There are many reasons why you might want to gain a degree in later life. You might want to change careers, enhance your existing role by learning some new skills, or simply learn more about a subject that interests you.

If you’re thinking about applying to university – either for the first time, or to do a second, third, or even fourth degree – then you might be feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement. Studying for a degree offers you the chance to develop yourself, meet some new people, and expose yourself to new opportunities and experiences.

However, the process of choosing a course, applying to universities, and financing your studies can initially feel a little daunting.

With this in mind, we’ve put together a short guide to help you get started on your university adventure.

Choosing your university course

The first step in beginning your academic journey is to choose your course, and the best way to find courses is to use the search tool provided by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

However, a quick search will show you that there are thousands of courses out there from hundreds of providers, so settling on a specific course can be challenging.

To help narrow them down, you might want to focus on these five questions…

1. What would you like to learn?

A survey conducted by the student lettings app SPCE found that course content and structure is the most important factor for students in the UK when considering what and where they’d like to study.

Discovering more about course content can help you find a course that’ll teach what you want to learn, in a way that you want to learn it.

Although different institutions may offer courses that provide students with the same qualifications – for example, a Bachelor of Science in Psychology or a Master of Arts in History – not all of them are created equally. Higher education subjects are vast and each course places special focus on specific areas within them – so what you’ll learn will depend on what modules are on offer.

While you’ll be able to find information on modules and course content on the UCAS website, it’s also worth looking at each individual university’s website. They should have a specific page for each course they offer, where you’ll find a more in-depth breakdown of a course’s modules and how the teaching is structured.

Other things to look out for on the university’s web page include how the course is taught (through practical work, lectures, etc), how it’s assessed (through coursework, exams, etc), how many contact hours you’ll have, and whether or not there are work placement opportunities available.

While UCAS and university websites are great resources for researching courses, it’s also worth looking into what others have to say about them. Whatuni is a really helpful website that collects course-specific reviews written by past and current students.

2. When would you like to study for your degree?

When you’d like to study, or over what period of time you’d like to study, is another important factor in deciding on a course.

On this front, there are three main options to choose from…

  • Full-time study – the amount of time you’re expected to commit to a full-time course varies depending on the subject and the level of study (i.e. undergraduate or postgraduate). However, the general consensus is that it takes around 40 hours per week.
  • Part-time study – studying a part-time course is particularly helpful if you want to study alongside employment. Although it’ll take longer (usually twice as long) than a full-time course to complete, you’ll only have to commit to half the amount of time per week.
  • Accelerated courses – if you’re interested in an undergraduate degree but you don’t want to spend a full three to four years completing it, then you might be interested in an accelerated course. Some universities offer these and they condense your studies into two years.

3. Do you want to study in person or remotely?

It used to be that if you wanted to study for a degree, you’d have to attend classes in person. But nowadays, more and more universities are offering remote courses.

If you’re looking for a conventional university experience, then a traditional degree course where lectures and assessments are held in person is probably your best option. It’s a great way to meet new people and get involved in the academic community.

For some, however, remote learning can be a more suitable option. While there might be video conference meetings and seminars, you’ll generally have greater control over your learning schedule. It also means that you can study anywhere without worrying about having to relocate.

If you choose to study remotely, then you have the option to either study a course that’s offered remotely by a traditional campus university, or one that’s provided by an institution that specialises in remote learning, such as the Open University.

Institutions like the Open University often have more experience providing distance learning courses than their traditional campus-based counterparts, and they usually offer equivalent degrees at a more affordable price. For example, while a three-year BA in English Literature will cost you £9,250 per year at the University of Birmingham, the Open University offers one for around £6,500 per year.

Some universities even offer courses that take a blended learning approach, meaning they combine in-person and online teaching.

4. Which university or college would you like to study at?

While choosing the right course is the most important aspect of deciding which degree you’d like to undertake, working out which university you’d like to attend is also a major choice. It’ll not only affect your experience as a student but how your degree is perceived by employers after you graduate.

When comparing institutions, it’s worth consulting university rankings. They’re published by The Guardian, The Complete University Guide, and The Times/Sunday Times respectively. These all measure a range of factors, from student satisfaction to postgraduate employment rates.

One of the most helpful things to focus on when looking at university rankings is the student-to-teacher ratio. This is especially helpful as it’ll give you an idea of how much support you’ll receive throughout the course of your degree.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that university rankings aren’t perfect. They can’t measure other important factors of the university experience, such as the atmosphere on campus or the amount of emotional support you’ll receive. Many would argue that getting an education you enjoy is more important than how highly your institution ranks.

Attending an open day, either virtually or in-person, is one of the best ways to get a feel for these sorts of things. Here, you can talk to students studying the course that you’re interested in, and lecturers too. If you attend one in person, you can take a tour, see the facilities for yourself, and get a taste of the surrounding area.

