How to choose the right uni course preferences for you

Choosing the right University course can be a daunting experience, especially straight out of high school, but here are 4 tips that can help guide you to make the best decision.

2 years ago   •   4 min read

By KIS academics
Photo by Element5 Digital / Unsplash

It’s coming up to *that* time of year; the time for year 12 VCE students to submit the list of course preferences that may or may not determine their future. No pressure, right?

In year 12, when you’re spending five days a week (at least) in the bubble of VCE, it’s easy to lose perspective of the bigger purpose, i.e. the vast future that lies ahead of you at the other side of a gruelling year. So when August comes around, and suddenly you’re forced to confront the all-important uni course preferences decision, it can be a bit overwhelming.

Well-intentioned family members will do everything they can to reassure you that it’s not the be all and end all, but their reassurances may as well be falling on deaf ears when all your friends and teachers are stressing the importance of the list that (allegedly) determines your future. I’m going to confess that I fell for the trap when I was in VCE. Rather than stepping back from the year 12 bubble, I made a rash decision in my VTAC preferences that I now regret as an adult and uni graduate.

While my bad decision certainly has had some silver linings for my career, reinforcing how VCE outcomes aren’t nearly as important in the scheme of things as they may seem in August of year 12, with a little effort, you can save yourself future suffering by making a well-informed decision when submitting your VTAC preferences. So here are my tips in general, in preventing mistakes similar to mine, and in keeping that all-important perspective that will serve you better than anything in year 12 whether it’s concerning preferences, exams, school co-curricular events or otherwise. Let’s get going.

1: Know exactly what it is that you’re preferencing.

This may seem obvious, but unfortunately, often students are met with a rude shock in uni when the course that had been talked up by friends, teachers and the general VCE community isn’t quite nearly as peachy in real life. What sounds like one thing on paper may be something entirely different to what you were imagining, especially when you’re living it day in, day out for the three-to-six years of a uni undergraduate degree plus the potential decades of a career beyond that. So it’s in your best interest to take your sweet time getting to know the course you’re giving that coveted #1 position on your list.

In my case, I thought studying for my SACs should take precedence over attending uni open days, but believe me, in the scheme of things, losing a couple of SAC marks is nothing compared to the consequences of choosing the wrong career. Again, perspective. Attend the open days, read the course guides, and get multiple opinions in addition to what your school career counsellor says. Try volunteering, work experience, or whatever opportunities you have to get a taste of the field you’re hoping to work in some day to get a better feel of whether it’s really right for you.

Another pitfall of mine: ordering my course preferences in descending order of minimum ATAR. It’s a common misconception among students that the courses with the highest ATAR requirements will lead to the highest-income and most fulfilling jobs, because otherwise, why would they be so competitive?

The reality is far from that simple. While the high-ATAR courses generally do lead to relatively lucrative careers, that can come at a great cost to many students, particularly those who aren’t suited to that type of work. Careers like medicine, law and dentistry are very demanding and stressful in completely different ways to the stress of year 12. Before deciding to go down any of those paths, I would highly recommend getting a reality check from current students of those courses, and if possible from junior doctors/lawyers/dentists working in the field and living the (often gruelling) realities that you should be aware of when making your decisions.

3: We’re not in the USA; university name isn’t everything.

While US teen dramas are notorious for showing student after student jumping through hoops to win that coveted spot at Harvard or Yale, due to the advantage having such a university on your CV confers in job applications, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to Australia. Here, the university course structures are generally completely different, as is the job market, so it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

When it comes to VTAC, pick the course, not the university. If you’re qualified to do the job you want to do, and have the necessary skills that your uni degree teaches you, whether the degree came from Monash vs. RMIT vs. La Trobe certainly won’t be the first consideration for a prospective employer down the track.

4: It’s worth putting some thought into preferences #2 onwards.

Of course, every student should aim for their first preference course and believe that getting in is a possibility. However, being too blindly focused on preference #1 isn’t a good idea. If you aren’t successful and the offer that comes is for preference #2 or #3, it’s important that those subsequent preferences are also for courses that you’ve put some thought into and would be suited to studying. So, at those open days, don’t just take one brochure or speak to one lecturer from one faculty. Open your mind, and who knows, perhaps in searching for your back-up plan, you might find something that ends up being your new first choice and the right career for you.

As I and many former year 12 VCE students have learned, VTAC preferences aren’t easy, and it’s easy to make mistakes even with the best intentions. But that shouldn’t make you fearful that your decision will determine your whole life; far from it. Do your research and some soul-searching beyond numbers and metrics, make an informed decision, and deal with the rest when it comes your way. Consider booking in a free 30-minute study skills consultation [link to find a tutor page] to discuss the best approach to preferences for your individual needs.

Written by KIS Academics tutor Dee Tomic. Dee currently offers tutoring for VCE Maths Methods and Biology. Dee is completing her PhD in epidemiology with Monash University. If you have any questions for her or would like to request Dee as a tutor, feel free to reach out through her profile here.

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