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Choosing the right university course

Find out what degree, subject and course might be right for you to study at university, plus everything you need to know for applying.

In this article
What subject should I study at university? What course should I choose? Which university should I go to?
University entry requirements – what you need to know How do I choose my first and insurance universities? How easy is it to switch courses once I’m at university?

What subject should I study at university?

Before diving into specific courses offered by different universities, start with the general subject you want to study. This might be clear to you already; but if not, here are some questions to help you decide: 

Is it a subject you've already studied?

Simply, what are your favourite subjects currently (at A-level, Highers etc)? Which classes do you always look forward to or get top marks in? 

For instance, if English literature is your favourite class, and you always have a book on-the-go, an English degree is a sensible possibility.

  • Will you still be interested in that subject for a further three or four years – enough to motivate yourself to work and research independently?
  • Does it differ at degree-level, compared to at A-level, GCSE etc? This is where you should look at examples of modules you might study.
  • Any thoughts on life after university – what do you want to do and could your subject choice help reach with this goal?
  • On a positive note, many careers will consider graduates from a wide range of subjects (though you'll need to demonstrate transferable skills that can apply to whatever job you apply to eg research, problem-solving).

Is it a subject that relates to a career idea?

Maybe you've always dreamed of becoming an journalist? Or perhaps a work experience gig you didn't have any expectations for, has opened your eyes to that career?

  • How is the subject you’re considering at university viewed by the industry it is connected to? Do you need to take it to actually go into that career? For example, you don’t have to do a journalism degree to become a journalist – many degrees are considered.
  • Have you done any/enough work experience to see if this is the right career for you? Don't just base your idea of a career on what you've seen in films and television – it could be quite different.

Is it a subject that relates to something new?

Maybe you’ve always been interested by the big questions in life and now you're considering a philosophy degree.

This isn't the most common A-level subject, so it's possible you won't have studied it prior to applying to university.

  • Do you know what’s involved? Try speaking to a careers adviser, researching online or exploring in detail the type of modules you’ll study.
  • As above, your perception of a subject may be very different from reality.
  • What can you do later? While you may be really interested in a particular subject, keep in mind what your career prospects might look once you graduate.
  • You never know, you might learn about jobs you never knew existed.

What course should I choose?

Once you know the general subject you want to study, it's time to see what courses are on offer for this. 

For example, if you're interested in history as a subject, you might choose to study a Modern History course.

Remember that a course might differ drastically from university to university, even if they have the same name.

Do all universities offer the course you’re interested in? If you want to study veterinary science, for instance, there are only a handful of UK universities offering it, narrowing your options straight away.

On the other hand, if you want to study something like business, there are over 170 universities to pick from, not to mention different types of business degree.

For certain subjects, such as acting or psychology, choosing a course that’s been accredited by a relevant body will ensure you’re ‘work-ready’ or able to progress straight into the appropriate postgraduate course – this will give you a head start when it comes to getting into a specific profession.

What to look for when comparing courses:

 

Course content

 

Similar-sounding courses can actually end up covering very different areas, so reading the course content for each is a good point of comparison.

There will be core subjects that you have to do as well as optional subjects that you have a choice over – how flexible are these?

  • Can you find lots of modules that sound appealing?
  • Could you do any wider reading that relates to the course to prepare yourself?

In any case, this would be useful when writing a personal statement.

 

Type of assessment

 

Your degree could be assessed in lots of different ways – coursework, exams, practicals, presentations and group work.

When comparing courses, take a look in detail at this to try and find the course that best plays to your academic strengths.

If your courses up until now have had a specific leaning towards one method of assessment – BTEC Nationals often have a high coursework element to them, for instance – you may face a steep learning curve if you choose a course that heavily leans another way.

 

Grade requirements

 

Match the course entry requirements to your predicted grades to ensure you’re making realistic choices, based on what you’re likely to achieve – plus a back-up option in case you don’t quite get the grades you’re predicted.

Based on the universities that make you an offer, you’ll then have to decide which is going to be your firm (first) choice and your insurance (second) choice.

  • Are your five Ucas choices sensibly spread, including a safe bet alongside a more ambitious option, based on what you’ve been predicted to achieve?
  • Make sure your insurance choice has lower entry requirements than your first choice. After all, it's meant to be your safety net option.

 

Student satisfaction scores

 

All final-year students are asked to rate their course and university experience in the National Student Survey (NSS).

The findings are often quoted as an overall satisfaction score but you can also find specific ratings such as teaching, feedback from staff and facilities. 

It can give you a glimpse into what students on the ground think about the course.

