10 steps to choosing your degree

I talked earlier about how at university you should probably pick more mathematical ‘hard’ subjects over more artsy ones and focus on getting a good degree class. This is pretty similar to conventional advice on choosing a degree. But I found a lack of practical step-by-step guides to picking the right degree for you. This guide gives you a structured way to gather all the relevant information and to make a decision on your degree. Without a structured process it’s easy to narrow down your options too fast, to ignore important evidence, and to apply your evidence inconsistently.

The steps you take depend on how sure you already are about what you want to do. I’ve broken down a sensible set of steps that you might use in the UK. You should feel in control of your choice. With the power of the internet and email you can find the best information and advice once you know where to look and shake off your shyness. This decision is important for you and you shouldn’t hesitate in imposing on people in order to get the information you need. It will also teach you some skills that are useful for many activities that are important for making a difference.

1- Take a prospectus from a major university you might apply to. Large universities offer broadly similar sets of courses, so you don’t really have to do this separately for each university. At this point don’t worry too much about which university to apply to, that can come later. It is, however, probably worth applying to at least one university that’s a level higher than most people think you can get into.

2- Make a list of all the courses they offer. Cross out all the ones you know you don’t care about. If there are any where you’re not sure what they involve, read the page in the prospectus about the course. This step shouldn’t take more than a couple hours tops, but it will depend on how much stuff you’re interested in and on how much extra information you need to get. Even though it will take a bit of work, it’s one of the most useful steps you can take. It makes sure you didn’t rule anything out too quickly.

3- Go through your list again and cross out the courses you definitely aren’t qualified for. To get information on this, look at the prospectus. It should have a table of the subjects at A-level that are recommended for the courses. In some cases this is fairly simple – you can’t study mathematics at university if you haven’t done maths at A level. In other cases this is a bit harder. At this stage, be generous to yourself. But put a mark next to all the courses you are not sure you’re qualified for.

4- For every choice, think about why it is on the list. What is it about the course that interests you? Do you already do some things that indicate an interest? For example, do you read around the subject in your spare time? If you do, do you actually enjoy it or do you do it because you felt you ought to? If you don’t, why don’t you? Is it because you like the idea of being interested in the subject but you aren’t actually interested? Or is it just because it never really occurred to you? Do you think you could motivate yourself start reading around it? If not, you might not get that much out of a degree in the subject.

These are just some considerations. You don’t really need to be passionate about your degree when you just get started. Most people haven’t already learned their subject before they go to university. That’s why they’re going to university! But if you are passionate about one thing, that’s a strong vote in its favour. If you aren’t, that’s more than ok. Often it isn’t until you really start working at something that you get interested in it. How passionate you end up being can depend whether you have a clear purpose for your studies. It might also be shaped by the style of the learning.

Important: do this for everything left on your list. Don’t close off your thoughts too soon. And be generous. You might not be thinking about studying, for example, chemistry. But when you think about it, you do really enjoy classes and you are always a little interested when you see news articles about it. That’s worth noticing about yourself.

5- Now go back to all the items that had a mark against them because you weren’t sure if you were qualified for them. Are you passionate about them? Are you willing to do some extra work to make the stuff you have already studied relevant to the course? Could you explain to someone why it is that you didn’t choose the A levels that would have been most helpful? Have your interests changed since you chose them? Have you demonstrated that through actions?

Universities make recommendations about requirements for a reason. In their experience people who don’t meet the requirements have a hard time. You should tend to follow their advice. But, and this is important, if it matters at all to you don’t hesitate for a second in emailing the university admissions department and explaining your situation. This will cost you less than an hour of time and will let you stop worrying about whether or not you’re qualified. If you’re lucky you’ll get the answer you want. If you’re lucky in the other direction, you’ll be able to avoid wasting time and an application choice on a spot you weren’t going to get offered.

6- By now, you should have a short-list of 1-4 possible degrees to study. You’ve narrowed it down to choices you’d probably enjoy – now you want to try to get an outside view on whether or not you’d be good at them. Which subjects that you do at school are relevant to the course – how well do you tend to do at them? Make a note of the sorts of marks you get on relevant tests. If you can, try to work out what percentile you score in standardised tests like GCSE’s or AS. If you’re in the top 10% nationally in something then that’s worth knowing.

7- Ask your parents and teachers if they think you would be good at each choice. Listen to what they say, but don’t just accept what they say completely. Parents don’t always have a good picture of what you are capable of at school and they might have a lot of preconceptions. For example, they might always think you’re amazing at everything when less biased evidence disagrees. Or they might not think you’re university material, but only think that because they didn’t go to university and so they don’t really think university is something the family does. Or they might have hated university and assume you would too even though you’re a different person. So you should take their advice into consideration – but don’t just accept it. If your school doesn’t often send students to university, teachers might have a bad picture of what sort of person you have to be in order to go to university. Alternatively, they might not know very much about what it takes to go to university. It’s actually, startlingly, not really their job to advise you on university choices. Even if your school does have a full-time university advisor they can be badly misinformed. I have heard of some who got application deadlines badly wrong, or who gave practice interviews to students that were bizarrely aggressive and unrelated to the subjects being studied just because the advisor though that was how it was done.

