How to pick a course

One of the first things you need to do when thinking about a university is picking what course you want to study. And the types of courses at university can be wildly different from those you studied in school.

Even if the title of the course is familiar, there is no longer a set curriculum for universities. When you're at school, maths A-level in one school is going to be identical to maths A-level in another school, because there's a curriculum set up by the exam boards. This doesn't happen at university. At university, the courses are determined by the lecturers, and they're going to lecture in what they're interested in. So, a history degree at one university could be utterly different to a history degree at another university.

The first thing you need to do is decide what you're interested in because you're going to be studying this for two, three, four, five, or potentially even six years. That is a long time to be doing something that you're not interested in. Take a look at the subjects that you're studying at the moment, and even if the whole subject doesn't interest you, is there one module, one topic, a part of a subject that interests you? Is there part of this subject and part of this subject that interested you? Two half subjects that you like? Sit down and think about this. Even if it's something outside of school, outside of the scope of what you've been taught in class that interests you, put that on your list as well. If there's anything you're doing that's extracurricular, setting up a business, leadership in a youth organization, you might enjoy visiting bridges all over the world. These are things that you're interested in, and the full range of degree subjects means, chances are, you're going to find a degree in it.

The next thing you need to do is think far ahead in the future. Do you have any idea what you want to be doing in five, ten or twenty years time? If the answer is no, that's fine; most people don't. But some of you do, and some of those courses are going to have visible, direct career choices, direct career paths, the degree is going to lead straight into a career. Some of you may have a particular job in mind, but a degree doesn't exist for that career, so we need to start thinking skills. Physics, chemistry, history, geography-these are all great degrees because of the skills they teach you. All of them involve writing reports, collecting and analyzing data, and looking for patterns. The skills that these type of degrees teach you are highly valued by employers. For example, if you want to be a spy, you can't do a degree in that, but you can do a physics degree, or a computer engineering degree, or a law degree. All of these teach you valuable, essential skills that employers love. People that come out with a physics degree are snapped up by employers quickly because of the fantastic things they've learned to do on the course, not necessarily the physics that they've learned.

After you've done those things and have thought about what you enjoy, thought about careers, and thought about skills, we need to start softly searching, and I want you to make a long list here. Anything that catches your eye goes on that long list. There are two ways to do this, on the internet and hard copy prospectuses. The Internet, may not be the best place to start because to search for something on the internet, you have to know what you're searching for, and at this stage, you might have no clue at all what you want to do. So, I'm going to suggest something a little bit old-fashioned, which is getting a hard copy of the prospectus. Flip through the prospectus, have a look at all the course titles, the course description, and see what catches your eye. It might be something surprising. It might be something you've not thought of before. It might be something you didn't know existed. Don't limit yourself too much at this stage. I want you to make a broad, long list. It doesn't matter if you've got some humanities subjects on there, some science, and then some maths. At this stage, we're just coming up with a broad list of what interests you. Then we need to start thinking about the nitty gritty just a little bit. Look at sandwich courses, placement courses, anything that has work experience associated with it, is leaving university with work experience going to be useful? Because the job market is very competitive, you need to think of anything you can do to give yourself a bit of an edge once you get out there. I did a year's work experience between years two and four at university. I spent a year working in London, then went back and did my fourth year, and that gave me a year's work experience, and I had that little bit of an edge when I eventually went to get a job after university.

If you can't narrow down your long list at all, think about combination courses. Bizarre combinations do exist. If you want to study sciences but you don't want to narrow yourself too much, you can consider a natural science degree. There are a few universities that offer liberal arts degrees, which are just combinations of different things. These are quite rare, but they're becoming more and more popular.

Once you've started to narrow down a course, start looking at the details. Look at the syllabus; if there is something that you love, you want to do English to study this author, to do history to explore this period, you want to go and do biochemistry because you love epigenetics, then look at the syllabi. They are going to tell you exactly what is taught year by year. Check that the bit you're interested in is taught at the university that you want because there is no point in going to a university to study a particular topic if they don't cover it. Some universities will have an element of professional exams in there as well. For example, some universities will do the professional accountancy exams as part of the university course.

The most valuable resource that you have in deciding whether a course is going to be right for you, are people who are currently doing the course. Be gutsy, be brave, go and talk to the other students. If they like the university, they are going to give you that honest opinion. If they don't enjoy the university, they are going to give you their honest opinion. They might be rude and tell you to go away, but they might not be, and it is worth trying to get as much information as you can. Obviously, there are loads and loads of university YouTube vloggers, and they're going to tell you about their university, their course, their accommodation, their UCAS experience. Do as much research as you can, get as much information as you can from as many different people.

We need to start thinking about matching a course with a university. If you have your ideal course in mind and your ideal university in mind, hopefully, they match up. If you have your perfect course in mind, but you hate the university, then that's bad luck. But there are so many different courses and so many various universities that I'm sure you will find something that you like.

Then we need to think about entrance requirements. When you make your five choices, you need to have a range of entrance requirements. You cannot put five options down that all have B's because that's not very sensible. You need to have a range of conditions. Some with high entry requirements, what you're predicted to get, some with low entry requirements, just in case it all goes a little bit wrong on results day. 

Hamz story...

Hamz is 19 and studying medicine at Cardiff University. He has A-Levels in Chemistry (A*) Biology (A) Maths (A*) and Urdu (A)

"Principally, picking a university course is narrowing down the path towards what you want to do for the rest of your life and what you’ve dreamed of since childhood.

Like all children, I have always been inquisitive. Looking up at the sky, or observing the environment around me, I have always wondered about the correct order of things and how does it all work. This drive to learn more, and understand the complexity has always been a part of me. However, the more I learnt the more I realised how little I know, thus increasing my determination to learn and pick a course where learning never ends.

Growing up and witnessing people suffering and struggling around me, a part of me always wanted to help them but felt powerless. At the same time, watching my dad relieve the suffering of his patients and being available for people to save lives at all costs was inspiring. Looking at my dad gave me a vague abstraction about how my career choice can be beneficial for me as well as a source to help the unfortunate and sick people around me.

What turned my vague abstraction into a much more clear and definite choice was an incident during when I went to meet my grandparents in Pakistan during A-levels. The detailed memory of the life-changing day is engraved in my brain. That day, I accompanied my grandmother for her routine check-up from her family doctor. Been born and brought up in a developed country like the UK, I had never imagined how life or to be precise, how healthcare is in the underdeveloped countries like Pakistan. During my visit to my grandmother’s family doctor, I got a chance to witness the conditions of the unprivileged people who had been waiting in the queues to see a doctor. When I enquired about it to the doctor, he explained that because of lack of resources and a low number of doctors, these people fail to receive proper medical help. This experience made me more adamant than ever to be capable enough and help these people.

After analysing and scrutinizing my interests and goals at an individual level, I decided that medicine is the perfect career for me. It quenches my thirst to keep learning and understanding the unknown along with using this knowledge in helping those less fortunate."