9 Pieces of University Advice That Seem Sensible But Aren’t

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When you’re preparing to go to university, it can feel as though everyone has some pearls of wisdom to offer you.

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Though those offering you advice mean kindly, you’ll probably find that the different words of advice you’re given will be contradictory. To add to the confusion, some of these platitudes might sound sensible, but in actual fact they should be taken with a pinch of salt. It’s this sort of advice that we’re going to cover in this article, as it’s the sort that has the potential to do the most damage if you take it seriously.

1. “Study this subject – the career prospects are great!”

Image shows a university careers fair.
Beware that your parents’ and friends’ impression of the career prospects offered by a particular course might be out of date.

We all like to talk to friends and family when we’re in a quandary about something, and making a decision over what subject to study at university is one such dilemma you might be inclined to talk about. The problem is, an innocent question like “what do you think I should do?” opens up the doors for people to start giving you their compelling opinions about what subject you ought to do. And those opinions are fairly likely not to be based on concrete evidence; for instance, someone might well advise you to study law, because it has great career prospects. That’s a misconception, because the career prospects offered by a law degree aren’t all that great if you want to be a practising lawyer. But you might not know that; it sounds sensible, and if your friend said it, and your friend knows you well, they must be right – right? Wrong! Even if you don’t know what course you want to do, it’s generally not a good idea to choose a course simply because someone else has told you it’s a good idea. The decision has to come from you, and it should take into account your own interests and career aims, and what you think is best for you. You would also be wise to do your own research into the career prospects offered by each of the degrees you’re considering.

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2. “Follow your heart”

Image shows a packet of Love Hearts (a type of sweet) lying on a plate.
Following your passion sounds poetic, but is it really a good idea?

This idealistic piece of advice is one that many students think will do them good, as there is a lot to be said for instinct; but in fact, this oft-quoted pearl of wisdom isn’t as helpful as you might think. With a decision as big as which university to go to or which degree course to choose, it’s vital that your head comes into it as well. For example, you might love the idea of studying a particular subject, but if the associated starting salaries are very low or jobs hard to come by, it’s going to take you a lot longer to achieve a comfortable standard of living – and it’s a decision you might come to regret. What’s more, some degrees look better on your CV than others; picking a degree because your heart tells you to means that you might neglect to listen to your head telling you that it’s not a well-respected course.
This advice also isn’t very helpful in view of the fact that you probably have lots of interests rather than one overwhelming passion. How on earth do you choose which of those interests to follow when your heart is telling you that you love all of them? Clearly, other factors must come into your decision. And one other thing. Some things stop being interesting once you start studying them in too much depth. You might love reading, for example, but when you start analysing novels in miniscule detail, you might find that it kills off your love of reading and you cease to enjoy a once-beloved pastime. Similarly, you might love music, and performing on an instrument, but under the pressure of performing for a music degree or at music college, you might find that you start associating your instrument with stress rather than enjoyment. So think carefully before taking something you love to degree level.

3. “Choose a course that will get you a well-paid job above all else”

Although we’ve just told you to listen to your head as well as your heart, it’s also not a good idea to choose a course purely because you think it will get you a well-paid job. If you do this, you risk choosing a course that you don’t enjoy purely because the career prospects are good; and not enjoying a course is pretty fatal to your chances of achieving the best grades. There are few things that make studying harder than hating the subject, so you still need to pick a course that you find interesting. After all, you’re going to be spending at least three years studying it in minute detail, so you’ll thank yourself for choosing something you find engaging.

4. “Don’t go to university too near home” or “Stay near your parents”

Image shows an Air New Zealand plane.
Think about how far from home you really want to be.

Both of these pieces of advice should be approached with caution. As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to be too dependent on home – university is when you’re meant to be adjusting to adulthood. But it’s also not always a good idea to move as far away from your parents as possible; everyone’s different, and if you’re constantly homesick then you won’t have a very good time at university. A reasonable compromise if you’re not sure of the right thing to do is to choose a university that’s an hour or two away. In other words, near enough to go home at a weekend if you want to, but not too close that you’re always going home, getting your parents to do your washing for you and so on.

