Prospectuses: Shopping for a course that fits

Helen Hague offers guidance for students trying to pick the right college or university for next autumn
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It is a decision that will shape the future lives of tomorrow's students. Lifelong friends, interests, even partners are often acquired while studying for a degree. It's all pretty awesome. And while it is impossible to research your year-group in advance, time spent assessing the courses on offer should pay dividends.

With more than 30,000 courses to choose from the prospective student could well feel the need of a guide through the labyrinth. If you've got a clutch of A grades in science and a vocation to study, filling in the Ucas form should be a breeze. But few students start out with such focused ambitions.

For many, a clear idea of the sort of career they want to pursue emerges only after a mix of study and extracurricular experience. Study for study's sake at this stage is perfectly acceptable, and neither classics nor molecular science would debar someone from, say, making a career in marketing.

If you are not fired by vocational zeal it is not a problem. It is a comforting thought that 40 per cent of employers looking to recruit graduates don't mind what subject has been studied. They are far more concerned with ability to solve problems and to communicate than with literary theory or quantum physics. Selecting a course that will enrich and challenge you, or enable you to excel, will stand you in good stead.

There was a time when those wanting to study at college would have to read through acres of print in the shape of handbooks and university prospectuses. Now the task has been made a little simpler by the advent of new technology. The Ecctis database is available on CD-Rom. If your school or college does not have it, try the local careers advisory service. Just key in the courses you might be interested in, and a list of every university and college course - plus entry requirements and a brief guide to content - will appear on screen. That should narrow the choice down.

Then, armed with a selective shortlist of your own making, the task of picking six to list on the Ucas form can begin. Detailed comparisons can be made between various institutions offering what appear, on the surface, to be similar courses. Variations in the syllabus between similarly titled courses can be quite startling and lead to disappointments once you have enrolled. The prospectus should give the kind of detailed summary you need to avoid obvious pitfalls such as signing up for a course that omits an area of study you are particularly keen on.

The testimony of students who are currently on the course can be invaluable. But the tenor of courses can change quite sharply if there is a new department head or a syllabus redesign, so do not rely on anecdotes from someone who took the course a decade ago.

Aspiring students need a degree of self-knowledge - attempting to win a place on a heavily over-subscribed course will only end in heartache if the grades which that particular department is looking for are beyond the student's reach. There is nothing like a dollop of realistic self- appraisal to help focus attention on achievable goals. By shopping around and asking well-researched and targeted questions, a course to suit individual needs should be within your grasp.

Modes of teaching - from tutorials and seminars to extensive use of interactive technology - vary hugely. So it is important to ensure that the course you choose does not teach your chosen subject in a fashion that jars, and that you feel comfortable with the methods of assessment.

And if you believe a language course should include a year abroad, or a technology course should include a placement in industry, make sure these options are available. For many years in England and Wales, the three-year degree course was very much the norm. Now the number of four- year courses is on the increase. Scotland has traditionally offered students four-year courses, and most local authorities will provide an award for four years if it is needed.

It may be that geographical location is a consideration - proximity to home or a girlfriend or boyfriend. But it is important to bear in mind that true romance can withstand separation necessitated by studying for a degree. To pick an unsuitable course just to be near a loved one probably won't do too much for the relationship. Hopping on a train at weekends will be far less costly in the long term than botching your career prospects.

The choice may be bewildering, but the reward of selecting the course that fits your needs is worth working for. There may be no exams in Ucas form-filling but those who are happy with their choice a few years down the line have obviously passed with flying colours. Happy hunting. Fill in the form, get an offer, then make sure you make the grade.