Your first decisions

You and 600,000 other students, including 100,000 from EU and overseas countries, will be applying for university this year with a choice of over 1,200 degree subjects and 50,000 course variations in over 150 universities and colleges in the UK. The scale of such an exercise may seem enormous but there are ways and means of simplifying the exercise and making the important decisions, starting with the choice of possible degree courses.

Choosing your A-levels (or equivalent qualifications) is often done on the basis of selecting your best subjects or those which you find the most interesting, and of course those which are required for a chosen career. All subjects tend to fall into one of three categories: academic, vocational and practical, with the competitive universities usually preferring the challenging academic subjects, eg English, history, mathematics and the sciences (see under ‘Applications to the Russell Group’ in the Applications section). As a rule, you would be advised to include at least two such subjects in your choice. Non-academic subjects would normally include communication and media studies, leisure studies and performing arts, etc although some of these subjects, including art, dance and drama are also relevant when choosing these degree courses, with selection for the last three being based on portfolio work and auditions.

Most courses in higher education lead to a degree or a diploma and for either you will have to make a subject choice. You have two main options:

  • Choosing a course that is either similar to, or the same as, one (or more) of your school subjects, or related to an interest outside the school curriculum, such as Anthropology, American Studies, Archaeology.
  • Choosing a course in preparation for a future career, for example Medicine, Architecture, Engineering.

In this section you can find out about:


Choosing your course by school subjects

Before making the choice of school subjects there is an important point to consider about university degree courses. A degree course is not always a training path for a career; its purpose is also to teach you how to learn through self-directed study, decision making and research when much of your time will be spent working on your own, so that when you have graduated you can easily adapt to any task whatever the career. Thus it is not unusual, for example, to find students who have degrees in history or languages going on to train as accountants and lawyers and many other non-scientific careers. From one university a recently qualified dentist went on to train as an airline pilot!

Some school subjects you are taking, however, are closely linked to a number of possible degree courses.

Choosing your course by career interests

An alternative strategy for deciding on the subject of your degree or diploma course is to relate it to your career interests. Choose a career interest and check the range of degree courses open to you.


You will then need to decide on the type of course you want to follow. The way in which Honours degree courses are arranged differs between institutions. For example, a subject might be offered as a single subject course (a Single Honours degree), or as a two-subject course (a Joint Honours degree), or as one of two, three or four subjects (a Combined Honours degree) or a major–minor degree (75% and 25% of each subject respectively).

Courses in the same subject at different universities and colleges can have different subject requirements so it is important to check the acceptability of your GCE A-levels and GCSE subjects (or equivalent) for all your preferred courses. Specific GCE A-levels, and in some cases, GCSE subjects, may be stipulated.


One variation on Single Honours courses is that of the sandwich course, in which students will spend part of their degree course on professional, industrial or commercial placements. Media coverage on student debt and the introduction of higher tuition fees highlights the importance of sandwich courses. Many sandwich and placement courses are on offer, in which industrial, commercial and public sector placements take place, usually, in the third year of a four-year degree course. There is also a Work-Based Learning (WBL) programme, which Chester University established several years ago, with some other institutions following suit, in which students take a WBL module in the second year of their degree course. This involves a placement lasting a few weeks when students can have the opportunity to try out possible careers. Other universities and colleges may offer longer placements of periods of six months with different employers for students taking vocational courses.

However, the most structured arrangements are known as ‘professional placements’ which a number of universities offer and which are very advantageous to students. Although placements in some fields such as health, social care, and education may be unpaid, in most cases a salary is paid. Where a placement is unpaid the placement period is shorter – 30 weeks – to allow students time to undertake paid work. It is important to note that during the placement year students’ tuition fees will be reduced, however the amount payable for tuition fees varies from university to university. Students studying in England and Wales participating in the one-year Erasmus+ programme and studying abroad will pay up to 15% of the full-time fees charged by their home university, while students in Scotland and Northern Ireland generally have their fees waived.

The advantages of sandwich courses are quite considerable although students should be aware that in periods of economic uncertainty safeguards are necessary when selecting courses and universities. While students can arrange their own placement, with the approval of their Head of Department, it is more usual for university staff to make contacts with firms and to recommend students. With the present cutbacks, however, some firms may be less likely to take on students or to pay them during their placement. This is an important issue to raise with admissions tutors before applying and it is important also to find out how your studies would continue if placements are not possible.


Degree apprenticeship courses combine a full degree with practical work. They are designed in partnership with employers – apprentices will be employed throughout and earning a wage, with part-time study taking place at a university. They can be completed to bachelor's or master's degree level and take between three and six years to complete, depending on the level of the course. Currently the scheme operates across England and Wales only, although applications may be made from all parts of the UK. Since degree apprenticeships are new, there are only a limited number of vacancies available at present. It is anticipated that the number of vacancies will grow over the coming years. See for further details.


There are a great many mature students following first degree courses in UK universities and colleges. The following is a list of key points a group of mature students found useful in exploring and deciding on a university course. 