Another great resource for comparing universities and colleges is Student Crowd, which collects data on student opinion on things like campus facilities, the student’s union, and the careers services at any given institution. You can also check out our article; 7 tips on how to choose a university as a mature student.

5. What are the entry requirements?

When choosing a degree course, you’ll also need to consider if you meet the entry requirements.

These are in place not only because space is often competitive, but to make sure you have the relevant skills and knowledge needed to complete the course. You can view a course’s entry requirements when searching on UCAS.

Entry requirements are usually listed as academic qualifications (for instance, A-levels, GCSEs, and their equivalents), while some are listed as UCAS Tariff points – a system used to measure the value of any relevant qualifications.

Try not to be disheartened if you don’t have everything that’s required, because as a mature student, your work experience and education may be enough for you to be admitted. So if you don’t qualify, then it’s worth getting in touch with a university’s admissions team.

If you don’t meet the entry requirements for a course you’d like to study, you could also consider applying for an extended degree with a foundation year, or taking an Access to Higher Education course. Both involve teaching you the knowledge and skills necessary to study at the undergraduate level. The main difference is that a foundation year (not to be confused with a foundation degree) is usually integrated into a degree while Access courses are taken separately.

To search for degree courses with a foundation year, you can use the UCAS course search tool. And to find out more about Access to Higher Education Courses, you might want to have a look at the Access to HE website.

If you’re interested in taking an Access course or are looking for some inspiration, then why not take a look at Christine’s story? Christine completed an Access course at the age of 57 before applying to university.

And finally, if you don’t meet the entry requirements for a course you want to study at a traditional university (and don’t think you’ll be able to meet them by doing some further work or study), then The Open University offers remote undergraduate and postgraduate courses with no entry requirements – so it’s worth taking a look.

Tuition and financing

UK degree costs vary greatly depending on the course, university, and country you’re studying in, as well as the country you’re from. Though, if you’re a UK national studying in the UK, tuition fees will almost always be expensive – unless you’re Scottish and studying in Scotland. In this case, you may be eligible to attend for free. For everyone else in the UK, however, fees can be anywhere up to £9,250 per year.

While cost should obviously be taken into consideration, if you’re really keen to study for a degree, then try not to let the expensive price tag get you down – as you might be eligible for financial help. And remember what Benjamin Franklin said: “An investment in education always pays the highest returns.”

Depending on your circumstances, you might be entitled to access some assistance from the government to help you finance your studies. For example, if you’re studying for your first degree, then you can apply for a loan to cover your tuition through the Student Loans Company (SLC).

If you’re worried about how you’re going to support yourself throughout your studies, then you can also apply for a government-funded maintenance loan, which is intended to assist you with living costs such as food and accommodation while you’re studying. The amount you’re eligible to receive will depend on your household income and where you’re studying. 

If you’re over the age of 60 at the time your course starts then, depending on your circumstances, you may not be eligible for a maintenance loan. And if you are, you’ll only be eligible for a reduced amount. This is something that we, quite frankly, do not understand.

As well as loans, you may also be able to take advantage of various government grants and bursaries that you usually don’t have to pay back. To find out more about loans, grants, and bursaries, head on over to the education section of the government’s website. Or check out our guide to financing your education later in life.

And finally, it’s also worth checking university websites to see whether or not they offer any scholarships or bursaries that you might be eligible for.

How to apply to university

Once you’ve decided on your course and how you plan on financing it, then congratulations, you’re ready to apply! How you apply for your course will depend on the course conditions and whether or not you’re planning to study at an undergraduate or postgraduate level.

If you’re applying to a full-time undergraduate course, you can register with UCAS and apply for up to five courses. You’ll also have to write a personal statement as well as provide a reference, which you can obtain from an employer or volunteering supervisor. Or, if you’re currently in education, you can ask your tutor or teacher.

If you’re applying for a distance learning or part-time undergraduate degree, then it’s best to apply directly through the university or college. You’ll be able to find details about the process on their website.

Although you can apply for some postgraduate courses through UCAS, there are many that you can’t. In this case, you can still use the UCAS course search tool which will direct you to the right place.

If you’re looking to apply for a music, dance, or drama course, at the undergraduate or postgraduate level, then you may have to apply through the UCAS conservatoires scheme. And, if you’re a graduate who wants to apply for postgraduate teacher training courses, UCAS also operates a separate scheme for this.

Final thoughts…

Learning is one of the most rewarding things that we can do in life and it’s never too late to study for a degree, whether it’s career-focused or simply for your own enjoyment. And while there’s a lot to think about when you’re considering becoming a mature student, we hope this short guide has been helpful and even got you excited about the journey ahead.

If you’re interested in learning something new, but don’t want to commit to a university or college course, then why not check out the learning section of our website? Here, you can browse courses as well as introductory guides on hobbies and activities such as beekeeping, stargazing, painting, and many more.