Decisions to Make Before Applying to University
There is a tendency among school leavers, especially at more academic schools, to fall into the trap of thinking that ‘everyone’ goes to university. This leads to a decision that university ‘must’ be right for them too. It is also easy to fall into this thinking trap if you are in a career where further study is the norm.
It cannot be stressed too much: university is NOT the right choice for everyone. However, how do you know if it is right for you?
This page discusses what you might need to consider in making this decision. It goes on to discuss what else you might need to consider when making decisions about further study. This includes where and what to study, and what sort of course to choose. It considers various forms of learning, including part-time, full-time, face-to-face, remote and blended learning, and discusses what might affect your decision.
Deciding if University is Right for You
The two main reasons why people actively choose to go to university are:
They want to study a particular subject at a higher level; and
They need a degree to pursue their chosen career—either in that subject, or in any subject.
Wanting to study a subject is very positive. However, you need to think carefully about the implications of studying. Going to university is expensive. The average level of student debt is around $30,000 in the US, and around £40,000 in the UK. That is a significant amount of debt to take on at the start of your working life. Many people, in the UK at least, currently expect to have some or all of this written off after 30 years because they have been unable to pay it back. However, this ability to write-off student debt may not last forever, and 30 years is a long time to be in debt just for love of a subject.
You therefore need to be clear that you will gain financially or substantially in some other way from the commitment.
In other words, you need a clear end-goal in mind, and you need to be sure that a degree will take you there.
If you are not sure what to do, and do not have a clear end-goal in mind, you may be better deferring. University will still be there in a year or so—and in the meantime, you can get a job, and earn some money, which will put you in a better position financially.
If you want to go down a more trade-based route, you may be better finding an apprenticeship, or even learning on the job until you see whether a degree is necessary or advisable. Time spent in employment is never going to be wasted later, because it will give you a variety of soft skills.
For more about this, you may want to read our guest post on University vs. Apprenticeship.
There are, of course, many advantages to going to university apart from simply ‘getting a degree’. They include:
Gaining significant soft skills from, for example, independent study, working in teams and groups on assignments, or participating in extra-curricular activities;
For many people, going to university gives them their first taste of independence and living away from home;
Many people say that they made ‘friends for life’ at university;
University is a time when you can do things that might not be possible while working or living with your parents, such as travelling for several months during the summer, or taking up new hobbies, or even experimenting with a new aspect of your personality.
There are other considerations when it comes to postgraduate study.
For many people, postgraduate study is a way to get further in their chosen career, or make a career change.
In a few fields, postgraduate study is essential to get beyond a certain level. However, in most fields, the situation is more nuanced. The right postgraduate study might help, for example, if it is a technical field. A postgraduate degree can also show your commitment to a new career or field.
However, you may also find that the right work experience can open the same doors without requiring you to take time out from work, combine work and with part-time study, and/or risk having to take on debt. It is worth researching this thoroughly beforehand and talking to people in your chosen field about your options.
Nobody can tell you whether university is right for you at any point. Only you can decide, and it will depend on circumstances.
When to Study
Is there an ‘ideal’ time to go to university?
For undergraduate study, many people go on to university immediately after leaving school. However, there are strong arguments for deferring for a year (or more), or studying as a mature student.
If you go straight from school, you will be in ‘study mode’. In other words, you will not have had a break, and you won’t have to ‘get back into studying’. People who have taken a gap year (or two) often find it harder to go back to studying, and particularly to rediscover the discipline and self-motivation needed.
However, if you take a year or more out, you will be able to get a job, and earn some money. If you are careful, and save while working, this will put you in a much stronger financial position than someone going straight from school. You will also have work experience, which will make it easier to get a part-time job or summer job while you are at university.
Mature students are often more motivated too. They know what they want, and how to get it—and they are not afraid to ask for more help, or more information. They also have a clearer idea of why they want to be at university: because they know that a degree is essential to move forward in their chosen career, or because they want to change career. This, again, helps them to remain motivated.
For postgraduate study, there is even less consensus about the ‘right’ time.
