If you’ve just finished your Year 12 studies, and kicking back for the summer hols, you may not always feel completely at ease.

While you’re happy in the knowledge that there are no more exams to worry about for another year, many students start to concern themselves with another important matter: what to do next.

For some, the decision to spend the next three or four years at university has been easy. For others, the options weigh on their minds and become increasingly uncertain whether a traditional degree at is really the right path for them.

So if you’re on the fence about applying to university, let’s look at the potential causes for uncertainty, which in turn should tell you if this popular choice among sixth formers isn’t for you.

And even if you’ve already made your mind up and raring to get your UCAS form sorted, this post may make you re-evaluate your decision for the better (naturally).

1. Consider alternative pathways to your chosen career

If you have a good idea of what sort of career you would like to follow, then you may be aware that there are other ways of getting there than through a degree programme, especially now university has become so expensive.

Although certain professions such as a doctor, dentist, lawyer, vet and nurse all require you to hold a degree, there are many jobs where a degree is not necessary.

So what other ways can you kick-start your career?

Earn while you learn

The supply and demand of apprenticeships has grown steadily over the past five years, thanks to the huge hike in university tuition fees in 2012.

375,800 apprentices started in the 2017/18 academic year, according to government figures, and there are now thousands of apprenticeship schemes in operation across an enormous range of industries, both large and small.

Gov.uk is the best place to start your search, by filtering the available apprenticeships using the left hand menu. Other websites listing apprentice vacancies include:

Once you've found an apprenticeship you like the look of, you'll need to tailor your application and prepare for the interview if you are invited to one. This will give you the best chance of being successful.

Start at the bottom

Applying for an internship or a job directly out of school or college is also a great way of starting your career.

Joining an organisation as a junior member of the team and working your way up is always an option, as long as you’re prepared to put up with grunt work and low wages for a while.

On the plus side, you are gaining valuable experience, and a chance to meet people and network within the industry.

Look at vacancies available in your area on websites such as:

This is not an exhaustive list, so there may be other (smaller) websites advertising local jobs.

Your search should find some openings that do not require a degree qualification, but if the requirements are in any way unclear, get in touch with the employer and ask for clarification.

If you discover companies that look interesting to work for, and feel they might offer suitable employment, try calling or emailing them, even if they don’t appear to currently have any appropriate roles for you. Passing on your details will at least put you on their records, and let you know about any jobs in the future you could apply for.

This first contact also means you’ve let them know you’re keen to work for their organisation, and means you’re not applying cold for any future roles they advertise – this can sometimes work in your favour.

Become an entrepreneur

Being your own boss is an option that (unsurprisingly) appeals to many people – to achieve this, you’ll need a business idea and a good deal of enthusiasm and perseverance.

There are a number of steps involved in setting up a business, and even then, you’ll need to put in a lot of hard work to make it profitable.

However, don’t let this put you off - many young people manage to be successful in the world of entrepreneurship – just take a look at cases such as Alyssa Jewellery and Christian Owens. Our showcase of start-up success stories will also inspire you to kick-start your own venture.

If you feel you have a flair for business, or an idea you believe you could carry through to fruition, then this is certainly an option worth considering.

The first step is to spend time finding the right type of business for you – think about your hobbies, passions, and anything else you enjoy spending time doing. Don’t rush this stage of initial exploration, otherwise you’ll end up regretting it later on and may have to start from scratch again if it’s really not want you want to do.

Listen to your intuition and think about the following:

  • What do you excel at in school/college – is there any way you could offer your skills and strengths as a service or product to other people?
  • Existing businesses that interest you – can you replicate a business in your own unique way, or better it somehow?
  • Gaps in the market – could you come up with a business that fills a niche?

Read more about choosing the right type of business structure in Studential’s business start-up guide.

Once you’ve decided what sort of business you would like to set up, you’ll need to put together a plan (yup, it’s amazing how many people don’t actually bother with this crucial step, but it’s vital if you want any chance of your business getting off the ground).

The plan does not need to be a mighty tome – just a page or two will suffice. Our guide to writing and testing a business plan can help you with this, but essentially you’ll need to decide and write down:

  • Your target audience – who are you trying to serve with your business? E.g. at Studential, our audiences include students (from age 16 and older, including mature university applicants), parents and teachers.
  • Your brand – what promise are you making to your customers/clients?
  • Your benefits – how does your business create and deliver value? What are you giving them and how is it beneficial to your audience(s)?
  • Your objectives – what do you want to achieve with your business?
  • Your action points for achieving these business objectives – what steps are you going to take to reach the goals you’ve set?

These questions are all important and need to be answered before you spend any money on getting your business off the ground.

At 17 or 18, funding is going to be more of an issue than for someone in their twenties or older.

Fortunately, the existence of the internet and other technology allows start-up costs to be kept to a minimum. Freelancers can be hired cheaply for tasks such as designing a website, though it will help if you can do as much of the groundwork yourself if possible.

