How do I select an undergraduate degree, or decide whether or not university is even suitable for me?
Since the 1990s, post-compulsory education has become more and more popular. Now, in many countries, university is considered the mainstream path following the completion of Year 13 (or equivalent). But is it for everyone? Are you missing out if you decide not to attend? Even if you do decide to attend, how do you pick what to study? Understandably, it can all be very overwhelming, which is why Holland Park is happy to help.
One question we are frequently asked is “I’m taking XYZ subjects at A-Level, but what should I study at university?” This task can be heavily daunting; for some (if not most), being seventeen and asked to decide on something that will determine the rest of your life is not easy.
To begin, it is perhaps appropriate to suggest that there is no correct answer to the question “How do you pick the correct university major?”. No, there is no magical criterion or flow chart, but there are certainly questions that can be considered to make the choices easier. The subjects you pursue at A-Levels, or equivalent, will also determine the options you have.
The team at Holland Park has decided to share our experiences, stories and choices to perhaps demonstrate that the motivations for selecting a certain undergraduate degree can differ. More importantly, it is also to emphasise that not everyone has a clear idea of what they want to pursue! If there are still questions, uncertainties and doubts after reading this, then Consultancy department would be happy to explore your options based on your educational history, credentials, interests and motivations.
Financial Stability & Clear Career Progression
Nicole, our Junior Education Consultant, read BA (Hons) Education with Music at the University of Cambridge. Having self-taught herself the piano, guitar, vocals and various other instruments, Nicole originally wished to pursue her interest in music solely at undergraduate level. However, upon discussion with her parents, it was agreed upon that she would major in Education for a clearer sense of career progression, and minor in Music to continue her interest in the subject:
“It was decided very early on that reading Education was going to be a good middle-ground – I enjoyed working in a school environment and was very interested in the issues embedded within the UK’s education system. For my Year 13 Extended Essay, I focused on the rigorous educational and academic Culture in Hong Kong, as well as its affects on student’s mental health and relationships with their parents – so I didn’t feel like it was a compromise. Also, I value the importance of pursuing a career path which provides stability and mobility – that isn’t to say that those pursuing Music will not experience that, but I knew that my level of musicianship was probably not at the level to sustain a living.
I’m so happy I got to study Music at university, just to be surrounded by such talented musicians, and to debate the sociocultural issues within musicology itself was immensely interesting, but I do not regret studying Education as my interest for that field eventually surpassed my passion for Music!”
It is unequivocal that there are external pressures when it comes to choosing a subject to study; it is only natural to question the ‘doors’ your degree opens when you pursue it. Therefore, if you are interested in pursuing a career in that field, it can be useful to assess the demand in the country you plan to work in. However, what’s important to remember is that many people may not pursue a career path that relates to their undergraduate studies; there are many Graduate programmes or Internships that you can undertake during your university years which will give you the necessary experience to change fields. More importantly, it is often the transferable and soft skills that you can demonstrate which determines whether you are fit for a role.
Outcome of the degree
At the age of 17, however, not everyone has an interest that is so pivotal that they can be certain it is what they would like to pursue at undergraduate level – and perhaps for their career. In fact, it’s completely understandable to be completely clueless or not to have an identified interest at all!
On this matter, Melissa, our Senior Tuition and Client Manager, shared how she came about choosing her major:
“I studied Psychology, Education and Business of Nonprofit Organizations in the United States. I chose these areas to study because at 18 I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did know that I wanted to make a difference in children’s lives.”
Therefore, we suggest that if you are not quite certain with what to do, ask yourself the question where you want to put your time in, or what outcomes you wish to have. It can be as simple as ‘to give back’, ‘to make money’, ‘to be creative’, ‘to have autonomy’ or any personal outcome. Once you have an answer, work backwards! Consider how you’ll get yourself to the position and then see where graduates of a certain course go; going on a university’s website is quite useful to provide this information. This could be highly effective to start narrowing fields and courses down.
In this case for Melissa, it was her innate drive to give back and make a difference which motivated her to choose her major. For example, those who wish to give back may take a vocational degree in Social Work, Charity, Teaching or just to go straight into volunteering! Having enjoyed the Business for NGO element of her university degree the most, Melissa ended up contributing herself in over 20-30 hours of volunteer work a week. Immersed in the field, she worked with cancer patients, the homeless shelter, started a teaching programme and even worked with the suicide hotline.
Whilst financial stability and outcomes may be factors to consider, it is also unequivocally important to be interested in the course you’re taking. Don’t forget that you will be completely submerged in the content of the course for at least 3 years, meaning you will have a challenging time if the course you pick is not something you have a genuine interest in.
Lynn, our Marketing Assistant, spoke about how she chose to study Design at Goldsmiths University:
“Choosing to study Design was an easy choice for me. Art had always been my favourite subject in school and if I wasn’t painting in my spare time – I was drawing! I was really excited by the idea of spending three years solely studying art and design and so when I was offered a place at Goldsmiths I was delighted.”
It also may be the case that some courses offer a Placement year, where you are encouraged to take one year out in your Third year to do a placement – many Engineering, Design, Vet Science courses will require this. Some will ask that you go and do these placements during the summer holiday:
“During my summers, I completed two industry internships which were hugely influential in helping me to decide which area of Design I wanted to specialise in. Being given the opportunity to study in such a creative environment was hugely formative, however, you do not need a degree to become a professional designer. Great work experience and a stunning portfolio which showcases your skills will impress any employer.”
Having fully enjoyed her course in Design, Lynn currently also provides her expertise in product design for a furniture company and holds a PGCE to teach Secondary Design Technology! Thus, following her interests in design has opened many doors and has allowed Lynn to explore her interests in design within various fields.
Is University Necessary?
The short answer to that is “No!” No, not attending university will not objectively hinder your future career. Unequivocally, attending university is a useful and helpful form of cultural capital to demonstrate your abilities and expertise, but you can also gain experience which can be equally as valuable as the cultural capital of having studied at an institution. Whilst there is undeniably a significant number of jobs that ask for an undergraduate degree, there are many opportunities, internships and non-university courses which only ask for A-Levels that can equally provide you the experience to lift off your career.
However, what is important to remember is that by choosing not to attend university, you will still need to be proactive! You will need to be proactive to sell yourself, and to make it work. There are friends of mine who graduated with me and went straight into pilot school or vocational jobs such as mechanical engineering; the former now pilots domestic flights in Indonesia after earning his license and the other is earning his engineering license and works for a multinational package delivery and supply chain company.
Understandably, you may be heavily overwhelmed right now. However, we hope that this gave you a glimpse of the various reasons why some of the team at Holland Park ended up pursuing the degree they did.
If you would like to speak to someone about the options you have based on your A-Levels (or IB subjects), or to plan your career formally, our consultancy team are able to assist. Give us a ring on +44 20 7034 0800 between 09:00 – 18:00 Mondays and Fridays and someone will be gladly to help!
Written by Nicole Lau, Junior Education Consultant