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Choosing universities: A beginner’s guide

By Lauren White in Tertiary Education
31st of May 2016
choosing universities

In amidst all the career advice, open days, and advertising brochures, it can be tough to work out what sort of things should factor into your process of choosing universities and what things shouldn’t.

If you’re new to this game, you could be forgiven for getting completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choices, not to mention the added pressure of worrying about whether you’re making the right decision. Whether you’ve got parents pushing you one way and friends pulling you the other, or you’re just wandering adrift in a sea of confusion and information booklets, this article is going to take you through the decision process of choosing universities and how best to work out where you belong.

 

Factors you SHOULDN’T consider when choosing universities

1. Prestige

I know some people will disagree with me here (and I can practically hear my career adviser from Year 12 screaming in my ear right now) but prestige doesn’t matter as much as you think. I can guarantee you will never be in a job interview where your potential boss says ‘well, you seem like the perfect candidate; you’ve got great credentials, some valuable experience, and you seem really confident and enthusiastic. But why did you go to THAT university!? Ew. It’s so… un-prestigious.

There’s also a bit of a problem in calculating “prestige.” Different universities have different scales for these kinds of things, and the fact that a uni is bragging about being ‘Number 1 in the state/ country/ world/ galaxy’ doesn’t mean much unless you know what criteria they’re using to measure this. Often what people mean when they talk about “prestige” is reputation, and if you have some valuable and trustworthy sources (like a decent career adviser or a family friend who’s gone through the system) then you can listen to what they have to say about certain unis. But on the whole, basing such an important decision as choosing universities on sheer word-of-mouth is risky, to say the least.

There are some aspects of ‘prestige’ that are somewhat important. For example, ACU in Victoria is considered a ‘prestigious’ institution for its teaching and nursing degrees because graduates of that uni have extremely high job prospects in those fields, and there is a high post-graduation employment rate. So if you were applying for those kinds of courses, you could reasonably conclude that an institution like that would be a good choice. Of course, this isn’t the only thing you should take into account, and just because you hear someone say ‘that uni’s really good’ or ‘nah, that uni’s awful,’ it doesn’t mean your opinion will be the same, nor does it mean that’s an accurate reflection of the university itself.

The one piece of advice I wish someone had told me in Year 12 is that unis are like pizza and ice cream. They’re ‘good’ for different reasons, and they’re ‘good’ at different things. It’s not simply a matter of ‘RMIT is absolutely 100% better than La Trobe in every possible way’ or ‘Monash > Melbourne hands down.’ Because that’s kind of like saying pizza is better than ice cream. They’re both good! But pizza is a bad dessert, and ice cream is a bad dinner, so you need to find the right kind of university for your area of study.

choosing universities

And don’t think you can have the best of both worlds. That won’t work.

In the words of my close personal friend Albert Einstein, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it’s stupid. And if you judge a university that’s a world leader in the field of Genetics and Biosciences by its ability to teach you horse riding, of course you’re going to be disappointed. Maybe you’ve found a place that’s ‘Number 1 in Australia,’ but is it really ‘Number 1’ in the areas or subjects that matter to you? Because that’s a much more important factor to consider when choosing universities.

 

2. Where your friends are going

REALLY? IF YOUR FRIENDS JUMPED OFF A CLIFF WOULD YOU DO THE SAME?

No, but really, there’s no sense choosing universities based on your friends’ choices. For one thing, there’s a chance they’ll end up transferring or dropping out, meaning you’d be on your own anyway. And unless you’re doing the exact same subjects, or your timetables neatly align, you probably won’t see each other a great deal around campus unless you’re explicitly making time for one another.

Most importantly, choosing universities is about more than just social relationships. If your friends and relationships are important to you, then you should definitely allow for that when you’re sorting out a schedule for yourself (and perhaps try to sort your classes out to give you a day off or at least a bit of free time to catch up). But this is your career we’re talking about, and potentially your future. Do you really want to end up in a profession you can barely stand, just because your friends did the same?

