No matter how bad you think you are at making big decisions, I guarantee, I am worse. I am the absolute queen of indecision.
First half term of AS levels: I dropped History in exchange for Philosophy. Second half-term of AS levels: I dropped French in exchange for Art. Summer Term of AS levels: attended an English Lit open day at Cambridge, a Design open day at Goldsmiths, an Art History open day at the Courtauld and even a post-graduate open day at Central Saint Martins (not deliberately). I picked Cambridge and worked myself insane in pursuit of the 90% UMS average they require.
Year 13 October: I wrote a full English personal statement and filled out my entire UCAS form, complete with all 5 choices. I had a complete lapse into some paralysing indecision between English or Art and didn’t send the application off. Year 13 Spring term: I applied for Art Foundation courses instead. Year 13 Summer: Having been rejected by Central Saint Martins, I went to Loughborough.
This year: I decided I didn’t want to do Art anymore, and sent off my Oxford application for English. (Starting to figure out why I didn’t get in…) I then dropped out of Loughborough, and subsequently was rejected by Oxford (fab bargaining skills eh).
Recently: I have been questioning whether or not I should have applied for Philosophy, as I’m pretty sure it’s been Philosophy all along that’s really me. Trust me, I’m sure this time…
I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with me, I’m just not ready to commit. I know I’ve thought about this too deeply now and it’s about time I just picked something, but to tell you the truth: I don’t want to. For fellow decision-phobes, I’ve concluded that these are the options available to us:
This can go one of two ways. It can clear your mind and help you find yourself, or it can just bombard you with even more options: working, apprenticeship schemes, volunteering etc. but either way I think it helps you figure out what you want. A gap year gives you a chance to see what you choose to do and thus what you genuinely enjoy. I’ll be honest: I haven’t picked up a single piece of literature.
People do get fed up of you. In fact, people mostly just get very confused and don’t know what to tell you, anymore. I’ve become so good at convincing people “no, no what I actually want to do is Art, now”, “no, trust me, I was wrong before, I love Chaucer, Chaucer is my life” that they have no idea what would be best for me anymore.
Talking it through with people can help, though, particularly those who can give you new information: UCAS and careers advisors can’t tell you what you really want to do, deep down, but they can answer some worries which may be holding you back. Maybe the reason you’re iffy about doing an Art degree is that you’re worried about graduate prospects – speak to someone who knows what they are.
Read every single scrap of the university website. Read the course structure, overview, and in depth descriptions of modules – the best websites laid-out for this in my opinion are those which have a clear Programme Catalogue and give you a full list of modules in detail. On other sites such as St Andrews you have to dig around a lot more – go to the Course Catalogue for your subject and read all the files there (understanding which modules and how many you can actually take is confusing, though!).
Don’t just go on the main website, look at the department websites, or college websites (if your university is collegiate) – for example, Bristol has separate sites for each department, which give you a bit more detail. Go on Youtube and look at the videos – the University of Oxford videos for subjects are really helpful.
Be as annoying and persistent as I am. Don’t worry about being overbearing, because there is always someone worse than you: me. I have probably emailed, telephoned, and visited nearly every British uni now a good few times too many. I once had a conversation with the admissions department at Mansfield college, Oxford at 10 minutes to midnight. All unis want to get you in, so they will do whatever they can to sell it to you. Ask as many questions as you want, as many times as you want. Some of my questions have included:
I can’t tell you how helpful it’s been having friends on courses I’m considering. Watching my boyf read Old English for a full year has made me completely re-evaluate English at Cambridge as not a missed-opportunity but a dodged-bullet. Do everything you can to experience what it’s really like to study this subject at university: a lot of unis, including Cambridge, Goldsmiths, Kings College, London, and the The Courtauld Institue of Art offer taster lectures, and I would definitely say always attend the open days and ask as many questions as you can think of.
UCAS have a really great search tool for University Taster Courses: Here, and Opendays.com is a great source for finding all the University open days. (Though chances are, if you have an offer, you’ve been bombarded with a thousand emails telling you when they are, anyway).
Talk to any current students (and stay with them, if you can- much easier if you’re on a gap year) about their experience, have a look at some of the work they’re doing and discuss what they have to study. There are a lot of things universities aren’t specific about until you’re there and on the degree course.
Do some of the work you’d have to do – e.g. read a bit of some of the books they study.