  • Check with your nearest university or college to find out about the courses they can offer, for example degrees, diplomas, full-time, part-time.
  • Some institutions will require examination passes in some subjects, others may not.
  • An age limit may apply for some vocational courses, for example Medicine, Dentistry and Teaching.
  • If entry requirements are an obstacle, prospective students should approach their local colleges for information on Access or distance-learning courses such as those offered by the National Extention College. These courses are fast-growing in number and popularity, offering adults an alternative route into higher education other than A-levels. They are usually developed jointly by colleges of further education and the local higher education institution.
  • Demands of the course – how much time will be required for study? What are the assignments and the deadlines to be met? How is your work assessed – unseen examinations, continuous assessment, practicals?
  • The demands on finance – cost of the course – loan needed – loss of earnings – drop in income if changing to another career – travel requirements – accommodation – need to work part-time for income?
  • The availability and suitability of the course – geographical location – competition for places – where it will lead – student support services, for example childcare, library.
  • What benefits will you derive? Fulfilment, transferable skills, social contacts, sense of achievement, enjoyment, self-esteem, career enhancement?
  • Why would employers want to recruit you? Ability to adapt to the work scene, realistic and balanced approach, mature attitude to work?
  • Why would employers not want to recruit you? Salary expectations, inability to fit in with younger colleagues, limited mobility? However, some employers particularly welcome older graduates: civil service, local authorities, health service, religious, charitable and voluntary organisations, teaching, social/probation work, careers work, housing. 


Courses can also differ considerably not only in their content but in how they are organised. Many universities and colleges of higher education have modularised their courses which means you can choose modules of different subjects, and ‘build’ your course within specified ‘pathways’ with the help and approval of your course tutor. It also means that you are likely to be assessed after completing each module, rather than in your last year for all your previous years’ learning. In almost every course the options and modules offered include some which reflect the research interests of individual members of staff. In some courses subsidiary subjects are available as minor courses alongside a Single Honours course. In an increasing number of courses these additional subjects include a foreign language, and the importance of this cannot be over-emphasised, as language skills are increasingly in demand by employers, and studying a language may also open up opportunities for further study abroad. A popular option is the Erasmus+ Programme, which enables university students to apply for courses in Europe for periods of up to a year, with some of the courses being taught in English. Please note that following the UK's vote to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum, the UK's future access to the Erasmus+ scheme, once it exits the EU, has yet to be determined. At present, the UK will continue to access the scheme until the end of 2020. The terms of the UK's continued participation in the Erasmus+ scheme are to be negotiated as part of wider discussions with the other EU Member States. Many institutions have introduced credit accumulation and transfer schemes (CATS). These allow students to be awarded credits for modules or units of study they have successfully completed which are accumulated towards a certificate, diploma or degree. They can also put their completed modules towards higher education study in other universities or colleges. Students wanting to transfer their credits should talk to the admissions office of the university they want to enter as there may be additional special subjects or module requirements for the degree they want to study.


Foundation courses, not be confused with Foundation degrees, normally require two years’ full-time study, or longer for part-time study. They are also often taught in local colleges and may be taken part-time to allow students to continue to work. In comparison a Foundation degree can lead into the second or final year of related Honours degree courses when offered by the university validating the Foundation degree. Two-year Higher National Diplomas will also qualify for entry into the second or final year of degree courses. These, too, are often offered at universities as well as colleges of further education and partnership colleges linked to universities.

Part-time degrees and lifelong learning or distance learning courses are also often available and details of these can be found on university websites and in prospectuses. Some universities publish separate prospectuses for part-time courses.


When choosing your course remember that one course is not better than another – it is just different. The best course for you is the one which best suits you. After provisionally choosing your courses, read the prospectuses again carefully to be sure that you understand what is included in the three, four or more years of study. Each institution differs in its course content even though the course titles may be the same and courses differ in other ways, for example:

  • methods of assessment (eg unseen examinations, continuous assessment, project work, dissertations)
  • contact time with tutors
  • how they are taught (for example, frequency and size of lectures, seminars)
  • practicals; field work requirements
  • library, computing, laboratory and studio facilities
  • amount of free study time available.

These are useful points of comparison between courses in different institutions when you are on an Open Day visit or making final course choices. Other important factors to consider when comparing courses include the availability of opportunities for studying and working abroad during your course, professional body accreditation of courses leading to certain professional careers and in the career destinations of previous graduates.

Once you have chosen your course subject(s) and the type of course you want to follow, the next step is to find out about the universities and colleges offering courses in your subject area, how much a higher education course will cost you and what financial help is available.  


Choosing your course is the first decision you need to make, the second is choosing your university and then, for an increasing number, the third is deciding whether or not to take a gap year. But there lies the problem. Because of the very large number of things to do and places to go, you’ll find that you almost need a gap year to choose the right one!

Planning ahead is important but, in the end, bear in mind that you might be overtaken by events, not least in failing to get the grades you need for a place on the course or at the university you were counting on. This could mean repeating A-levels and re-applying, which in turn could mean waiting for interviews and offers and deferring the start of your ‘gap’.

Once you have decided to go, however, it’s a question of whether you will go under your own steam or through a gap year agency. Unless you are streetwise, or preferably ‘world wise’, then an agency offers several advantages. Some agencies may cover a broad field of opportunities whilst others will focus on a specific region and activity, such as the African Conservation Experience, offering animal and plant conservation work in game and nature reserves in southern Africa.

When making the choice, some students will always prefer a ‘do-it-yourself’ arrangement. However, there are many advantages to going through specialist agencies. Not only can they offer a choice of destinations and opportunities but also they can provide a lot of essential and helpful advice before your departure on issues such as health precautions and insurance. Support is also available in the case of accidents or illnesses when a link can be established between the agency and parents.

Finally, in order to enhance your next university or college application, applying for a job for the year could be an even better option than spending a year travelling. Not only will it provide you with some financial security but it will also introduce you to the world of work, which could be more challenging than the Inca Trail!