Choosing the right university course for yourself is very important as it will most likely determine what you will be doing for your working life. We’ve had past students who graduate and go onto doing:
or combined degrees (combinations) of the above.
We will talk briefly about what career paths each degree tends to lead to, and our recommendations for each degree.
What course should I choose?
Unlike choosing HSC subjects, there is no scaling implications or anything to do with special ‘rules’. University is purely about yourself – choose the course or courses that interest you. For example, if in the HSC, you did very well for economics and tend to enjoy the subject, choose Commerce or Economics at university. If you really enjoyed chemistry or biology, aim for medicine, medical science, pharmacy, optometry, physiotherapy or veterinary science. There are many possibilities, each with different goals in mind.
We don’t have any specific recommendation of which degree you choose, except that you should definitely choose the course you’re genuinely interested in. Whether you want to earn a high salary or contribute to your field, you will do well if you choose something you’re good at. There’s no point in choosing Commerce/Law or other highly demanded courses, just because your UAI was 99+ but you have no interest in commerce and/or law. Students who do this tend to regret their choices after a year or two, whereas students who choose degrees based on their interests are generally more fulfilled and do better in their degree and future career. There’s no substitute for the motivation and natural aptitude you will get from doing something you like, and no matter what you do, if you do it well, you will get what you want (whether it’s a high salary, recognition, contribution to your field etc).
Some common degrees
Commerce is one of the most common courses students choose. It is a good choice, and possibly has the greatest number of career options. The most common commerce majors at the reputable universities are: accounting, finance, actuary studies (UNSW) and marketing. There are also other, less common majors.
Commerce is the degree to choose if you want to be an accountant, or get into finance (work in a bank) or marketing (work in advertising). The pay for these types of jobs are great and there’s an endless variety of jobs to suit all tastes and interests.
Generally speaking, UNSW has the most reputable business school in NSW, so if you’re aiming to get into this course, we recommend UNSW as one of the better universities that offer this degree. USYD, Macquarie Uni and UTS are also universities that offer reputable commerce courses.
UAIs required for commerce range from 94-96 for UNSW and USYD, and lower for the other universities. As with all references to required UAIs, check the UAC published UAI cutoffs each year at the UAC website, as they vary a little year to year depending on demand and supply.
- Actuarial studies
Actuarial Studies is ideal for those who are good at maths and want to apply this to university study and their future career. Actuaries are people who work at big insurance companies, who use complex mathematical methods to calculate insurance premiums.
A common misconception people have of this course is that they will become actuaries at the end of their degree. This is most often untrue, as actuarial jobs are in low supply, and most graduates end up working in finance, in the field of financial engineering designing new financial products etc. This can be quite a lucrative field, especially if part of a quantitative team in an investment bank.
For actuary, traditionally Macquarie University’s actuarial degree is the most highly regarded. However UNSW’s actuarial degree is also quite popular, and UNSW being a generally more reputable university (especially internationally), we recommend doing actuary as part of the commerce degree at UNSW.
The UAI required for this is 95+ for UNSW’s commerce degree, or slightly higher for Macquarie University’s degree.
Law Law leads onto very lucrative careers. Law graduates tend to make the most money out of all degrees in the long run (yes, even medicine makes less!) Students who want to make lots of money in their future careers are advised to aim for Law, even if they won’t want to eventually be a lawyer. The reason is because employers of large commercial companies (banks, investment banks, investment firms, accounting firms, trading companies etc) tend to seek out the Law graduates to fill their higher paying graduate positions. Law graduates tend to be high quality, intelligent, social, well-spoken and dynamic people, and employers know this.
Although the skills you pick up in law are largely irrelevant (unless you be a lawyer), employers tend to use the fact that you did law to know that you are smart enough to do law. It’s like going to the fruit market and picking apples from the premium bin, because you know that all apples you pick will be high quality apples. For this same reason, sometimes people who do medicine end up being hired by investment banks and management consulting firms (very high-paying jobs), simply because those employers know all students who do law or medicine tend to be very smart and capable.
Therefore we recommend if you get a 99+ UAI and want to do commerce, you may as well combine it with law. It will be a great step forward for your future career.
Law at USYD and UNSW are the same in terms of reputation (they are the best), followed by law at UTS, then Macquarie, then elsewhere. To get into law at UNSW and USYD, you will need to get a UAI in the mid 99s. For UTS law, it is around 97.
