Confused about which path to take? College, apprenticeship and uni courses each offer something very different. Read on to find the best fit for you...
College (FE) courses
Colleges offer an extremely broad range of qualifications, both academic and vocational:
- Academic qualifications allow you to study a small range of subjects to a high level, and include A Levels, International Baccalaureate (IB) and Cambridge Pre-U.
- Vocational qualifications offer practical, hands-on learning that prepares you for a specific job or industry, and include BTEC, Cambridge Technical and NVQ.
Confused about which college qualification to choose? See our article College qualifications and levels explained for a simple explanation of each one.
- There’s a huge range of courses to choose from, covering all kinds of subjects and different levels of study.
- Most colleges let you study vocational courses that are more practical in nature. These tend to be assessed by portfolio or observation, making them a choice worth considering if you don’t suit traditional academic assessments, such as coursework and exams.
- It’s usually free (unless you go to a private college or sixth form)
- Many college qualifications will enable you to go on to university, an apprenticeship or a job
- Some careers, such as those in Law or Medicine, will require you to have a full university degree. However, there is nothing stopping you from completing your college qualifications first and then applying to university!
What’s it like?
Oliver completed an Edexcel BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Aeronautical Engineering at Bedford College. Here’s what he has to say:
“I chose to go to college as I knew I wanted to do something practical that involved using my hands - I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk all day! The course was really good - we had a real training aircraft to work on and we were taught by ex-RAF aircraft engineers. We were given an Engineering project we had to design and present to the class, and classes consisted of subjects such as Maths, Theory of flight and Maintenance Practices. Further to finishing my college course I got accepted into the Easyjet academy in 2012, where I was an Easyjet Engineering Apprentice. A few years later I left Easyjet, received my Aerospace License, and now I work for TUI as an engineer, which I’m really enjoying.”
Apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular in the UK, and with good reason - they allow you to gain a good qualification and workplace experience, with no tuition fees.
Anybody who is over the age of 16 can apply (there is no upper age limit), as long as they’re not in full-time education. Keep in mind that each apprenticeship will have its own entry requirements. For example, to apply for an Advanced (Level 3) apprenticeship in England, you will usually be required to have 5 GCSE passes or have completed a Level 2 apprenticeship.
- You’ll earn a salary! In the UK, this is a minimum of £3.70 per hour for the first year (unless you’re already 19 or older) and a minimum of the national minimum wage for your age after the first year (provided you’re also aged 19 or older).
- You won’t be expected to pay any fees.
- You’ll gain a national qualification, valuable workplace experience and a network of contacts, all of which will go a very long way to securing you a full-time position after you’ve finished.
- Apprenticeships are very flexible - following completion, you can start a job, move onto the next level of apprenticeship (with the ability to gain a full bachelor’s or master’s degree in some cases), or move on to college or university, depending on the level of apprenticeship you’ve completed.
- Although the number of available apprenticeships is continuously growing, they’re not available in every sector, and you may need to travel a considerable distance to complete an apprenticeship in the job sector you’re interested in.
- Some universities will prefer applicants with conventional academic qualifications, such as A Levels.
What’s it like?
Mitch completed his apprenticeship with DPD Group in 2014, achieving an OCR Level 3 Diploma in Business and Administration. Find out what he gained from an apprenticeship:
“I chose to go down the apprenticeship route as I wanted to earn money, whilst still working towards a qualification. My aim was to build strong foundations within a reputable business, with the hope of full-time employment. What I actually earned was far more than I anticipated. I gained invaluable work experience in a variety of roles, transferable skills and a resultant career.”
Universities allow you to study one subject to a high level of expertise [HY1] (although you’ll probably have the option to explore some other subjects through electives). You can continue to live at home if your chosen university is nearby and you want to save on accommodation fees, but many choose to move to a different city or even a different country, enjoying the independence and student lifestyle that comes with it.
- If you have one subject that you absolutely love and want to delve into deeper, a bachelor’s degree in that subject is an ideal choice - you’ll get to explore it thoroughly with the help of lectures, seminars, tutorials and plenty of hours in the library!
- The latest figures show that, on average, university graduates earn £9,500 more a year than average non-graduates. Not bad, huh? However, this figure can easily be influenced by factors such as age, the subject studied and the university in question - a third-class honour’s degree in Music from a low-tier university, for example, might not open as many lucrative doors for you as a first in Law from Oxbridge.
- Universities can be a great option for those who aren’t 100% sure about which career they want to pursue yet. English degrees, for example, can lead on to a range of careers such as teaching, media, journalism and copywriting. In addition, there are plenty of sectors (including the Civil Service, marketing and even accountancy) that’ll often take on graduates with a degree in any subject!
Tuition fees can be very high (although you won’t pay anything back until you start earning, and there are scholarships and loans available).
You may find it difficult to get on the employment ladder if you don’t gain much workplace experience whilst studying.
What’s it like?
Elizabeth Hall is currently completing an undergraduate degree in Veterinary Medicine at the Royal Veterinary College in London. Here’s what she has to say:
“I chose to go to university as I knew I’d need a degree in veterinary medicine to become a vet. I loved the idea of moving away from home and meeting people with similar interests. I also wanted to be part of a university community, where I could take advantages of all the opportunities on offer, from practical classes to socials, fundraising and trips abroad. Once I’m a qualified vet, I’d love to work in mixed practice to widen my knowledge of all the species further, and perhaps open my own practice one day. The best bit about being a vet is that you don’t really have just one job prospect at the end - there are loads of branches to chose from, so I know I will never get bored!”
If you’re still unsure about which route to take, why not get a ‘taster’ of each option? Attend college and university open days (we have a great article on how to get the most out of them), or see if you can shadow someone in similar role to the apprenticeship you’re considering.
It’s also possible to keep your options open and apply to all three, using Unifrog’s ‘Apply’ tool to prepare for each application.
In the meantime, explore your options thoroughly - speak to people who have been there and done it, and have a think about what you prioritize the most - if you’re concerned about accruing debt, for example, university may not be the best option for you. Whichever option you go for, try not to put too much pressure on yourself to make a decision that you’ll be happy with forever - people move between different jobs and courses all the time - so it’s OK if you don’t have it all completely figured out!