Go Higher: HE Courses: When All You Have to Do Is Choose ; Finding the Perfect Degree Requires Research. There Are Three Questions That All Students Should Ask Themselves, Says Anne McHardy

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The lucky few are born certain of their careers. They don't bother with university guides or the careers adviser. They just fill in their UCAS forms with one university name and get an offer for CCC grades when they are predicted AAA.

The majority find choosing a university place a touch more challenging, starting with the three big questions: What subject? Which university? Why? The subject will tend to slot the student into a ghetto, either arts or sciences. There are combination and joint degrees which cross the divide. Social sciences can be combined with subjects that are properly sciences. Philosophy is a humanity, but can be linked with sciences - as can all languages. Architecture and design have obvious links with engineering.

The "why", given rising student debt, is an important question. The degree needs to offer positive benefit to justify itself. There is an accepted belief that most arts, humanities and social sciences degrees will leave the new graduate intellectually well equipped. Arts and humanities subjects in particular are deemed to develop the power to think and therefore to plan, analyse and design. Social sciences, grouped with art and humanities, seem the more practical younger sibling; the vocational option sneaked into the purely academic.

Starting with "why" is a useful way to approach UCAS applications. If you know what you want to do when you graduate, your UCAS task is simply to find the course that you fancy.

You will need to check how many universities and colleges offer your subject, then to look carefully at how they teach it. If you pick, for instance, history, you could end up with a course on which medieval history predominated. Or you could end up with a modular degree and work through a series of modular options without having the spread of background knowledge chosen by your professor.

The vital first step is to choose the course that makes you sit up. If the course turns you off just looking at the UCAS Big Guide, you will not survive three years studying it. Look carefully at the possibilities before marking decisions. There are so many new options, so many new combinations, some of them sounding wild and odd, although often turning out more prosaic. Some of the new courses sound bizarre but have practical application. The reason for all the strange combinations of language with other disciplines is that there are so many jobs, particularly within the European Community, where at least a second language is essential, as well as ones out in the global economy. With Spanish catching up with English to become a rival main north American language, the universality of English is under challenge across the Atlantic just as it is within the European Community.

While you are busy choosing, take comfort from the fact that all universities expect a percentage of their new recruits to arrive saying wanly, "Actually, I don't think I want to do English and philosophy." They are braced to shift students to find them a course that does suit them. The alternative, perhaps a drop-out after a year or an unhappy and therefore underachieving student, is far less desirable than helping the square peg to find a square hole.

After that comes the institution. Hardly any course is so good that taking it at the University of BackofBeyond is sensible if you hate the country. Similarly, if you hate the thought of travelling across Clapham Common after midnight on the way to your halls of residence after a gig, London University is not for you. Again, drop out figures show that unhappiness with the institution or its setting is a significant cause - particularly with people who take places through Clearing without seeing the university.

However alluring the course, unless it is the only one that fits your interests, making sure it is taught in a place that suits you is an important recipe for a productive undergraduate existence. …