Free Career Information and Advice on Higher Education in the UK (...and Europe...) for Foreign and UK Students

Choosing a Course: Undergraduate

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Researching courses (you are allowed 5 choices in your application) for undergraduate students is both straightforward and difficult at the same time.

It's straightforward because all the courses are on one database, Ucas, where you can find information from entry requirements, to the cost of the course and financial support as well as links to university websites.

page14I would argue it's difficult because there are often numerous courses within any field and options within them. Have a look on the Ucas website by going to course choice, entering your interest and look at the number of courses available at the top. Of course, the more specialised your interest the fewer available courses there are. The more specialised the course you are thinking of however, the more certain you may have to be that this is what you want to do as flexibility after finishing the course may be a bit more limited in many cases. You will probably realise that course choice is very much linked to your choice of university in many ways.

So… what could be important in putting your course choice together?

What does the course offer in the way of:

 

What does the course offer in the way of knowledge and skills?

You apply for a course because it's of interest to you of course. Does the course fulfil those interests? 

  • you may want to look at the detailed course description
  • try talk to students studying the course or graduates from the course if you can
  • try and discuss your choice with course tutors on your visit to the university
  • look at the university facilities, possibly on their website but most certainly when you visit

 

What does the course offer in the way of status?

For some career prospects the status of the university, the course and the people teaching is of great importance. Examples could be: legal career prospects, a career in politics, a career in (science) research etc… There are some tools you can use to research this, apart from what you know already. In this sense it's important to bear in mind that Oxford and Cambridge are obvious options, but they are not the only high status options, nor are they the most high status options for all subjects. You can find out more on the following links:

  • Unistats: an excellent website for finding out how happy students were with their course, how many found work (even though that doesn't give you the whole story) and how they achieved. 
  • The Guardian: a similar website to Unistats with more parameters to compare. Their education part is also great for keeping up to date with developments in education in the UK.
  • The Russel Group: a group of universities striving to support the very best research. Their member universities are generally well regarded. At the same time, bear in mind there are other excellent universities which are not part of the Russel Group.

If you can, have a look at the staff list of your chosen universities and the reputation, publications and general links of the 'key drivers' of your chosen university and your chosen faculty. How important are they in their field? 

In addition to this, the wider press and professional organisations will add to your idea of the perceived status of different courses and universities. Status only takes you so far… what the course offers generally is important as well. There is no point in striving to work for a very prestigious company with the wrong subject. 

 

What does the course offer in the way of social life?

What people require in this respect differs from person to person. Some students are looking for somewhere they can fully concentrate on their studies, for others the social life linked to their chosen course is an essential part of 'the student experience'. Some student societies add greatly to the student experience as well. I'm sure some of the best comedians and actors in the country wouldn't be where they are now without opportunities they had at university. 

Explore the location of the university thoroughly and do the same for its student association. It would be essential to visit your chosen universities (and surrounding towns/cities if any) to make sure it's what you're looking for. This is not just essential for the social life you may be able to take part in, but for the more studious aspects of your course as well.

 

What does the course offer in the way of networking and professional contacts?

especially in a world where there are more graduates and thus more competition for the best jobs and career prospects, building up a network of professional contacts is very important. It not only gives you a good supporting network professionally but it will also allow you to tap into the 'unofficial job market'. Many employment opportunities are not officially advertised but are gained through reputation or word of mouth. Any opportunities for building a strong student network will be very difficult to gauge before starting a course and are more down to luck. You can, however, explore other possibilities for networking. 

  • University staff: we all know teachers that have inspired and motivated us, or maybe we know examples of the opposite. If you can, have a look at the staff list of your chosen universities and the reputation, publications and general links of the 'key drivers' of your chosen university and your chosen faculty. How important are they in their field? What further opportunities can they offer for developing yourself?
  • Experience and placements: contact your chosen universities to find out about placements they can offer, if that fits in with your degree subject. What are their links with 'industry' or other major players in your chosen field. These may not look too important while you are doing your degree, but they are. Starting to build up a reputation and get your name known is one of the ways by which you can take a tremendous head start, if you're lucky and you get into the right opportunities. If experience or placements don't lead to a job, at least you have the experience to put on your CV. It's a win-win situation in the long term.

Linked to networking, and tenuously linked to course choice, have a look on LinkedIn, and while you are at university, start creating a strong profile on LinkedIn. It appears to take an increasing role in building your career and linking up with people who can help you.

