When should I start planning for university?

Well, the easy answer is that’s it’s never too early! The recommendations below are based upon the UK GCSE and A level system.

Early Secondary School

At this stage, students have no or very little choice in what subjects they study. However, it is still a great time to start exploring what you are interested in – for example through fun home science experiments, visiting a local science festival or participating in a school STEM club.

GCSEs
Students in the UK A level education system have to start narrowing down their choices at the age of 14-15 when they choose some of their GCSE subjects. You will still be studying the ‘core’ science and maths subjects required for most STEM fields, but may need to chose between single/ double/ triple science andĀ options to take design and technology or computing GCSEs, for example. Some schools will not offer students much choice, and don’t worry because at this age there is very little that your GCSE options will do to limit your choices.

Students who are considering more practical careers may at this stage consider taking BTEC courses rather than GCSEs. These tend to have more of a practical/ coursework component, so may be particularly suited for those considering alternatives to college/ university such as apprenticeships (although may also suit those planning to go down the university route too).

However, A levels are approaching and so your GCSEs are the time to figure out roughly what future degrees or careers might interest you – or at least rule out a few that don’t! Many schools will offer GCSE students opportunities to get involved in STEM clubs, attend a school trip to a local science talk, or do some practical experiments in class – these are great opportunities to find out whether a STEM degree or career could be of interest to you. There are also a few externally organised opportunities for GCSE students, such as some summer courses, science festivals and talks at local universities.

AS/ A levels/ BTECs
This is the stage when UK students really start to narrow down their subject interests. Most students will take 4 AS levels in their first year then drop one to continue with 3 in their A2 year (although with the recent A level reforms this may change). A level choices are critical to your university application, so if you have a particular degree in mind have a look at various university websites to check which A level subjects combinations are considered suitable. As a very rough guide, students interested in STEM degrees could consider:

  • Maths
  • Further Maths
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Design and Technology
  • Computer Science

Different universities and subjects have different requirements, and don’t forget that having some diversity in your subjects could also be beneficial – for example a foreign language or an essay based subject.

The AS year is often considered to be a very important one for preparing for your university application. There are loads of opportunities such as summer schools, taster days and competitions available for AS students – and start thinking about these early as some deadlines are in December! A great place to look is the database section of this website, where you can search by year group and subject. Don’t worry if you’ve left it a bit late or don’t have the time though, there are also plenty of ways you can explore your interest in STEM from home!

If during your STEM journey you take part in any outreach opportunities, please get in touch! We would love to hear quotes from past participants for the database or you could write a guest blog post!

Kate Prescott

Please note, this article is simply a rough guide based on the author’s experiences and the UK education system

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