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How to Find a Course of Study You Really Love

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On a train back to London from Oxford at the weekend, I sat next to a very friendly 15-year-old, who despite not having even finished her GCSE courses, already had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to study at university, and where. (If you’re 15 and have no clue, don’t worry – that’s pretty normal!)

By way of explaining her passion for explaining stuff (she told me, amongst many other things, why the sky appears blue, why witches are depicted wearing pointy hats, and where J. R. R. Tolkien got his inspiration for The Hobbit), Maddy happily admitted to being a ‘dork’. By this, she meant she loved learning.

Now, this may sound incredibly cheesy (and incredibly obvious) but this really reaffirmed for me the importance of finding a course of study you really love. Because if you end up choosing a course for reasons other than being really, genuinely interested in the content, then you’re unlikely to enjoy it, or get the best results.

Again, I realize that not everyone has identified their lifelong passions by the age of 15. Or even 18. I reiterate: that’s totally fine.

But if you are one of those people who aren’t too sure, don’t just pick something and hope for the best! There are lots of options you can make use of, to ensure you really get the most out of your degree, in terms of both enjoyment and academic success.

1. Take a gap year

Sometimes, just taking some time out can really clarify things (#agonyauntcorner). It’s likely to be particularly difficult to make a decision about the future when you’re in the midst of juggling exams, coursework, applications and so on. You could also use the time afforded by your gap year to find out more about a different course of study.

2. Take a free online course

One way of sampling different subjects is to take a free online course. Many universities are now using online software like iTunes U to upload recorded talks and lectures, which can be downloaded free of charge.

3. Take a short course or evening classes

If you’re able to, try taking a shorter course in the subject – perhaps an evening class, part-time course or summer school. This could be especially useful if you’re interested in a course of study you haven’t had the opportunity to study before. (More on summer courses here.)

4. Read up on your course of study

Get hold of some books on the subject, and see whether you’re gripped by them or not! You could even check out the reading lists of courses you’re considering – many departments will publish these online (or may send you one if you ask). A warning though: don’t rule out a subject just because you find one book heavy going – it may just be the style of writing, or that you need some teaching input to make things clearer.

5. Attend open days/university fairs

As much as you can, go to university open days and university fairs. Talking to people who teach the subject and students already on the course can give you much more of a feel for what it’s really like, the kind of topics covered, and the style of teaching and studying. (More on what to ask at open days here.) If you’re studying at undergraduate level, the QS World University Tour can help you explore your options, or if you’re looking to study at graduate level, the QS World Grad School Tour allows you to meet with admissions officers (and attendees will also be eligible to apply for the QS Scholarships).

6. Find a flexible university system

If you’re still not sure, the best suggestion I can make is to choose a university with a flexible system, that will allow you to explore more than one subject area, and if necessary to change your mind.

In North America, for example, it’s common to spend the first two years of an undergraduate degree covering a wide variety of subjects, before deciding on a major. Elsewhere, many universities offer dual degrees, which allow you to study two or more different subjects. Others will have scope for students to take at least some modules from other courses.

It’s also worth asking how easy it is to switch subjects if you really have a change of heart – though I wouldn’t advise doing that during an admissions interview

7. Try out our new course matching tool

And finally, an excellent way to find the right course for you is to use our course matching tool. You simply need to answer four simple questions to begin browsing from a wide range of options for your preferred course and study destination, and you can tailor the results even further by narrowing down your preferences (based on the indicators used to compile the QS World University Rankings®).

For example, if ‘employer reputation’ is important to you, but its research rating is less important, you can mark this using the sliders above the results. You can also put in your preferences on the university’s size, tuition fees, ratio of international students to domestic students and more, making it easy to find a course of study you’ll enjoy. You can learn more about how to use the matching tool here.

This blog post was originally published in March 2012. It was updated in June 2018.

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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