How do you choose the right university, or the right degree? The whole process can seem daunting. What should you focus on? How do you weigh up the different elements involved? So much seems to be at stake.
Students and their families often focus overwhelmingly on only some of the crucial aspects of choosing the right university, often missing other equally important, but less obvious, issues. So here I offer a few suggestions and tips about how best to think about choosing a university and a degree. Of course, each person’s situation is unique, but I hope I can provide some general guidance.
1. Keep Things in Perspective
Your life won’t be ruined if you don’t get into the university or degree of your absolute first choice. In fact, I think sometimes it’s positively healthy that you don’t. It forces you to think about what is really important to you, at least in terms of your education.
But even better, in Australia, we are fortunate to have an extraordinary range of high-quality universities in just about every part of the country. Many are in the top 1% of universities worldwide. That is truly amazing when you factor in that Australia accounts for only around 0.3% of the world’s population.
So before you even get started, you will have a fantastic array of high-quality universities and degrees to choose from. Each will have strengths and weaknesses and distinctive things on offer. So dream big. Explore different options. Don’t limit yourself to what your mates are talking about, or your Uncle Fred’s views about arts degrees.
Get out to as many open days and visit as many of the university websites as you can. When you visit, talk to the student volunteers as a matter of priority. In my experience, they can give you a real sense of the degree or course you’re interested in, as well as the general vibe of the campus.
Costs are obviously another important thing to consider. Tuition fees vary between different degrees, especially between some of the professional courses and more generalist ones. But there aren’t huge variations in tuition between Australian universities generally.
Living costs can vary, though, between different cities and towns. Living out of home for university can be a tremendous experience – whether in student accommodation on campus, or in shared housing. It’s a great way to make new friends and connect with fellow students from around the world. But that will depend on your financial circumstances.
Universities are investing more then ever in student scholarships and support. Ask early (and often) about the financial support on offer and pay close attention to their scholarship webpages, which are frequently updated. Don’t be shy. Universities want to attract the best students possible and we don’t want financial hurdles to get in their way.
2. Treat Entry Scores with Extreme Caution.
In Australia, we put a ridiculous amount of pressure on high school students for their final-year ranked results, which are used to define what counts as entry to the most “prestigious” degrees. As a dean, there was almost nothing more depressing than hearing students being told by their parents or friends not to “waste their ATAR”. That is bad advice.
Of course, it’s a great achievement to have done well in your high school exams. You should feel very proud about that. But, as the economists would say, entry scores are a signal about the demand for a course, not its inherent quality. The entry requirement is a function of the number of places available and the number of students who want (or we expect to want) to do the degree.
That doesn’t mean degrees with lower entry scores are therefore necessarily less prestigious, or somehow less rigorous. For example, although arts and science degrees often have lower entry scores than professional degrees, in many cases, arts and science faculties are ranked just as highly in the various global university league tables, and sometimes even higher (although league tables are another thing to treat with caution).
If you have your heart set on a double degree, for example, with a very high entry score you didn’t (or won’t) achieve, think about enrolling in a more generalist degree and then see if you can transfer in (especially if you were really close to the cut-off).
Even better, sometimes enrolling in a generalist degree gives you more options than a double degree offers. You can then top off your undergraduate degree with a master’s in the professional area of your choice. In fact, that is an increasing global trend: go broad at undergraduate, and then specialise at master’s.
3. Focus on the Big Picture
Focus on the overall university reputation and not just the particular faculty or school. So much of your university experience will take place outside your particular faculty, as much as within it.
So find out what the overall student experience is like. Do they have active student clubs and societies? Are there opportunities for international exchange, internships and work placements? Are there good support services for students, including libraries, sports facilities and health services?
Often the best sources of advice about these kinds of things are the various student guides available online (and the student volunteers I mentioned above), although you should always check with the university if you have any concerns or questions.
4. Remember Job-specific Skills Aren’t Everything
Try to remember that a university is not a job-training centre. Despite the overwhelming pressure today to think about your degree in terms of future employment, don’t let that overwhelm your decision-making (or that of your parents!). It is perfectly understandable that you will want to draw a tight connection between your degree and future employment. But there are two reasons why you should keep an open mind.
First of all, the world of work is changing rapidly. Many of the jobs that will be available when you graduate haven’t even been invented yet. Young people today are likely to go through five to seven major career changes over their lifetime. And this means a narrow, vocationally focused degree will not necessarily set you up best for the future.
Of course, if you have your heart set on accountancy or chemical engineering and have the marks to do it – then go for it. But even engineering and business schools now realise how important it is for their students to learn a broad range of skills and to have their intellectual horizons expanded.
Even more importantly, the business leaders we work with at the University of Sydney have made clear that they are looking for well-rounded graduates – the kind of people who can keep learning, deal with change and contingency, understand context and communicate effectively.
So despite the ribbing at family barbecues about studying art history or quantum physics, you might just be doing the most practical thing you can to help set up your future career.
5. Think About the Value Beyond Dollars
Finally, and probably most importantly, university is ultimately about an education for life, not just the next few years. So take the opportunity to push yourself – intellectually and socially.
Whether you are coming to university straight out of high school, or after working or raising a family, it’s best conceived as an exciting period for personal growth and intellectual expansion. It will help your career, I am sure – all the statistics make that clear – but the value is ultimately not something best captured in economic terms.