How to choose your university course
Some people just know what they want to study at university. They cruise through high school with a clear view of their pathway to a degree. But for many others, choosing the right course can seem like the impossible decision.
“I’ve had lots of conversations with students at subject selection evenings where they come in and say, ‘I have no idea what I want to do with my life’,” says Cara Vanzini, a careers advisor with ACU’s Career Development Service in the Office of Student Success.
So how do you find your dream course (let alone your dream job) if you don’t have a clue where to start?
“If someone has absolutely no idea what they want to do, one of the first questions I ask is, ‘What do you do in your spare time?’,” Cara says.
“I remember one girl just shrugging and saying, ‘I just spend time with my friends’. And I said to her, ‘Well, maybe you need to look at career choices where you are working with people’. We started identifying what some of those careers were, and her mum standing behind her said, ‘Oh, that’s the best advice we’ve had all year’.”
Finding your ideal degree might therefore be as simple as answering a few questions.
What are your interests? How do you like spending your time? What are you good at? Which experiences have left a lasting impression?
“By exploring and thinking about these things, we can generally start identifying some areas that lead us to an ideal course for that person,” says Cara, who recommends the free online resource Your Career as a great starting point.
“Sometimes it’s even helpful to make a list of jobs or careers you know you definitely don’t want to do, and then working your way backwards. It can help you to weed out some values and interests and to identify who you are.”
Wise people will tell you that many of life’s big decisions aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be. That’s why it’s important to choose a career path that aligns with your passions, interests and values.
“We need to realise that we spend most of our lives at work, so we should focus on developing the skills and qualifications that allow us to enjoy what we do, and to feel good about it,” says Cara, who worked in ACU’s Equity Pathways program for five years before commencing with the Career Development Service in 2018.
“If a young person said to me that they’re really passionate about something, but for whatever reason, they’re not sure if it’s good decision to move into that field, I’d likely say to them, ‘If that’s what you really want to do, then you should do it’.
“Of course, as a careers advisor you take things on a case-by-case basis, but in general I think pursuing a course and a career that aligns with your interests and values is good advice.”
If you’ve done your due diligence but are still struggling to make a decision, enrolling in a generalist degree might be your best bet. You can always change courses down the track, or even top off your undergrad degree with a master’s in your chosen area of specialisation.
“I always say that you can never have too many qualifications and experiences,” Cara says, “so if you really have no idea, a generalist degree can be a really great option.”
Have a back-up plan
It’s important to note that even those who do know what degree they want to pursue have to think about university entry requirements and prerequisites.
What if you have your heart set on a Bachelor of Laws or a Bachelor of Biomedical Science but you don’t quite make the ATAR cut-off?
It’s always good to have a back-up plan, Cara says, but a lower ATAR than expected does not determine your endpoint.
“Obviously the ATAR is the simplest way to access the degree of your choice, but lots of people miss out or realise they don’t have the prerequisites for a specific course, and it’s not the end of the world,” she says.
Thankfully, universities like ACU provide alternative pathways and entry programs to help smooth the way to your chosen course.
“You might have to engage your ‘wet weather’ plan and find a different pathway, and that might be completing a bridging course, or perhaps doing a diploma prior to the bachelor, or going into another course that’s within the same industry and applying for a transfer down the track.”
On the flipside, if you do excel in the ATAR, it’s best not to let anyone pressure you to enrol in a course with a high cut-off just because you can. As the Good Universities Guide makes clear, you can’t ‘waste’ your ATAR.
“I would really warn against forcing someone into a four-year degree just because their ATAR is high when their passion lies with something completely different,” Cara says.
“It could make that individual quite unhappy and put a lot of pressure on them to perform in a degree that doesn’t suit them. And in the end, the ATAR is only reflective of how sought-after a course is, not necessarily the quality of the course, or the prestige within the industry itself.”
Once again, it’s often best to choose a course that aligns with your interests. You’ll be more likely to put in the hard work when required, and set yourself up for your future career.
Focus on the whole person
Choosing the right course is one thing, but how do you choose the right university?
Whether you’re a school-leaver preparing for uni life, an employed person looking for a career change, or someone hoping to advance their career through postgraduate study, it’s wise to determine if the character and focus of the university suits you.
The Good Universities Guide’s course comparison site is a handy tool, because it puts most of the comparable degrees in Australia in the one spot.
It’s also a good idea to speak to as many students as possible. University open days are a great chance to meet undergrads, while also getting a sense for the style and vibe of the campus.
“The sooner you can get to an open day, the better off you will be because you’ll give yourself more time to consider your options,” Cara says.
“It gives you a chance to ask lots of questions about all the different aspects – course requirements, time commitments, upfront costs, your preferred mode of study – all these things are important to consider when choosing your course.”
When making your choice, keep in mind that higher education isn’t just about gaining job-specific knowledge and capabilities; it’s about growing as a person and preparing yourself for working life.
The annual Graduate Employer Survey shows the graduates that businesses value most are those with great communication and interpersonal skills – the team players with high emotional intelligence, who can solve problems and display resilience.
“You will likely have many jobs and many careers over your lifetime, and on that path, you’ll find so many other opportunities and things that you love,” Cara says. “That’s why building yourself as a whole person and a whole package is really important.”
When you do choose your course and start your degree, it’s important to cultivate a growth mindset, she adds.
“The growth opportunities at university are endless, but you really have to put yourself out there, and that means networking and getting involved with student associations on campus, the clubs and societies that align with workplaces and organisations,” Cara says.
“Even being part of a sports club will give you experience and transferable skills that will help when you’re applying for graduate positions, and when you start your placements, you’re getting your foot in the door, with a chance to feel what it’s like to be in the job you’ve always dreamed about.”
Ready to get started? Explore the courses on offer at ACU or contact our team.