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Choosing what to study

Choosing a university course

Choosing a course for uni is one of the most important decisions you'll make as a student. Read our advice on how to do it right.

Students in a university lecture hall


  1. What to study at university?

  2. Choosing a subject area

  3. Looking at different courses

  4. What does the course involve?

What to study at university?

More than 30,000 undergraduate courses are offered in the UK, so you need to be sure that what you pick will suit you.

When choosing a course, there are lots of things to think about, including:

  • What subject you want to study
  • How you want to study
  • Where you want to study (choosing a course goes hand-in-hand with choosing a university)

Choosing a subject area

Before choosing a specific course, you need to be sure of the subject area you want to study. The subject is what you study, while the course is the area of that subject you’d like to study, e.g. a marine biology course falls within the wider subject area of biological sciences.

When choosing a subject area, think about what you enjoy and what you’re already studying. You’ll read and write about your subject area and be lectured on it nearly every day of your degree, so you need to pick one you’ll be happy to immerse yourself in. 

Don't just choose a course because your friends are taking it or because you think it's the right thing to do. Chris, a Deputy Headteacher at King Edward VI Handsworth Grammar School, explains why it's important to pick a course that genuinely interests you:

When applying to university, it’s good to stick to one area of study within the subject you’ve chosen. This will make it easier to write a UCAS personal statement and is generally a better idea than trying to show an interest in a number of different areas.

Career options and opportunities

To help you choose a subject area, think about what you might want to do in the future (however, choosing a course purely based on career prospects isn’t advisable).

Know that:

  • Most graduate jobs don’t need a particular degree
  • In some industries, a more specific degree may be preferable, e.g. for a career in accounting it'd be useful to have an accounting and finance degree
  • Other graduate jobs will ask for a specific degree subject such as nursing, physiotherapy or medicine
  • If you’re undecided, it’s best not to choose a specialist, vocational course so you can keep your options open

Graduate prospects

Some subject areas have high rates of graduates finding jobs, and some have high-paying salaries. You can use our graduate data to help your decision-making.

Remember, these figures don’t tell the whole story. If you choose a course because of the graduate job prospects, you may end up on a course you don’t enjoy. Likewise, if the course you want to do has poor graduate prospects, don’t be put off. For many, enjoying a degree is more important than earning money from it. 

Looking at different courses

After choosing a subject area, you can look at what courses are available. There are many to pick from – use our course chooser to see what’s on offer.

You can also use our university league tables to your advantage. Our video explains how the tables work and how they can help you pick the right course for you:

What does the course involve?

There are several things to consider before choosing a course to make sure it’s a perfect fit for you.

Think about:

  • Entry requirements and grades
  • Course content
  • The university or college
  • Subject league tables
  • Opportunities offered (such as placements, study abroad, industry links)
  • What you’ll be studying for (such as BA/BSc, master's)
  • Different study options

Entry requirements

Each university course has its own entry requirements. These often specify the subjects you would’ve already studied and the qualifications and grades you’ll need to get.

Some universities and courses have a general entrance requirement. This could be a basic set of qualifications that’s necessary for all students, for example:

  • English language proficiency
  • Criminal record DBS check or equivalent
  • Fitness to practise check – for courses such as medicine


When choosing a course, look at the grade requirements and compare them with your predicted grades. Be realistic with what you can achieve – if a course’s requirements are much higher than what you’re predicted, look at a different university or a similar course with lower grade requirements.

Some universities use the UCAS tariff while others don’t. You can check how flexible universities can be and if they may make unconditional or contextual offers before you get your final results.

Our individual university profiles state basic entry requirements, and you can use our course chooser to see the requirements for each course. More details can be found on course pages of university websites and on the UCAS website.

When making your five UCAS choices, it’s advised to choose courses with a range of entry requirements so you’ll have different options if you don’t meet – or, conversely, exceed – your predicted grades.

The general rule for picking five courses is to have:

  • One or two ‘stretch’ options – these are courses with grade requirements that are higher than your predicted grades, e.g. if you’re predicted ABB you can apply for courses asking for AAB or AAA
  • Two or three courses that have the same entry requirements as your predicted grades
  • One or two ‘safety nets’ – these are courses with grade requirements lower than your predicted grades, e.g. if you’re predicted ABB, apply to a course asking for BBB or BBC as a backup option if you don’t get the grades you were hoping for

Tips for making your choices:

  • Make a basic table of entry requirements or typical offers for around 20–30 universities with courses you like and narrow them down for your UCAS application
  • Consult advisers and teachers at your school or college about your predicted grades and options
  • Some UK universities let you apply directly – this means you can have five UCAS choices along with a range of other choices
  • UCAS Extra provides an alternative if you get five rejections from your UCAS application or decide to change direction (you can also apply to some universities directly at this point)

Aptitude tests

There are several online aptitude tests available. Some help you to identify a suitable subject while others test your aptitude for a specific course. One example is the Law National Aptitude Test (LNAT).