 

Graduate prospects

 

Find out what students are up to after they graduate from studying a course at a particular university – including the percentage who are now in work or further study, the types of professions they’re working in and how much they’re earning.

The longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) data can give you an indication of what students studying a particular subject at a university went on to earn one, three and five years after graduating.

 

Other possibilities to consider

 

Joint honours courses

Can't decide between two, rather different subjects? You might be able to find a course that combines both.

For instance, this could be a mixture of a subject you are already familiar with and something new.

Scottish university courses

Many Scottish universities let you apply for a named degree (ie politics), but you’ll cover a wide range of subjects in your first year.

In the second year you can carry on with this initial subject, or specialise in some of the other subjects you tried out.

Study abroad, sandwich or placement options

You don't necessarily have to sit in lectures for three years straight, either.

Sandwich and placements can give you real world experience to put that theory into practice – essential for some subjects and careers like teaching, engineering, medicine and nursing.

There may even be opportunities to study at a university abroad for a term or even a full year, which can be amazing life experience.

Which university should I go to?

Once you’ve got your subject and course choice sorted, start looking around for where you want to be based for the next few years (especially if a course is very similar at different universities and you need something to distinguish your options).

Location

While modules, league table position and graduate prospects are important when picking the right university course for you, the 'city factor' can offer a fresh perspective – one that can impact your overall university experience when you look back years from now.

It's definitely worth considering what there is to do for fun, and even just the vibe you get when wandering around. After all, you won't be in lectures 24/7.

For many, the big appeal of university is the opportunity to move out of home and experience life in a new place. 

That said, staying at home and commuting to classes nearby might make more financial sense.

A really good way to suss out whether it’s the right kind of university for you is to head to an open day.

Build up a sense of your surroundings and ask about these:

  • Where will my lectures be based?
  • What are the accommodation options and how close are they?
  • What are the transport links like? How long does it take to get on campus from halls or typical student areas?
  • What’s the local nightlife and culture like? 

Mull these over to help you decide the sort of city you'd like to spend your university years in:

 

Close to home vs further away

 

If you plan to visit home a few times each term, consider somewhere with good transport links to and from home.

Alternatively, if you have an adventurer spirit – or simply don't want mum and dad popping up at short notice – you might want to think further afield.

 

Big city vs big town

 

While a big city like London or Birmingham might sound amazing, offering endless things to do, in reality it can have its disadvantages.

Are you really going to have the time (and money) to relish every student night, gig and edgy pop-up restaurant on offer?

A smaller alternative you can get around by foot or bike – like Edinburgh, Nottingham or Leeds – might be less overwhelming and make getting to those 9am lectures a lot easier. 

 

Campus vs scattered facilities

 

University environments vary hugely, from self-contained campuses or ‘student villages’ with everything you need for living and studying in one place, to lecture theatres and student facilities scattered across a large city. 

Campus universities may have more of a community feel, though you might feel more independent at a university with its lectures and housing more spread out (but you will further to travel to get around).

Even if you pick a university based in a city, it doesn’t necessarily mean lectures will be slap bang in the middle of the action – check where you'll actually be spending most of your time.

Living costs

Rent and living costs – whether your weekly shop or the price of a pint – can vary wildly depending on where you are in the country.

London's choice of universities, long list of (free) things to do, and status as one of the world's most famous cities, might not mean as much when your rent leaves your account each month – there's a reason why students studying in the capital are eligible for a higher maintenance loan.

  • How much will your accommodation cost each term? This means private housing costs as well as halls, as this is where you’re likely to be spending your post-fresher years.
  • How much will you need for travel? If you’re going to rely on peak-time trains or buses to get to lectures, you’ll need to check out ticket prices. 
  • Bigger cities will have tons of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants to find part-time jobs whereas you might find stiffer competition in smaller cities or towns with lots of students looking for work.

See what you'll get in student finance and other funding available, and then weigh this up against what your living costs could be at your chosen university/universities with our student budget calculator.

Your interests and hobbies

Whether you're a history buff or a sports nut, one city might lend itself to your favourite leisure activities more than another.

For instance, if you're an avid surfer, you'll find yourself short of options and without a paddle in Sheffield, compared to coastal favourites Southampton and Brighton.

The differences might run deeper. Metal heads may flock to the home of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, Birmingham, leaving 'Mad-chester' to the indie kids.

Rugby fans, meanwhile, might prefer Welsh capital Cardiff over home of football's Toon Army, Newcastle.

The universities themselves may also have a particularly active political scene or reputation for sport.

League tables and reputation

You will probably see universities proudly claim that they're 'Top 10 for this' or '3rd best in the country for that'. But it's important to dig into what this means.