8- Ask your friends and look at student forums. This is something you’ll almost inevitably want to do. But you should basically totally ignore what they say. They don’t really know anything about which degrees are good. They don’t really know anything about how to apply to universities. Treat any information you get here with a heap of salt and always refer back to original sources for any information that you’d expect a university to have published, like course requirements or deadlines.

Your friends will know a bit about you, but unless they are way more perceptive than a typical person they probably won’t know you as well as you do. It’s also not particularly important to make your university plans similar to your friends’. My impression is that most people underestimate how easy it will be to make friends at university, and overestimate how long their school relationships will last once they go to university.

9- Ask the universities. These guys are much more trustworthy than your parents and teachers. That’s because they are the only ones who have an incentive to get all the best pupils they can and they don’t have (as many) preconceptions about you. And it’s because they tend to know the contents of their own courses much better. They know much better which parts of the course people struggle with.

It’s here where most people don’t put in as much work as they should. This is usually because it just doesn’t occur to them, they are shy, or they are lazy. This is actually really easy and it is definitely worth it.

Emailing the admissions department about the qualities that tend to make a successful applicant is ok. But the real gold comes from actually speaking to a professor who teaches the courses. But, you’re saying, you don’t know the professor. Of course you don’t! But it’s not hard to change that.

For example, suppose I want to apply for Physics at Oxford. I google “oxford physics undergraduate professor”. The first hit is the page for undergraduates studying physics at Merton College, Oxford. That might not be a college I want to apply to but that doesn’t matter and might even be a good thing. The page lists a bunch of professors and tutors. Three are listed as “Tutors” rather than “Other Merton academics in Physics” so they are probably more involved in the teaching. They all have links to their profiles and those profiles list their teaching interests. The first two tutors list lots of teaching interests, so they are probably doing more teaching. The third doesn’t list any, so he’s either lazy about filling in the form or doesn’t care much about teaching. Either way, he’s low priority. In the absence of anything else to go by, I’m going to email the first guy. His email address is at the bottom of his profile page.

This doesn’t just work for Physics at Oxford. Trying History at Bristol – “bristol history undergraduate professor”. The first hit is the page for the Department of History at Bristol. That gives you a link for prospective applicants. You can go there too, and quickly find an email address for the admissions department and guidelines on requirements, but we’re going to be sneakier. You click on the link for current students. That takes you to a page which includes the course handbook. The course handbook has, after a quick skim of the table of contents, a section titled “Key Department and School Personnel”. It’s not obvious who the best person to ask here is. I’d be tempted by the Director of Student Progress – that title suggests a good understanding of what holds people back in being successful at the course. But you can take your pick.

If that format doesn’t work for you, you can try other keywords. For example, you can search for a course outline, find the introductory lecture course that 1st year students take and email the lecturer who runs that course.

I’ve demonstrated how easy it is to get the email address of the people who don’t normally get admissions questions. But what’s the point? Surely they’ll just ignore my email or tell me to talk to the admissions department. Well, maybe they will. And if they do you have to respect that and then email the next best person. They might be very busy, or on sabbatical or holiday. They might genuinely just think they aren’t well placed to answer your question. But on the other hand they are often helpful and friendly and interested in helping out.

Keep your emails to them short and to the point. Explain that you are thinking about studying x, and you want to work out how good you would be at it. Ask them what they think are the best predictors of success in undergraduates. Ask them if they have any advice on how to judge if you would get a lot out of the course. Ask them questions you have about the teaching style, but only if you have genuine questions which are not covered by published material. Don’t be overly formal, but be respectful. They are doing you a favour, but you don’t want to make it sound like they’re doing you a big favour.

It might be possible to turn that into a really useful and interesting conversation. Or not. Respect the fact that they do have other priorities. You also might have other priorities.

10- Find graduate employment data. A good source for this data is the HECSU survey on where graduates are 6m after graduation. Note down what percentage of graduates get employed in jobs that use the degree’s skills, and the percentage that are unemployed after 6m. Remember that this data is for the whole of the UK and that it doesn’t necessarily apply to you. You’ll want to look at your percentile scores at, e.g., GCSEs to work out where you stand relative to the distribution. (Bearing in mind that 10th percentile at GCSE is not the same as 10th percentile of graduates, because more academically talented people are more likely to graduate.)

Now you have assembled all of your data and need to turn that into a decision. In my next post I’ll outline a framework that will structure your thoughts and help you reach a decision.

You might be interested in:
Are you better than average?
Want to be successful? Know your odds.
How to judge your chance of success