Mature students

Older students, or those with a non-traditional educational background, are generally treated with more flexibility by universities. You’re expected to demonstrate your ability and suitability for the course through a variety of qualifications, an Access to Higher Education Diploma, or in relevant work experience. Mature students are classed as those over 21 on entry. 

GCSE results from the past can usually be ignored but some subject areas such as education may ask for certain GCSEs such as English and mathematics.The old A*–E grade range will still be considered by universities even though the system has now moved to a 1–9 numbered grade.

Students listening to university lecturer

Course content – is it what you want?

Are the core modules relevant to your interests? Are there enough optional modules for you to pick from? Make sure to do enough research by reading course descriptions closely and finding more information on university websites.

Be aware that while different universities have the same course names, each course can have entirely different modules and content, number of contact hours, or teaching methods. Some courses can be very specialised whereas others are highly flexible. Each subject area can also be taught and assessed in a variety of ways, such as geography, which can be taught as a BA or a BSc.

The university

Found the perfect course but not at a university you like (or vice versa)? Think about what’s more important: what you study, or where you study. Do enough research so you’re sure both the course and university are right for you. It’s hard to switch universities if you change your mind after starting a course.

Subject and league tables

You can check subject tables to see if a university course will give you what you’re looking for. For example, you may want to see how much a university invests into research in a certain subject area, or how satisfied students are with their course.

Our tables are a good tool to help with your decision-making as you can filter by location and sort them by individual metrics, such as research quality and student satisfaction.

Opportunities – what else is included?

Think about the extras a course may offer. Does it include work experience placements? Guest lectures from industry professionals? What about a sandwich year or studying abroad? All this can add to your university experience and potentially better prepare you for life after studies. 

What you’ll be studying for

Do you want a BA or BSc qualification? Are you interested in joint honours? Do you need to study a foundation year or access course first? How about an integrated master’s, a placement year, or a year studying abroad? There’s a huge variety of courses available.

Most courses in Scotland last four years rather than three, with some students (not from Scotland) having to pay an extra year’s tuition fees.

Undergraduate qualifications

After finishing your undergraduate studies you’ll graduate with one of these following degrees, often with ‘honours’ (Hons):

  • Bachelor of Arts (BA)
  • Bachelor of Science (BSc)
  • Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)
  • Bachelor of Laws (LLB)

Some subjects can be taught as either a BA or BSc, including archaeology and economics. There are differences in the teaching and assessment of BA and BSc degrees, even if the course name and subject areas are similar. The emphasis of the course will likely be reflected in the entry requirements.

Joint honours

Also known as combined or dual honours, joint honours degrees let you study two separate subjects instead of one. Courses are just as long as a single honours course but offer a wider variety of modules to choose from. This can mean an increased workload and you may have to learn different writing and teaching styles.

Joint honours aren’t as popular as single honours degrees, which makes them a good option if you use UCAS Clearing. You can choose to specialise in your preferred area of the course further into your studies. 

Sandwich year/placement year

Some courses offer a sandwich year, which involves a year away from the classroom where you do a placement or internship in an industry relevant to your studies. It usually takes place between your second and final years of study.

Many graduate employers look for students with work experience, so a sandwich year can strengthen your job application as well as help you to decide what career to go into. If you’re an international student, you’ll have to check the eligibility and visa requirements for working in the UK beforehand.

Year abroad

Studying abroad involves spending a semester/term or year at an overseas university, usually in or between your second and third years of study. This is designed to show you new ways of teaching and studying as well as provide a new perspective on your course.

Study abroad programmes are available all over the world and aren’t limited to any subject area. It’s a great opportunity to enhance your university experience and can boost your employability.

Integrated master’s

An integrated master’s combines a master’s course with another qualification, such as a bachelor’s.

Instead of studying two separate degree courses, you’ll study a single, longer programme, usually of four or sometimes five years (like in Scotland). You can get both a bachelor’s and a master’s qualification, or just a master’s. These are common for engineering and science courses, and are usually categorised with an M – e.g. MEng, MSci, MBiol.

Foundation year

A foundation year, sometimes referred to as ‘year zero’, is an additional preliminary year at the beginning of a degree course. They can be studied at university or college as either a single course or part of a degree.

There are several types of foundation years that target different groups:

  • Students without the right subject – the foundation year acts as a conversion course, giving you a grounding in a subject before you start your degree properly
  • Students who didn’t meet entry requirements – this type of foundation year is to make sure you’re ready to make the step up from A Level to degree study
  • Mature students – if you took a break from education and are looking to start university, a foundation year is an excellent way of getting used to studying again
  • International students – some university courses will need you to take a foundation year combining academic study with English language classes to prepare you for studying in the UK

Foundation years vary in content. Some cover a broad range of subjects and others are specific to the course you want to eventually study. Look at the details such as modules, assessment and teaching methods before choosing a foundation year course.

These courses are especially common for art and design degrees.

  2. Art and Design Foundation Diplomas (Art Foundation)

Note that while you can of course apply for another university after your foundation year, most foundation year courses are designed for you to continue on at the same university. You'll have to apply again via UCAS after your foundation year if you wish to change university.

If you do want to change, make sure you check that the university you want will accept a foundation year.

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