If you are in any form of compulsory education, the summer holidays are a very welcome reprieve from a hectic last term of exams and coursework hand-ins, yet at the same time, can be an incredibly daunting period. After we are finally able to wind down and relax, the date of exam results release appears on the horizon, ever present and inching forward at what feels like record speed, but a snail’s pace at the same time. From the time of GCSE results onwards (and even in the run up to GSCE’s), university becomes the buzzword. Having gone through all of this myself, and not coping entirely well with the pressure of it all, I am going to dedicate this (probably very long) post to the ins and outs of everything university related, be that choosing your subjects for uni, choosing your uni, choosing if university is for you, preparing to leave, and to handling the change in environment and work loads, and the social side of it.
I will start with a post dedicated to everything related to preparing for university in terms of the application process, how to choose where to go, etc. Part 2 will follow on from there, focusing on the more practical side of setting off to university, settling in, and adapting. Enjoy!
SIDE NOTE – this information is coming from a student very much focusing on an English education system! Not all will apply to everyone.
- Is university for you?
Society today drills it into us that we should finish school and go straight into university. Realistically, this notion is outdated and not true at all for some people. The fact is, people have different strengths, and different strengths lend themselves to different paths. Some people’s chosen areas of interest benefit far more from more practical, hands on experience, for example, in which case three or four years of university is sometimes not the most useful path. At the end of the day, whatever your area of interest is, there will be a university course to suit it, but what you must consider is, are the fees involved and the time spent worth it- could you progress further in said area of interest by going down a different path? This is something you need to think through carefully and speak to your advisors at school about, and research too – the internet is your new best friend when it comes to looking into university or other post-sixth form/college options.
I know so many people who felt their three years at university, and the thousands of pounds worth of debt, was relatively pointless. They are doing amazingly well, and their degree did not get them there; hard work and gaining experiencing after university did. Do not let yourself become brainwashed into thinking that going to university somehow alters your worth, because the fact of the matter is, it is simply down to what will aid you better to cultivate your skills. For me, my strongest areas have always been the humanities, essay related subjects. History, English Literature, Politics, were and still are the subjects I was best at, and for these areas university was very much the most appropriate path to go down. Apprenticeships, however, are sometimes far more useful for some people, and through them some companies then in turn facilitate and fund you doing fast tracked university degrees after a year or twos worth of work experience. (I have had friends who have gone into banking through this route, for example.) Drama schools too, like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, are incredibly prestigious and competitive, but the place to aim for if you excel in these areas.
Effectively, you need to consider at the start of your application process (of which your institution will guide you along when the time comes in Year 12) what will suit you most.
- Gap year?
If you have decided that university is the path for you, there is then the option of whether to go straight into university, or to take a gap year first. There are various reasons as to why a gap year can benefit some: it allows you to take a step back from education for a while, assess your options after receiving your exam results, take time to travel, and to earn money before you leave for university. I considered a gap year but personally decided against one, largely because I was excited to get to university as quickly as possible, wanted to do it the same time as most of my friends, and as I have an early birthday in the academic year, did not want to be two years older than everyone else when I arrived. I desperately want to travel, but there is still the option to travel post-university, which a lot of people do instead. As I did not take a gap year, I spoke to one of my best friends, Becky, who did take a gap year and I asked her for a list of Pro’s and Con’s.
Gaining new experiences – Becky volunteered with Cancer Research alongside her normal job, and learnt mandarin at a language school, giving her skills and experiences that most other people at university obviously would not have had! She also travelled, making her more cultured and in general able to have different and more culturally diverse conversations when she got to university.
Money – She saved a lot from working for a year, meaning by the time she got to university she was financially in a potentially stronger situation than a lot of people entering university. There are a huge amount of expenses that people do not really think about, but get hit with when preparing to go and when settling in – having a year’s worth of savings under your belt can be a lifesaver.
Loneliness – This was something that actually worried me a lot: Becky said at times it was easy to feel lonely when most of your friends are off experiencing university life. She quickly combatted this, however, by filling her time with meaningful things and opportunities.
Missing education – Becky is a massive brain box, so for her, leaving academia for a year was a struggle in itself. For someone who enjoys the stimulation of learning, a gap year can feel sluggish in that sense (hence why she learnt mandarin!)
Taking a gap year or not taking a gap year is not the be all and end all, but it is worth giving it some thought and discussion with those who have taken them if you are struggling to decide.
- Deciding what to study.
If you know university is right for you, the next step is deciding what to study. For some it might be an easy decision, for others it might come down to choosing between two or three subjects. I struggled for a while between pursuing English Literature, History and Politics. In the end I decided against English Literature: it was one of my favourite subjects and by far one of my strongest, but after looking into course outlines and various universities, I realised that the courses did not excite me to the degree that say History did. I am sure I would have enjoyed it, but you need to follow your gut. If you think there is the potential that something does not fully entice you, do not pursue it just because you were good at it at school. University is hard: you need to enjoy what you study for to do well in it!
