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Set course now for a university place

It’s tempting for sixth-formers to party after their AS-level exams, but they should be planning their post-school options, says Nick Morrison

As AS-level exams draw to a close, students in their first year of sixth form could be forgiven for thinking they are due a break: a couple of days spent in bed, say, or at a music festival. But for anyone planning on applying to university, this should be a time for concentrated activity. Decisions taken over the next few weeks and months will have a crucial bearing not just on their application itself, but on their lives over the next three or four years and even beyond. However tempting, this is not the time to take it easy.

Applications for medical or veterinary school, dentistry or Oxbridge must be in by October 15. For all other universities and courses the deadline is January 15. This may still seem some way off, but spending time now avoids panicking next term. Some students will already have a good idea of what they want to study and where they want to study it. But for others, choosing where to apply is still very much a work in progress and there is much fine-tuning to be done.

While many will have half an eye on future career prospects when choosing a course, this should not be an overriding consideration, counsels David Goodhew, head of Latymer Upper School in west London. A lot of careers do not require a particular degree and choosing a subject that interests you, rather than one you think will be useful, can be a better option. “I would caution against being too reductive and thinking that because you want to work in the City you have to do economics,” says Goodhew. Students also need to do their homework into different courses. Some require specific A-levels and you may find your choices at 16 have already ruled you out.

Navigating through the maze of courses is no easy task Universities publish course requirements on their websites, but if you are unsure now is the time to ring up admissions tutors and ask, because next term they may be too busy to talk to you. “Sometimes students are quite nervous about doing it, but the best way to check is to go direct to the source,” Goodhew says. “It can often demystify the process.” Courses differ widely between universities, in both content and in methods of teaching and assessment. English courses, for example, can cover literature from the medieval period onwards or may have a 20th-century bias.

Teaching can be largely through lectures and seminars, or more small-group tutorials. For science subjects, the amount of lab time varies. Assessment can be continuous, end-of-year exams, or a mixture of both. At Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, students are encouraged to draw up a set of criteria to determine which courses suit them best. “When you do A-levels you choose a subject but you don’t choose the content, whereas now you really need to consider what sort of course you want,” says director of studies Steve Dann. “There is a huge variation.” Students should also consider subjects they may not have had the opportunity to study at A level, such as anthropology, psychology or engineering. “If you’re interested in geography, don’t just look at geography courses, but look at something related to it as well,” advises Dann.

Teachers may be able to point you towards subjects you would not otherwise have considered but could be right up your street. A search facility on the Ucas website also shows related subjects. >> IN PICTURES: top ten most popular degree subjects Some students pick the universities they want to go to and then find a course that fits best, but Dann argues the course should come first. “When you look at why students drop out they usually say the course wasn’t what they wanted,” he says. “The course is fundamental.” Online tools such as UK Coursefinder are also useful for searching for the right course, says Laurence Job, assistant principal at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington. “The first and most important consideration is to find what is right for you as an individual,” he says. But you should also weigh up other parts of the university experience, he adds, again matching it to what is important to you, whether it’s living in a city or on a rural campus, an academic reputation or great sporting facilities, or whether you want to be close to home, or far away.

League tables have made comparisons between universities easier, but they should be taken with a pinch of salt, says Eddie Playfair, principal of Newham Sixth Form College in east London. “We try to educate students about using league tables intelligently. Different students will have different priorities.” Instead of just looking at overall rankings, he advises students to drill down into course level and examine teaching grades, student feedback and employment rates, but not to take the results as gospel. “We often find ourselves telling students not to get obsessed with pecking orders,” he says. “League tables do measure something real but they need to be taken in the round alongside other factors.” The best way of finding out if a university is right for you is to go there.

As well as open days, many universities also run subject-specific taster days. Not only can these be more informative than a general open day, but they can also be included in your personal statement as evidence of an interest in the subject. But even once you have chosen your course and university there is another factor to take into account: realism. Students can have unrealistic expectations and sometimes even try to persuade teachers to inflate their predicted grades, says Stephen Carville, principal of Peter Symonds College in Winchester. “Often students say they need an A, but it is not the prediction that gets them the place, it is the grade,” he says. “It is not in a student’s interests to have a predicted grade that is inflated.” Juggling choices to combine both aspirational and insurance offers is tricky, but Carville suggests having two at the top end of your expectations, at least one matching them and one below.

Make sure you would be happy to go to any of your five choices, he says. By the end of this term, most students should have a pretty good idea of what they want to do and where they want to go, and be ready to put their efforts into maximising the chances of going there, says Simon Kinder, deputy head at Gresham’s School in Norfolk. The summer is a good time to work on the part of the process most students find hardest: the personal statement. This should demonstrate how your interests and activities outside of the classroom make you a good fit for the course. “The personal statement is not a list, it is a reflection,” he says. “At least 80 per cent should be about the course and the subject.” But for students who are still unsure, the important thing is not to panic. “If you are still thinking about three or four areas, don’t worry,” says Kinder. “What you don’t want to do is make a knee-jerk decision. It is much better to get it right.” The key is to do your homework. “The more thorough your research, the more savvy your choices will be,” Kinder says. Navigating through the maze of courses and universities out there and ending up with a well-balanced application is no easy task, and putting the work in now means you are less likely to make hasty decisions next term that you might later come to regret.

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