As someone whose high school friends went in eight different directions at the end of Year 12 (including a few interstate adventurers, and one who went overseas to study) trust me when I say that you’ll be able to keep in contact if you want to. The transition from school to uni can be a bit jarring since you’re not seeing your classmates five days a week anymore, but trying to emulate that experience at the expense of your degree and your future is a bad idea.

 

3. Clearly-in ATARs

Note: this comes with a pretty huge asterisk, and I could absolutely understand why someone might see this as more of a ‘YOU SHOULD DEFINITELY CONSIDER THIS’ factor, but let me lay down some logic.

1. Clearly-in ATARs change all the time. So if your rationale for not choosing a particular uni is ‘the ATAR’s too low’ or ‘the ATAR’s too high,’ you may have to eat your words at the end of the year when the clearly-in score has changed. And whilst it’s true that in the past, most ATARs for major courses have remained fairly stable (or maybe fluctuated by 2-5 ATAR points,) the fact that there have been some changes recently means that we may see some more substantial shifts this year.

2. Clearly-in ATARs are NOT a representation of how ‘good’ a course is. What they reflect is how popular a course is. There’s a whole other algorithm involved (since all courses have to take in a certain percentage of people below the clearly-in scores) and whilst you could make the case that popular courses are only popular because they’re good, I’ll refer you back to my pizza-ice cream analogy above. ‘Good’ is a vague and relative term. And you shouldn’t use clearly-in scores as a way of ranking courses’ worthiness.

3. If you tell yourself an ATAR is ‘too high’ or that ‘you’ll never make it,’ you’re setting yourself up for failure. You still need to be realistic, naturally. And if you’re a D- average student, the chances of you magically pulling a perfect 99.95 ATAR and going on to study a combined degree of advanced-neuro-medical-astro-law is highly unlikely. But if you’re making decent grades, don’t convince yourself that a certain ATAR score is totally out of your reach. Remember that courses still admit people if they’re a little bit under the cut-off point, and you won’t know whether you stand a chance of getting in unless you try.

 

Factors you SHOULD consider when choosing universities

1. Degree specificity or flexibility

If you know exactly what you want to study or what you want to do later in life, then you should prioritise a uni course that gives you that specificity.

If you don’t know what you want to do and would like to experience different professions or areas of study, then you should choose a course that gives you that flexibility.

Failing to take at least one of these things into account means that you’ll either end up in a course that’s too broad and vague for your liking, or one that’s too narrow and doesn’t align with your interests.

Unfortunately, it’s tough to know how specific or flexible a degree will be based on surface level information alone. The info in promotional brochures might get you started, but you’ll probably need to delve into online resources (and/or our university forums if you’re looking for others’ opinions on major unis) if you want decent answers.

Consider whether your uni offers a double degree, if that’s something you would be interested in. Alternatively, see if you can find out about the kinds of subjects you’ll complete as part of your degree. Doing your research in these areas will really pay off, and can potentially even prepare you for uni ahead of time. Crucially, though, it means you’ll make a more informed decision when choosing universities, because you’ll know way more about what options are available and which ones best suit your interests.

 

2. Location and travel time

To be perfectly honest, this was probably the biggest factor in my decision to go to Melbourne Uni. Since transport was a bit of an issue for me, a uni that was close to the centre of the city meant that I wouldn’t have to catch multiple trains or drive for hours, and… the thought of <1 hour travel times was basically enough to win me over.

I would recommend looking into things like degree specificity vs. flexibility first, and then once you’ve narrowed down your options, then factor in the location of different unis. For instance, if you knew you wanted to study Commerce, and were just tossing up between studying at Monash, Melbourne, or La Trobe, consider where you are currently living or where you intend to live next year, and do a quick Google-Maps-calculation-of-travel-time to see what your journey would be like. Different people will have different tolerance levels; if you’ve never had to go further than 20 minutes by car to and from school, then you’ll probably want something closer to home. Otherwise, you’ll wonder where most of the day goes when you’re losing hours in transit. But for the rural kids out there who have a high pain threshold for hour long bus rides, you’ll probably cope fine with a longer journey.