There are lots of different league tables and rankings, but the most prominent ones for UK universities are the Complete University Guide, Guardian League Table and The Times' Good University Guide. They have their respective criteria and methodology, but usually consider factors like teaching quality and the ratio of tutors to students when ranking universities.

Also worth considering is that many of these league tables look at universities as a whole. Usually the likes of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London etc trade the top positions each year. However, there may be a university that ranks lower but is particularly good for your subject (eg it has close links to industry, top-notch facilities).

So while these league tables are worth a look, don't base your entire decision on them – just because a uni is ranked highly, doesn't mean it's necessarily the right fit for you.

University entry requirements – what you need to know

Entry requirements are the grades and conditions you need to meet in order to successfully apply to a university course.

Each university will set these out and use them to quickly evaluate whether you are suitable for a course.

These can vary in form, but usually come down to specific advanced-level qualifications and grades you must achieve, that show you have the required skills and knowledge for that course.

 

1. Uni entry requirements can take many forms

 

For any course at uni, Ucas entry requirements might be listed in several different ways. They might be shown as:

  • Grades: eg AAB (A-level), AAAB (Highers), DDD (BTEC)
  • Ucas tariff points: eg 112 points
  • Ucas tariff points with a grade requirement: eg 112 points with a B in a specific subject

Don't worry too much, as they all roughly equate to the same thing (but be warned: DDD at BTEC and DDD at A-level are two very different things!).

 

2. Universities don't just look at grades – subjects can matter

 

A university may require you to have taken one or more specific subjects to show that you're suitable for a course.

This is an important factor to consider when choosing your A-levels, especially if you have a degree path in mind at this point. Medicine applicants, listen up especially!

Sometimes these subject-specific requirements are essential, other times more of a preference that can help your application.

On the other hand, some universities may not accept certain subjects, or may request extra requirements if you do apply with these.

It’s not always essential to have studied a subject prior to degree level either eg you don't have to have studied law at A-level to study it at degree level.

 

3. Sometimes, qualifications will matter too

 

While some universities make offers based on Ucas tariff points – which could comprise of several different qualifications – most will be specific in terms of the level and mix of qualifications they're looking for. 

For instance, medicine and law entry requirements usually consist of A-levels (rather than BTECs).

 

4. Look out for GCSE entry requirements 

 

The majority of university courses look for at least a 4/5 in GCSE English, maths and possibly science.

Some university courses go further and list specific subjects and grades they expect you to have.

A-levels have changed in recent years, meaning that universities may look to your GCSE grades as a formal indicator of your academic ability as they will be the last formal assessment you will have taken.

 

5. Universities may not accept retakes or resits

 

Some highly selective universities or courses, such as medicine, may state that A-levels should be taken at the same sitting. 

This can affect you if you're looking to repeat some exams after sixth form or if you've taken some exams early. 

Alternatively, a university make accept retakes but bump their offer to you by a grade, so an ABB offer becomes AAB – this is common for Scottish students applying to a university in their home country. 

If you don't get the grades you were hoping for on results day, it's best to speak to your teachers or head of year about your options.

Read more: How to appeal an A-level grade

 

6. Do entry requirements say anything about the university or course?

 

You could argue that these are used as a statement on how a course wants to be viewed against other universities and courses. 

For instance, a course requiring grades of A*AA-ABB or equivalent will be considered differently to one with more flexible course requirements of grades CCD and lower.

But using Ucas entry requirements to make a judgement about the value of a course isn't necessarily that helpful.

 

 7. Can university entry requirements change?

 

Right up to the moment you receive an offer, a university can change its entry requirements.

So you could apply for a course thinking that the university will be looking for BBC at A-level, only for it to make you a conditional offer of BBB.

This might work the other way around, too.

You do not have to accept this offer. If you do, though, it won't be changed.

 

8. Do universities stick to their stated entry requirements?

 

In theory, yes. But in practice, there are shades of grey.

Sometimes a course may be asking for AAB and that will be the absolute minimum the uni will consider when you get your results.

Some will be looking for those grades or equivalent – so an alternative set of grades like A*AC may suffice.

On the other hand, a university might ask for BBC or 112 Ucas tariff points, but be far more flexible when results come out, letting in people on the course with sometimes far lower grades.

 

9. What if you don't meet the entry requirements come results day? 

 

You may find that your grades fall short of the entry requirements you needed for your university offer. 

There's still a chance a university will accept you with lower grades if you narrowly missed the mark and they have places to fill (though trying your luck with three Cs when your offer was ABB probably won't work).