5. “Social life is more important than the course, because this subject will be the same at every university”

There are so many excellent universities out there – all pretty much on a par with each other – that the advice that the social life at a particular university matters more than the course may sound fairly sensible. After all, aren’t all the courses at different universities for a particular subject much of a muchness? Actually, no: there’s a lot of variation, even within the same subject, as we’ve covered in this article. The course, rather than being a secondary concern, should be one of your main reasons for choosing a particular university. Universities set their own curriculum, meaning that the content and focus of courses within the same subject can differ enormously from one university to another (unlike A-levels, which follow the same exam board syllabuses from one school to another), as can teaching styles and quality, and various other factors. Although your social life is important, and university is about having fun as well as working hard, it’s not as important as getting your choice of course right.

6. “Read the online reviews”

Image shows a row of star-shaped fairy lights.
Do you want to disregard a good university because of one student who had a bad day?

There are plenty of online review sites on which students can extol the virtues of their university – or rant about it. In an age in which decisions are increasingly supported by sites such as TripAdvisor, or reviews on Amazon, we’re sometimes too dependent on reading what others have to say about something. On the face of it, it seems like a good idea to have a read of what students have said about their university anonymously on the internet. After all, they’re the ones who are going to know best – aren’t they? The problem is that the opinions you read on such sites are rarely (if ever) objective. Most people love their university and will happily gloss over its problems, while others may be miserable at university – for personal reasons – and will let this muddy their view of the university itself. What’s more, there’s always going to be someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t like the university – and that might have a lot more to do with their own circumstances and expectations, about which you know nothing, than the actual quality of the university. So, take online reviews with a pinch of salt. If you want to read them to get an overall impression of what students say about a university then do so, but try not to single out any review in particular and use it to form the basis of a decision. What’s right for someone else may not be right for you, and vice versa.

7. “Everyone ends up loving their university”

These words of advice are meant to comfort those who aren’t sure whether they’re making the right choice of university, or to reassure those who’ve ended up with an offer through clearing that they wouldn’t otherwise have considered. We’d love to say that it’s true that everyone ends up loving their university, but sadly, it isn’t. You can’t tell yourself that you’ll end up loving whichever university you end up at, or use this advice to get out of making a logical decision. If you make the wrong choice, and you end up at a university in which the teaching isn’t up to scratch, you’re not on a wavelength with anyone or you don’t like the surroundings, the chances are that you’ll be miserable at university. People who experience these sorts of feelings don’t end up loving the university – they end up dropping out. Don’t let this happen to you! Don’t settle for second best. If you’re not happy with an offer and deep down you think you’ll regret accepting it, don’t. Try for another offer or take a year out and reapply, if that’s what it takes to find somewhere you’ll fit in.

8. “Seen one university, seen them all”

Image shows outdoor stalls at a university open day, framed between two trees.
University open days give you a vital perspective – don’t miss out on them.

Perhaps you’ve been debating whether to go on open days to universities you’re considering applying to, but they’re a long way away and it’s time-consuming and expensive to travel to all of them. Someone tells you “seen one university, seen them all”, and you think this must be right: universities these days are all pretty similar, after all; they all have libraries, reasonable accommodation, student union, plenty of sports facilities and so on. However, you’d be surprised how much they can vary, and how different the atmosphere can be. The only way you can get a sense of the atmosphere at a university – and whether or not you could ever feel at home there – is to visit in person. It’s a decision that will affect you for at least three years of your life, and if you end up dropping out because you don’t like where you’ve chosen, because you didn’t visit before applying and accepting their offer, you might end up costing yourself a lot more money than the price of a train ticket to the open day.

9. “Choose the subject you were best in at school”

When you’re choosing what subject to take on at degree level, your teachers might advise you to choose whichever subject you most excelled in at school. They may also be biased towards their own subject if you were one of their star pupils. It seems logical: it seems a natural step forward to carry the subject you did well in at A-level on to university. The problem is, this can lead to a blinkered approach to deciding what to study at university. You approach the process of choosing a course with only that subject in mind, without actually thinking about any of the other possible options that might actually be better suited to you. Even though you’re good at a subject, you might not be sufficiently interested in it to sustain three more years of studying it. There might be one particularly vocal teacher arguing the case for you studying their own subject, while you might have been just as good at other A-level subjects, which could be equally viable degree options. What’s more, there are plenty of courses out there that aren’t commonly offered as A-level subjects, such as Law, which could be perfectly suited to you and your career aims. Even if one subject naturally stands out as one you think you should study at university, it’s still worth exploring other options before coming to a fully informed decision.
So, the next time someone offers you some well-meaning advice about university, stop and think before taking the advice. It’s fine to get some other perspectives, but ultimately the decisions have to come from you.

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