If you've decided to go ahead and study for a degree, choosing a university is one of the biggest decisions you'll ever make. It will be where you spend three or four of the best years of your life, and where you could potentially meet your best ever friends, a future business partner, have an opportunity to go somewhere or do something that you couldn't have gotten anywhere else, or come across the book or theory that inspires you more than you could ever imagine. It's a tough decision, and a lot of young people feel pressured to make it quickly and without proper advice. Whether you're in Year 13 and haven't applied yet, or you're younger and want to start thinking about your options, here's five pieces of advice from someone who has been to more universities than you've had hot dinners.
1.) What do you actually want to do in life?
The process of making concrete career plans actually happens in Year 9 when you decide on your GCSEs. The outcome of these determine what you can study in the sixth form, and this then influences your university applications. When you were thirteen did you know what you wanted to do with your life? I barely knew what I was planning to do a week in advance, let alone lay the foundations for my CV and whole career. I definitely made some questionable choices - geography over drama because I was scared of the rowdy, naughty kids who were using drama as an 'easy option'. I really wanted to take it as well (I have a BA, MA and teaching qualification in drama), but instead I studied maps and graphs for two years. Taking courses for the wrong reasons is something I'll come on to, but whilst you're at school it's sensible to think about what you might like to do in the future, without obsessing over it - it's important to enjoy school and being the most carefree you should ever be in life. If you feel certain about pursuing a particular career then read up on it and find out what A-Levels you'll need. If you have no clue whatsoever about the future my advice is to choose GCSEs and further education qualifications that you will enjoy doing. When your heart is fully in something you do well and you grow, and that's the best to hope for from education. That 13-18 year old period of finding out about courses and careers is really important, so get informed - don't just leave it to your teachers and parents and friends to tell you what to do. Go on the UCAS website and look through their A-Z of courses, yes there are 37,000 degree courses in the UK so it might take a while, but you could find something you like the sound of that you never even knew existed (wait, Pop Music, Social Media, and Beauty Promotion are all legitimate degree subjects now! I want to go back!).
2.) Forget your friends, forget your parents
Okay, that's a bit harsh, don't turn your back on the people you love. However, you do need to make this decision by yourself. Talk to everyone, get their opinion, get as much information and feedback as you can from teachers and careers advisors, but don't let anyone pressure you into choosing a university because it suits them more than you. In my former life as a teacher I'd have to help sixth formers with their UCAS applications, and I've seen it all, I'm telling ya! From the super-keen students who have always known they wanted to be lawyers, doctors, or primary school teachers, have spent the past two years doing work experience in their school holidays and writing fifty drafts of their personal statement, to the confused and befuddled youngsters who hadn't even registered on the UCAS website a week before the deadline and had no clue what to apply for. I've had parents telling me they want their offspring to go to the same university they did and take the same course (this was in private schools I worked in), as their son or daughter sat next to them looking miserable. I've had countless pairs of best friends come to me and say they want to go to the same uni and live together and carry on the good times they've had at school, when I can tell that one of them would rather apply for something else, and I've seen teachers push a student into applying for a subject that's not quite for them because it would 'look good on their CV.'
Your teachers (hopefully) do genuinely want you to get into university and have a good start to your career, but schools and sixth form colleges also want their stats showing high numbers of A-Level students going on to university. Never be pressured by your teachers, and by the same measure, don't feel forced into applying for something because your parents or friends want you to. It's tricky, I know. Some people are close to their parents and want to study nearby, and some people are anxious about meeting new people at uni and want to stay with their friends. By coincidence I ended up being accepted to the same university as a girl from one of my A-Level classes who I had lunch with sometimes, and sat next to in class for two years, but I'd never socialised with her. I was quite relieved that there would be at least one person I know, and we swapped numbers and said we'd meet up sometime in the first week (we were on different courses and put in different halls of residence). She called on the first night in tears saying she was freaking out and could she come over? I ended up doing a lot of hand-holding and comforting during that first night when I should have been getting to know people, and it went on for weeks, until I started guiltily ignoring her calls and arranging to meet people away from my halls in case she'd be waiting for me there. I'm not saying this would happen to you if you went to the same university as someone you know from school, but what I am saying is that sometimes a clean break is a good thing. It's actually fun to go and visit your school friends at universities in other cities, and I'd always look forward to Christmas and summer meet-ups back home with the old crew. It's like having two sets of best friends.
3.) How to choose a university
Ask yourself three questions: what do I want university life to be like? What do I want to learn? What do I hope it will lead to?
