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Four Essential Considerations for University Applicants

19/05/2014 16:01 BST | Updated 16/07/2014 10:59 BST

With the main UCAS deadline looming (January 15th) you'll hopefully have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's already. But you're a student, so you're probably used to doing things last minute.

Whether or not you've got your application ready, here's a quick refresher on the most important questions you need to answer before submitting that all-important UCAS form.

What do you want from university?

University is often seen as the default life choice, without really questioning why. The truth is that it's not necessarily for everyone. And if you decide it is, you still need to think about what you want to get out of it.

The assumption is that you go to university to get a good job. The correlation between a degree and higher pay and employment rates still holds. However, it's not as strong as you might think. Recent figures from the ONS reveal 47% of recent graduates are working in a non-graduate job - up from 39% pre-crash - a not insignificant proportion.

The same report also reveals wide discrepancies in income and employment rates among graduates. Those that go to top universities earn more, and whilst media graduates are highly employable they tend to be among the worst paid.

So university may not be the path to riches it's often promised to be. But it offers plenty of other advantages. Traditionally it's often been seen as a sort of halfway house between childhood and adulthood. Often, people meet their best friends for life at university. Just as many meet their partner. The education you receive may not have a direct bearing on your future employment, but it will make you a more well-rounded individual. These are not frivolous considerations.

Figuring out what you want from university will determine everything else - what course you take, where, and how you behave when you get there.

The money question: how much does debt bother you?

On average, UK students will be saddled with around £43,500 in student loan debt once they leave university. This fee increase has made university seem much more of a transaction than it once was - if you're paying that much in, you want to get at least that much out.

However, this is a misunderstanding. Under the current system, you only start paying the loan back once you earn over £21,000, at a sliding scale based on your level of income. If you don't pay it off within 30 years of graduating, it's written off. Even proposed alternatives such as a 'graduate tax' are geared towards only paying if you really do earn more, and always at an affordable rate.

So the numbers may be bigger for newer graduates, but that's no reason not to adopt the same attitude to student loan debt as your older counterparts: don't worry about it.

You may still not like the idea of carrying around that much debt, and you'd be lucky not to end up with some commercial debt (credit cards, overdrafts) - the average spending/income gap amongst students is £726. But this is nothing that hasn't been faced by others before.

Don't take the debt question lightly, but don't allow yourself to be frightened by misleading scare stories either.

Choosing the right course

Choosing the right course comes back to what you want to get out of university. It usually comes down to choosing something to get you employed, or something you're interested in.

If you're highly career focused, you might want to do something closely related to your chosen field, at the best university for that. Remember to look at the course modules themselves - courses with the same name can be very different across institutions.

Equally, you might want to study something like philosophy, because this is your chance to learn about a subject in the kind of depth you'll probably never get to again.

Choosing a broader, less vocational 'traditional' subject like English literature, history or philosphy doesn't take you out of the employment race. Most employers are actually less interested in specific knowledge than the broader skills a degree gives you - the ability to reason, to think, to research. And these skills will stand you in good stead far longer than the content of your degree.

When applying, bear in mind that predicted grades are only 51.7% accurate. Don't put all your eggs in a AAA basket - apply to a spread of courses.

Choosing the right university

Where you go counts just as much as the course. Every university is different and has a different ethos.

Perhaps even more important is where it is. UCCA in Farnham may have some of the best arts courses in the country, but the town is tiny (lovely, but tiny). Brighton might be a great place to live but it costs almost as much as London; without the London allowance on student loans and grants.

This is where you'll be living for three years, and possibly more. Many people adopt their university town as their town for life, so be sure to visit. You'll quickly get a feel for whether it's somewhere you want to stay.

Avoid going somewhere just because your friends are. Chances are you won't see much of them - and part of the point of university is to meet new people.

And again, apply to a spread of different places. You won't necessarily get in where you want to, so make sure you only list places you'd be happy to go.