How to Tell Which University Subject You’ll Love

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.

Image shows a book with some of its pages folded into a heart.

Deciding which subject to choose to study at university is no mean feat.

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Not only are there about a gazillion courses to choose from, many of which you’ll never have heard of before (did you know, for example, that Durham University offers a course in Viking Studies, Oxford one called Human Sciences, and Staffordshire David Beckham Studies?) but there’s also great variation between universities in the contents of each course, and the way they’re taught. What’s more, it’s now so expensive to go to university in the UK that you want to make absolutely sure you get it right, and pick a course that will engage and inspire you throughout your years of studying, as well as benefitting you in the long run. Finally, the tough competition for almost every place at a British university means you’ll need to put in a strong and convincing application if you want to be accepted to your top choice – this means being absolutely sure that a subject is for you before you write your personal statement, which should show off your enthusiasm and interest as well as your aptitude.

Image shows a photographer taking a photo of some mountains.
Photography is a challenging career to get into, but it is rewarding.

And as if all that weren’t confusing and daunting enough, there are a million different factors that conspire to make the decision even tougher. Should you pick something like Engineering or Computer Science, almost guaranteed to lead to a glittering career in a range of different industries, even if you’re not sure you’ll enjoy them that much? Or a prestigious academic course, known for being difficult and impressive on your CV, like Physics or Architecture? Speaking as one of life’s perpetual students, I’d advise you to base your decision on one thing above all else: enjoyment. This is almost definitely different advice to what you’ll hear from parents, teachers and career advisers, but I’d argue that the best route to being happy and successful is to pick the thing you love the most – whether it’s Fine Art, Photography, Physics or English Literature.
Now, I’m aware that this might seem like wishy-washy, ‘follow your heart’ nonsense rather than sturdy, practical advice; but believe me, I hate touchy-feely sentimentalism just as much as you. My reasons for urging you to pursue a subject you truly, madly and deeply love are as follows:

1)     Three. Whole. Years. (At the very least).

Image shows two students sitting outside a university library.
You’ll be spending a lot of time on your subject in the library, so you’ll want to be pleased to go.

In the UK, most university courses are three years long, and a good number are four or five. And while ‘uni’ is definitely just as much about socialising and growing up as it is about studying, three years is a very long time to spend on something that doesn’t inspire or engage you.
There’s no getting round it – university is hard. You’re expected to produce more work than you would at school, and to do the majority of that work on your own, researching independently in the library or on the internet, and writing about what you find there. You’ll probably spend at least five days a week working, if not more. And as anyone who’s ever had a terrible job will know, there’s nothing worse than having to get up every single day and apply yourself to something that doesn’t interest you or capture your imagination. If you’re not inspired by what you’re doing, or curious to learn more, your time at university will be really, really boring.

2)     People do better at things they enjoy

Image shows a painting of a Viking funeral.
Sadly, no university we know of offers an Old Norse with Astrophysics Joint Honours degree.

Unless you’ve got the self-discipline of a monk, you will almost definitely do better at a subject you like – a subject in which you look forward to the lectures and seminars, love discussing your work with others, and actually want to stay up all night reading that extra article or making sure your essay is spot on. And whether they’re in Astrophysics or Old Norse, it’s great grades combined with passion and enthusiasm that will really wow future employers.
At university, you’ll meet lots of people who’ve chosen a subject that just doesn’t interest them – and they’ll usually be totally miserable. Though it seems a bit ungenerous to tell the story of someone else’s bad luck, a friend of mine from university makes an excellent cautionary tale. He had done brilliantly in all his A-levels, and had chosen to study Chemistry on the basis that he’d been fairly good at it at school, couldn’t be bothered to write essays (his real interest was in History), and thought the course had great job prospects. But as it turned out, he hated Chemistry – he spent his four years in a depressing cycle of doing just enough work to narrowly avoid being thrown out, and distracting himself from how boring he found his subject by spending all his time on student journalism (writing articles about History, funnily enough). His time at university was miserable, and after he graduated, his bad grades meant that it was really difficult to get a job or a place on a different course.

3)     Things usually fall into place anyway

Image shows David Beckham.
Probably not worth studying.

There are a few professions that require you to have a very specific degree – Medicine, of course, as well as nursing, pharmacy or law. If you know at this stage that you definitely want to pursue one of those professions, your best option is clearly to take the relevant course for that job. And even if you’re not set on one of those industries, it’s probably a good idea to avoid so-called ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses (ahem – David Beckham Studies, Staffordshire) that will turn future employers off, and take a degree that you think you’ll be able to use, in one way or another, in later life. But that isn’t to imply that we should all be studying Computer Science or Engineering (perish the thought!); the appeal to potential employers of certain subjects often dismissed as purely academic, or just a bit of an indulgence, is endlessly surprising. When I tell people my undergraduate degree was in Classics and English, their standard response is ‘So what are you going to do with it – teach?’ And for ages, I too thought that the only things Classics and English degrees were good for (along with History, Philosophy, Anthropology and so on) were academia or teaching.
Actually, many potential employers like and even actively seek out academic degrees in the arts or social sciences. For example, a great way into Politics is through speech-writing: English language and literature, Classics or History would prepare you for this brilliantly. The arts are also a great grounding for careers in industries like publishing, advertising, marketing and PR. Modern languages, meanwhile, whether the classic canon of French, Spanish, German and Italian, or the increasingly sought-after Arabic, Mandarin, Cantonese and Japanese, are guaranteed to make you incredibly attractive to basically any business. And ditto with anything to do with computers, the internet and IT. In conclusion, then, choose a subject you think will be useful – but remember that most subjects are! Research the future career paths of the subject you love thoroughly before you dismiss it in favour something more ‘employable’.