If you find yourself in this situation, contact the university as soon as you can on results day to confirm your status and see if it will still accept you.

Otherwise, you can still apply to a different course through the official Ucas Clearing process, with the grades you have achieved.

How do I choose my first and insurance universities?

Once you receive all your offers from your Ucas choices, you’ll need to decide which is your first - or ‘firm’ - university choice and which is your back-up, or ‘insurance’ option.

What is a firm university choice?

Put simply, your firm choice is your first choice for university. If you meet the conditions of this spot, then it's yours.

It's a good idea to make sure it's going to be somewhere you think you can meet the requirements for and that you really do want to go there.

What is your university insurance choice?

Your insurance choice is your second or back-up choice. Essentially, it's there if you don't meet the conditions of your first choice.

You should usually pick somewhere with slightly lower grade conditions so you don't leave yourself high and dry. 

If your first choice falls through, you'll be obliged to go to your insurance choice if you've put one down, so don't pick somewhere you wouldn’t be happy to go to.

You don't have to have an insurance option, either (but it makes sense to do so).

When do I have to decide by?

You don't have to decide on your first and insurance choices until all your offers are back in from the (up to) five universities you applied to. Ucas Track will then show you the deadline you have to decide by. 

Generally, the deadline will be early May or June.

Firm and insurance choices: FAQ

 

Can I apply for accommodation at my insurance choice too?

 

Some universities will allow you to apply for accommodation even if they're your insurance option; most will only open applications to you if you've selected their course as your firm choice.

Come results day, if you end up going to your insurance choice, you'll need to make a quick application for uni accommodation. The university's housing office will be able to help you.

 

Is my student finance application affected by my firm and insurance choices?

 

The amount of student finance you're eligible for can be affected by your university choice.

  • Tuition fee loans: some unis can charge more for tuition fees - up to £9,250 a year - so your loan will be adjusted to cover this.
  • Maintenance loans: these also depend on your living circumstances, so may differ depending on whether your firm and insurance choices are in different parts of the UK. Students in London living away from home are able to receive more than elsewhere, for example.

Apply with your firm choice in mind, but if you end up going somewhere else, update your student finance details so you're assessed accurately. 

 

What happens once I've finalised my choices?

 

Once you have selected your firm and insurance choices, your other choices will automatically disappear from Ucas Track; so be sure before you press the submit button!

Keep an eye out on Ucas Track afterwards:

  • If you have a message saying that an unconditional offer has been accepted - this trend has grown in recent years and essentially means means you're in, no questions asked
  • If you have a message saying a conditional offer has been firmly accepted, this means that as long as you meet the requirements of the course come results day, the place is yours.

 

Can I change my mind?

 

I don't want to go to any of the universities that have offered me a spot. What now?

You don't have to accept a place anywhere if you decide not to - but as soon as you decline a spot, it's gone, so be sure. 

It is possible to have another go within the Ucas cycle if your initial Ucas choices don't work out:

  • If you don't accept any offers: try again with Ucas Extra.
  • If you don't meet the criteria of your firm or insurance choices: enter Clearing to find a different course (or try again next year).
  • If you do better than expected and want to look at different options: apply to a new course through Ucas Adjustment.

 

I want to go to my insurance place instead of my firm - can I swap?

 

When you decide which unis you want as your firm and insurance choices from the ones that have given you an offer, there are certain expectations behind this final decision.

It's generally expected you will attend your firm choice if you get the grades for it.

If you change your mind, it's best to act quickly. Contact Ucas to change your replies if it's within seven days of making them. Otherwise, things get more tricky.

You’ll have to request your first university choice to agree to release you from your accepted place and get agreement from your insurance choice too.

Of course, no university is going to force you to attend them - but strictly speaking, you have entered into a contract with them.

 

How easy is it to switch courses once I’m at university?

It is possible to switch courses at university – but not always straightforward.

It will depend on the course you wish to change to as to whether this is possible, namely whether there's space and if you satisfy the basic entry requirements. 

The general consensus is that transfers will be accommodated where possible (the earlier the better), but the option shouldn’t be relied on.

It’s much easier to put the time in now and make sure you’ve definitely made the right degree choice. If you’re asking this question, you might want to consider how committed you are to your course in the first place.

Oh, and don’t bother taking a course as a ruse to get on to a more competitive one – it’s just not worth the risk.

Some students see switching courses once they are at university as a way of sneaking on to really popular courses, such as medicine. Two words: don’t bother! These courses wised up to that one years ago.

Make sure you consider how dropping out will affect your student finance before making a decision, namely what you'll be responsible for repaying.

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