 

What does the course expect from you? How will the course expect you to work? 

page 12Many students I met over the years have had the tendency to go too much with what the course title told them the course was about. This could turn out to be an expensive mistake if you get it wrong. Courses with the same title may be very different at different universities, so it's not only sensible but also essential to find out as much detail as possible. A lot of this is linked with your learning style, whether you're a more practical person or more academic as well as what you want to get out of the course and what motivates you. Make sure you explore any course you are interested in thoroughly before making a decision:

  • read the course description on the Ucas (or Cukas if your subject is music) thoroughly. 
  • do the same with the course description on the university website
  • when you visit the university, talk to tutors, course leaders and other students doing the same course if you can. Take into account that what students tell you may be personal opinion, so don't talk to just one and make up your own mind! 
  • look at university facilities during your visit and don't be shy to ask questions. Take someone with you for support if you feel that would be helpful. It would be a good idea to make a list of questions you want to ask before any visits and ask the same questions at every university you visit to be able to compare. 
  • make sure you attend open days.

suggestions for things you would like to find out about are:  what kind of work do you need to do? Is the course based on continuous assessment such as essays, or is there a big exam at the end of each term/year? Do you have to do a lot of practical work, and would that suit you? How about the amount of reading and research you are expected to do? How often are you expected to attend tutorials, lectures etc… How much one to one support is available? What additional support, such as support with study skills, is available for students?

 

Where is the course taught?

Apart from researching course options on the Ucas website, this question refers to university choice as well of course. Students sometimes go straight to university websites, but it's easy to miss out on many valuable options. It would be more useful to look at a complete list of courses available and to use this as a starting point to find out where the course itself is taught.

Especially for students from the EU, the location of many universities may be a mystery until you see them on a map. The Ucas website has a map which is interactive and can bring up an lot of extra information on every university, including on open days. Another useful alternative is this map, which will give you additional options on the right hand side. On both, you can search nationally or by region.

 

Where will it lead, once you graduate?

This is what it is all about for a lot of students! For some subjects, such as law, it may be very clear on where it could all lead. Other subjects like philosophy are less open on what the possibilities are. How important the answer to this question is may depend on how you are planning.

  • Some applicants know what career they would like to do and need to know whether their course fits in. This group will probably explore backwards from their career idea, but may benefit from exploring what else is out there linked to their degree.    
  • Other, arguably more adventurous, applicants choose on the basis of interest, aptitude and ability. These students may find it useful to know more about where their course could lead. 

Either way, it may be interesting and useful to explore the possibilities. The 'options with our subject' section on the Prospects websites could be a good starting point.

 

When will the course finish/how long will the course be?

As you may have noticed on the 'education system' page on this website, not every course takes 3 years to finish. Some are longer, some are shorter. You will also have noticed that many degrees in Scotland take a year longer than those in England and Wales. This is not always the case however. The length of your course doesn't only depend on where you study but also on the kind of qualification you do, its subject and requirements and whether you study full time or part time. Below is a list of general statements and exceptions all for full time courses. For part time, most of the time you have to multiply their length by 2.

In general*:

  • an HNC normally takes one year (1FT HNC).
  • an HND normally takes one or two years (2FT HND).
  • a Foundation Degree (2FT Fdg FdSc, 2FT Fdg Fda) takes two years and the Top up course takes one year, except:

     

    • when there is a year 0 or a foundation year attached to your foundation degree. This will add a year. (3FT Fdg FdSc, 3FT Fdg Fda)
    • when the course is taken in a work based setting, the course could be 3 years. A foundation degree can be part of a higher apprenticeship. 
  • 3FT Hon BA (BA Hons) or 3FT Hon BSc (BSc Hons): a Degree in England takes 3 years except:

     

    • there is a placement attached to your degree (4FT Hon BA or 4FT Hon BSc) 
    • there is an extra year abroad linked to your degree. This could be the case especially with language degrees  (4FT Hon BA or 4FT Hon BSc). 
    • it's a Sandwich degree where you do a placement or work experience for one year (eg.: 4SW Hon BA or 4SW Hon BSc and even 5SW Hon MEng). 
    • there is a practical component or work experience to the course which is integral to it, such as teaching, veterinary medicine and medicine. You need to add from one up to 2 or more years to the initial 3 years (eg.: 3FT/4FT Hon BA, 5FT Deg BVetMed, 6FT Hon MB).
    • you start a Masters course as an undergraduate. This will add another 1 or 2 years to your degree. The payback is a higher level degree from the start however. Take into account the extra commitment this takes eg.: (4FT Hon MPhys). Bear in mind that Scotland has an MA which is an undergraduate degree.
    • your degree has a foundation year or year 0 attached to it.  (4FT Hon BA or 4FT Hon BSc)
    • it is a top up year to a Foundation degree in the same subject. These courses will be indicated as a one year degree on the Ucas website. The entry requirements for this course will always be a suitable level 5 course (Foundation degree or similar) (eg.: 1FT Hon BEng)
  • a degree in Scotland is usually one year longer but the length of study for HNCs, HNDs and Foundation Degrees is usually the same as those in England and Wales.

