of seventeen can be quite daunting, so much so that many of us put off such
weighty considerations, and simply pick a university that is close to home or that our friends are going to.
It’s worth resisting that urge – the opportunity to pick your course and university is one of the best
choices you’ll ever have the chance to make, and the more you think it through, the better the decision
There are many things the budding sixth form student must consider when picking out a future. Firstly,
what do you want to study? What subjects so far at school have really grabbed your attention? Or, if no
obvious candidates present themselves, which subjects do you definitely not want to take
further? If you’ve already decided to aim for a particular career, is it necessary to study a particular
subject or follow a particular path? Think carefully and research whether you can study something you
love and later convert to the career path you hope to explore – only a very conscientious student will
be able to force themselves to study a topic they don’t enjoy for three or more years with the uncertain
promise of a career at the end of it. You may be like me and be extremely lucky to realise the subject
you love quickly (for me it was History), or you may have to think hard about what subjects are pushing
you away or pulling you in. In such cases you need to really think about what school topics have you
really enjoyed? They can be broad topics such as enjoying literature or reading, or they can be specific
topics such as learning about astronomy in science. Either way, you need to decide what topic you can
commit to studying for at least the next three years, because it’s not always going to be easy, and the
most enjoyable study will always be a subject you enjoy on its own merits. You will be offered a much
broader range of subjects at university than you were afforded at school, and some things you’ve never
studied may seem superficially or genuinely intriguing. Even those who know what subject they want to do
still need to think about the area they wish to study. Potential Historians, for example, need to think
about which periods of history they want to study; some universities’ courses only offer modern history
or political history, and that will factor into the second key consideration of university study. See our History Tutors here.
The second consideration is where. Where do you want to study? Once you know the subject you want to study the where can become a lot easier. A common misconception is that it has become very much the norm in the UK for students to attend university; in fact, Government figures suggest about a third of all students attend higher education of any form – and you should consider at least briefly whether university will help you achieve your goals before committing a considerable amount of your time and money to it. If you’re reading this, you’ve almost certainly decided that university is for you – and you can start with looking at the extensive university league tables published annually. You want to look closely at the subject-specific league tables – ideally, you want to want to go to the best university for your subject. Oxbridge may consistently top league tables and command strong public respect, but if you’re looking to study Sport Science, for example then Loughborough or Exeter rank higher than the ivory towers of either of Britain’s oldest universities. Research the courses the university provides; what does the course you’re interested in focus on, and is that something you are interested in? Read up on how the university’s past and current students feel about its strengths and weaknesses – and how best they suit you. Don’t worry too much about knowing other people who’ll also be applying, or how close to or far from you’ll be from home – everyone is in the same awkward boat, and making new friends is one of the most enjoyable things you’ll do at university.
Once you think you’ve settled on your choices, talk to people – and talk to the right people: your teachers, tutors from the universities you hope to apply to, and your parents. If at all possible, make time to visit the university you are thinking about moving to for the next three years. Does it fit you culturally? Do you like the university environment? Would you prefer to live on a campus university or in a big city? You have a wide range of choice, so experience as many different choices as you can to find the one that suits you best.
I know that this advice might seem overwhelming, and that putting so much effort into choosing the right universities and courses to apply to seems like a lot of work on top of all the work needed for your A-levels, but from one student to another – it is absolutely worth it. Get this decision right, and the next few years will be whatever you want them to be.