Choosing a Degree Course
Choosing a degree may seem like a daunting task, with hundreds of courses now being offered by over 150 universities across the UK, and many universities also offering joint degrees, allowing you to take a combination of two subjects.
Here, we outline what you should consider when deciding which degree subject to apply for, and help you narrow down your options. It's important you choose the right course for you, as it will save you time, money and hassle in the long run.
So how do you start making this crucial decision? We recommend you research the following factors for each course you think you might like to do. (If you're applying to university in the U.S, check out our Choosing A College Major section).
1. Qualifications and entry requirements
Whichever undergraduate programme you choose, you will normally be expected to have a minimum grade in GCSE Mathematics and English, or equivalent.
Some courses require you to have at least a C (or a 4 in the new GCSE grading system) in Mathematics, so make sure you have this under your belt before you make any more decisions.
It's also important to check you have chosen the correct AS and A2 levels for any degree you are considering, in order to meet any essential requirements set by the university or college providing the course.
For example, all Medicine courses require either AS or A2 in either Biology or Chemistry (sometimes both); all Mathematics courses require a full A level in the subject, as well as Further Mathematics; Engineering courses often require an A2 in Physics or Mathematics, or both; other science degrees such as Biology and Psychology require you to have studied the subject to A2 level.
So make sure you do your research thoroughly and prevent cutting yourself off to degree options you think you might be interested in.
However, if the courses you are considering do not require you to study any particular A level subjects, think carefully about how the subjects you take could improve your chances of being accepted on to the degree programme.
For example, if you wish to do a degree in Media Studies, you will stand out as a stronger candidate if you take IT along with a couple of creative subjects such as English and Art, rather than taking Maths and science subjects.
For further help, see our choosing your A levels section.
Think about how work experience and other activities outside of your studies may contribute to your application.
Some university admissions tutors are looking for proof of some practical, hands on experience of their subject, and not just what you can do academically.
If you do not have standard qualifications, for example if you are a mature or international student, contact the universities or colleges you are considering applying to, as they will be able to offer you further advice.
2. Subjects you enjoy
It's important you choose a subject that you actually enjoy learning about. You don’t want to spend the next three or four years studying something you’re not really interested in!
Draw up a list of subjects that you enjoy learning about, then at least if your workload etc. become stressful, you are at least enjoying the material you are being taught.
If you’re passionate and enthusiastic about your degree, it will give you the drive and determination to succeed, and achieve your best grade overall. You also won’t mind getting with a hangover to revise for those all-important exams!
3. Subjects you are good at
If you have one or two subjects you really stand out in, the chances are you’ll be able to get on to a fairly good university course in that same subject (and hopefully go on to find a good career in a related field).
However, remember to avoid picking something you’re really good at but hate doing - this will not make for an enjoyable situation over the next few years.
Also, don’t necessarily just think of the subjects you’re doing at A-level – if you’re a strong writer with good analytical skills, for instance, your skills might be well-suited to a degree in Psychology (even if you’re not currently studying Psychology).
4. Look at subjects you haven't heard of
Search the internet for university subjects you might not have heard of before, or those you didn't know you could study as a degree course.
Our list of UCAS personal statements by subject is a good place to start.
UCAS also has a comprehensive list of subject guides, which contain lots of detail about the various courses on offer at university.
5. Course content
Read all the details about the course in the university prospectus.
This doesn’t mean just skimming the summary – you need to look at what the module options are and their content, as these can vary significantly.
Although a particular course may have the same or similar title at two different universities, the content can vary a great deal.
Each course may place emphasis on different areas of the subject, so find out exactly what you'll be learning.
You may also find it useful to make a list of your academic strengths and weaknesses, so you can see which courses you think you will be better at and enjoy more.
6. Assessment methods
The teaching style of the course is important, as some courses will consist of more practical work, essay assignments and group tasks than examinations.
If you take this into account, you can play to your strengths and ensure you’ve chosen the course that is best for you.