There are a number of small business start-up loans available to those wanting to become an entrepreneur. Go to the government’s Start Up Loans website and Virgin StartUp Loan Funding for more information, and check out the comprehensive list of grants and loans available at The Entrepreneur Handbook (although please note that not all of these sources will be relevant).

It’s also worth looking out for local competitions that offer the chance to win business funding, and enter these too.

You may find this is a point where a short course in finance or bookkeeping at your local college or university may come in useful, as you will learn how to manage your personal finances and track money, which is essential if you are going to try and attract funding for your business.

When your business cash flow becomes more substantial, you might want to find out more about getting external help with controlling your finances.

Once your business is off the ground, you can think about getting the word out through promotional tasks such as emails, blog posts, newsletters, Google AdWords (if you have a website), Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, leaflets/flyers, posters, and networking. Never underestimate the power of word-of-mouth either! (face-to-face or over the phone).

Spread the news in any way you can, so your business can begin to grow as you start to draw in customers.

Feel like you’re in the budding entrepreneur camp after reading this? Read our detailed 10 step guide to starting a business for more information. Gov.uk, startups.co.uk, Start Up Donut and Small Business are also great sources of advice for those wanting to set up their own business.

I have no idea what I actually want to do with my life…

That’s fine – who does at 16 or 17?

But going to university isn’t the only way to keep your options open. You could try doing some research and making a list of industries or careers you find appealing, and then applying for work experience at an appropriate organisation to see if you like it.

Check your local colleges, as they will often provide taster sessions or short courses for a number of different subjects.

If your school has a careers advisor or teachers you can speak to about your options, then they should also be a port of call. Talk to them about where your strengths lie academically, what you enjoy doing, and your general skill set. This can help you pinpoint some areas that might be suited to you, which you can then investigate further.

If you find something you’re really keen on and think you could make a commitment to, try searching for apprenticeships, where (as mentioned earlier) you can earn while learn.

Don’t worry if it takes you a while to find something interesting you feel you would like to pursue further – it’s an important decision that shouldn’t be rushed or taken lightly.

And there are so many jobs and careers available now, that finding the right path is a more challenging task than ever.

2. Adapting to student lifestyle

If you’re reading this blog post, we’re pretty sure you’re not unfamiliar with all the fun and socialising that comes with life as a university student. However, this isn’t always going to appeal to everyone, so don’t feel bad if you’re not sure this type of lifestyle would suit you.

Not everyone is programmed to enjoy spending at least two or three nights out a week at a club or university bar, drinking and dancing until the wee hours of the morning.

As a Fresher, putting yourself out there to make friends and get involved with clubs, societies and the general social scene comes with the territory (unless you want to try and live as a recluse for the next few years, but this could be rather difficult, being surrounded by hordes of other students).

Think about yourself and your personality (especially if you’re an introvert), and whether overall you would be comfortable in this environment for three or four years. This is why some people choose to apply to smaller universities, with fewer students in classes/on their course, and where the campus feels like more of a community.

Take time to research different universities and what they are like in terms of size, students per class, etc. if you think large institutions such as Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff would be a bit overwhelming.

Also remember that while any nights out or other forms of socialising, e.g. restaurant meals, theatre, cinema, etc. are fun, they all cost money (on top of your tuition fees, accommodation and other living costs).

This is where it’s a good idea to investigate costs of living at universities you’re interested in applying to, although as a general (and obvious) rule-of-thumb, it will always be more expensive in cities than in more rural locations.

As well as the social side of student life, you will have to spend some of your time studying too. For many courses, this means a good deal of independent learning, so being able to manage your time is essential.

You’ll have to be prepared to knuckle down when it comes to revising for exams, and not be distracted by your mates, hobbies, etc. if you want to leave with a decent class of degree.

This is why it’s important to look at the course content for the degrees you are considering applying to, as some people prefer to be assessed through coursework, whereas others prefer to take exams. By doing so, you’ll be able to select a programme best suited to you and the way you like to learn.

For those who are more hands-on, a university degree may not be the right route for you, particularly if the field you’re interested in doesn’t offer courses that have a good grounding in practical work. You may be better off applying for an apprenticeship or other work-based training qualification, or for a job with an appropriate organisation.

If you’re still unsure whether the student lifestyle is right for you, try talking to friends or family members that are already at university, or previously attended, and ask them about their experiences. First-hand insight is always valuable, and they might highlight things they didn’t enjoy that you hadn’t considered.

Overall, student lifestyle is a factor worth considering to save yourself the possible costs in time and money later on if you decide you don’t like university life and choose to drop out. So check what sort of environment universities are offering, and whether you are happy with their course assessment methods.

3. Costs

Probably one of the biggest concerns for prospective UCAS applicants is money.

University has become an extremely expensive option since tuition fees were raised to £9,000 a year in 2012, but despite a fall in applications during this cycle, the cost does not appear to have introduced a permanent downward spiral for university enrolments.

On the contrary, in 2019 a total of 561,420 students applied to start a course in 2020 by the 15th January deadline.

However, let’s not forget that while applicant figures are thriving, graduates can still expect to leave university with over £30,000 of debt, rising to over £50,000 if they attend university in a city such as London, Leeds or Nottingham.

