So, you're ready to go to university, huh?
Don't be fooled. It is a little-known fact amongst prospective students that the subject you study is actually, in many respects, more important than the university you study it at. (Of course, if you've chosen your subject, and still need help choosing a university, click here.) You might know, for instance, that Cambridge is the university you want to go to; and you might read through this guide and all sorts of other sources of information, and decide triumphantly, "I want to do chemistry! Well, that's that sorted!". Well, not quite. Cambridge doesn't do a chemistry course. And no, backing off and saying "well, French was gonna be my second choice" isn't an option! There's tons of universities out there, and there'll be one for you no matter what course you want to study. Don't be put off if your course isn't offered by many universities; it'll be offered by some, and of those universities, there will be some you like. Don't put the university before the course! You don't want to spend 3/4/5/6 years studying a course you don't like just because you specifically wanted to go to Durham.
Is university really for me?
It saddens me to have to put this in... but is university really for you? Let's clear this up once and for all. No, you do not have to go to university because all your friends are doing so, because your parents want you to, or because it'll help you get a good job. If you've had 15 years of education and hate it and want to go on to get an alternative qualification like a vocational qualification, or you're lucky enough to have been offered a good job with good career prospects following work experience or through the family, and you don't actually want to go to university, then don't go. Too many people waste three years of their life thinking they can bluff university like they bluffed school; and a select few can. But in the end, if it'd make you happy to do something else, you should seriously consider it.
Now that that's out of the way it's time to look a picking a subject.
Picking a Subject
The most important factors to take into account when choosing a subject are (a) whether it interests you - a lot - and (b) whether you are good at it. Being interested in a subject tends to go with an aptitude for it, but you can also be good at something you really don't want to study for three years. Remember that being motivated is an essential part of success, and it is hard to motivate yourself if you really aren't that interested in what you are doing. So don't be afraid of picking something that doesn't have an obvious career path attached to it; the point of university study is not to prepare you for a specific job (with some obvious exceptions!) - even people with law degrees don't necessarily become lawyers. University level study is intended to train you in how to use your brain effectively and provides you with the opportunity to acquire skills that can be used in any number of ways. The actual subject is far less important to your career prospects, so go for what you are passionate about.
Whatever your course choice, you will normally have to demonstrate a minimum level of achievement in English and Maths, at GCSE or equivalent. It may seem surprising, but a university place can depend on that C in GCSE Maths. So make sure that you have the necessary GCSEs in the bag.
When choosing your AS/A2 subjects you need to make sure that you have checked out any essential requirements for courses you might be interested in. For example, most if not all Maths courses will require you to have taken Further Mathematics unless your school/college doesn't offer it. All Medicine courses require you to have studied chemistry beyond GCSE. Most Engineering courses require A2s in Maths and Physics. Most History and English courses will require you to have studied the subject to A2 and to have achieved a good grade in it. The essential bit is to do your research and avoid closing off any options you might be interested in if at all possible.
On the other hand, many courses at university do not require specific subjects to have been studied. In that case it is worth thinking carefully about what skills your chosen subjects should develop in you which can make you stand out as a stronger candidate for certain courses at university. For example, studying sociology at university might not require any specific A Levels, but having a proven record in essay writing from subjects such as history and English would give you a much better chance at getting on the course than if all you had were maths and ICT subjects.
Also think about what other experiences and qualifications you might have outside of your studying. For some of the more vocational courses work experience may not just make a better application, but it may be almost an essential factor which the admissions tutors are looking for!
If you are a mature student without standard qualifications (which could include an Access course), most universities will consider applications on an individual basis. Contact individual universities for further advice applicable to your personal situation.
Interests and Abilities
Think carefully about what you've been studying. What have you enjoyed? What has been a real problem to get motivated for? What are you good at? Where do your interests lie?
These are all important questions you need to ask yourself. You will likely be studying the same areas for at least 3 years so it is important you choose something you know you will have a prolonged interest in and something which you are not going to struggle finding the effort to complete the work for. It is also important to choose a subject you are strong at - or where you think you will be able to succeed. Firstly, this would be because universities might ask for a high grade in your chosen subject at A Level, so it's no good wanting to try and study English if it's your weakest subject and you are predicted an E in it. In all likelihood most unis might expect a grade much higher than an E to study English. Secondly, not picking a subject you would be 'good' at would lead to a lot of extra pressure and stress and a much higher work load in order to keep on top of everything.
Your Career Ideas
You may be set on heading down a particular career path. Read around this to find if certain degrees will aid you in achieving that goal. For some careers a certain subject at degree level is essential and it is important to know what these are other wise you could spend three years studying and still be no closer to reaching your career aims.
Some courses at university are very much vocational in so much that they directly prepare you for your chosen career. Medicine and other health courses are examples of these courses. Education degrees are likely to involve placements in schools too, in preparation for teaching. But not all will lead to you being a qualified teacher at the end of it. Other career paths need postgraduate qualifications too, so it is important that what ever you choose for your undergraduate degree is a course which sets you up for entry in to the post-grad courses.
Of course, we don't all have set career goals when applying for uni. In fact many people will have no ideas at all what they want to do. In such cases it is important to follow the other advice we've given here and perhaps pick a more general, less career specific degree which will leave your options open once you graduate. For example, subjects like history, geography, biology or psychology.
You probably have an idea now of a few areas which interest you. You might know what you need to study for your chosen degree. You will hopefully know what you are good at, where your abilities are and what you might struggle with. This should provide you with all you need now to make your decision.
Listen to what family, friends and teachers suggest to you - they will have a lot of useful advice to give you. But do not simply pick a course to please your family or because your best friend is also studying it. Just remember that it is you who will be studying this course for at least three years and it needs to be something you are happy with and will be able to stick at.
Good luck with making your choice and in applying for university. If you need more help applying, why not check out our applying to university channel page?
One final point - it's not the end of the world if you think you've chosen the wrong choice. It's not always possible, but some people do manage to change courses when they are at university. Why not read our article on this?
Getting Further Help
If you still need help UCAS has a course search option which allows you to search and browse the complete list of subjects on offer at UK universities.