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How do I research a subject that I am considering studying at university but I am not currently studying?

Once you have decided to apply for Higher Education, the next question is: What do I want to study? Shall I study one or more of my current subjects? Shall I study something vocational, which more obviously leads to a particular area of work (eg Engineering, Medicine)? Or shall I study a new, more strictly academic subject (eg American Studies, Sociology)?

If you want to apply for subjects that you are currently studying, you have to consider how that study might develop when taken to a higher level. Topics peripheral in A Level Maths may become central at university. But your current study gives you a basis on which to form a judgement and your teachers can give guidance on what to expect.

If you want to study a new subject, you need to inform yourself about subject content, to the extent that you feel confident about applying to read it at university and can give admissions tutors evidence that you have done sufficient research. Admissions tutors are aware that new subjects can be “escape subjects” for some applicants, who don’t enjoy what they are currently studying and are looking for something new, based on unreliable preconceptions like “I’m interested in how people think, so I think Psychology is an ideal subject for me”.

There are four key areas of preparation to consider:

Reading

It’s important that you learn something about possible new subjects by reading about them. Only by reading can you convince yourself that this is a right move, and only if you have convinced yourself can you convince an admissions tutor. In fact, anyone who is seriously considering “reading” any subject at university should undertake further reading in the proposed subject(s) and refer to this in the Personal Statement on the UCAS application form: here a relevant Extended Project Qualification, International Baccalaureate Extended Essay or other unassessed research project should make you stand out from the mass of other applicants, if it is relevant to the subject(s) applied for. For on most university programmes you will be expected to do much of the teaching of yourself by adopting similar research methods.

It is not the number of books read that is important, but the student’s ability to gain a basic understanding of at least part of a subject and, if possible, develop an individual response. Years of experience have suggested to me (and I dare say to admissions tutors) that the applicant who produces a long shopping list of “books read” on a UCAS form is unlikely to have read any of them. What is needed is evidence of personal reflections on one or two of the books read.

Taster Courses

Many universities and other organisations offer taster courses for Yr 11 and especially Yr 12 students. These are an ideal way to test an interest in a new subject, as they will give an insight into both the range of subject content and the teaching methods at university level.

Some courses are free. Many courses are one day, while others are two or three days. The list below suggests just some of the universities and other organisations that offer taster courses. Check your nearest universities, to see what is on offer.

Useful websites:

University of East Anglia: an example of what just one university offers.

Many free, one-day courses run by colleges of University of London and other universities in London. Mainly in June and July.

EDT – Mainly but not entirely Engineering-related. Some are general, others focus on specific disciplines (eg Civil or Mechanical Engineeering). Very useful for the potential engineer.

Work Experience

This is particularly relevant for those considering more vocational areas.

Veterinary Medicine courses require several weeks of animal-related work experience, including time in a veterinary practice. For Medicine, evidence of work involving communication over an extended period with the general public (eg on a supermarket checkout, in a care home) is likely to count for more than“shadowing a GP or consultant. It is, however, useful to speak with current practitioners, if possible, who can give a good insight into their work and their training –so more recently qualified practitioners are more likely to provide more up-to-date information about training.

Speak with Students

Current students are an invaluable resource. Quiz them on an Open Day. Try to get in touch with former students from your school who are studying the subject. But remember their individual preferences and problems might not be yours.

If I were an admissions’ tutor in Engineering, I would certainly look first at academic qualifications. If I felt reassured on that score, I would then want to see evidence that an applicant has researched the subject by reading (eg Gordon’s Structures or Why Things Don’t Fall Down). Someone who has explored further reading as part of a research project would impress me more. If this is further complemented by participation in a taster course and contact with engineers and/or engineering in the workplace and Engineering students, I would probably be putting the form in the offer”pile.

Posted by Philip Rogerson on Thu, 2 Feb 2017



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Philip Rogerson read Classics at Oxford. He has taught in a wide range of institutions: from UN (refugee camps in Jordan) to university (Oxford). Philip has been an HMC/ISI inspector of schools and has was Director of Higher Education and Careers at Sherborne School from 1997 to 2017.

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