Higher education improves your chances of getting a good job, writes Alex Watts
You have decided university is for you. But is it going to change your life? Most people who go to university or college will move away from home and from many of their friends to start a new chapter in their life in another part of the country.

It's an exciting time. You may be about to live away from home for the first time, with the freedom to make your own decisions about where you live, what you eat and drink and where you spend your time, and the chance to make a lot of new friends.

But it can also be a worrying time. Will you "fit in" at university or college, will you have enough money to live on, and will you get a better job at the end than you would now?

There are no guarantees. But statistics show that higher education will improve your chances of getting a good job, and improve your earning potential and career prospects once you've got one.

Higher education is often seen as a "stepping stone" to a better place and, according to careers information adviser Allison Farrell, from Sussex Careers Services, is definitely worth doing.

"Graduate unemployment is lower than any other section of the employment market, and graduates command a higher starting salary than any other sector," she says.

Once graduates find a job within their preferred career, their salary progression can be very rapid.

By their 30s, male graduates are paid, on average, 12 to 18 per cent more than male non-graduates with at least one A-level, according to research by the Institute for Fiscal studies. Female graduates earn 34 to 38 per cent more than women without degrees.

"At university you also develop a good set of friends for life and can get the experience of living in an entirely new part of the country," says Ms Farrell.

"Students moving away from home have to learn how to stand on their own two feet, and mix with other people."

Her advice is to start thinking about what course you want to do early on in your sixth form studies.

Ann Marie McNaney, head of sixth-form at Chesham High School, Bucks, suggests you spend the first year of your A-levels thinking hard about what you want to do, and visiting education fairs to get an idea of what is offer. She says you should also make good use of your school or college's careers information services to help you make that decision.

She added: "Some students choose the university first and the course second. It doesn't matter where you are going to be, the most important thing is what you are going to study."

But others also find the social life, the clubs and activities at different universities and colleges are important when deciding where to study.

"If you are really keen on a particular sport or activity, ask if their are clubs or facilities for you," says UCAS spokesman Ross Hayman.

"It might not be the main factor in your choice, but remember that you will be spending the next three or four years there. You want to enjoy yourself as well as work hard."

How to win a place

THE PROCESS begins when you fill in and send off your UCAS application form - the closing date for this is 15 December, but it is 15 October for Oxford and Cambridge and 24 March for some Art and Design courses.

You can choose up to six courses on the form. The quicker you send it off, the quicker you should receive replies.

Offers will be based on information supplied on the form and your expected academic performance. You may receive up to six offers, and then have to make your mind up which two you are going to accept - a firm choice and an insurance choice.

Usually the insurance choice requires a lower level of academic performance than your firm offer.

If your results qualify you for your firm choice, you're in. Some universities and colleges will still take you if your results are slightly under what you needed.

If you miss your first choice but your results qualify for your insurance choice, you're in. Again if they are slightly below what was asked you may still be accepted.

If both universities or colleges reject you, they will notify UCAS, which will send you a clearing form.

Lists of course vacancies are published every day after A-level results are out in The Independent, and once you have spotted one or two which interest you contact the university or college and speak to them about a place.