A 5-step guide to choosing the right university programme
Written by Emma Latham-Jones
Whether it’s your first degree, or your third, choosing at university programme at any level can be overwhelming, full of indecision and unknowns. An undergraduate degree, let alone an MBA or PhD, is a big undertaking: it is likely to be expensive and time-consuming. It will also unlock numerous opportunities and most probably launch your career after you graduate. There is little doubt that degrees are life-changing experiences for most students. Getting it right, therefore, matters.
If you haven’t yet decided what you want to do with the next year, or two, or three… And are filled with anxiety whenever someone asks you what you want to do with your life, here are some questions you should ask yourself:
Firstly, what subjects do I enjoy the most?
If you could narrow it down to just two, which two would they be? Or if that is question is hard to answer, let’s flip it around: which classes do you dread showing up for? Is there particular homework or coursework you always put off? In your spare time, perhaps during the holidays when the classroom feels like a distant memory, what books do you naturally reach for? Not a fan of reading? How about documentaries? What’s the content of the documentaries you enjoy bingeing on? Maybe you’re more of a YouTuber. Whose channels do you follow? If you’re still unsure, try asking your friends. Sometimes our close friends or family have a better idea of what floats our boat than we do. Ask them what topics they think you talk about most. The last time you monologued or went off on a rant, what was it about?
Secondly, when you start your research into university programmes, ask yourself what classes do I want to attend?
Look beyond the title of the degree and check out the courses offered. Most university websites will have module or class information on their degree course pages. Some will even share a reading list. What are you actually going to study? Some degree titles sound great fun, but are in fact incredibly dry and vice versa. What will the day-to-day experience look like? If you want to study Environmental Economics, but absolutely loathe econometrics (yes, this is a regular complaint!), get serious about looking into compulsory modules and double-checking econometrics isn’t a big part of the degree. If there isn’t much of a difference between degree programmes and you’re still plagued with indecision, look up the professors and lecturers. Who you will be taught by is almost as important as what you will be taught. What research have they published? What’s their teaching style? Can you find a video online of a lecture they’ve given? Perhaps you can reach out to them directly and grab a coffee or schedule a quick Zoom.
Thirdly, where do I see myself in five years?
Okay, I admit this is that notoriously annoying question asked at interviews, but seriously – where do you see yourself in five years? Answer this on your own. Don’t tailor your answer to what you think others want you to say. Be honest with yourself. Do you plan to do a PhD later on? In which case, choose a programme that will give you plenty of opportunities for independent research and has a dissertation requirement as part of the degree. If the entrepreneurial life is more where you see yourself heading, think about which universities are known to produce the most startup founders (I chose UC Berkeley for this very reason). Perhaps the network is more important to you. Check out the alumni. Which of your icons has links to the university? On the other hand, if you’re thinking of being an engineer, a hydrologist, a meteorologist, or any other fairly specific job, check which universities do best in your discipline on subject-specific higher education league tables. Each discipline is different. Some universities may not even offer your subject. You can immediately cross The LSE off your list if you’re a scientist, and Paris’ Ecole Polytechnique off if you’re an artist!
Fourthly, where do I want to study?
In the UK? In France? Or perhaps somewhere else entirely. São Paulo’s Universidade Brasil has some great courses in Environmental Management. Do you want to be on a cosy, leafy campus with a tight-knit student community? Or is it the buzz of inner-city London that excites you? Some universities offer a bit of both. Studying at TU Berlin, I was struck by the pleasant combination of green space, lakes and trees and the proximity to Tiergarten – 520 acres of lush green park. But it’s Berlin! So: nightlife central, endless museums and great flea markets were also part and parcel of the student experience. Choosing a university close to home can save you a great deal of money on living expenses. Equally, exploring a new city, country or continent can create memories that will last a lifetime. Something else to consider is how the location may contribute to your learning. Take Marine Biology: it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to study this degree at a university in a landlocked country in the middle of a large city. A beach town may be the better choice.
Finally, when I’m not studying, what do I want to be doing with my time?
Your university years will involve a lot more than sitting in libraries and lecture halls. I would never encourage a student to exclusively focus on their studies – that’s a recipe for burnout. It’s just as important you have other interests and activities to keep you fit, healthy, creative and motivated. Do sports matter to you? Have you thought about a sports scholarship or joining the university rowing club? Are you more of a student activist type? In which case, maybe SOAS or Warwick, UC Berkeley or La Sorbonne might be the best choice for you. Do you live for music? Some universities have world-renowned performing arts centres. A good place to start is to have a look at different universities’ registered clubs and societies. Universities normally list these on their website, and each club may have a hyperlink to its own website. These can range from clubs as diverse as the Buddhist Society to the Amateur Boxing Club. If you’re keen to know more, reach out to the administrators.