If you have an especially keen interest in biology, chemistry, and helping others, this is a course you can consider doing. However, we recommend against choosing medicine for the money. We will discuss this point a bit later.
Long ago, medicine entry used to be solely on the basis of UAI. However it has been pushed up so high that the universities have agreed to use the UMAT exam and interviews as additional selection criteria. Officially, the minimum UAI for medicine at reputable universities is 95, however the median entry for medicine at reputable universities has traditionally been in the low 99s. This is in additional to the UMAT and interview criteria, so medicine can be said to be the most competitive course to get into.
However, as mentioned, we recommend against medicine as an optimum choice if you want to make large sums of money in your career. The simple fact is that you will not be making large amounts of money until you are in your 30s, and in present value terms (remember your consumer arithmetic in year 10?) it’s just not worth the trouble. For the same UAI (and given that you are bright enough to achieve 99+) you are better off investing your strong skills into a law degree (see above). Jobs in law firms, investment banks and other jobs in high finance can potentially pay multiples of what a senior doctor can make.
Take this advice with a grain of salt, however, because as we said at the beginning of this page, you will only get what you want if you’re interested in what you’re doing. Therefore, if you enjoy medicine, do it. It is a very fulfilling and the pay is very high in all respects.
Reputable universities that offer medicine include: UNSW, USYD (arguably the best), Monash and Melbourne University. University of Western Sydney recently started a medicine faculty of their own, so if you are dead-set on doing medicine but did not achieve a sufficiently high UAI, that is a consideration. Remember, transferring between similar courses once you enter university is easy (we will discuss this a bit later on).
- Other health courses
As we said before, medicine is highly sought after and easily the most competitive university degree to get into. There are alternatives. At reputable universities, Optometry and Vet Science needs about a UAI of 98, Pharmacy needs about 95, Medical science needs about 93, and physiotherapy is much lower and very accessible.
If you want to get into medicine but didn’t get the required UAI or UMAT scores, you can get into one of these health courses and transfer via undergraduate or graduate streams, depending on individual universities’ rules.
Engineering is a more career-oriented degree for quantitatively inclined people. There are many fields of engineering (mining, materials, petroleum etc) and in Australia, mining tends to produce the highest paying and most abundant jobs. Choose this course if you are interested in Physics, Chemistry and / or Mathematics (particular mechanics).
Another particularly popular choice is Aeronautical engineering at USYD. The misconception here is that graduates tend to work for airline companies designing planes and plane parts (called high-speed aerodynamics). This is the obvious career path, but aeronautical engineering also lets you work for car companies, designing aerodynamic external parts for cars (called low-speed aerodynamics).
The UAI required for this course has a very large range. Some of the higher UAI courses are: Aeronautical Engineering at USYD, which is about 92, and Aerospace at USYD, at 99+.
If you have a keen interest in mathematics, choose this course at university. A common misconception is that these types of courses (including science and arts) lead to no definite career paths. This is untrue. For mathematics, there are jobs in finance that pay very well, as mathematics graduates can often become actuaries or financial engineers. The thing is, becoming whatever you want does not require any specific degree (e.g. if you want to be an actuary, you don’t actually need an actuary degree). There are professional bodies (e.g. CA, CPA for accountants, AIAA for actuaries, College of Law for lawyers etc) that set exams and their own criteria. Basically if you have the skills to pass their exams and meet their criteria, you can have that career.
Many mathematics graduates also go on to work in engineering, computer science, banking, insurance and other quantitative-analyst type positions. Only a small portion of maths graduates end up being in academia (the field of scholarly pursuits) as lecturers and researchers, as most people tend to think.
The UAI for maths degrees is generally low, as the demand is not too high for these courses. However don’t be fooled, as there is absolutely no correlation between entrance UAI and course difficulty. As many people will tell you, maths degrees (along with engineering and science) are very difficult and challenging, but also very rewarding to those keenly interested.
USYD offers a BScience (Adv Math) degree which is highly regarded and is likely to contain the brightest university undergraduates in NSW. Its required UAI is around 98.
- Science / Arts Science is a good degree if you’re keenly interested in any science (chemistry, physics or biology). If you are more of a humanities person and enjoy subjects like English, ancient / modern history, languages, social sciences etc.
We recommend combining these subjects to more career-oriented degrees like commerce, engineering, law, medicine etc. These courses are great in that they add flavour to your other degree as well as giving you a wider experience gained from university education, which will help your career whatever that may be.
