At around the age of 18, you’ll have some important choices to make. You could go to university, take a college course, start work (perhaps through an apprenticeship), take a gap year or become self-employed. In this article we’ll look at what each of these options involve and help you consider which might be suitable for you.
Going to university full time
We use the term ‘university’ loosely as you can take higher education (HE) courses at a range of institutions, not just at universities; colleges of HE, music conservatoires, land-based colleges, business schools, certain further education colleges and other providers can all offer HE-level courses, sometimes in collaboration with a university.
Going to university will give you a chance to study a subject in depth and there are thousands of courses to choose from. You can take a subject you’ve already studied, do a completely new one, or learn more than one.
Most degree courses take three years or four years in Scotland. Certain courses, such as those that include a year overseas, sandwich programmes (that offer an industrial placement), integrated master’s courses or those that include a foundation programme, take a year, or possibly two years, longer.
Apart from bachelor’s degrees, there are other types of HE qualifications. Foundation degree and Higher National courses, for instance, are work-related programmes that usually take two years full time. Entry requirements are flexible and you can usually ‘top up’ to a bachelor’s degree with extra study.
If you go away to university, you will be eased into independent life and there are lots of opportunities to get involved in wider activities.
The UCAS site has information on going to university and a course-search facility.
Things to think about…
- Are you undecided about a career? Many HE subjects open up a range of career options. Employers often like to take on graduates because they have developed transferable skills.
- Are you likely to meet the entry requirements? You generally need A Levels, Highers or equivalent. Many courses use the UCAS Tariff. For others you need specific subjects or qualifications.
- Have you considered the finances? There are usually tuition fees and maintenance costs, but most students are eligible for loans and don’t have to start paying these back until they are earning a certain income. Investigate what other support may be available.
- Have you checked the content of courses that interest you and their approach to teaching? Discover Uni allows you to compare courses.
- Will the institution suit you? Attend open days to get a feel for the place.
- How well recognised are courses you are considering? If you have a career in mind, look out for programmes that have been approved or accredited by professional bodies or regulatory authorities. In England, Higher Technical Qualifications align to occupational standards set by employers.
Doing a further education course
Further education (FE) colleges offer all sorts of qualifications and subjects at different levels, so they can give you more options than you might have had at school or in a sixth-form college.
Some courses, such as art and design foundation programmes, prepare you for further study. Colleges also offer courses that focus on a broad area of work or that train you for a particular career including those in catering, construction, computing or counselling.
Things to think about…
- Is there more than one route to your career ambition? Instead of doing a full-time course, there may be part-time options or an apprenticeship route.
- Do you have to pay tuition fees? Check with individual colleges as it might vary depending on what qualifications you already have, your age and where you live in the UK.
- Are you thinking of resitting your exams to get into university? Check with admissions tutors – you may need higher grades than originally offered or resits may not be acceptable at all. An alternative could be to take a university course with a foundation year.
If you know what you want to do, you could look for a job or try to find an opportunity through an apprenticeship or a similar programme.
Apprenticeships prepare you for a particular occupation through training in the workplace combined with off-the-job learning. Apprentices are paid and are entitled to the same holiday and other conditions as their colleagues in similar work. Apprenticeships are available at various levels right up to those that involve gaining HE qualifications, including degrees. You can find information on apprenticeships and search for opportunities through your Government’s apprenticeships site in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Even if you don’t take an apprenticeship, try to find work that offers you the chance to train and progress. Some employers offer school-leaver programmes similar to apprenticeships. Some employers provide ongoing training and support you to gain qualifications through distance learning or part-time courses. Certain qualifications can be achieved through assessment in the workplace. Large employers sometimes have their own training facilities.
Things to think about…
- Are suitable jobs available locally? Make sure you research the local job market.
- How will you find the adjustment to working life? It may take a while to get used to the hours and shorter holidays.
- Are you sure about your career plans? If not, continuing with full-time education may keep your options open.
- Will you feel you’re missing out? Whilst you may not be mixing with students, you’ll be working alongside people of all backgrounds and ages. If you stay in your home area, you could carry on with any existing activities.
- Interested in an apprenticeship? Bear in mind that some are very competitive to enter. Apply in plenty of time and put in a good application.
- Will you be able to juggle work and study (e.g. on an apprenticeship)? Doing both isn’t always easy. However, most employers are supportive and give you time off, especially when there are exams.
Taking a gap year
A gap year can give you time to decide on your next steps, experience new things, meet people, gain skills and develop as a person. Your options include travelling, volunteering or paid employment or, more likely, a mixture of these.
If you want to undertake an organised gap-year programme overseas, check the organisation’s credentials and find out how previous participants have got on. You can find advice on staying safe when travelling through GOV.UK.
Things to think about…
- What are your reasons for doing a gap year? Make sure they are positive ones and that you use the time productively. Course admissions tutors and/or employers will be interested in what you did.
- Do you need experience for a certain career? A gap year can be an opportunity to gain the necessary paid or unpaid experience to train in areas such as nature conservation, the media, social work or healthcare.
- Are you ready for a gap year? Many people take a year out after they graduate. In fact, it’s possible to take a career break at any age.
Working for yourself
This may be an option if you have an idea for a business or the skills to become self-employed. You could work as a sole trader, in a partnership, buy a franchise or set up a limited company, social enterprise or co-operative.
If you’re thinking about working for yourself, get advice, do your research and plan carefully. Help is available through a number of sources including banks, organisations such as the Prince's Trust and government business support services.
Things to think about…
- Are you sure there’s a market for your product or service? What competition will you have? How much will you charge to make a profit? How will you market yourself? Do as much research as possible to answer these questions.
- Will you cope without a regular income whilst possibly incurring start-up costs? You may find that you can access loans and other support, but you’ll need a convincing business plan.
- Do you have the necessary drive, commitment and confidence?
- Are you aware of all the rules and regulations? You’ll need to sort out taxes, take out insurance, and consider health and safety, data protection regulations etc.
There are various online systems and tools that can help you explore your options. You can get advice on your choices in general through:
- the National Careers Service in England
- Careers Wales
- My World of Work for those in Scotland
- the Careers Service for Northern Ireland.
Make sure you base your decision on what’s best for you. Don’t just follow the crowd or do what others expect. Consider all the options and base your choice on sound reasoning. There may be more than one way to reach your career goal. If you have a choice between university or an apprenticeship, for example, think about how you like to learn and whether you are ready to commit to that career.
Remember that, as important as it is to try to avoid a false start if at all possible, few experiences are wasted. It won’t be the end of the world if you make a decision and then change your mind.
Debbie Steel, February 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.