I'm referring to university as moving away to a new part of the UK and living on campus, because that was my experience. Side note: I remember one of the dinner ladies at my sixth form college asking me where I was applying for uni, and when I told her it was only two counties away she shook her head in mock dismay. "It's too close to home," she said, "you've got to go far and have an adventure." But disappointing the college canteen staff aside, I was really happy with my choice of uni, and with life there. However, I know that living at uni is not for everyone. Some might want to stay at home whilst they study at a local university, some might have to live at home because the cost of living is so damn high these days. If you do want to try living on campus I think there's great benefits to trying out a new place and getting to know it over the course of your studies. It might even become your new home town; lots of people choose to live in the place where they went to uni. The reason I say ask yourself what you want uni life to be like is - do you want to fully immerse yourself in a new place, or do you just want to carry on as you are but still gain your degree? There's no right or wrong answer, only what's best for you.
Most people tend to choose the university before the town, going by reputation or courses offered. But some people like the idea of living in a 'party town' and head to places like Leicester, London, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle where they know the nightlife will be amazing. Or they might like the sound of a trendy place like Brighton or Bristol, or an ancient city like Cambridge, Bath, Edinburgh, Canterbury or Winchester where they can feel all studenty amongst the beautiful, old buildings. Whilst location is important, it's more significant to your future happiness and career that you study something you'll fully enjoy. Which is why you ask yourself the other two questions - what will you learn on the course and does this meet your expectations? What do you hope it will lead to? If you still don't know about a future career that's okay! But it's still important to ask yourself what you'll get out of it - which qualification, which skills, which experiences; does the course involve any study abroad for example? How will you benefit and how might this be good for your personal development as well as for your future?
4.) What if I'm scared about university?
Yes, it's daunting to move to a new town or city where you know no one, and face the awkward first-week process of getting to know new people - not just in a casual way, but people you have been placed to live with on a daily basis. Anyone who's been to university and lived in halls of residence or shared accommodation will tell you that after you've been there for a week you feel like you've always been there. It's because so much happens, your life goes on fast-forward for a bit, and you have a bunch of activities thrown at you to help you navigate a new city and a new place of study, and all the while you are getting to know your new flatmates and coursemates with endless conversations. You'll talk more in a week than you have in ages, and if you don't like your flatmates there are endless clubs and societies to join to meet new people. Of course there will be those like my A-Level chum who just can't get over the home-sickness, and it's not the end of the world (see point number 5). I'm someone who suffers from acute social anxiety and find the prospect of interaction more daunting than the process of it - yes I know, it's weird for someone who's constantly at blogger events and soirees to say this, but believe me, I really have to force myself to go to them. Therefore I can't say that university is easy to start with (or it wasn't for me), or that you won't miss your old way of life at times, but you will settle in quicker than you think, and you will find it odd that everything becomes so familiar when just weeks previously you didn't know this place or these people. The thing to remember is that everyone, from the meek and mousey to the super-chatty and confident will feel the same way - all hoping that people will like them and that they'll fit in. You can be who you want to be in a new place, so take a deep breath and get stuck in.
5.) What if I make the wrong decision?
Whilst I would recommend trying your hardest to make the right decision before you apply, the beauty of the uni process is that it's on your side if you realise the course or university aren't for you once you've started. Talk to your lecturers and to student services at the university and ask them about your options. A lot of people don't realise that they can swap to another degree course in the first term (check deadlines for this), or that they can keep their place on their course and start again the following year if they feel unsure, but don't want to totally quit. And if you do want to quit (nicer name for this - withdraw), then so be it. You will have your reasons, and as long as they're not to suit someone else, follow your heart and a different path. I've met several people who found themselves surprised by trying so hard to get on a course that turned out to be not what they thought, or people who realised they had taken a course their heart wasn't in, but they'd found something else at the same uni they wanted to switch to.
Going to university open days will help you get a feel for a campus, for the tutors, and for the town, and you'll get an opportunity to talk to current students on the course. You can ask to see what the halls accommodation looks like, and you can find out how easy it is to travel home for the odd weekend if you feel you'd like to. Most universities will have a YouTube channel as well, and you should definitely check out their videos. For example, St. Mary's University in Twickenham have a series of videos called Be Part Of It in which they interview current and former students about the process of choosing a university, and they also have videos for all their courses and about the uni in general. These resources are so helpful, so spend time informing yourself about your choices and weighing up what's going to be best for you and your future.