This huge sum scares many students and parents alike, but it’s important to remember that it’s the repayments you should be concerned with here, and not the overall price tag attached to a university education. So let’s take a look at the facts:

  • You don’t have to pay up front to start your degree – once you have applied to the Student Loans Company, they will automatically pay your tuition fees. You will also receive a loan for living costs. If you’re studying full-time, you won’t have to repay any of these loans until the April after you graduate
  • You’ll repay 9% of everything you earn over £21,000 – this is a fixed rate, and if you happen to lose your job or take a pay cut, your repayments will drop accordingly. So if you’re earning £22,000 for example, you’ll pay £90 a month, as this salary is £1,000 over the threshold, and 9% of this is £90. Unfortunately this £21,000 threshold was supposed to rise in 2017, but in late 2015 the government decided this would no longer be the case, and it is now frozen until April 2021.
  • After 30 years all remaining debt is completely wiped (if you haven’t already paid it all off) – this means if you never work in a job paying over the threshold, you won’t have to ever repay a penny. This also means that many graduates earning over £21,000 a year will never pay it back within 30 years anyway. Only those at the higher end of the income scale are likely to ever be able to repay the loan in full.
  • Repayments are deducted automatically from your salary through payroll by your employer.
  • Above-inflation interest is charged on top – while you’re studying this will be RPI inflation plus 3% on the outstanding balance. Once you finish studying, and earn less than £21,000, this will change to accruing RPI inflation. If you earn between £21,000 and £41,000, interest will gradually rise from RPI to RPI plus 3%. If you earn over £41,000, they will accrue RPI inflation plus 3%. These thresholds are currently frozen until 2021, but may rise later.
  • You’ll repay the same amount of money each month whether tuition fees are £6,000 or £9,000 (although most universities charge £9,000 for their degrees anyway).
  • The loan you take out to cover living costs is repaid in exactly the same way as your tuition fee loan (i.e. 9% of anything earned over £21,000). Up to 65% of the maximum living cost loan is available to everyone – the rest is income-assessed, and depends on your parental income.
  • For those starting university in 2015/16 or later, households earning less than £42,620 get maintenance grants. Since it’s a grant, you won’t have to repay this, but any funds you receive will reduce the amount of maintenance loan you are entitled to. For more details, please visit the government’s full-time student maintenance grant section.
  • In 2015, maintenance grants for lower income families were scrapped, and replaced with larger loans.
  • Your student debt can negatively affect your chances of getting a mortgage, as it will impact the affordability checks (i.e. whether you can make the mortgage payments every month). However, student debt does not go on credit files.

For many, the biggest problem with the money side of university is that the loans are not big enough.

Depending on where you choose to study, they sometimes barely cover the cost of accommodation each term. This is why budgeting is essential, especially within the first month or so of starting a course, so you don’t end up spending too much at once.

While some of the facts above may seem daunting, you shouldn’t necessarily let money put you off from applying to university on its own, especially if the career path you wish to follow requires a degree.

However, it’s important to know what you will be expected to repay once you graduate so you can decide whether this is something you are prepared to put up with for (potentially) 30 years of your life.

This leads to the final point…    

4. Think about your job prospects

Despite the media coverage around student debt and headline figures designed to scaremonger future prospective UCAS applicants, research has unequivocally shown that graduates earn a lot more over a life time than their non-graduate peers.

Recent amounts for this exceed the £500,000 mark, with jobseekers not holding a degree expected to earn £12,000 a year less than graduates.

On the other hand, there are findings which show that being a graduate doesn’t mean you will always be fruitful in the job market. For example, in early 2016 it was reported by City & Guilds that by 2022, less than a third of job roles are expected to be graduate positions.

In 2018, it was reported that almost 28% of recent graduates were stuck in non-graduate jobs, and that more than a quarter of graduates were paid less than the £11.10 an hour average for those on work-based training schemes.

The Sutton Trust has also reported that those completing a Level 5 Higher Apprenticeship can expect to earn £52,000 more over their lifetimes than graduates from non-elite universities.

So even if you’re not sure what you want to do for a career at this point, it’s worth checking out the different industries or sectors you think you might be interested in, and whether a degree is necessary. If not, investigate the other routes available and see what’s involved, as well as their outcomes.

Deciding if university isn’t for you

Hopefully these pointers are of at least some use in helping you decide whether university is the right next step for you.

It seems there is still a lot of force in the myth that university is the only way to get a job and a career, and it may be a while before this assumption is challenged enough to make more school and college leavers aware of their options.

Unless you’re looking to become a doctor, lawyer, or anything where a degree is necessary, then university may not always be the best route. For example, university is no longer mandatory to become a journalist, solicitor, engineer, join the police force or work in finance.

Whatever you decide in the end, make sure you’ve weighed up all of the pros and cons, and think about whether university is suitable for you on both a personal and career level.

Further information

For more tips and advice on alternatives to university, please see:

If you have any comments, suggestions or feedback on my post, please leave your reply below.