How to Tell if a University Course is Right for You: 7 Crucial Factors You Need to Consider

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Applying for university is one of those things you have to do in life that will make you feel the full force of the agony of choice.

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You don’t just have to decide what subject you want to study. You have to decide which university offers the best course within that subject. The course is (or should be) your primary consideration when it comes to picking a university; but, given that it might be a subject you haven’t even studied before, how do you which university’s version of any given subject is best for you? In this article, we’re going to explain the various ways in which courses can differ and give you some useful points of comparison to help you narrow down your selection.

1. Entry requirements

Image shows Madgalen College, Oxford.
Do beware that figures on applicants per place can be misleading – Oxford and Cambridge, for instance, have relatively low numbers of applicants per place because only the best bother applying.

We’re starting by mentioning entry requirements because these clearly differ from one university to another, for the same subject, even among the top universities, and this is a big factor in assessing whether or not a course will be suitable for you. If the entry requirements at a particular university are sky-high, but your predicted grades aren’t – or you’re less bothered by the academic side of university life – it’s likely that this course isn’t for you. If the entry requirements are significantly lower than your predicted grades, it doesn’t matter how interesting the course content looks: it’s probably not right for you either, because you may not be sufficiently challenged academically and your peers are unlikely to be working at the same level as you, which makes for less worthwhile academic discussion. As nice as it is to be top of the class, it’s not an environment that will enable you to reach your full potential.

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What’s more, entry requirements are worth exploring in more detail from a more logistical point of view. While the A-level grades expected may be much the same – perhaps one or two grades different, such as AAA or AAB – universities may have different views of GCSEs and other achievements, and whether or not it’s vital that you have A*s in a particular subject (or have that subject at all). For example, a good grade in a language GCSE might be considered more important for English applicants at some universities than at others. There may be some small print somewhere that says that says you have to fulfil certain requirements, but it may be unspoken. The competitiveness of the course is likely to have a bearing on the university’s expectations of your GCSE grades. Some universities give information about how many applicants there are per place, so this could be a good clue as to how good you’ll need to be to stand out from the crowd. Try to dig around a bit online to find out more about what the specific department could be looking for in applicants for the course you’re interested in.

2. The content of the syllabus

Image shows the poet Allen Ginsberg.
If you want to study Beat poets, you may be more at home in Bristol than Oxford.

The main way in which courses differ from one university to another, within the same subject, is in the actual content on the course. Even within the same subject, the actual topics taught – and the degree of emphasis on each – can vary enormously. For example, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the English course focuses much more on modern and US writers than English at Oxford, which has a broader focus beginning in AD 650 right the way through to the present day, but generally has more of an emphasis on early English. English at Bristol contains module options such as “Beats and Crazies” and “New England’s Dreaming”, which are unlikely to be found on the Oxford English course! Whether or not a particular course is suited to you will therefore depend very much on where your interests lie. If it’s a subject you’ve not studied before, you might not know what interests you yet, but looking at the course details should give you a rough idea of whether or not you could see yourself studying certain topics. So, read about what is taught on each course, in great detail.

3. The extent to which you can choose what you study

Image shows a T-junction with arrows pointing in each direction.
How important is it to you to be able to choose your specialism early on?

Most university courses will have a number of compulsory modules, and then there will be a load more from which you can choose your own options according to where your interests lie. This may, for instance, take the form of two lists of subjects, from which you can choose two modules from each list. Some courses may offer a greater or lesser degree of choice, so if you’re aiming to specialise in a particular area – perhaps because of a special interest or because it fits in with your career goals – you’ll need to find out the extent to which this will be possible.
It’s worth looking in detail at what the compulsory modules entail – you’ll have no choice but to study these, so this can provide a good point of comparison between universities. There’s probably always going to be something you don’t particularly fancy studying, on any course you look at; but you’ll want the majority of modules to be things you can see yourself spending lots of time on, or else you risk not being interested enough to do well (keep an open mind, though; you never know what you may end up developing an interest in once you get to know the topic a little better).
Then look at the lists of modules you can choose from in order to specialise more. You may have no idea at this point, and that’s fine (module choices sometimes only become clear once you’ve started the course and have a bit more of a clue about what certain things are all about); but you should be able to get the gist of what’s on offer and see whether there are things that immediately grab you. You might have a particular interest in something that’s an option on one course but not another, so this can help you narrow down your shortlist.

4. The teaching style

Image shows Leeds University.
Leeds offers a wide variety of different teaching styles.