Image shows the City of London.
A place of safety?

What I would strongly advise against, moreover, is taking a course that doesn’t really interest you because you think it will make you a stronger candidate for a particular job or profession in the future. A few of my friends at university chose to study Economics and Management (which is probably, objectively, the most astonishingly boring course Oxford has to offer) on the basis that they’d decided, for reasons that remain entirely incomprehensible to me today, they really, really wanted to be management consultants. Perhaps they’d all seen into a future in which a nuclear apocalypse subjects all of Earth’s inhabitants to excruciatingly painful deaths, but the rays mystifyingly can’t penetrate the walls of Deloitte’s London office. Or perhaps they’d joined a cult – I don’t know. But choosing a subject that they all concurred was basically pretty dull on the assumption that it would pave the way for a dazzling career in the city turned out to be a mistake – as you will doubtless know, dear reader, it’s hard enough to study and revise for a subject that you adore, let alone one that doesn’t really engage you.
What’s more, when the time came to apply for jobs, it didn’t seem like the degree made my friends especially good candidates – other people in our year who had studied languages or social sciences like Politics and Anthropology alongside Economics seemed to find it much easier to get into the industry. And to add insult to injury, once my friends finally did get jobs in consultancies, they pretty quickly discovered that being management consultants, just like the degree that prepares you for the job, is very, very dull.

So how do I know I really love something?

Image shows an old-looking dog resting his head on his paws.
It’s not an obsessive passion, but it’s still love.

Now, many of you will have been reading this article so far and thinking – ‘But HEY! There’s a problem! I don’t love any of my subjects!’ And of course, this is completely normal; whichever subject you enjoy, it’s still school – thinking Chemistry or Art is the bee’s knees doesn’t mean you wouldn’t pretty much always rather be out with your friends than doing your homework. No, love for academic subjects isn’t usually a full-on obsessive passion, but rather a weaker sort of distracted fondness, like you’d have for a very old and smelly pet. This doesn’t mean that you’re not academic, or that you don’t enjoy anything enough to pursue it, though; it just means you’re young and not mad. Here are some ways of telling that a subject is the one for you:

    • You actively look forward to your lessons.
    • You know you’re being annoying, but you just can’t shut up in discussions in class – and you’re really interested in what everyone else has to say.
    • You go on the internet to check one reference before you go to bed, and before you know it it’s 2 am, you’ve read ten Wikipedia articles on related subjects, and ordered two books from Amazon.
    • You love explaining what you’ve learned to friends and family members, sounding ‘knowledgeable and interesting’ (N.B. From personal experience: the friend or family member in question will almost certainly consider you ‘a bloody nuisance’).
    • You put loads more effort into your homework for that subject than for any other.
    • Ditto revision.
    • You like helping out others in your class.
    • When you’re doing work for other, similar subjects, you always want to make comparisons to what you’ve learned in your favourite subject.

If any of these factors are true in any of your subjects, then it’s a pretty good indication you’ve got a liking and aptitude for it, and you’d enjoy studying it further.

Some caveats to my argument

There are some circumstances, however, in which you should avoid a subject like the plague even if you adore it. Put it from your mind entirely and choose something else. These are:
1)     You’re totally and irredeemably useless at it

Image shows a pottery sculpture of a lion that doesn't look much like a lion.
“It’s beautiful, darling.”

When I was at school, I absolutely loved art. Each month, I spent most of my pocket money on glossy books full of artists’ paintings and pictures; I loved going to museums, and I was always having to hide pieces of furniture that had been destroyed by smears of oil paint or clay. I looked forward to art lessons every single week, and made my mum sign me up for a Saturday morning club where we made clay statues and batiks. I was the keenest art student my teacher had ever seen.
The problem was, for all my enthusiasm, I was completely rubbish at it. The very worst in any and every class. My batiks, so carefully planned and waxed and dyed in stages, all came out as unpleasant brown smudges. I could not draw to save my life. The Frida Kahlo paintings I copied all ended up looking positively scary (and not in a good way). Every year, I would present my parents with a painting or drawing as a ‘beautiful and personal Christmas present’; every year my mum would hang it in the downstairs toilet. And when I announced to my teacher that I’d be taking art for GCSE, she looked startled, and mumbled something about the subject definitely not being one of my strengths. Ever the optimist, I persisted undeterred – and the subject ended up being my very hardest and most depressing GCSE. I’d spend ages on a piece, only to get a ‘C’ with a smiley face for effort.
When it came to choosing IB subjects, I’d learned my lesson – pursuing something you’re totally hopeless at is a really painful process, and almost always ends in tears. Consign it to the status of hobby – and then you can grandly tell people you ‘dabble’ in it, without ever actually having to get your work marked or critiqued.
2)     ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects

Image shows the interior of the Dubai luxury hotel, the Burj Al-Arab.
For instance, hospitality degrees face snobbery, but are required by some top hotels.

I don’t really believe in Mickey Mouse subjects – most university courses have been carefully thought out by academics and specialists, and will teach valuable knowledge even if they sound silly. But be realistic: ask your parents, teachers or a careers adviser if you’re worried that a course you like the sound of might be perceived as flimsy or lightweight – and then see if you can find something that covers similar areas, or teaches similar skills, but with a better-sounding name!

Image credits: banner; photographer; library; Vikings; Beckham; London; dog; art; hotel.