Deciding what to do after A-levels can be a particularly tough decision to make. Here’s our guide to finding your way.
First off – accept there are lots of unknowns. Without a crystal ball you can’t know how your life will turn out if you go to university or if you choose a different route, but you can find out the facts and consider the alternatives.
1. What’s your end goal?
Perhaps not the most obvious starting point, but if you go to university what would you like to do when you finish? Understanding your end goal can help you explore other options and work out if university is your best route.
Knowing what you want is not essential – some people chose university as their next step because they don’t have any career ideas but really enjoy a particular subject and want to see where it might take them.
Whichever route you choose, being clear about your motivation will help you get the most from your experience.
2. What are the alternatives?
If you don’t go to university, what else could you do?
Some options include:
- Higher Apprenticeships – these now provide pathways to many careers traditionally followed by graduates.
- Getting a job – there are lots of opportunities and trainee positions for school leavers. Some people choose to work first and go to university a few years later when they have a better idea of what they really want; others find their feet at work and never look back. Check out Notgoingtouni for advice about different routes and vacancy details.
- Taking a Gap Year – doing something different is a great way to try new things and find out what you like, and may help you make more focused choices.
3. Do you need a degree?
Sometimes, a degree is little more than a passport; employers simply want to know you have one but don’t have any real interest in what you’ve studied. For certain careers, a degree is not necessary and work experience is considered more important. And in other careers, such as medicine, a degree in a set subject is essential.
If you’ve a specific career idea in mind, there may be different ways you can qualify. For example, did you know you can become a lawyer without going to university? Alternative routes are not always considered a direct equal to a degree – they may only allow to you progress to a certain level in your career – so be sure to check out any limitations they may include.
4. How much will it cost?
Fees and talk of future debt and earnings can soon start to seem like Monopoly money and without an idea about your future expenses and living costs, are not always particularly meaningful. That said, it does pay to find out exactly what going to university is likely to cost, what help you can get and what student loans mean. Explore different scenarios – what would student loan repayments look like if you went on to a well-paid, average, or low-paid job? You may not know what you’ll end up doing but at least you’ll be making a decision with your eyes open.
5. Have you done your research?
Look closely at course content. Just as there is a difference between subjects at GCSE and A-level, so the jump from A-level to degree can bring a different focus. And that’s not forgetting subjects you can start from scratch. The Open University’s Open Learn offers free university-level modules in a wide range of subjects and can give you a taster of what a full course may involve.
Go on university open days and get a feel for what you like, both in terms of courses and the wider university experience.
Consider employment prospects for your chosen course – where have recent graduates ended up? To find out more, see the Higher Education Careers Services Unit’s What do graduates do?
6. What about additional benefits?
As with many aspects of life, the biggest advantages of any chosen path are often the unexpected ones. In the long term, people reflecting on their university days often find the wider benefits, such as developing confidence, making connections, or involvement with clubs and societies, more important than their actual studies. These things can all be gained in other ways – and no one would suggest going to university just because you’re likely to make some great friends or may write for the student paper – but what you end up valuing the most may have little to do with your course.
7. Can you do things differently?
Going to university doesn’t have to mean you need to follow the standard route of moving to a new town and becoming a full time student – there are different and more flexible ways to get a degree which may suit you better. You could:
- Study at your local university and live at home
- Do a part-time degree that you can combine with work or other commitments
- Study with the Open University (distance learning courses which mean you can study at time and place that suits you).
- Do a sponsored degree. Certain employers will pay for you to do your degree but you may need to work for them first and/or for a certain period after you graduate.
8. What’s right for you?
It can be easy to fall into doing the same as your friends or what your parents or teachers expect so it’s important to consider if your next step is really right for you.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that people looking back at their university days sometimes do so with rose-tinted glasses – they may have gone to university when fees were much lower or before they were introduced, or graduated when a degree was sure-fire route to a good job.
One thing is certain, advancements in technology and the changing nature of the job market means that many jobs of the future don’t yet exist. The ability to continue learning – whatever route you take – is set to become an essential skill in working life.
Find out more
For more help making decisions, see:
And if you’ve decided you want to go to university, see:
Bright Knowledge has lots of information and advice on choosing a university.
UCAS enables you to research your university choices and courses. You also apply for higher education courses through their website.
WhatUni.com helps you compare courses and universities.
Best Course 4 Me offers advice from past students who have taken specific courses, and links subjects studied with information on job prospects and potential earnings.
The Guardian University Guide has profiles of every university and course in the UK, league tables and student news.
Pure Potential is an independent organisation which raises the aspirations of thousands of sixth-formers every year, helping them to achieve offers from excellent universities.