The basics of choosing a course

 18 July 2014

With thousands of different courses on offer in the UK, it can be hard to know where to start. Use this simple guide to get your search going.

It’s worth thinking about the skills a course will teach you beyond the central subject. (Image: Jake Morley)
It’s worth thinking about the skills a course will teach you beyond the central subject. (Image: Jake Morley)

Start with your objective

People study courses for a number of reasons. You might want to boost your career or move into the creative industries from elsewhere. On the other hand, you might want to develop creative skills outside your career, even if it’s just for a hobby.

There’s no right or wrong reason to want to study. But it’s important to think about it carefully before choosing a course, as it will affect many of your options. For example, borrowing money to pay for a course is riskier if you don’t expect it to improve your career prospects.

Think about what the course adds

Studying for a year and then getting your career started may be better than spending three years at university.

The qualification, whether it’s an NVQ, a BA or a PhD, can just seem like a piece of paper, but it’s important both for demonstrating your abilities and for accessing other courses with particular entry requirements.

Even if you plan to work for yourself, the right qualification can make it easier to sell yourself in the early stages, before you've built up a strong portfolio or set of credits. Make sure you consider the available qualifications when comparing courses, and do some research into how they will affect your options in the future.

What skills the course can give you

While the qualification will help to convince people of your abilities, the real benefit is the knowledge and skills you acquire. Look carefully at the course specification, and contact the institution if you have any questions.

It’s also worth looking at the institution’s wider reputation: different places have different strengths and weaknesses, making it important to pick an institution that is strong in the areas you care about most. You’re unlikely to find this information in a prospectus.

Remember, some places give you opportunities beyond the course itself. You may be able to take extra modules or take part in extracurricular activities, particularly if you are studying at a large institution such as a university.

This can be especially valuable in the creative industries: some creative careers have benefitted more from the societies at university than the course!

Consider the course length

The length of a course is a serious consideration, especially if you are studying to boost your career: the time you spend studying can’t be spent building your career in other ways.

Even if you plan to work for yourself, the right qualification can make it easier to sell yourself. 

In some cases, studying for a year and then getting your career started earlier may be better than spending three years at university to get a degree.

Remember that part-time courses will take longer to complete than the full-time equivalent, although you will be able to spend more time on other activities while you study.

Fit the course into your life

A course is only worth applying for if it’s practical for you to study it. This is particularly important if you have other commitments, such as children or a job. 

Ask yourself these questions to make sure the courses you’re considering will fit into your life:

Where is it?

It might be practical to go to university a long way from home, but an evening course a long way away is likely to cause problems.

Can you study it part-time?

Part-time study can make it much easier to fit a course around your other commitments, but it isn’t available for all courses.

How much private study and coursework will it require?

The teaching hours for your course aren’t the whole story: you need to be able to handle the private study required too.

This information might not be available on websites or in prospectuses, but contacting institutions or previous students can give you an idea. This is particularly important if you will be trying to build a portfolio or perform alongside your studies.

Consider your other options

Choosing a course isn’t only about comparing different courses to each other: you also need to think about your other options. Depending on your situation, you may benefit more from getting experience, or from less formal training.

Advantages of getting straight into your career include:

  • The chance to earn money.
  • Not having to pay fees.
  • Getting valuable real world experience.
  • Building contacts in your industry.

What is available, and what is best for you, will depend on your situation. The important thing is to make sure you are comparing all of your options, not just the obvious ones.

Focus on transferable skills

However sure you are about the career you want when you start a course, you might find that you have changed your mind by the end. You might also need to find other work to support yourself while establishing a creative career. Just in case, it’s worth thinking about the skills a course will teach you beyond the central subject. Examples might include:

  • teamwork
  • research
  • communication
  • IT.

Most courses will provide some transferable skills, and they’re unlikely to be a big part of your decision. But they’re worth considering, especially if you’re struggling to choose between two courses.

Understand course fees

You might also think about fees when choosing a course. It’s important to understand how the fees will affect you before making your decision.

University tuition fees can be covered in full by the tuition fee loan. At the time of writing, it doesn’t have to be repaid until you are earning more than £21,000 a year. You’ll then repay nine per cent of anything you earn over the £21,000 threshold.

For further education courses, there are many situations in which you don’t have to pay fees at all. 

That means that you don’t have to find the money for fees up front, and higher fees don’t affect how much money you have from month to month. However, they do mean that you’ll be repaying your loan for longer.

For further education courses, there are many situations in which you don’t have to pay fees at all. Fees may be waived or subsidised if:

  • You’re 18 or under.
  • You’re 23 or under, and you don’t already have a qualification of the same level.
  • You are unemployed and receiving certain benefits.

On an apprenticeship, you won’t pay anything if you’re 23 or under. If you’re 24 or over, you might be asked to contribute to the cost of your training. At any age, as an apprentice you’ll be earning at least the apprentice minimum wage.

When it comes to fees, the main thing is to make sure you understand the full implications of the fee and how you will pay it, rather than simply comparing headline figures.

Find out more about education and careers at Bright Knowledge.

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