• Dr. Anne Wilson is an independent careers counsellor based in London

  • Here she explains why choosing your course at university is a complex subject

  • You should start early if you are thinking of applying for tertiary education

Imagine buying an expensive item for which you have over 40 different choices. A phone, say, or a laptop. You might feel a little anxious about choosing the right one.

Now imagine buying an item costing £33,000 which will affect your future, and having over forty thousand choices. Feeling anxious yet? Your teachers won’t tell you this, and your family probably doesn’t know it, but choosing a university course (combined with studying and worrying about your grades) can cause massive stress. But it doesn’t have to be that way if you follow some simple guidelines.

1. Acknowledge the scale of the task (aaaargh!) and start EARLY - in Spring, not Summer.

2. Make sure everyone understands the complexity of it - not only researching every possible course, but imagining what will interest you many months hence. You also have to predict what you might achieve academically, work out how much it’s going to cost and manage uncertainty over a very long period. You need support, not hassle.

3. Gather the ideas of the people close to you about university, so you are clear on what they think. It’s important to keep this separate from what you think. People can have strong opinions and bringing these out into the open early can save arguments later on.

4. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a purely rational choice - it isn’t. Personal preferences also come into play, like whether it’s in a city or a campus, what the night life is like, where friends are going, and how far it is from home. These are important - but not as important as the course itself.

5. Beware of league tables and outdated ideas about ‘good’ universities. Just because a university performed well in a generalised measure doesn’t mean it’s the right place for you.

6. Do a little research, often - maybe set aside half an hour every week to explore the UCAS site. Try to keep an open mind for as long as possible. Resist any pressure to make a quick decision.

7. Be organised - make notes, do a spreadsheet, whatever works for you. Months hence, you will have forgotten what you found out, and what you thought about a particular course, so keep a record to save duplication of work.

8. Make a note of the open days and don’t be afraid to ask if you can visit outside of those times. There’s no substitute for actually going to the place, but these visits take time and money.

9. Over the next few months, list the modules you have enjoyed most in your AS courses and why you liked them. This will be invaluable for your personal statement and a good guide for choosing a course which suits your interests.

10. Check the options offered in the second and third years of the course. Most courses have compulsory core modules in the first year, then courses you can choose. If you don’t fancy what’s on offer, don’t apply.

11. Get help from a friend or family member by asking them to research a course for you - the entry requirements and course outline. It will make them feel involved and show them the time and effort needed to research a single course at one University.

12. Aim high, but be realistic. Don’t fixate on courses for which you will never get the grades. If you’re totally unsure what your grades will be, consider taking a gap year. Universities tend to give early offers to people who have already got their results.

13. Take good care of yourself. Reward yourself for each piece of research you do and make sure everyone who cares about you knows how hard you’re trying. Have confidence in your own abilities and you will find the course you need and deserve.

Further reading

Surviving university: freshers week and beyond

When your child leaves for university

5 tips if you are starting university this year

It's OK to have mixed feelings about leaving home for university