After taking English Literature off the table, I began to consider a joint honours degree. I think these type of degrees are only available in certain countries, but this should be easy to find out from a teacher or just on the internet. The reason I went for a joint honours programme is because I was super passionate about history, but felt pairing it with another subject would not only mean I could keep studying another subject I really loved, but would also be beneficial in that they work well together: after all, history is made through political decisions, and politics makes history!
I then went on to look through universities that suited me, and at the course outlines for these subjects: not all of them did history and politics combined, but some offered history and international relations. International Relations (IR) turned out to be perfect for me: the university I study at focuses on modern international history, and so pairing history with IR was the dream combination. IR basically cut out the parts of politics I personally found less interesting, but left the parts that excited me more. I was slightly worried about taking history due to the fact that I do not enjoy ancient history, but my course only goes as far back as the mid 1800s, which I find suits me well. I wanted my studies to remain contemporary and modern, and my degree fits that perfectly.
Study what genuinely gets you excited, and study it for genuine reasons. Obviously it is wise to look to the future, but taking a course purely because you think it will get you into a well paying job will eventually make you miserable and your university life dull. If you are lucky enough to have access to an education system as good as mine, make the most of it and throw yourself into something that you will love.
- Choosing the GCSE and A-level, Higher, IB (or your equivalent) subjects to facilitate your application process.
I feel like this was probably one of the areas that I found the most stressful, and it was on my mind even in the run up to choosing my GCSE subjects. Realistically, no one 100% knows what they want to take on at university before they have even started their GCSEs: it is a ridiculous thing to ask from someone that far off of that period of their life, and it is most definitely not the be all and end all. Most universities definitely do take GCSE subjects and grade into consideration, but only a few would genuinely determine entrance on the basis of them, and even then A-level subjects most definitely take priority in that sense. What IS important to think of, is what GCSE’s you need to get into potential A-level courses. At my school, to get into some subjects, you had to have taken certain subjects and got a certain grade in the said subjects, yet that is rarely 100% set in stone. Your teachers can advise you on all of that and I urge that you do look into this.
A-Level, Higher, IB or your equivalent:
This stressed me out MASSIVELY. At AS-Level I took History, Politics, English Lit and Religious Studies, and took on into A2-level History, English Lit and Politics.
I initially felt compelled to take a science or language subject on. I did well in all three sciences throughout my school life but only with a lot of work and dedication, my success in those subjects did not come naturally like it did in humanities based ones. Eventually, I took Religious Studies instead, knowing taking a science or a language would bring my grades down, but my biggest fear was that the universities I applied to would prefer something scientific or mathematical to break up the humanity subjects, or similarly a language. These fears were pretty much pointless, however.
This is where the term ‘facilitating subjects’ come into use – the universities I applied to were all Red Brick/Russell Group universities, a group of institutions in the UK. It is really worth taking a look at the Russell Group website and seeing if the universities you like are on there, and checking if your country has something similar to this grouping. The Russell Group effectively dictate a list of what they call ‘facilitating subjects’, named ‘facilitating’ in that they deem them as subjects that will open a lot of doors for you. The list below lays out what they deem these subjects to be, and their rough rule of thumb is to take on two of these. This video from the website may also be useful!
- English Lit
- Modern and classical languages
- Maths and further maths
PLEASE remember that this list and these instructions are dependent on many variables – where you are from country wise, the university you are applying to, the type of course you want to do, and so on. Just because what is said applies to some does not mean it applies to all, so do look into what you are applying to first before taking subjects that do not suit what you want to do.
The same goes for choosing your A-levels as it does for your university course – one of the most important things is to take subjects you will enjoy. If I had taken biology, for example, I would have been doing it for the wrong reasons, and my grades would have paid the price. Follow your gut!
- UTILISE YOUR RESOURCES
Your teachers and the heads of your sixth form and colleges are the best resources you could ask for. They know you on a personal level and have access to all the information you could need. Following this, the UCAS website and the internet in general build upon what your teachers will know and will give you access to anything you could ask for.
My best piece of advice would be to READ YOUR COURSE OUTLINES at every university you are interested in, and not just the course title, but the descriptions of each course and its content, the examination format, the teaching format, EVERYTHING. Really go as in depth as you possibly can: I know people who did not do this, and then consequently really did not enjoy their courses when they got there. This is especially important if your university’s selection of courses and/or university in general is relatively small. If you do not love your course, you will hate the academic side of university.
The Student Room is a great forum too to further research your institutions, even to analyse what the social life and extra curricular activities are like there, as well as the quality of teaching and the campus itself. I would advise not to get too hung up on what is written on there, but it certainly can be useful to research about some bits and pieces (as even individual courses from different universities will probably be on there somewhere).
- Which university is right for you – campus, non-campus/city university?
If you have reached this stage, the next thing to think about is looking into making visits to universities, and deciding on the type of university that will suit you best. Most importantly – VISIT AS MANY AS YOU CAN. I thought I was in love with a certain university before I went around it: I thought it would probably be in the running for my first choice, I knew the modules I wanted to do there, I had even researched the town. Then I got there and everything I had built up came crashing down. You really only truly get a feel as to whether a university is right for you after spending some time there. For me it took half an hour! Thus, I cannot stress how important it is, if you are able, to visit the universities you are applying to. You will get to see the facilities, meet the teachers, and explore the campus and what it has to offer.