Think about previous experiences – do you achieve better marks in essays and exams? If yes, you may want to choose a course that is more exam-based.
Look at the weighting of marks, too – you may not want to take a course that allocates a majority of the total marks to coursework, and then have to do lots of revision for an exam at the end of the year that doesn't carry a significant amount of marks.
7. Work experience opportunities
Some courses include a period of work experience – this is normally for a year between the second and third year of your degree, though can vary slightly depending on the subject and the university you are attending.
A work experience placement will be very useful if you only have limited experience of the field you want to go into, or no experience at all, as it will provide you with invaluable skills employers will look for when you start applying for jobs.
Working for a year can also be a welcome break from all the stresses of studying for your degree and give you an insight into what the real world will be like when you’ve graduated.
It can also help you develop important skills such as communication, team work and problem solving, as well as being an opportunity to meet new people and make some friends.
You don’t have to work somewhere in the UK either – some courses offer students the chance to take a job at a company abroad.
This would allow you to experience a different culture, language, and possibly even a different climate!
8. Choice of specialisms
Usually your first year modules will be compulsory, but you should get a choice of modules in your second and third years.
This allows you to study the particular areas of your subject that you find most interesting.
For example, if you are taking a Biology degree, you may want to choose modules that cover cellular topics, such as immunology and biochemistry, rather than modules that focus on nature and the environment.
You may also want to pick modules that go into more depth on a certain subject, or if you prefer, ones that give more of a general overview of a topic.
Check there is a wide choice of modules and that the topics you are keen on are included in the range.
You'll be disappointed if you get to choosing your modules for the final two years and discover you can't learn about the topics you wanted to.
9. Career path
Whether you already have a good idea of what career path you would like to follow or not, try to give some thought to where you would like to be in the future in terms of employment.
At 18, many school and college leavers have no idea what they want to do with their life.
This is fine, although you may want to consider applying for a course that at the very least you will enjoy studying for, and also (if possible) keep your options open in a field you think you might want to pursue.
10. University rankings
League tables are worth taking a look at to see how various organisations rank degree programmes across the UK. However, they should not be the deciding factor in which degree you choose to study.
The Guardian provide rankings for a large number of subjects in their UK University League Tables. Just select the appropriate subject from the drop down menu to see which universities are ranked best in that area.
11. Ability to change course once you've started
Although you may have pretty much decided on a course based on the details of the content and the nature of the work involved, you might want to consider whether you are able to change your course after you’ve started it.
Most universities will let you change your degree as long as it’s within the first 4 to 6 weeks or so. This is an invaluable option if you haven’t yet decided which career path to follow.
12. Family, friends and teachers
It's always worth chatting to your friends, family and teachers about your choices, as they will know you well enough to offer some valuable advice.
In particular, your tutors will be able to give you some honest feedback about which subjects you are good at.
But remember that ultimately, it's your decision, and yours alone!
13. Make a shortlist
Now it’s time to start narrowing down your options.
Based on the subjects you found using the factors outlined above, draw up a shortlist of three or more courses you think you might like to study at university.
You can then start to think about...
Your final decision
If you take these factors into account when choosing which degree to undertake, hopefully you will find it easier to make the right decision and you’ll be happy with your choice once you’ve started your course.
It’s important to try and pick the right course first time, otherwise you could end up wasting thousands of pounds on a degree that you won’t even use in your career once you’ve graduated.
If you already have a career path in mind, such as IT, Journalism or Medicine, then this should make your decision much easier.
However, if you’re still undecided, it’s probably worth taking a subject that you enjoy doing and/or are quite good at. At least this way you will be enthusiastic about it and feel like you can stick with it until the end.
You can also keep your options more open by taking a joint degree (2 subjects), e.g. Economics and Maths, History and Business Studies.
Some combinations will not be available at all universities you are thinking of applying to, so make sure to do your research beforehand.
Remember that some professions don’t require a subject specific degree, such as Law, Business, Media and IT.
Best of luck with your chosen degree course!