With thousands of courses to choose from, across 46 further and higher education institutions in Scotland, choosing the right college or university can be a tricky business. You may know what career you have in mind, but where you study can be just as important as what you study.
Each institution differs in how and what they teach on each subject. Here are some things to consider when you are exploring your options.
First of all, think about what you want from a course, such as the scope of the subject and the level you want to study it at. For example, you might want a more practical or vocational course that would give you a better chance of getting a job, offering less theory and more practice.
Some institutions offer specific courses with industrial experience, whether that be as a designer or a biochemist (see Reputation below). Is this important to you?
Make a checklist of your requirements, considering module structure and content, course length, level of course, and list the institutions you are interested in.
At this early stage, avoid thinking of studying at X or Y college or university because your best pal is going there, and you worry about being lonely. College and university environments are ideal for meeting new people and making new friends. Remember that lots of other students will be feeling the same way.
Other reasons you want to avoid when thinking about where to study include, because you think it is cool to go there, or because it's a beautiful old building. You need to think about whether the actual course content or teaching principles will suit you there or not. You may not like the culture or teaching methods, and end up hating the experience or even leaving early!
Once you have decided which institutions you are interested in, look up their websites to get as much information as you can. This is an excellent starting point in accessing their prospectus and finding comprehensive information such as its history, student life, aims as an institution, facilities, student and staff numbers, departmental information and importantly, details about the subject and course content.
This should give you a good idea of whether you would like it there or not. Don't skimp on this stage. If you can't visit the campus then many institutions offer a virtual tour on their website.
Once you've visited the websites, the next thing to do is to visit the institutions you're interested in, ideally attending any open days or taster days that they offer. These are advertised on the website and in their prospectuses, and are usually held at certain times of the year.
You can also find a list of college and university open days under the ‘Upcoming Events’ section of our website.
This is the best way to work out if you like the feel of the place and its location. Walk around the campus, and get a feel of the atmosphere. Perhaps it's easier to picture yourself walking out of the lecture theatre and crossing over to the canteen or library, than at other places you've visited?
And, while you're visiting, make sure you speak to students who are already on your course of choice, or ideally, who are finishing it. They can tell you their experiences of both the course content and the institution itself, such as how well organised the course is, the quality of teaching or helpfulness of the tutors.
See our article on ‘Making the most of open days’ for more tips and advice.
Some institutions are renowned for having excellent links with industry and connections with big employers which is good for making contacts with potential employers and helping your CV look more impressive. Others are better known for their academic reputation, offering more in-depth theory but less practical work. A good example can be with art and design courses; some courses offer industrial placements say, for graphics, textiles or product design. Others offer more theory-based work with deeper or wider scope of subject coverage, but have a more established reputation.
You should also look at the success rates of students at the college or university by checking out employment rates after graduation. This might give you an idea of your chances of finding a job after leaving. Most advertise these statistics on their websites.
The links at the end of this article provide excellent information about institutions, their success rates and statistics.
If you are going to study in another town or city, make a proper visit there to see if you will like life at that city or town. This is particularly important if you want to go to a rural college or a city college – as you can imagine, there are some big differences.
There are basic considerations when studying away from home - this can be the location in the country (the countryside for instance, or on an island), how far it is away from your family (you might not want to spend much money on travel) and the transport links (if you need to travel between campuses, or the distance the university or college is from the town or city centre).
On the other hand, you might decide that you do not want to attend a college or university, and apply for a distance learning course that you can do from home. The Open University is a good choice for some subjects, but many universities are now offering more and more distance learning courses that can be done completely from home, with only occasional compulsory attendance. However, the majority of vocational courses, such as art and design, usually always require attendance at the institution on a part time basis at the very least.
This can be one of the deciding factors if you want to study away from home. You may want to study in a city where the cost of private accommodation can be high, such as Aberdeen, or where both accommodation and the cost of living are very high, such as London. In most other towns and cities this is not a real problem and many institutions offer good yet reasonably priced student accommodation. If this is scarce, you can always live in private accommodation, sharing with other students to split the costs. It's worth considering that you may only be able to afford live in a place that’s further from the campus - this would mean paying additional travel on top of your rent and living expenses.
Living away from home on a student budget is challenging and difficult to balance. Don’t forget to take advantage of advice on costs of living and budgeting on individual college and university websites. You could also consider getting a part time job to supplement your funds.
Of course, if you decide to stay at home and study at your nearest college or uni, then living costs are drastically reduced!
Facilities, such as IT labs and the library, are as equally important when it comes to choosing a college or university. This is particularly true if you are studying a technical subject or need to be learning the latest software on the market, such as engineering or computer hardware or software. Libraries are really important when it comes to the theoretical side of your studies, such as the right books available to everyone on the course when it comes to essay or exam deadlines.
If you are studying sports for example, don't forget to check out leisure facilities such as the gym or sports clubs, to see if they have good quality or the latest equipment.
Unistats is a government website where you can compare official course data from both universities and colleges.
What Uni is a comprehensive and student led website which provides information about degrees, unis and general advice about studying.
The Complete University Guide is an excellent site covering university, subject and career choices and other considerations about higher education study.
Realising Opportunities is a charity which helps young people access education and career pathways and has a broad range of articles and information to help you make the right decision for your education.
The Guardian University Guide provides tables on rankings by subject, institution and help finding a course.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education is the independent body entrusted with monitoring and advising on standards and quality in UK higher education.