The Expert View
Understand the importance of making a course shortlist
Read this to get the complete picture…
Student: ‘All my friends know what they want to study, and I don’t. This is really stressing me out.’
Counsellor: Don’t worry, I interview all the students and believe me you’re not alone, in fact you are probably one of the majority who does not yet know what course to study.’
This is a conversation that has taken place countless times in my office over the last 20+ years.
Grade 11 is coming to an end and you are confronted with the ever-growing thought that in just a few months you will have to apply to university. The problem is, you don’t know which course to apply for. You really don’t know yet what you want to study, and this creates a growing feeling of anxiety and stress as the weeks and months slip by.
And then there are the students who know what course they would like to apply for but are not sure which one to choose as there are hundreds, indeed thousands of very similar offerings at different universities.
Whichever of the two categories you fall into, Wigsbury is about to help you focus on what course to apply for and thus help you move forward.
There are two types of students!
Which one are you?
Those who have decided what they want to study
Those who are undecided/ have no idea at all/ overwhelmed by too much choice/ confused/ can’t make up their minds etc.
I know what I want to do!
If you’re in this category you still have some decisions to make, although the biggest decision is already behind you. You know which course to apply for, but at which university, there is a huge choice. So how are you going to select your course?
You need to do some self-reflecting, you need to set priorities as this will help you produce a short list of courses to apply to.
But first of all let’s backtrack a little, why did you select this course? Was it because it leads directly to a career e.g. you study medicine, you become a doctor; you study engineering, you become an engineer? Was it for the intrinsic academic interest? E.g. you like 19th century literature and would you like to delve deeper into this subject even though you recognize it may not lead directly to a job as an English literature lecturer.
Whatever your motivation for choosing the course, you need to be clear about what you are looking for. Let’s stick with the examples we’ve already identified. If you want to study engineering and have a particular interest in electrical and mechanical engineering then you will want to ensure that the courses you apply for cover these areas e.g. apply for Mechatronics engineering.
If you are fascinated by the novels of Thomas Hardy, then you need to ensure that your English literature course includes a unit on Hardy.
But which course?
Now that we have flagged up the basics, does your course actually teach you what you want to learn? We need to examine many other factors that will determine which course to apply for. You need to realize that the university course offers far more than just the basic academic units. You need to look at whether the course offers you what we call the ‘add-ons’, and by this we mean extras such as:
- Internship/ placement/ sandwich course/ work experience
- The opportunity to study a minor alongside your major.
- Exchange programs with other universities.
These are all very important factors to consider when choosing a course as you have to think ahead a little to the day when you will graduate from university and compete for a job. If you can offer the company recruiter the academic skills plus work experience, then you’ll make yourself a more marketable and attractive proposition. It’s time to start thinking about building your CV/ résumé. Wigsbury has written a module on how to write a CV/ résumé.
Let’s look again at our engineering student. If he or she is studying engineering at a university that has a year’s work experience, maybe at a top engineering company such as Rolls-Royce or Siemens, and then he or she has taken a minor or elective subject in business, maybe picked up a foreign language as well during the exchange year at a foreign university, then he or she will be in a much stronger position when it comes to applying for jobs.
Now let’s look at our English literature student. If he or she has an interest in 19th-century literature then he or she could consider a course that offers the opportunity to go to a foreign university to study 19th century literature e.g. USA. This will not only broaden the student’s academic knowledge it would also allow him/her to grow as a person, growing in confidence, being adventurous, being a risk taker, experiencing a different culture. These soft skills will be important as future employers will be looking for precisely these skills.
So just to recap, you know what subject you want to study, you now have a few ideas about the add-ons that you should be looking at, but there remains one important decision: which universities to apply to? After all, it’s not just the course you apply to, there is the university as well. There is a huge variety of universities available, so you will need to set yourself some priorities in this area as well. Happily for you, Wigsbury has produced a module on university selections which will focus you on what you need to think about and look at when deciding upon which universities to apply to.
Some critical questions that need to be asked
Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.
Do I want to study a subject that leads directly to a specific career, or rather keep my options open?
Should I prioritize my choice of course over my choice of university?
I am interested in several different fields? Which one should I choose?
I haven’t decided what I want to do… yet!
There are a multitude of ways to approach this decision and we’re going to examine the most important ones. You need to start by asking yourself the fundamental questions: what do I want to get out of my university degree? What am I looking for by studying at university? Where will this lead career wise?
