Choosing University Courses: Finding The Degree That's Right For You

Woman with a study group at the university library
Woman with a study group at the university library

There are over a thousand university courses. How does your teenage son or daughter choose the right one?

Despite the competition for places, one in five students drops out by the end of their first year. There are many reasons why this can happen, including home sicknesses, but choosing the wrong course is the most common reason. Dropping out of a course can destroy confidence – and which child wants to come back to parents after a taste of independence?

Take Will for example. "I chose to study my best subject at A-level - geography. But I had no idea what I wanted to do with my degree once I'd left university. I was accepted at a good university but after a term I knew the course was not for me. I'd always wanted to study something to do with the technical side of music, which was my real passion. I dropped out of my university course, moved back in with my parents, spent a year working in a minimum wage job, then re-applied the next year for a degree course in something I really wanted to do."

Why go at all?

Does your son or daughter really want to go to university or are they following the crowd and your expectations? Alastair Creamer heads up the organisation Eyes Wide Opened (EWO) which provides coaching for students and new graduates on career choice.

His advice to parents is:

• Ask your son or daughter what their intention is by going to university.

• What do they have an aptitude for and what do they do best?

• What do they want to come out with after three years at university apart from a degree?

• Make sure they know why they are going to university. Is it because they have a passion for the subject or want a certain career at the end of it?

• Explore university websites and courses in depth.

• Don't narrow the choice to the Russell Group but choose the best university for the course you want to study.

Are they ready?

As a parent you know your child best. Some are not ready for university at 18. A gap year can be valuable, providing time to assess who they are and what they want. But, as Creamer says, "Voluntary work overseas, if structured, will look great on a CV or UCAS application, whereas working in a local pub won't have the same impact."

There is nothing wrong with your child not being ready for university at 18 and far better to have a constructive break beforehand than drop out after a year.

How to get it right

There is no point your child devoting three or more years to studying a subject if they are lukewarm about it. Worse, is for parents to fulfil their own ambitions through their children. We all know parents who decided their child was going to be a lawyer or a doctor from the moment of conception.

Matthew has recently chosen his university course with the help of his parents and a course provided by Eyes Wide Opened. He explained: "I thought about being a doctor, like my mum. I like helping people and being hands-on. My mum loves her job but didn't try to persuade me to be a doctor. She told me that if I really wanted to be one and had the commitment to it, then I should go for it. I'd like to be a doctor, it really appealed to me – but was I completely sure and compelled beyond everything else? I wasn't.

"I've decided instead to study mechanical engineering. I chose it because it's a creative science. I like inventing things and improving on existing inventions, finding new solutions to problems, which may help people. Since I was young I've collected and repaired old clocks because I'm fascinated how things work.

"I'd advise young people and parents to talk, but parents shouldn't lead their child or make the choice for them."

Look at the university

Going to an open day with your child can help them with their decisions. Not all universities are the same. How much independence your child likes and how ready they are to leave home can be a factor.

Campus universities are self-contained – almost like a village. Some students like the cosiness, others find it claustrophobic and want to be in the hub of city life.

Talk to the students

Encourage your child to talk to other students at the Open Days. This way they will hear some honest opinions of what it's like living there. Talk to the admissions tutors and other staff about workload, course content, choices for dissertations and so on.

It's important that you do engage with your child about choosing a course but don't make that choice for them. Encourage them to be self-aware and discover what their real passions are. And if they feel they might not achieve the grades for the course they want, consider a gap year and retakes rather than settling for a course that doesn't appeal.