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What do you enjoy studying?
This is the main question you should ask yourself when looking for the right subject, it is surprising how many applicants overlook it in their pursuit of good nightlife, great accommodation or staying with friends. If you love reading, apply for a literature degree. If your parents need a crowbar to prise you away from your PC, choose Computer Science (unless it’s only because you play Championship Manager!)
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t pick a course you’re really good at over one you love. This is because in the long run innate ability just isn’t a match for passion. People who may not be as good as you at the start of the course will have overtaken you by the end through sheer devotion to the cause.
Once you’ve decided on a subject, it’s time to pick a course. The first thing to do is check that you actually qualify to do the course you want. For example, some Psychology courses require you to have taken three sciences at A-Level. Some universities count Geography as a science, and others don’t. You need to make absolutely sure that your A-Levels match the requirements for your chosen course. If you’re not sure of something, call the university admissions office to check. Don’t waste one of your six precious choices on a course you’re not qualified to do! We’ll discuss A-level and non-A-level subjects in depth later.
Once you’ve made sure you’re eligible, you can go on to consider the structure of the course at different universities. Every course will approach the subject from a different angle. For instance, if you take French at Oxford, you will find yourself reading a great deal of French literature. Take the French course at Newcastle and there’ll be a lot less literature, and a lot more language and sociology. Read each prospectus carefully, and compare the focus of that particular course to your own interests.
Subjects taken at A-Level
The great advantage of choosing a course based on something you studied at school is that you know what you’re getting, and you have a strong foundation of knowledge and skills to build on. That said, be aware that there’s a lot of difference between the way a subject is taught in school and at university. You should not assume that because you enjoyed the A-Level syllabus, you will definitely enjoy the university course: read the prospectus, and make sure you know exactly what the course involves.
Subjects not taken at A-Level
Here, the onus is really on you to discover everything about the course to make sure it’s what you want to study. Do some reading around your subject, and go through the course prospectus very carefully, so you know exactly what you’re in for. You may have been desperate since the age of three to study Law or Medicine, but you should still check that the course matches up to your expectations. Whilst the subject itself may be totally new, it’s likely to have component elements which match subjects you’ve taken at A-Level. So, if you’re thinking about applying to study Egyptology, don’t just get excited about the weird rituals and flesh-eating scarabs; consider how much you enjoy the essay writing parts of English, or source analysis in History. Many universities also offer a service where you can email students currently taking the course to ask them questions about their experiences. If you do decide to take a course you haven’t studied before, don’t worry if other students applying for the course have already taken the subject at school; the admissions tutor and syllabus will take account of these discrepancies, and you won’t be behind for long.
A vocational course is one which is specifically designed to qualify you for a specific future career - for example, Medicine or Dentistry. If you are considering this kind of course, you should be aware of the pros and cons before you sign on the dotted line (or, in the case of UCAS forms, in the electronic box). Firstly, are you absolutely certain what you want from your future career? Many students find that their aspirations change between their teens and early twenties. Though no-one can be absolutely certain of how their ambitions may shift, you can try to get some practical experience in the field you want to work in to check if it’s definitely for you. This will also help beef up your UCAS form. Secondly, you have to love the idea of the subject, as well as the prospect of the future career. Three years is a long time to spend studying something; it doesn’t matter how committed you are to becoming a lawyer (and it takes longer to qualify as a doctor, architect and some other professions), you will find yourself falling behind your peers if you do not love the academic disciplines of law.
Finally, you should be aware that if you do decide to follow that career at a later date, the door won’t be closed. The law conversion course and the medical fast track programme are two examples of post-graduate courses which allow you to catch up all the stuff that everyone else did in their three year degree. Many employers value the breadth of knowledge which people who did different degrees at university can bring to their professions. For example, a top city law firm might jump at the chance to employ someone who studied Russian or Chinese at university and then did the law conversion, since this person will have skills which are quite unique among their colleagues.
As well as the intellectual side of things, you may want to take practical factors into account. If you desperately want to attend a university in London, but the course they do isn’t as well-suited to you as a similar course in Edinburgh, you might decide to compromise your academic needs slightly and go to London! Other factors you might want to consider when weighing up the benefits of competing institutions include (in no particular order):
- Accommodation – cost and location
- Extra-curricular activities and facilities
- Atmosphere - be sure to get as much a feel for this as possible by going to Open Days
- Local nightlife
- Employment statistics
- Where friends are headed, although please keep in mind the fact that a substantial part of university life (some would argue the most important) is the new friends that you will make
Although practical considerations can make a big difference to your university years, you’re going away to study, and ultimately the content of the course should be your guiding principle, no matter how long the student bar is at Manchester!
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