The required UAI for these courses are generally very accessible at even the more reputable universities. Generally speaking, USYD is slightly better than UNSW in terms of reputation for both Arts and Science degrees.
3 year single degree vs 5 year double degrees
Students often consider whether to do a 3 year SINGLE degree, or a 5 year DOUBLE degree during their time at university. In our experience, we recommend combining only if the second degree adds value to your career aspirations. For example, if you choose commerce and are thinking of combining this with Arts for example, you should ask yourself what you intend to get out of an Arts degree. For example, a good reason to combine is if you’re learning languages and intend to work overseas in the future.
One thing students need to consider and realise is that combining a degree adds 2 whole years to your degree. Double degrees tend to be 5 years (some exceptions where they are 4 years, and some are longer). The extra HECS fees you incur over the extra 2 years should not be taken lightly. Think of university costing you an extra 60%! Additionally, you need to consider the opportunity cost (lost opportunity) of 2 years worth of working. If you had graduated 2 years earlier, you could have started your career 2 years younger, so we need to also consider whether the final decision of combing is worthwhile or not.
The effect of having 2 degrees on your hireability as a future jobseeker is overrated we think. University graduates with uncombined degrees (e.g. straight BCom) end up getting the same jobs as those who have combined (e.g. BCom / Science).
Therefore we recommend the general rule of combining only if necessary. Ask people who have gone through university and done the degree(s) you’re thinking of doing. Ask them about whether there’s any tangible benefit from combining degrees, in terms of career prospect, starting position, starting salary etc and make your decision based on the advice you get.
Honours degree If you’re still enthusiastic over your university degree, even after 3-5 years, you can elect to do an extra year where you will (usually) conduct research into a specific area of your field, and at the end of the year, submit a long thesis with your findings. Honours degrees are awarded as modified degrees of the normal degree. For example if you did law and honours, it would be LLB(Hons).
An honours degree is looked upon highly favourably by employers as it indicates that the graduate has a deeper and more specialised knowledge of his field. Generally speaking, an honours degree is looked upon better than a combined degree. The view is that anyone can do a combined degree (just get the UAI you need) but not everyone is bright enough to do an honours degree. Therefore this is another reason why we recommend you to choose a course you will genuinely enjoy – because you will be good at it.
What if I don’t get the UAI I need?
Fear not. Transferring within university is relatively easy. Transferring between universities or within the same university will involve calculation of a rank-based mark similar to a UAI. 25% of this score will be based on your latest UAI score, and 75% will be based on your university WAM (Weighted Average Mark) which is basically how well you’ve done at university so far.
Therefore, if you don’t get the UAI you need for the course you desire, we strongly recommend that you choose a course that you’re good at. If you choose something you are not good at, you won’t be able to score a sufficiently high WAM to transfer into the course you want.
Typically for most popular courses at reputable universities, you will need a Distinction average (WAM > 75) after your first year to be able to successfully transfer into your desired course for second year onwards. We also highly recommend you do a course which is closely related to the degree you want to get into.
For example, a highly popular use of this technique to get into law at USYD or UNSW (because not everybody can get 99+ UAI) is to first enrol into commerce at these universities. Once you are in commerce, for your first year, while everyone else is busy partying, study hard and score a Distinction average. After your first year (2 semesters), this WAM combined with a UAI which is high enough to get you into commerce should be sufficient to be able to transfer into law successfully.
How hard is a Distinction average? Surprisingly less hard than people make it out to be. Remember, university is not like the HSC where you are forced to do English and 3-4 other subjects which are totally different. At university, assuming you follow our advice and choose something you’d be good at, all you need to worry about are 4 subjects per semester, each subject being related to the general field that you’re interested in. There’s no compulsory subjects, and no need to do subjects that have almost nothing to do with each other (e.g. History and Physics), all you need to do is focus on subjects which you happen to be good at. In fact, a High Distinction average (WAM > 85) is well within reach for some students, as long as they study consistently, pay attention in class and seek help when needed.
To our students
All of us have been down this path one time or another and we’re always happy to give you advice. Our team consists of people who have done law / med / commerce / arts / science and a variety of others. We can tell you all about transfer criteria and what to do in order to maximise the chances of you getting into the course you want, even after the HSC is over. If you’d like to find out more about anything mentioned in this article, feel free to post a question in the general section of the student forums.