A relatively important factor then crops up in regards to the style of university that suits you best, be those campus style ones, or non-campus. I personally very nearly chose Warwick over LSE largely due to the fact that LSE is not known for its social life or community feel, whereas a campus like Warwick is more so. Then I realised that that was not actually super important to me (netflix and bed is life…….) but if it IS, there is definitely a difference between campus and non-campus universities.
Whilst my university is technically a campus in that it is all mostly in one small area across a few roads and it has a student union and shop, it is nowhere near the same as somewhere like Nottingham, or Cambridge, or Brighton (which are either on one campus or across a few). Often, city universities are not campuses, purely for the practical reason of the obvious lack of space in a city centre. I do think there is a noticeable difference in a campus and non-campus university, largely in terms of the fact that sometimes there can be slightly less of a community feel on a non-campus, and the fact that campuses are obviously very self-contained and self-sufficient. This is not to say that non-campus universities do not have all the same facilities in terms of student unions and societies, or offer any less, but there is definitely some difference between the two. If you would prefer a more social feel, with everything together and relatively close by and slightly away from city centres, campuses are definitely the best bet. If none of those factors bother you and you like the buzz of a city, you will suit a non-campus university equally as well.
At the end of the day, your university will become your second home regardless, and as long as you are happy with your courses and teachers and stay on top of your work load, you can adapt to either. Take it from someone who almost determined their university choice over the campus/non-campus decision – I went against what I thought I should choose (a campus) but have grown to love the layout and feel of how LSE works more than I could have imagined I would have. (What I am trying to get at is, this factor is important, but should not really be the determining one!)
- Picking your final two – insurance options!
Previous to this stage you should have made sensible decisions as to what you are capable of achieving, narrowing your choices down to five. Some may be ambitious but achievable, but it is sensible to include one which is slighter lower than the grades you are predicted to get, which leads me onto this next section.
After you have received your university offers back from those that you applied to, you will be asked to narrow it down to two – your first choice and your insurance choice. It is important to choose a university with slightly lower grade requirements than the grades you are set to achieve, or at least one with more flexible ones, as your insurance university. If you do not make the grades for your first choice but meet the grades for the second choice, you will automatically gain a place at your insurance. If you are not willing to GO to your insurance but fear that missing your firm choice’s grade requirement is a potential do not put it down, choose one you would be happy to go to in the worst case scenario. Clearing DOES exist, not all institutions offer it, but if they do, you may have a chance of still getting into your first choice. However, to go through clearing would require you to turn down your place at your insurance to then re-start the process and apply to your first choice through clearing. If you turn down your insurance but then are not accepted to your first choice through clearing, it is very difficult to go back and request a place from your insurance. Do check the details of this phase of the process, however, as it is often done in the heat of the moment after opening your results, and people do make emotional decisions and are left without a place at university. It is confusing and complicated so have a plan before you get your results!
Personally I was not entirely sensible and did take a risk, but luck was on my side. My insurance university had the same grade requirements as my first, but I knew the grade boundaries would be more flexible than my first choice. That said it was still a risk, but one I took solely because of the fact that I only wanted to go to my first choice university, and had I missed the grades I probably would have declined my insurance regardless. This, however, was at a stage where retaking was more of an accessible option, so effectively we could afford to take risks like that: worst case I could have retaken one subject and re-applied to my first choice the following year. In general, and especially with the overhaul of the UK education system, it is safer, however, to really find an insurance university that you would still be happy to attend, with grade requirements a grade or two lower just to be safe.
I actually had doubts about my first choice even after I had sent off my application, for various reasons. Despite this, once I arrived and got into the swing of things, (having taken a while to settle in) I began to realise it is normal to have doubts over such an integral part of your academic life, and that above all, university is largely about adjustment. Follow the decision that you know deep down is the right one, and if you really are unsure like I was, have faith in the decision you choose, because you will most likely prove to yourself that the decision you made was the right one.
- GOOD LUCK!
The process of searching for and applying to a university is a long, stressful and daunting one. More than that, however, it is incredibly exciting to begin what will become a rewarding and enriching new chapter of your life. Always remember that university is most definitely NOT the only option available, and your life is not hinged upon exam results and a degree! Perspective is an important thing, especially for young adults who are having to make incredibly scary decisions.
Another post will follow this one, focusing on the period of time following your A-level results and confirmation letters, and tips and advice on not only preparing to go to university, but on adapting, handling work loads, living independently and so on. For now, however, I hope the first post of this two-part university series carries some useful information. I tried to get down a lot of what I wish I had been able to read before I began the process. Do feel free to leave any further questions in the comments: a lot of what I have been asked on twitter will be discussed in the part two post, however.
Lastly, follow your gut and do what you enjoy, be that in relation to university or in following other paths. Have faith in yourself!
Love always, Kirstie x
Disclaimer – this information is mostly stuff that I have remembered from my application process, which was in 2013. Obviously things could very easily have changed since then, so do check UCAS for the definite facts, exact application deadlines, and so on. x