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How to choose a university course

In this article Philip Rogerson, Director of Higher Education and Careers at a UK school, gives his thoroughly-researched and practiced thoughts on how students should begin the process of applying to university – and the deceptively difficult business of choosing what to study.

Choosing a university course is like writing an A level or IB diploma essay: if you conduct careful research and refer closely to the evidence in reaching unprejudiced conclusions, you will achieve a good result.

Applicants often find it difficult to penetrate beyond the marketing gloss of prospectuses, in which every university is top in some survey, is near a “vibrant” city, and has constant sunshine beaming down on uniformly contented students.

Blind reliance on brand name prejudice, a prejudice bolstered with reference to clumsily-constructed league tables and what mythical employers want, is a high-risk strategy. As with the Sixth Form essay, a more evidence-based approach is advisable. It will also help an applicant to draw up a short list from what seems an overwhelmingly long list of courses.

Start at the UCAS website with ‘Find a Course’.

Here you will find which universities offer a particular subject or combination. All university websites can be reached from the UCAS website: they give much more detailed information about compulsory and optional modules than is found in the hard copy prospectus, and departmental entries give a good indication of the spread of interests among the academic staff. There are many strands, for instance, which might be woven into a French course: anything from medieval literature to translations of ‘The Simpsons’. Some websites will give details of course modules, and even lecture notes. Make no assumptions. Even courses whose content is largely determined by external professional bodies, like Medicine, might be delivered in very different ways.

Those who wish to apply to research-intensive universities, in which, to a large extent, students are expected to teach themselves by using research-based methods, should look at the results of the Research Excellence Framework published at the end of 2014. These give an indication of an individual department’s research strengths, but suggest nothing about the quality of the teaching.

Some universities, such as Bath and Surrey, give detailed information about the jobs which their graduates have entered: the Careers Service section of the website should point you towards it. It is no coincidence that among those universities which are keen to provide this information are those which offer a year’s paid work placement as part of a course – usually two years at university, one year in work, and a final year at university (hence the term “sandwich” course). Business Studies applicants, for instance, should consider that the extra year taken to complete a degree might be well repaid by a much enhanced CV in a competitive field – or even by the promise of a job on graduation from the placement.

The National Student Survey of satisfaction among final year students is a useful check, but remember that it might be more a reflection of how easily students are satisfied than of the quality of what is provided. Law students seem to be particularly hard to please!

Look at the Student Union websites or Alternative Prospectuses of individual universities. Sometimes the election manifesto of an Academic Vice-President on the website will highlight major academic issues within the university, such as lack of feedback on examination results.

It is very important to ask Admissions Tutors about contact time, in particular the size and frequency of tutorials/classes/seminars (lecture size is far less crucial). At one “big brand name” university, the smallest first year classes range from 6 to 30 students, depending on the subject. I think that current class sizes should be published in prospectuses, in the interests of transparency, but only St Andrews gives detailed information. Moreover, the role of a Personal Tutor can be interpreted very differently, even within the same university.

It is vital to visit. I have visited all 130 UK universities during the last few years, and each one has its own feel: a mixture of situation, site(s), size and atmosphere – the last of which is, of course, most discernible when students are there.

Current students are the most important source of information on the current situation in their degree programmes. Quizzing the student helpers at an open day might give as much insight as hearing the formal departmental talks.

After years of trying to persuade universities to develop a microsite to help less well-resourced HE advisers, and the many DIY potential applicants who do not receive adequate guidance, I was delighted last year to form a partnership with the University of East Anglia, who launched UniBox in October 2014.

The good news is that most students seem contented with what is on offer. At Sherborne, we have for many years conducted an annual survey of those who left seven years before, who have passed through university and started a career. A few years ago, worried by reports about varying teaching provision at universities, we instituted a further survey of those who left three years before. This feedback is our single most important resource.
With the advent of higher tuition fees in UK universities, potential applicants need to consider carefully the full range of routes open to those leaving school at 18 years, including:

  • entering employment directly, perhaps as part of a formal apprenticeship
  • schemes combining employment with university study
  • university level study now offered by institutions such as BPP and The College of Law
  • university study abroad.

Such an evidence-based approach might not yield conclusive results, and a large dose of intellectual humility is advisable among those of us who are scratching at the surface of a huge subject. However, this is more likely to be effective than relying on a false sense of continuity in a rapidly changing area. One campus, for instance, has been part of three universities in almost as many years, and those who were undergraduates 20 or 30 years ago would do well to check current student numbers before advancing claims about their alma mater based on their own nostalgia.
Above all, if anyone makes sweeping statements like “university X is good for subject y”, ask for the evidence and its date. It is what a conscientious A level or IB diploma student should be doing anyway.

Reading checklist

Alternatives to Higher Education

Just because many young people go to university, do not assume that all should. Here are just some resources for those considering not going to university.

  • - A website set up by a young man specifically to make it easier for such people to find more information about qualifications at different levels, including different apprenticeship schemes, distance-learning-courses and Open University. It also contains advice on c.v. writing, interviews and related topics.
  • - Contains video clips and other advice on a variety of options: eg school leaver schemes, starting a business.
  • - Work experience and volunteering; planning your future career; getting your first job; your rights and responsibilities at work; creating your own c.v. and on-line communication with independent careers advisers.
  • - Career films
  • - Industry body which supports skills and training in UK creative industries: advertising, animation, computer games, fashion and textiles, film, interactive media, photo imaging, publishing, radio, television.
  • - Apply online for vacancies; top 100 apprenticeship companies
  • - Contains careers advice, job profiles, courses, employment news, “Skills Health Check Tools” and “CV Builder”.
  • - Part of the Sector Skills Council for Finance (Financial Skills Partnership): includes job vacancies in finance, accountancy and financial services.

Useful links

  • - The UCAS website contains the UCAS Directory of all HE courses at UK universities & colleges, information on how to apply and gap year opportunities, and answers to frequently asked questions on undergraduate study. It has links to the websites of all UK universities.
  • - This website is regularly updated and contains articles by me and others on a wide range of issues ranging from recommended preparatory reading to student finance.
  • - UEA offer a brilliant ‘Choosing a Course’ infographic to download and share, alongside approachable insight and advice collected from school advisers and current students.
  • - This website includes results from the National Student Survey of student satisfaction.
  • - Much useful information on universities and courses, including films. Be aware that much of this is subjective, and other people’s views might not be yours.
  • - An interactive section allows you to create your ideal university course by entering criteria which are important to you. Some of the judgements about individual universities are very subjective, but there is a lot of useful information.
  • - There is some useful information here, e.g., on how to choose a course, but beware of putting trust in league tables!
  • - British Universities’ and Colleges’ Sport (BUCS) is the governing body for competitive uni sport. The website has points tables for individual sports and unis.
  • - Information on graduate employment.
  • - The Rate My Placement website gives useful feedback from students who have undertaken sandwich placements: ie courses which include up to a year of paid work experience. It includes videos with advice on “Assessment Centres”, “The Perfect CV”, “Internships  and Work Experience”, “About Psychometric Tests”, “Interview Tips”, “Interview Techniques in Detail”.

Dear Headteacher

Posted by Dear Headteacher on Fri, 10 Feb 2017

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UniBox's 'Dear Headteacher' series brings together a complete set of guidance articles created by the Director of Higher Education and Careers at Sherborne School, Philip Rogerson, based on his 20 years' experience of helping pupils get the university places they deserve. 'Dear Headteacher' is part call to arms, part hard-headed advice and all good practice. We hope that schools across the UK get some hugely valuable insights out of this 2-week series, especially in terms of supportive advice.

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