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How to choose a course 

You've decided you want to do a course. A career change, a better job or simply to learn something new. Whatever your reasons, it's a good idea to think carefully first. Here's a guide to help you.

Qualifications - what are they and why do I need them?
What course is right for me?

Qualifications prove you've acquired knowledge or developed skills. They're documents that prove your achievements.

For some careers like medicine and law, it's essential you have specific qualifications. For others, such as journalism, it helps to have a particular qualification.

You'll need qualifications to get onto certain courses. Most universities set entry requirements for degree courses. Mature entrants don't always need formal qualifications, but need evidence of recent study, relevant work experience or professional qualifications.

Professional bodies may grant you membership if you have certain qualifications.

It's not always essential to have a qualification. Working knowledge - such as being able to use computer software, can be just as important.

Why might I want to do a course?

You might want to:
  • change career
  • do a vocational course after doing an academic one
  • get promotion
  • eventually get onto a particular course - a degree for example
  • learn something new
  • stimulate your mind
  • meet people

Your motives will help you choose the best course for your aims and goals. For promotion you'll need a course relevant to your profession. For self-development and to meet people, you'll need to find out who else will be on the course.

What type of course should I do?

There are work-related (vocational) and academic courses; and practical and theoretical courses.

Further education colleges offer academic courses and work-related courses.

Universities offer higher education qualifications, such as academic first degrees, and higher degrees, and the more vocational BTEC Higher National Diplomas.

For plumbing, a vocational course is essential. For teaching you need a degree. However, for many jobs, you have a choice between academic and vocational courses.

A vocational course is better if you like doing things and learning practical skills.

You might prefer an academic course if you like researching, analysing and presenting arguments.

Which type of study would suit me best?

Do you prefer on-the-job training - or do you prefer to research and gather facts?

Do you like working in a group covering the same topics and working towards the same goal?

If you want to work on your own, at your own pace, an open or distance learning course might suit you. You study from home, with the help of tuition packs, computers and tutor support via telephone or e-mail. You can speed through the course or take your time. But you do need self-discipline and motivation.

What about my personal circumstances?

If you work full-time a part-time an open or distance learning course might be best. If you have children, you'll need to arrange childcare before starting the course - most colleges and universities offer creche facilities.

You might also prefer open or distance learning if:
  • you're working and aren't sure how much time a week you can commit to
  • you work irregular hours
  • you're at home looking after pre-school children

Many colleges and training centres now offer flexible open-learning courses, where you can study at your own pace.

What about my financial circumstances?

Be realistic about the costs. Can you afford to give up work and study full-time? Full-time study will usually affect your financial and personal circumstances the most.

Investigate sources of funding. Funding for adult, further and higher education is complicated. It depends on the type of course and your personal circumstances. learndirect can help you with funding information - call us on 0800 100 900.

Work out your outgoings - mortgage, rent, bills etc. Review your assets and income, (house, savings, partner's income) and see what your budget is.

There are hidden costs too such as daily travel, books, equipment, and money for trips. Think about equipment - will you need a computer for example?

What about entry requirements?

Have you got the qualifications you need? For most courses there are a variety of acceptable entry qualifications.

When applying for a very popular course, you could be competing with applicants who have higher qualifications than the stated minimum.

Should I do an academic or vocational course?

An academic course might suit you if you've no clear job in mind, and just want to get a qualification that shows you've achieved a certain educational standard. They show you have analytical and critical skills - skills you'll need in most jobs.

Many jobs ask for a good standard of education, five GCSEs, good A levels, or a degree. They don't specify particular subjects, they just want evidence of educational achievement.

Some employers prefer practical skills rather than theoretical knowledge. A media studies course will not significantly enhance your chances of getting into the media. Some employers value a practical/vocational course that has given you the skills you need for the job.

You could do an academic course, and then get practical skills by doing voluntary work whilst you're on the course; or by studying a vocational course immediately after your academic course.

You might prefer a vocational qualification if you know what job you want and enjoy learning practical skills. You come out with a qualification that leads to a particular job.

How do I know if it's a good course?

You've decided which subject and type of course you want, and how to study it. You now need to choose between different course titles and providers.

There are many courses and they are not of equal value. The only way to assess the quality and value of a course is by research. There's a lot of information, so it's a good idea to keep records of the courses and institutions you find.

Read the prospectus (course guide) carefully and note if a course is accredited or validated by a recognised body (this might be an awarding body or a professional body.) This can add extra weight to your qualification.

Don't take everything you read at face value; check out the facts about each course yourself. Ask the course tutor as many questions as you want.

You could ask:
  • what previous students from the course have gone on to do
  • whether the tutors are experienced within their industry or sector
  • how much access to equipment or facilities you'll have, for how long and how much it'll cost
  • whether the equipment is up to industry-standard
  • what the tutor/student ratio is

Another advantage of visiting is you could see the course in action and ask present students for their opinions.

How can I be sure I'm making the right choice?

Be realistic about your chances of success. It's easy to make snap decisions about wanting to change career. If you've not been in education for a while think about a course to ease you back in.

Be clear of your goal. If you've decided on a particular job, get an idea of what the job's about and if you'll like it. Read careers information, buy trade magazines, and speak to people currently working in the job.

This research is well worth it. It's better to take your time rather than doing a course that leads to a job you might not really want. You'll ensure that you don't waste any time or money.

Get advice! Our advisers can give you unbiased advice on how to choose the right course for you. All you need to do is find courses of interest and request a free course information pack.

What am I going to do after the course?

Plan for when you finish. If you're aiming for a particular job, do voluntary work while studying. If you're doing an English course and want to be a journalist, you could write for the student newspaper or work on the radio.

If you want to specialise, or enter your chosen field at a higher level, you could do a more advanced course after completing your first course.

Having a plan will help you make the most of the opportunities that come your way when you're on the course. See tutors or guidance staff for help with volunteering or planning your next move.

Why not start now by looking at all of the life changing courses on on offer.

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