Some students have a very clear career goal, as we’ve already seen; they just want to be a doctor so the decision is easy: study medicine; for many students in high school the career goal is not clearly defined, you know you want to go to university and you are anxious about what sort of job or career you can get after graduating.
The first thing to realize is that apart from certain professions like doctor or engineer that require a very specific course/ training at undergraduate level, most careers are recruiting people from a wide variety of undergraduate degrees.
Employers in many countries, particularly the USA, Canada and the UK are interested in recruiting bright young minds with soft skills and the potential that can be developed to serve the needs of the company. This is the key to understanding recruitment, however this rosy picture does come with a health warning: employers are looking to recruit students from top/ good universities and students who have a first-class degree or 2.1 degree. Plus, as we’ve already seen, students who can add extra value and already have work experience, knowledge in other fields, done exchange programs abroad, have foreign language skills, a master’s degree etc. have an advantage.
A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, found that only 27 percent of university graduates work in a field related to their major.
I know we haven’t figured out what course you are going to study for your bachelor’s degree yet, but let us jump ahead and consider this. Most students will also study a master’s degree which does not necessarily have to be in an identical subject to your bachelor degree, although you will need to convince the university that you are academically qualified to study for that master’s degree. Employers are particularly keen to look at what you have done in your master’s degree, and where you have done it.
Having taken a look at the scenario at university and beyond, we are still left with the puzzle of what course to apply to as grade 12 is fast approaching and this is when you make your university applications.
You could take one of the following approaches:
- Apply for courses directly linked to a career e.g. law, architecture, engineering, medicine.
- Applied for a course that interests you.
- Apply for a broader course that allows you to take several subjects during your bachelor degree.
- Apply to a US university where you do not need to nominate your major on the application form, you put together your bachelor degree when you arrive at university. Your academic advisor will help you do this.
Apply for courses linked to a career
Some careers demand that you’ve taken the subject at bachelor degree level, this is an essential qualification without which you will not be able to work in that profession. E.g. medicine
Other professions offer different entry routes e.g. law. You can study almost anything at bachelor level and then take a law course when you graduate that will enable you to qualify as a lawyer.
Go for a country with a flexible higher education system
Some countries have much more flexible systems and they encourage you, or require you, to study more than one subject during your bachelor years. E.g. USA, Canada, Scotland and others
Apply to a course that interests you
Study and explore a subject that interests you, grow as a person and as an academic, explore different academic opportunities and use the 3 to 4 years at university to discover where your passion truly lies. You can then go and specialize at master’s level before moving into a career field.
Apply for a broader course that allows you to taste several subjects during your bachelor degree.
For students who really can’t decide what major to apply to there are so many opportunities at university:
Liberal arts and sciences programs. You study a variety of different subjects and as you move through your bachelor years you will discover where your passion truly lies, and then you can go and specialize in that field for a master’s degree.
Tips & Tricks
Focus on your strengths and interests, and then match them to a university course/ career.
If your university course does not lead you towards the career you want, then study something else that does.
But how do I choose which course?!
This is where you have to think about am I going to study a degree that leads directly into a career. E.g. Study medicine, become a doctor?
Or am I going to study a degree that interests me and then see what career I can enter when I graduate?
If you belong to the second category you need to do some thinking and answer the following questions:
- Where do my interests lie?
- What are my academic strengths and weaknesses?
And then make a list of possible subjects to apply for and look to see what careers you could enter having studied those subjects.
Where do my interests lie?
Make a list of academic subjects/areas that interest you. Keep it broad to start with. E.g. languages, science, etc. You can narrow it down later. For example if you listed science, there are so many different areas, maybe it’s biological sciences you are interested in but there are still dozens of sub-categories. Or maybe its engineering that fascinates you. You probably know about mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, aerospace engineering. But did you know there are dozens of other types of engineering as well:
Acoustic engineering, biomedical engineering, marine engineering, naval design engineering, civil engineering, automotive engineering, mechatronics engineering, software engineering, computer engineering, aeronautics and astronautics engineering, transport engineering, propulsion engineering and many others.
This is where you need to go onto a university website and inform yourself about the large number of opportunities. Do not just restrict yourself to subjects you study in school; most university subjects are not offered in school; this is why you need to look at university websites as they will open your eyes to the vast offering of exciting subjects that are out there just waiting for you.
What are my academic strengths and weaknesses?
