Choosing a course and university

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At a glance

Guidance on helping your child make the big decision about which university or college course to study and where.

Choosing a course

The first and most important question isn't about location - it's asking which subject your child wants to study. There are two main options your child should consider:

  • continuing with a familiar subject
  • taking a course in an entirely new subject

There are more than 50,000 courses to choose from, taught at more than 300 universities and colleges across the UK, so this can be a daunting choice to make.

The following questions might help your child find the right course:

  • Which subject do they feel passionate about?
  • Which courses immediately grab their imagination and attention?
  • Which course would give them a sustainable source of stimulation and enjoyment for three or even four years of study?

A vocational or academic course?

Some courses are vocational, leading to a particular job like dentistry or medicine. Other courses equip your child for different options of work in one area - like media studies or catering. And subject courses - like English Literature or Geography - are more general, leading to a wider range of work options.

The Stamford Test

The most useful thing you can do as a parent is discuss the options with your child and listen to them. Help to identify his or her passions, interests and ambitions by asking useful questions. If your child remains unsure about what course to go for, you could suggest they complete the Stamford Test (at www.ucas.com), an online questionnaire, which uses responses to match interests and abilities to courses available.

Choosing a university

Once your child has decided on a course the next move is to work out which colleges and universities offer that course. Encourage your child to research what's on offer at different colleges or universities - subject courses can differ hugely from institution to institution.

As well as the course content, you and your child might like to research how well a subject is taught at each college or university. There are several online guides available that rank courses and give further advice and information.

Another thing to consider is the distance between home and university and where your child will live. The three main options for accommodation include:

  • Living at home: this is cheaper and reassuring for some families, but it's likely to limit the range of courses and universities available. Your child might not learn as much about independent living, and continued life with the family might be a strain for others.
  • Moving nearby: young people sometimes like to go to a university that's far enough away to justify separate accommodation, but not so far that they can't get home for a hot meal or to use the washing machine once in a while.
  • Moving a long way from home: for some families the point of university is to help your child move away and become truly independent. For many young people, university is a chance to sample entirely different circumstances - for example, a child brought up in London might want to try life at a university in northern England or Scotland.

University open days

Universities and colleges offer open days to prospective students, and sometimes their parents, so that they can meet staff and students, and look around accommodation to get a sense of what's on offer. These open days are very popular so it's worth booking early to avoid disappointment.

Encourage your child to make the most of at least one university open day, even if they don't eventually apply there. Your child will gain a sense of what university life is all about and make better-informed choices when they do have to fill in their application form.

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