Some people go on to do a postgraduate degree immediately after their undergraduate studies. However, in some subjects there is a definite expectation that you will get some experience in the workplace before further study. Business is a classic example of this. Most MBA courses will not accept students without at least three years’ work experience.
If you choose to go later, you may also need to balance work and family, which could be challenging.
However, many people only decide to change career after their priorities change, perhaps after having children or a change in family circumstances.
The bottom line is that there is no ‘right’ time for university, only the right time for you—if you choose to go.
Where to Study
The decision about where you want to study also has many implications.
Unfortunately, all universities, and all degrees, are not created equal. Some courses, and some universities, are far more prestigious than others. A degree from a more prestigious school may therefore take you further—but it may not, too. It could also be more expensive.
Other places may be less prestigious on paper, but the course may suit you far better. It is generally better to choose a course that excites you, and/or a place that feels ‘right’, rather than go for the university that you think is most prestigious.
The place you choose to study also has both financial and social implications.
In the UK, for example, going to university in London is very expensive, because the university has very little student accommodation, and the cost of living is high. Other universities have more accommodation for their students, which is often subsidised. The general cost of living may also be lower.
It is therefore worth asking questions like:
What proportion of first-year students live in university-owned accommodation?
What does the average and most expensive accommodation cost per term?
Do any second and third years live in university-owned accommodation? What proportion? Where do the others live?
What is the average cost of private rented accommodation in the city/town?
It is also worth checking how close the accommodation is to the university itself. Some university halls are a long way from the main university, which has implications if you are travelling back in the evening.
The other issue is whether you choose a campus or non-campus university.
Socially, there are big differences between the two.
In a campus university, everyone is on site. This is good, because it makes socialising easy, especially in the first year. However, it is hard to get away from your fellow students (if you want to do that) and can mean that you are isolated from the town. This can lead to a ‘town vs gown’ mentality that means that students do not always feel welcome in pubs and bars.
The best way to find out what it’s really like is to talk to students at the university, especially those doing the course that interests you.
What to Study
Picking your course of study is also a challenge.
There are many issues to balance: your interests, your future career plans, location, cost…
Some careers need a specific degree: medicine and veterinary medicine are the classic cases.
However, for many careers, only a degree is necessary. It does not have to be in a specific subject. For these, it is generally better to opt for a subject that really interests you, because you have to study it for three or four years. However, you will probably also find that there is some flexibility to change course if you decide you have got it wrong once you start university.
How to Study
There is one final issue to consider: your mode of study.
here are various options, but the main two areas to consider are:
Full-time or part-time; and
Face-to-face, online or blended learning.
Full-time learning is the traditional way to study. This means being registered at a university, and potentially being required to attend classes, lectures and seminars for five days each week.
However, many universities increasingly recognise that, especially at postgraduate level, students cannot just stop work for a year. They have commitments, and need to be able to continue to work. Many universities therefore offer part-time or flexible courses that can be done alongside a full-time job. These may, for example, require attendance at lectures for two days each fortnight, or a week in every six weeks, or offer modules where you attend for two or three days at a time, or study in the evenings.
This is different from ‘having a part-time job while studying’.
Many ‘full-time’ students will be able to manage one or even two part-time jobs alongside their course, because of the amount of independent study required (and therefore lack of ‘contact time’) at most universities.
Some universities have taken the flexibility of part-time study one step further, and now offer fully or partly online courses. These may involve lectures that may be held in real time, but where you ‘attend’ via Zoom or Skype, or catch up afterwards via the internet.
For more about this, see our page on Online Education and Learning.
These courses give much more flexibility, but they come with challenges. For example, it is harder to stay motivated when you are remote, and don’t see other students face-to-face. It is also harder to do group assignments, or develop some of the soft skills that are such an important benefit of university education.
One solution is ‘blended learning’: some online courses, but where students meet periodically for certain classes. This may offer the best of both worlds: the flexibility of the online provision, but a chance to be part of a community of students.
All these options have advantages and disadvantages. You just have to pick which one works best for you.
There is a lot to consider when making the decision about whether to go to university, and then what, where, and how to study. Ultimately, only you can make the right decision for you. You should not feel pressured into a decision because ‘other people are doing it’, or because it will please those around you.