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Deciding What, and Where, to Study at University

Bella is Elite IB’s Head of Tutoring & Consulting, providing support to students applying to UK universities as well as overseeing our UK/Global branch’s private tuition arrangements. She attended King’s College London for her own university studies (English BA & MA), having struggled through her IB to decide what she wanted to study at university, and where, and she now tries to ensure her students have considered all the options before making a final decision!

Deciding what to spend the next three – or four! – years focusing on can be an enormously difficult decision, but students can forget to remember they won’t just be studying while at university. University is a time to build your own life, often for the first time, and so picking a course without considering the type and location of the university can lead to not having quite as wonderful a time as you may hope for. So, what should you study at university, where should you go, and is it all worth it?

So, what should you study?

This can either be the simplest or most challenging aspect of the application process. I vividly remember being deeply envious of my friends and peers who knew precisely what they wanted from life, and so opted for degree courses which would steer them on this path- Medicine, for instance, or Law. As someone whose Science option was SL Biology, I even briefly considered whether being a GP was my future, just so that I would feel my degree was setting me up for later life – although this flirtation with the Sciences was short-lived!

Eventually I had to sit down with myself and consider why I was going to university- for me, university was an opportunity to spend time discussing things that I love with exceptional lecturers and peers, and was not solely geared towards my later working life. This allowed me to decide to pursue my first love, English Literature, and I began to read course descriptions at a range of universities. However, not all applicants are lucky enough to have studied their desired course before university– whether due to being unable to study this at their pre-university level (such as Law on the IB) or to discovering the discipline too late to focus on it at a pre-university level. So, how do you know which course to study?

It is important to understand the reality of your subject area, and so while reading course descriptions on university websites is a great introduction to the differences between departments, these won’t tell you which courses require library visits late into the night most days, and which will take over your Christmas holidays as you write end of semester essays or revise for exams. For this, find recent graduates and pump them for information! Ask them what they thought they would spend their university days doing, and what they really found themselves doing, year by year. Imagine yourself spending three years working in this subject area, and ask yourself if this sounds like fun- if it does, you’re on your way!

For me, I knew spending the next few years of my life reading, discussing, and writing about books sounded like heaven- I couldn’t quite believe it was a legitimate university choice and wanted to apply before anyone realised this was way too much fun to be hard work. Naturally, over the three years of my undergraduate studies and then my MA year, I did find it is impossible to love your subject every hour of every day, but I was studying and living in an amazing city, and so found it easy to take myself away from work and enjoy the other side of university life whenever essays became too much. Which leads me to-

Where should you study?

It can be daunting looking at the university league tables and trying to ascertain which really is the best for what you want to study. You may even have your top, fingers-crossed, if-everything-goes-as-well-as-it-can choice, but where else should you apply? All five choices should straddle the balance between being a department with specialisms you would like to study, at universities you consider to be well-suited to you, your interests and ambitions, and in locations where you would like to spend the next few years. No matter how interesting your subject, it is a rare student who can ignore poorly suited surroundings for three years and truly enjoy their time at university. Knowing whether you are well-suited to somewhere you’ve never lived can be very tricky, but not as hard as knowing this about somewhere you’ve never been.

Go to open days! I realised I could never study at a campus university while interviewing at Warwick, which was wholly too late for me to be coming to this realisation. Luckily, my other choices were city-based, and so I could opt not to take up the place at Warwick, but I could have avoided this difficulty by going to visit the campus beforehand. For students who want to feel part of a community on the other hand, a disparate student body in a city like London may feel alienating and lonely, and campus universities may be exceptionally exciting here. You’ll only know by visiting, so try to visit as many ‘possibles’ as you can before making your final decisions.

Do take into consideration the reputation of the universities, but do not let this be your only concern. It is harder to do well in a place you are unhappy, and so try to balance both your academic and personal interests when deciding where to spend the next few years.

Is it worth it?

The stress of applying to university, alongside the difficult UK job market and high fees, mean that many students are considering whether it is worth them applying to university at all. I would advise that while university is not for everyone, if you can be excited by the idea of spending three years surrounded by people who love your discipline, discussing, debating, and experimenting in your subject area – and by all the hard work this entails – , while building an independent life alongside this, then there may just be a UK university and course perfect for you. If you’d like to discuss your options, or to hear more about the university experiences of any of us here in the office, please do get in touch- we’re always happy to provide advice where we can, and all loved our own university studies and experiences!