* This list is not exhaustive, there will still be lots of exceptions and coursses which don't follow the general rule above.

The length of the course will always be part of the course information either on the Ucas website or the university website. 

 

Why do you want to study this course, and not another one?

I think talking about this would replicate what this website is all about. It's about exploring yourself and finding a course that fits in. I'm sure that, if you have worked on all the different aspects on here, you will have a good chance of being able to explain why you have chosen your particular course. 

 

Who are going to be your tutors and what additional support can you expect?

Knowing who is going to teach you and mark your essays or other work will answer questions about the quality of the course, whether it fits in with what you are looking for and a lot of other things. Sometimes it's useful to know what other support is out there. Some people need very little support, others would like, or need more support. Especially if you have a disability, illness or learning condition it would be of primary importance to know what your chosen university can do to help you achieve your personal best. 

If you feel you do need extra support, this is going to be at least as important as your choice of course and university, so it's  important to explore this and find out the facts very early on. To achieve this you can do a lot to assure yourself the support you need will be in place. There are a couple of things you can do to help you in this respect:

  • Your first port of call could be the university website. Every university has its own support department with its own website where you can find out the basics about what is on offer. In addition to that, every university will do its best to accommodate you and to help you to be able to perform to the best of your ability. 
  • Visit the university: if you need to ensure accessibility it may be very important for you, or a representative of your choice, to visit the university. This will not only ensure the university buildings will be accessible to you, but it's also an opportunity to meet up with tutors to explain your needs, and with the relevant student support department to ensure the university knows about your needs and things can be put in place before you arrive. This is especially important for your accommodation. University halls and accommodation are at a premium and you need to make sure you are housed according to your needs. 
  • many universities have a system of peer support as well. They can either buddy you up with someone or you may be able to tap into a group of experienced students for support. 
  • if you feel you need extra support from your tutor, then it's best to let her or him know before starting. 
  • If you feel you are struggling while you are at university, it's imperative you talk to student support straight away. There have been too many people who waited too long and didn't do well as a result. 

 

How much is the overall cost of your choice going to be?

The cost of going to university doesn't stop with the course and exam fees. There are a lot of other expenses to take into account. You could build up an estimate before going to university by looking on the relevant sections on this and other websites. Alternatively, you can use thi s tool to help you assess what it's all going to cost. If you don't have MS Office on your computer, you can download a copy of Open Office (free and completely legal) here.

I would have liked to put some average costs on here but that would be very difficult to do because the cost of living varies widely depending on where you study. London, Edinburgh and some other major cities will be most expensive with the North East as potentially the cheapest area in the UK. Normally, your chosen university should have some estimate of local living costs on it's website. I would suggest putting 'living costs students [name of town]' in your favourite search engine to find that information easily on your university website. 

For the general day to day cost of food the MySupermarket website may help you get an idea. You need to register, which is free, and then you can put together an average shopping list to see what it will cost per week. 

In addition, there are some fixed costs like a TV licence, which you only need if you have a TV in your room.

For the cost of train journeys and coach journeys the following two websites are very useful:

  • The Trainline.com: website where you can find out what your trainjourney is going to cost.
  • Traveline: similar to the trainline.com but for bus services
  • National Express: the national long distance coach service

 

What if you have to prove what your qualifications from outside the UK are worth?

When applying to a university abroad, it's often very difficult to compare your qualifications with those in the UK for entry to university. Universities may therefore ask you for an equivalency statement. You will have to pay to get this finalised, but it may be the only option to get into a university in the UK with qualifications from your own country. Naric can provide an easy way to do this. You can find them on:

 


Useful web addresses:

Additional websites not mentioned above:

  • www.ukcoursefinder.com: a good website you have to register for but which offer you a questionnaire to explore your interests and help you find a course.
  • www.push.co.uk: a general website to help you make and improve decisions for going to university.
  • www.opendays.com: an alternative website to find out about open days.

Exploring and finding university courses:

Tools to compare university courses:

Travel:

Living costs:


Image by Flickr/Banalities

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