Obviously what I’m not saying you should do is what I did when I recommend a foundation course, because you shouldn’t take a space someone else probably really wanted if all you’re planning to do is try it out, and quit if you don’t like it… but one advantage of the foundation is that it’s only a one-year course. If you sign up for a short course, it is only a small part of your life and not a lot of money gone if you don’t like it. Another appeal of the Art Foundation is that it’s free.
And this is why I love St Andrews. Oh, the beauty of the Scottish degree system. It’s 4 years instead of 3, but you can study a broad range of subjects in the first two years, and then specialise in the final two, often in joint-honours, if you’d prefer. You can find it explained better by someone with a delightful Scottish accent who actually understands it: Here. (It’s a video, by the way, so you don’t even have to read!)
Alternatively, you could opt for a Liberal Arts degree, which many UK unis are starting to adopt. These courses include:
Though these courses are very broad, they are still new in the UK and don’t have much recognition yet. There are still no subject-specific league tables to help guide your course comparisons. It is also arguable that you don’t get any in-depth subject knowledge, which some may argue defeats the point of a degree, but some courses, such as the one at Exeter, take a diagnostic approach which allows you to specialise later on. (For example, you’d end up with a qualification in Liberal Arts but major in English – which would be accredited on your degree certificate.)
You could, of course, if you’re brave, opt to go overseas, as American unis and many European institutions have the Liberal Arts system. This does, however, mean weighing up all the other issues associated with moving abroad, such as homesickness, costs, and the reputation of oversees unis.
You could always go for a joint-honours degree, as I have done in my very thought-out day-of-the-deadline decision to put ‘English and Philosophy’ down at Durham, but honestly I have heard a lot of negative things of this route. It is, apparently, like studying two separate degrees, and often with far less choice in each of the subject areas, as there’s less room for ‘optional modules’, and arguably the education is less in depth. I do also suspect that ultimately, you might end up preferring one subject to the other and wishing you’d chosen only that.
Some universities offer even more diversity when combining honours, Newcastle University’s Combined Honours Programme allows you to take three subjects. Again, though, this faces the same challenges as mentioned above, and possibly to a larger extent.
The slightly safer option is to take a course that is a main subject ‘with’ another, so that you essentially specialise but have some breadth on the side, this is known as a ‘major’ and a ‘minor’. The course I’ve applied to at Nottingham is 75% English Literature and only 25% creative writing (see it here), and they offer many similarly interesting and diverse degrees: see their course catalogue.
Having spoken about breadth, some subjects are, within themselves, very broad, so you can just opt for very broad courses within one subject. For example, some English degrees allow you to study both Language and Literature, Creative Writing, and Film Studies, where some are extremely specific. Some Fine Art courses also make you specialise in one area quite early on – such as at UCL (where you need to pick a medium e.g. ‘Painting’ by year 2) – whereas others, such as that at the Oxford Ruskin allow you to practice a variety of specialisms for all three years.
Oh, I hate this option, but it’s true. Sometimes you really just don’t know until you try! I really felt like I didn’t know whether I wanted to do Art or English, and going to uni to study Art was what I needed to help me decide. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as I am making out that it does, there are too many great subjects to choose just one, so you just have to pick one you like.
You could always flip a coin, and then if you’re disappointed with what it lands on you know you want the other one. A.K.A The Phoebe test. (See the Friends episode where Rachel might be pregnant but can’t decide if she wants to be – slightly higher stakes).
You really don’t have to commit to the subject you chose for your undergraduate degree for the rest of your life. I always find it amazing when people are confident enough in their future aspirations to choose something extremely niche and vocational. There’s obviously nothing wrong with this and kudos (with a dose of envy) to you if this is where you’re at, but so many people go into careers where they don’t use subject-specific knowledge and directly apply what they studied at uni, anyway.
This obviously isn’t true if you have an epiphany two years into your History degree that you actually want to become a doctor, because then you do have to go on to new training, but that really isn’t the end of the world, either. There are so, so many further study options post-graduation. Don’t see your undergraduate degree as your one choice that you must stick to forever, see it as the first step – you can go on to do as many Masters’, PHDs, DPhils and more as you like (scholarships/bursaries/on-job training schemes/study abroad can make these flexible and affordable). If you made the ‘wrong’ decision, change it later.
If you are, however, currently torn between a general academic subject and something which requires professional training such as Medicine or Law, do some research into how possible it is to convert later on if you start off on something general. I have a friend studying Philosophy at Nottingham University , though she plans to take a Law conversion course post-graduation. I am also considering taking a Psychology conversion course if I decide later on to become a Psychologist (Yes, I know, yet another option.). Look into how possible this is for your career, there’s some great advice on conversion courses here.