You are probably aware of which subjects you enjoy in school, which subjects you are best at but this is rather unscientific and maybe influenced by factors such as you like or dislike a particular teacher. To truly understand where your relative strengths and weaknesses lie and therefore which areas would be the best fit for you both at university and beyond, we recommend you do some careers testing, specifically a psychometric profile test. This will look at your abilities in the following areas: verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, abstract and logical reasoning, mechanical reasoning and situational judgement.
These tests are accurate and very helpful in focusing students on their relative strengths and weaknesses and identifying areas where you can successfully study and later on work. They are an ideal starting point from which you can move forward and identify specific university courses to apply to.
A concrete example…
Earlier in this module we talked about English literature courses, so what can you do if you graduate in English literature? You are probably thinking teaching English in school or college….er! And you probably don’t have much more idea than that.
Do you remember we talked about soft skills as being important and employers looking for bright young minds who could be trained in whatever area the companies work in? Take a look at this. If you are an English literature graduate you will have acquired/ honed the following skills:
Strong communication skills (oral and written), text analysis, presenting ideas, team work, planning and researching, writing for different audiences, creativity, time management, organizational skills and many more.
The list that follows is a list of careers that English literature graduates from University College London have moved into:
Publishing, journalism, teaching, the civil service, local government, finance, business, the media and film, law firms, politics, international organizations, diplomatic service, surveying and many more.
As employers increasingly recognize and demand well rounded well-educated graduates, universities are responding by offering more courses that move away from the narrow confines of studying a single subject. What we are looking at is a rapidly changing labor market that requires skills and flexibility, you should be able to adapt to change. The days are long gone when you would do the same job for 40 years.
There is a high chance that you will be working in a job/ field that has not even been invented yet, hence employers’ enthusiasm for graduates with a good education and an even better array of soft skills.
Wigsbury has attempted to open your eyes to the huge offering of university courses available to you and help you understand where these courses could possibly lead you career wise.
As with most things, it is best to start with you. What do you want? What are your skills and strengths? Where could these be best utilized in a university course and in a future career? If the worst comes to the worst, and you get to university and realize you’ve chosen the wrong course, you can always change. Wigsbury has written a module on changing courses/ universities.
And finally, remember that you will not just be having one career, but several.
Wigsbury Frequently asked questions
Quick answers to the important questions
I have no idea what I want to study, what can I do?
Make a list of your interests and academic strengths. Think about how these might match a particular university course or courses. And then look to see what careers will be open to you on completion of one of these courses.
My dad wants me to be an engineer, but I’m not very good at math and physics. What can I do?
You can get a tutor to help you overcome your problems in math and physics, or if you really don’t like the subjects and struggle in them you might want to rethink your plan about becoming an engineer because the university course will be a struggle as the level of math and physics at university is considerably higher than in the IB diploma program.
When I was in grade 10, I chose chemistry and biology higher level because at that time I wanted to be a doctor, however I have now gone off the idea. Do I still have to go to university and do a science related course?
No. This is the advantage of the IB diploma as you are required to take courses in different areas. You can now go and study anything you wish to at university providing you meet their entry requirements. If you have a particular university course in mind, then have a look at the university website and see what the entry requirements are.
Should I do a three-year bachelor degree or a four-year?
Four-year degrees normally allow you time to take some other subjects alongside your major. But remember that you will be paying for 4 years and not 3 years!
I’m going to study business at university, do you think it’s worth taking a course that includes a placement year?
Absolutely. You will gain valuable experience that will stand you in good stead for when you finish your university course and apply for your first real job. Plus it’ll give you a little taste of the real adult world, and you can earn some money.
Everybody in my family is a doctor or an engineer, but I’m not interested in either of these professions, I want to study business. What do you suggest?
We suggest you go and talk to your parents and make a good case for why business excites and interest you and where it will lead you career wise…and money earning wise.
I have so many different interests in different areas + I get good grades in all my subjects. It is just so confusing as I cannot decide what to study at university.
If you are drawn towards a particular profession such as doctor or engineer then you will have to go and study medicine or engineering, however if you’re not then we recommend you study a broader course which will allow you to explore different academic areas until you finally discover where your true passion lies. You can then specialize for your master’s degree.
I have some ideas for courses to study, ones that will lead to a career, but I do not know much about the career, what it entails. How can I find out?
Reach out to people already working in that career, talk to them. People are always willing to talk about themselves!