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Study Tips

How to choose a university and the right degree

Before applying to uni, there are some big choices to make. What's the best degree for you? How do you choose the right university? This guide will make your decisions a whole lot easier.

Students in lecture hall

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If you've started thinking about university, you may have been told that it will be the best few years of your life. We think they're right.

At uni, you get to be independent, meet loads of new people and just generally have an amazing time. Oh, and you can learn a few things while you're there, too.

But we also know that the period leading up to uni can feel pretty daunting at times. In this guide, we'll show you how to choose a university and degree. We want you to arrive at uni for freshers' week and know it's the right place for you.

To start your degree on the right foot, read our top things to do when starting university.

Choosing what to study at university

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Choosing a university course is no easy task. Here's how to choose a degree that's perfect for you:

  1. Research your degree options online

    Some people know straight away which course they want to study. For most of us, though, choosing a degree will be harder.

    Maybe you're interested in more than one career after uni, or a few different degrees have caught your eye. Either way, researching your options online is a great place to start.

    Take a look at the UCAS subject guides. They have handy info about the general entry requirements and desirable A Levels or Scottish Highers for each degree.

    You can also check out our list of unusual university degrees. It might inspire you to do a slightly less conventional course.

  2. Consider doing a degree that's different to your A Levels

    It's worth thinking about whether you'd like to do any of the subjects you're studying at A Level (or equivalent) as a degree. It will help you know whether you'll enjoy a subject at university if you're already studying it to a pretty high level.

    Plus, your online research will give you a good idea of which other degrees are open to you based on your A Level or Higher subjects.

    But remember: you don't necessarily need to have studied a course at A Level to do a degree in it. Think about your specific skills and knowledge. What are you gaining from each of your current subjects that could help you in a degree?

    If you'd like to study a new subject, look into whether you could still apply with the A Levels you have taken.

    And, if you're unsure whether you'd be accepted onto a degree with your A Levels, chat to teachers and reach out to universities to find out.

  3. Ask teachers, friends and family for advice

    Talk to teachers about your options. They'll know which degrees are available to you based on your A Level or Higher subjects and predicted grades. And, from knowing you, they should be able to identify a degree you'd do well in.

    It's also a good idea to get advice from friends and family. Again, they'll know you well. They may even draw attention to some of your skills that you haven't yet thought of exploring in a degree.

    And if you know of any professionals working in your goal industry – perhaps family, friends or people you've come across on social media – you could reach out to them and ask for some advice.

    If you can, find out what they studied and how they got to where they are now. This will help you to identify a good route to take.

  4. Narrow down degree options until you find the right one

    Once you know your options, have a look at the course syllabuses. Find out which topics you'd be studying in each degree and how you'd be assessed (i.e. are the courses essay-based or practical?).

    After you've narrowed down possible degrees to a choice of one or two, attend as many university open days and taster days as you can. Seeing example lectures and chatting with uni staff will help you know whether a degree's right for you.

    Also, if you're choosing a degree with a particular career in mind, start doing work experience in that industry. While on placements, ask for advice from your managers about what and where you could study.

An important thing to consider when choosing a university course is how much money you can make from it. Luckily, we've listed the average graduate salaries for degrees.

How to choose a university

Students in a lecture hall with notes

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Here's how to pick a university that's right for you:

  1. Write a list of all universities you're interested in

    Unsure how to choose a university? There are over 160 to choose from in the UK, so whittling your choices down to five is not easy.

    The key is to be selective about which universities to pick. What are your predicted grades? If you find out which unis ask for these grades as entry requirements, you've got a great list of options to start with.

    After you've made this list, find out as much as you can about each one. Order their prospectuses, attend open days and, if possible, talk to people who have been there.

    If you know any family, friends or even friends-of-friends who went to a university on your list, ask them about what it's really like to go there.

    And, if you've got your sights set on the best unis, make sure to check out the top 10 UK universities.

    Don't let the reputation of top universities put you off. For some inspiration, read our interview with Ibz Mo, who smashed boundaries at Cambridge.

  2. Think about the location of universities

    Once you've found a few unis you like the look of, think about their location. Whether you're planning to move away for your degree or commute from home, the location matters.

    On open days, think about how you feel about the campus and uni buildings. You'll be spending a lot of time here during your degree, so it's essential you feel comfortable and happy.

    It's also a good idea to spend some time wandering around the local town or city centre. Have a look at the shops and bars, find the local tourist attractions and ask yourself if you'd like to live there for three years. If the answer is yes, you'll know you've found one of your five choices!

  3. Be realistic with target grades

    When unis look at your application, they'll want to know if you can achieve the grades they're asking for. It's a good idea to apply for three places that ask for similar grades to the ones you're predicted to get.

    Then, you can choose one with slightly higher entry requirements as a goal and one with lower requirements as a backup choice. That way, you've got an even better chance of getting snapped up.

  4. Check if the universities fit your preferred student lifestyle

    Everyone has a different idea about what makes the ideal student lifestyle.

    If you're hoping for great nightlife at uni, check out the best (and worst) places for uni nightlife.

    Have a look online for the local student club nights. When you see loads of clubs boasting weekly events for students, this is a very good sign.

    And, if you're shown around the campus by students on open days, have a chat with them about the nightlife. They're the experts, after all.

    For sporty students, think about the sports societies and facilities on offer. Some places might be particularly geared up for your favourite sport. For example, Loughborough University has a great reputation for its world-class sports facilities.

    Students who are more into the arts can look for unis with art, music and theatre to see (and do) on campus. For example, have a look at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham if you're interested in art, or the Cambridge Footlights if you're craving time on stage. There are so many options out there!

    Whatever your interests, if you want to go to uni, there will be one that suits you. Just make sure you're aware of common university myths as it might not be what you expect.

Check out our guide to writing the perfect UCAS personal statement. It could come in handy...

Alternatives to university

Although uni can be great if it's what you want, the truth is that it's not for everyone – and that's okay.

You should never feel like you have to go to uni just because your friends are going, or you feel it's expected of you. There are so many other routes you could take.

If your gut's saying that uni's not for you, it's a good idea to listen.

Our guide to the alternatives to university has everything you need to know about your other options. These include doing a degree apprenticeship and starting a business.

Whether you're going to uni or not, taking a year off to go travelling can be an amazing experience. Here are some gap year ideas to inspire you to pack your bags.

Jake Butler

WRITTEN BY Jake Butler

Jake joined Save the Student in 2010 and is the COO. As an expert across student finance, Jake has appeared on The BBC, The Guardian, Which?, ITV, Channel 5 and many other outlets. He particularly enjoys sharing tips on saving money and making extra money with opportunities like paid surveys and part-time jobs.
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