Just keep in mind that as soon as you need to transfer via public transport (i.e. bus –> train, or train –> tram,) then you can run into some problems when coordinating timetables. Too often I’d be coming home from uni late at night, or trying to get there really early in the morning, and I’d end up wasting time at train stations or bus stops because I hadn’t planned my journey properly.

And, if you intend to drive to and from uni, you may have to pay some fairly exorbitant parking fees. What’s more, if you need to travel via freeways or through the city, prepare yourself for tolls, traffic, frequent delays, roadworks, traffic, detours… and did I mention traffic?

If your dream course happens to be a two hour journey away, don’t stress! Barriers of distance can be overcome, even if that means finding ways to keep yourself occupied for those four hours a day you spend travelling.  But if the only thing distinguishing one uni from another is distance, consider how willing you are to bridge those gaps, and if in doubt, choose the one that’s closer. Obviously the very specific degrees that are only offered at specific locations are an exception here. For those just looking for general ‘Science’ or ‘Arts’ courses though, you can afford to factor in travel times to your decision making.

 

3. The ‘feel’ of the campus

…before you laugh it off, I would seriously recommend thinking about whether or not you like being on campus at a particular uni. Because if you’re wandering around and you find the environment deathly, drearily, depressingly dull, then you can be seriously demotivated, even to the point of having deleterious effects on your studies. I know I never would’ve survived in a hellish concrete jungle – I need my outdoor spaces with pretty trees and quaint libraries full of wonderful books.

And whilst I’m not advocating you base your decision on architecture or ambiance alone, I do think it’s good to ‘get to know’ a university environment before you commit to studying there.

Open Days are designed with this philosophy in mind, and are a great opportunity to expose yourself to the different aspects of campus life (including the more social side of uni, like clubs and societies) as well as collect more info on courses and classes. But if you want to know what it’s really like, (i.e. when there aren’t thousands of Year 11’s and 12’s wandering around,) go in on a different day. The next time you’ve got a day off school (that’s not a public holiday) head over to a campus or two and just wander around. Unlike high schools where strangers can’t just mosey about whenever they like, universities are more like public spaces, so you are absolutely allowed to walk about, grab lunch, and get a feel for the place. You’re not really allowed to sit in on lectures, and you may find some buildings off limits, but in general, libraries, cafes, and the grounds will be open for your perusal. If you know a friend studying at that campus, you could even get them to give you a guided tour one day. Hopefully, that’ll give you a better sense of what the environment is like, and whether such things will matter to you when choosing universities.

 

Alternate options?

Having said all that, the assumption that all Year 12 students with decent scores must go on to tertiary degrees at particular institutions is far from true. Nowadays, a higher percentage than ever of Year 12 graduates are seeking alternate pathways when it comes to choosing universities. For some, this involves specialised TAFE courses that get them into the job market quicker than an extensive three-four year uni degree. (And as someone who used to join in on the jovial point-and-laugh at the VCAL/TAFE kids game in my early high school years, I was eating my words when my TAFE friend became a qualified pilot after only two years of study. It should never be thought of as a pathway for “those who can’t handle VCE/uni” – TAFE courses are basically unparalleled when it comes to certain professions!) For others, this may involve taking a gap year to travel or work.

Some people will also find themselves in a position where they want or need to transfer out of their course and into a different one. Again, this is also increasingly common, and many institutions cater for students who find themselves in these situations. At uni, there will be designated advice centres (kind of like your careers advisers at school) who will take you through the process of transferring between courses – and that applies to internal transfers (from Commerce at Monash to Science at Monash) and external transfers (from Arts at Melbourne to Arts at Monash,) and even to interstate transfers (from Science at Melbourne to Science at UNSW).

So although you’ll be making some potentially important decisions over the next couple of months, please don’t feel as though you’re locking yourself into a career path you’ll be stuck in for life. You’re not expected to know exactly who you want to be or what you want to do just yet. If you do, that’s great! (And I’m jealous of you.) But for anyone whose stressing about the process of choosing universities, rest assured that there are many pathways for people like you, and that there’s very little to stop you from getting where you want to be if you’re prepared to seek out these pathways.

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