University is a huge commitment of effort, time and money, so it’s best to make as good a decision as possible. Of course, you can switch later along the line, but it will cause less stress in the future if you do your research now. But where to start?
You’re Doing It Wrong
I come across so many A Level students who have their eyes and hearts set on Oxbridge, and then pick a subject where they think they have the highest chance of getting in. This is absolutely the wrong way to do it.
You might have a ‘dream uni’, but the uni itself should not be the reason why you’re applying there. You should be applying to a course that you want to study, that you’ll truly enjoy studying, and the uni should come secondary to that. After all, you’ll be studying your course every day, not your uni!
It’s also clear to the admissions team if you truly have a passion for what you’ve applied to study, and whether you did all the things in your application out of true curiosity and exploration, or if it was just to tick some boxes.
To reiterate, choose a subject you want to study first, that you’re good at, then look at which unis offer it in the format that you want to study.
If You Have No Idea What Subject to Study
You’ll probably have a general idea of what you want to do and where your strengths lie. Perhaps you’ve figured out that you’re good at essays, or like maths, or have an eye for design or an ear for music.
However, maybe you haven’t pinned down what subject you want to study yet. That’s ok! Here is some advice I found useful.
Pay attention to which bits of the GCSEs or A Levels you enjoy doing. You might really enjoy the applied mechanics modules in your A Level Maths, or you might prefer writing your own poetry in GCSE English. Make a list of the specific topics you enjoy in each subject, and think about what specifically you like about them. Do you like expressing your creativity using a structure of a poem? Are you unable to wrap your head around circuits in Physics, but love solving real-life problems in mechanics?
Once you’ve made a list of the topics and qualities of those topics you enjoy, see if you can connect the dots. In chemistry, for example, I really enjoyed the logic in electrochemistry but just did not enjoy remembering all the reaction mechanisms in organic chemistry. I also enjoyed learning about quantum physics but not about subatomic physics. I found calculus and mechanics enjoyable in maths, but not statistics. This led me to decide that I wanted to do a subject that was more applied, quite multidisciplinary – and that led me to Engineering.
If You Know What Subject You Want to Study
Make Sure You’re Sure You Want To Study That Subject
Don’t just go along with the first thing that pops into your head – do some research into the different subjects that are available to you with the GCSEs or A Levels you are doing, and which bits of those you enjoy.
Next, read around your subject. Have a skim of some of the modules that are in the course. Look at reading list recommendations for some introductory texts (here are some good ones) – for example, for materials science, some suggested reading before uni included “The New Science of Strong Materials” by J. E. Gordon. You could also just look around your local library and pick up some related books.
If you find reading about it boring, or it turns out to be less interesting than you thought, it’s probably a sign that you’ll find the course boring.
Type your subject into YouTube or Khan Academy and watch a video that explains what that subject is, why people do it; or even better, watch a lecture on a topic in that subject. For example, here is a playlist of Oxford Maths lectures.
Look up a MOOC (massive open online course) that gives you access to a video lecture series that explains some aspect of the topic you’re interested in. A lot of them are free, so it just requires a small investment of your time to give you an idea of what a future studying that degree could be like.
Talk to people who studied/are studying the courses you are interested in. I will write up some good questions to ask them in a later post.
Compare Courses at Different Universities
Courses at different universities may have the same titles, but the modules they teach and the emphasis they place on different topics may vary wildly. Which of these modules do you think will be interesting? Again, do some extra reading of some articles or relevant book chapters.
Really research your course. Even if you think you know what will be on them, and they seem pretty similar, try to pinpoint where the courses differ between universities. Although they have the same name (and most STEM/accredited courses will follow roughly the same syllabus), they will probably differ in some key areas – for example, whether or not they offer a year abroad/year in industry, if a language option is offered, if certain modules are included or have less of an emphasis, if it’s geared towards academia or industry/’real life’, etc. There are many subtle differences that might seem insignificant but could make the difference between feeling fulfilled in your course and feeling like it’s a waste of time.
What grades do you need to get into those particular unis, and do you think you could achieve them? This is quite important, because it allows you to rule out some courses straight away. I was recommended to apply to 2 ambitious unis, 2 unis that I’m likely to get into, and 1 ‘safety net’ uni with much lower grade requirements.
If you’re choosing between different courses, consider how teaching is delivered and the contact hours. Do you learn better independently reading a book, or would you rather sit in lectures? More hours generally mean more structured learning, but always do your research.
Again, talk to students at different universities about their courses – they’ll have first-hand experience that allows you to gain info you might not necessarily just get from an admissions website!
Choosing Between Universities
The best advice I can give is to VISIT THEM! This is the best way to get a feel for a place, and there’s only so much you can understand from looking it up on a website. The vibe is what will make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable, and you will get a more realistic picture of what it will be like to study there.
However, I know that for a lot of people, that won’t be possible (especially now in May 2020, when the world is under lockdown). Universities generally have some resources that allow prospective applicants to communicate with current students online – give it a google for your target university.
Besides the quality of the course, the teaching methods, and the university ranking (which is kinda important if you’re planning on working abroad but otherwise not very important), there are many factors to consider when it comes to choosing a university.
One of the important things to consider is whether you’d prefer a city or a campus university. City universities are right in the heart of a city (think Oxford, London universities like Imperial, UCL, KCL or LSE, etc) whereas campus universities are generally more self-sufficient and all in the same place (think Warwick, Bath or Kent – here’s a list of them). They have different vibes, and often it could be difficult to get accommodation near campus universities if you have to live out.
Consider the facilities. Are the buildings nice? Will you be offered accommodation, and what is the state of the accommodation? Are they catered? How many share kitchens/bathrooms/communal spaces? Is the campus small or large, and how much will that affect you? Is the campus close to the town and do you like the vibe?
How is the pastoral care and welfare at the universities? Although you may think you’re ok now, the stress from studying and looking after yourself can often get too much at university so it’s important to know that there are people you can turn to and a system you can trust to treat your problems the right way.
If this is all feeling quite overwhelming right now, I understand. I wanted to put all of this on one big post so that you can save it and refer to it later. Start slow, dabble a bit in different things to see what you like, and make sure you do your research. I will post a list of 30 questions to ask next week, which will summarise everything I’ve written here and give you some concrete questions to ask!
Let me know if this post was helpful, and ask me any questions you might have!