I study economics. And one of the concepts that is revelled by a market economy is the vast range of choices people can make. But having too many choices can sometimes be detrimental; at the very least, overwhelming. Personally, I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of having a multitude of choices; nor can I say I haven’t made some bad ones both on an academic and personal front.
I hope to share some things that help you avoid the stress, tears and sleepless nights.
There are some people who will succeed no matter what or where they go. Fact.
But what I am about to talk about refers more to the considerations that matter to you (and your parents). Whilst I do believe that we should make our own choices, I believe the more information you have at your disposal when making a decision, the greater the likelihood of making a right one, so listening to what your parents have to say may actually be a good idea.
For many of us, the degree we take and the university we attend are the main decisions to make. I also want to stress the importance of the course you choose to study, not just the degree (and I’ll come back to this later).
The first thing to do is think about what degree you would like to study. Introspection and research are your best friends. Think carefully about what you enjoy and what you are good at. Personally, I think it is hard to do something for 3+ years when you are dreadful at it. After awhile, you’ll just hate it. Usually these overlap but in some cases they don’t. Think about what subjects in school excite you, and what tasks/activities you enjoy and are good at. When thinking about hobbies, be careful to distinguish between what you enjoy as a hobby and what you enjoy as an academic subject. You may enjoy blog writing but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d like creative writing as a degree. Next step is research, research, research! You need to know what degrees are available out there. Yes, there are many and I probably can’t name one-tenth of them, but you can’t study sand art at university (sorry to disappoint anyone). Find a degree that suits what you like and what you are good at. You’ll be doing it for three or more years. If you hate it, it will feel like a long time.
The next step involves selecting a university. I know a lot of people would like to decide on this first and then select a degree offered by their university of choice that is closest to their interests and skills, but it is a (very very VERY) bad idea. A significant part of the reason why people do this is because a particular university has a certain reputation and prestige, but really it’s to fuel one’s ego and pride by being able to say “hey I go to Cambridge”. Trust me I know – I did it too. If you are considering reputation of the institution you would attend, a better consideration is the reputation of the university within your chosen degree discipline. For instance, Bristol University has arguably the most prestigious reputation for aeronautical engineering. As I eluded to earlier, it is crucial to consider the exact nature of the course you would be studying. Universities differ from school. There isn’t a set curriculum like the CIE A Levels for all universities offering a particular degree. For a start, some courses are offered as a BSc in some universities while others offer the course as a BA. This may matter to some people but it also gives you an indication as to how mathematical the course would be, and possibly the entry requirements. However, it is more important to look very closely at the degree structure of the course. Some universities allow you to select modules from the first year onwards. Others may allow you to write a dissertation. The quintessential example of how this is relevant is in medicine. Oxbridge medicine courses are notorious for drilling soon-to-be doctors with theory and book work for the first three years of their degrees, whereas the University of Manchester, say, offers practical hands-on experience from the second year onwards. University of Nottingham also engages its medics by having them bake cakes of organs!
University is also more than just academics. It represents a part of your youth and you shouldn’t see it as a sacrifice of present happiness for future happiness and success. Decide on whether you want to be in a city university or a campus one; whether you have a preference for building architecture or are indifferent; whether you want to be in London or not. Look into the cities or towns in or nearest to the universities you are looking at. Look into the societies and sports they offer at the universities you are looking at. Look at how active they are more than what they offer because more often than not you can start a new society if something you are interested in doesn’t already exist. Talk to current students, alumni, admissions tutors. Get a feel of the student body. You want to be learning in an institution that celebrates diversity of race, religion and gender, but also of thought. You want to be surrounded by kind, helpful people. Learn the stereotypes about people in different universities and of the people on the course you are studying because you may have really nice people on average in the university but people on your course may not be so welcoming.
In the end, it is all about priorities. You have to decide what you want most and what you are willing to compromise on. For me, this was the hardest bit. I had done all the introspection and research. I looked into myself and the universities but I still couldn’t decide where I really wanted to go. I wanted it all but learnt that I couldn’t. Ultimately, I made a grave mistake by putting reputation above all. I convinced myself that I could get through three years and that the reputation of the university will be worth it. The very fact that I had to convince myself of this should have raised alarm bells. And to top it off, I did this not only with my UCAS choices but also with my firm and insurance choices later on.