Choosing the right course at university or college

When choosing a higher education course, think about which subjects interest you, the type of qualification you want and which style of studying suits you best.

Choosing your course

There are a range of subjects and courses available which can help you reach new careers, so it's important to research what's right for you.

Many courses are vocational and work-related, and lead straight into a career such as nursing or accountancy. Others are academic and range from subjects you may have studied before in school such as French or geography, to less familiar ones like social policy.

You’ll need to look beyond the course title because courses with exactly the same name may differ enormously. You should look carefully at the differences between courses within your subject before deciding which to apply for.

For example, if you’re interested in construction but wish to use your creative skills, you may be better suited to a building design management course than a building project management course.

Course differences and entry requirements

Higher education courses are put together by individual universities and colleges, so what's included and how they are delivered, may vary enormously as they draw on the strengths of the staff and facilities.

When choosing your course, you should always be aware of entry requirements. Universities and colleges set their own entry requirements for higher education courses so they may vary widely. Two or more universities or colleges providing the same course may have different entry requirements so you may have to consider a different route into university or choose a different course if you don't meet their minimum entry requirements.

Style and types of learning

You'll need to think about the style of learning that best suits you and your commitments as there are quite a few options, including:

  • learning full-time
  • learning part-time
  • flexible learning routes like elearning or distance learning courses

While it’s important to study a subject you enjoy, if one of your reasons for entering higher education is related to career progression, it’s worth thinking about what type of career you want when you’ve finished your course.

If there’s a subject that you particularly enjoy but you want to follow a career in a different area, you may want to consider doing a ‘joint honours’.   This allows you to take the subjects you want to learn, and join them in to one degree.  Many degree courses are ‘modular’ which means that they are made up of different subject blocks which deal with particular areas of interest.

Modules may be delivered using a range of lectures, seminars and/or workshops and you may have some say over some, or all, of the modules you study.

Some courses may include: 

  • placements - spending time working for an employer and carrying out duties or tasks as any other employee of the company
  • 'sandwich’ years - where between the start and end of your degree, you gather experience working in an area related to the course you are studying
  • years abroad studying or gaining work experience

Foundation degrees also include work-based learning.

Options like these may be of interest to you and help you make more employable in the future so you may  wish to consider courses that offer these opportunities.

Choosing where to study

Where you study can be almost as important as what you study. One of the first things to consider is whether you want to live at home or move away.

It may make sense to move if you want to study a particular course at a specific university or college. Some students also value the experience of living in halls of residence, or in shared accommodation, as an important part of university life. Others want the opportunity to experience living in a different part of the country.

For some people living at home offers ‘the best of both worlds’ and it's becoming more popular as more institutions, such as further education colleges, offer higher education qualifications.

Issues to consider

Although course and location are crucial when you're choosing a place to study, it's also worth thinking about:

  • size of the institution - is it one campus or are the buildings scattered
  • entry requirements for your chosen course - these can vary across institutions 
  • what social facilities there are, such as live music venues, cinemas and sports facilities
  • accommodation including what the halls of residence are like and how much university and private accommodation costs
  • the cost of living in the area 
  • tuition fees and other expenses

The Students' Union at your preferred university or college will be able to help you find out about the views and opinions of current students. Many Students’ Unions produce an 'alternative prospectus' based on students' views which might be helpful to you.

Finding out more about courses, colleges and universities

Once you’ve got a shortlist of courses that appeal to you, it’s worth looking at some of the other sources of information about them like independent reports. These provide information on the numbers of students who finished the coursestudent satisfaction and more.

You might also want to take time to look at information on the college or university's performance. The Unistat's website includes results from the UK National Student Survey (NSS) which can give you an insight into what students think of a university or college.

UCAS

The UCAS course search facility gives you the opportunity to check the ‘entry profile’ for a course. This information includes details of the qualifications and grades you’ll need and may include details of the subject and course structure. You can also find out online which universities and colleges offer the courses you are interested in.

Support during your course

It’s worth researching the help and support that would be available to you at different universities and colleges. This may vary widely depending on which university or college you attend and the type of help and support you need. For instance, many universities and colleges have study skill centres to help students adjust to academic life.

All universities and colleges will have support staff to help you with practical problems such as issues or personal problems.

If you have a disability

Knowing beforehand  about the support available can be especially important if you have a disability. Colleges and universities have an obligation to make provision for disabled students. You may also qualify for extra financial help.

University prospectuses

To help you decide where to study, every university and college publishes a prospectus, generally two each year. They also hold open days and some may have stands at higher education events around the United Kingdom.

The two prospectuses published each year are:

  • an undergraduate prospectus for students taking their first higher education qualification, such as a Bachelor’s degree or Foundation degree
  • a postgraduate prospectus for students who already have a degree and want to take a higher degree or other postgraduate course

Each prospectus gives information about the institution including:

  • an introduction to the college
  • detailed information on courses and entry requirements
  • college facilities such as accommodation, libraries and access to computers
  • student support including financial support and childcare
  • support for students with disabilities or learning difficulties
  • practical information such as transport and getting to the college
  • information about leisure facilities, clubs and social life
  • comments from students about their learning experience, student life and what they go on to do after their course
  • information and links with organisations, business and industry

Prospectuses can be ordered directly from individual university or colleges or downloaded from their websites.

At some universities and colleges you can also get an alternative prospectus which is written by students and gives an insider's view of the courses, facilities and student life. You should contact the Students Union at your chosen university or college to see if this is available.

Higher education events

If you are in lower sixth, or Year 13, it's a good idea to go to a higher education fair or similar event to get information on the university or college you are interested in. At the exhibition stands you can pick up prospectuses, get answers to your questions on everything from entry requirements to accommodation costs and get careers guidance and information on student finance.

Higher education events are held in cities across the UK and admission is free however you may need to reserve a place. Some events also hold seminars on topics such as the application process, gap years and student finance.

Open days

Open days usually take place in spring or autumn, by which time you may have had offers for a place from one or more universities, but you've not yet accepted one. While you may have an idea about what the university or college is like, there's no substitute for seeing a place for yourself.

 At an open day you can:

  • talk to tutors about the course and university or college
  • look around the college facilities, including the library, leisure  and computer facilities
  • get an overview of support available, such as financial support and childcare
  • talk to students and former students about the course and college

You may be able to register and book a place through the university or college's website. If you can't make the dates for the open days, you may be able to sign up for a guided tour instead, or visit yourself.

If you want a closer look at a particular course, you may even be able to take part in a student shadow scheme, where you spend a day with a student.

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