Teaching styles do vary from university to university, even for the same subject.
For example, Oxford and Cambridge rely on the tutorial system, which is an intensely academic environment in which the emphasis is placed on one-to-one sessions with a tutor once a week, and very little other ‘contact time’ other than optional lectures and perhaps a weekly class. Courses elsewhere might rely a lot more on lectures as a primary form of teaching; these are a lot less high-pressured and involve much less interaction and academic discussion, but may be better suited to students who would prefer a more laid-back teaching environment. Some courses embrace a varied learning environment; at Leeds, for example, the English degree is taught:

“…in a variety of learning environments including seminars, workshops, and lectures; one-to-one tutorials and supervisions; group work with peers; our Virtual Learning Environment (podcasts, wikis, discussion boards, etc); libraries and other research and study environments. Students participating in the work placement scheme also benefit from workplace-based learning.”

Whether you feel comfortable with such an array of different learning environments and teaching styles depends on how traditional you are. Some of you will probably want to knuckle down to no-frills study in a library with books, without the whistles and bells of this sort of modern learning, while others may find that the more contemporary approach suits them better and keeps them interested.

5. The faculty

The presence of particular lecturers on the teaching faculty may also have a bearing on whether you deem a course to be right for you or not. For example, the presence of the great Professor Mary Beard at Cambridge may well be an incentive to apply there instead of Oxford for Classics. Don’t forget that you may not end up being directly taught by a particular academic, as academics often go on sabbatical and move around from one university to another. But the Faculty in a university’s department is certainly worth looking into nonetheless. Take a look at their research interests and see what they say about themselves (and their work) on their page on the university website. You may find that some strike a chord more than others, and this can form an extra strand to your research into different courses.

6. Fieldwork or placements

Image shows students doing fieldwork with a mountain range behind them.
Opportunities for fieldwork may also be an important factor in your choice.

Some university courses require fieldwork or work placements to be carried out as part of the course, so this is another aspect you can find out more about in your search for the perfect course. Primary things to think about here are:
– Location – if you’re keen to travel, you might find a course that involves travel abroad more appealing than one that doesn’t.
– Career prospects – work placements may greatly enhance your career prospects by giving you some relevant experience to put on your CV. A university’s professional contacts can help you enormously in securing work placements.
– Costs – if affordability is an issue, this may put you off a course that involves expensive field trips (bear in mind, though, that there may be grants available to help you cover the cost of these).
One of the easiest ways to learn is by doing things, so fieldwork and work placements can be extremely valuable components of a course. If you’re studying a subject such as geography, which are bound to involve some time in the field, take a look at where you’ll be visiting and compare courses accordingly.

7. Assessment

Image shows a student working in a library, with a sign saying 'quiet, please' in the foreground.
Consider whether the lengthy slog of coursework suits you better than getting it all out of the way quickly with exams.

Courses vary in how they are assessed from university to university, with exams and coursework (dissertations) being primary methods of assessment, and other types including things like shorter written pieces, artwork portfolios (for art subjects), musical performances and compositions (for music), and so on. Some will be assessed almost entirely on exams, while others may place far more emphasis on coursework. At Oxford, my course (Classical Archaeology and Ancient History) was assessed almost entirely on Finals exams, with the only coursework being a 15,000 word dissertation, which contributed a small part towards my final classification. Other courses are a little more radical; here’s the Leeds English course again:

“At levels 2 and 3 core modules are mainly assessed by exam, preceded by an essay or practice piece which is unassessed. Option modules are mainly assessed by essays, but some incorporate a range of assessment modes, including online exercises such as creating wikis or podcasts, library exercises, and presentations in seminars and workshops. Students taking creative writing develop a portfolio and a learning journal.”

Whether you think you’d thrive in an environment in which assessment is done like this, or you’re more of a traditionalist, it’s definitely worth reading up on how your degree will be assessed. If a course is assessed mostly on Finals this places a huge amount of pressure on you to demonstrate everything you’ve learned over three years, in the space of a couple of extremely intense weeks – even if you do consider yourself to be good at exams. If you become ill during those weeks, that could hugely impact on your performance in Finals and you could come out with a lower degree classification than the work you’ve put in deserves. If, on the other hand, only some of the final classification comes from Finals and a greater percentage comes from coursework, illness or succumbing to pressure during the exam period will have less of a detrimental impact on your final grade. If you tend to crumble under the pressure of exams, a course which is assessed mostly on coursework – extended essays or dissertations submitted after weeks or months of work – will allow you to display your strengths and come out with a better degree classification.

Comparing courses

Image shows Manchester University.
You can always ask current students for advice as well.

To summarise, these are the main points of comparison to consider when choosing between courses and deciding which one’s right for you:
– Entrance requirements
– Course content
– Choosing and specialising
– Teaching style
– Faculty
– Fieldwork and placements
– Assessment
To this list we might perhaps add “gut feeling”, as there may be certain courses towards which you feel naturally drawn. Assess each course by each of these categories and perhaps award up to five points within each category, according to its suitability to you. You can then add up the points to give you a score for each course, and rank them according to suitability. It may sound quite a regimented way of doing it, but when you’re struggling to decide, a logical approach like this may be just what you need to come to a decision!


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Image credits: banner; Madgalen; Ginsberg; junction; Leeds; fieldwork; library; Manchester.