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Worried about choosing the wrong university course? Fear not

There’s a lot more to choosing a university course than there used to be. If your parents went to university, chances are they chose their course between a few safe bets: something like teaching, engineering, architecture, law or nursing. These days, the options are almost unlimited and sifting through the number of different courses on offer can feel like a burden.

It’s easy to worry that whatever choice you make will limit your options or restrict your employment prospects. And even if you manage to make a decision, it’s common to fear that you’ve made the wrong choice.

What’s the solution to all this angst? Settling on a course. Sticking with it. And understanding that if you make the wrong choice, it’s not the end of the world, explains Associate Professor Alexander Mussap from the School of Psychology at Deakin University.

‘Choosing a university course is a major choice, but there are many, many pathways and options afterwards,’ he says. ‘You don’t get locked into anything – it’s not like the old days.’

Why is decision making so hard?

Our brains are hard-wired to seek out what’s best for us. Whether it’s choosing what to eat for dinner, wear to a party or study at uni, we believe we deserve the best and we do everything we can to make it happen. The trouble is that even though our brain actively hunts for more and more options from which to make the perfect choice, it finds it very difficult to sift through the possibilities and make a decision.

‘The paradox of human nature is that although we seek out more choice and more options, we also find it very problematic when we’re confronted by many choices – it’s called the paradox of choice,’ says Associate Professor Mussap. ‘The more choices someone has, the less likely they are to actually choose something.’

In a famous 1995 study, American academics set up a jam stand at a local market. It alternated between offering six and 24 different flavours of jam. The results were surprising: people were more likely to purchase jam when offered a limited selection of six jams rather than 24 jams. And people were happier with their selection when they choose from the smaller collection of jams.

‘When we make a choice, we fear making a mistake,’ Assoc. Prof. Mussap says. ‘If I give you two choices, your chance of making a mistake is 50% and your chance of getting it right is 50%. If I give you 10 choices, your chance of getting it right is only one in 10 and you’ve got a 90% chance of making a mistake.’

'Choosing a university course is a major choice, but there are many, many pathways and options afterwards. You don't get locked into anything – it's not like the old days.'

Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Switching to a different course

Working out what you want to be when you grow up is important. But there’s no need to worry about making a mistake when you’re choosing what to study because changing courses isn’t difficult, explains Assoc. Prof. Mussap.

‘In my day, universities were pretty much a single entry point and a single exit point – you got into a course and you graduated from that course,’ he says. ‘Nowadays, you enter a university and you can move around. Switching to a different course is usually quite straightforward.’

In fact, he says in most cases you can take the majority of your subject credits with you to a new course – as well as the learnings from your experience. ‘You won’t have wasted your time, you’ll have discovered you don’t like something and can now change. One of the greatest things you can learn in an educational context is what you don’t like, what you’re not good at and what doesn’t fulfil you.’

Keeping your options open

Worried about picking the wrong course because you’re interested in lots of different areas? Fear not. The good news is you can sidestep the paradox of choice and choose more than one area of study.

‘The first question to ask is if you can combine your interests into a single course,’ Assoc. Prof. Mussap says. ‘Students are sometimes surprised to learn that most courses consist of about 50% compulsory subjects and 50% elective subjects – from other faculties and even other universities. You can combine your areas of interest in weird and wonderful ways, and the only way to know how is to ask.’

Another option is to choose a combined – or double – degree. Combine science with law, psychology with nursing or Indonesian with marketing. ‘Combined degrees often take a little longer but you get more bang for the buck with just one extra year of study,’ Assoc. Prof. Mussap says.

And if you think a generalist degree like arts, commerce or science may satisfy your broad interests but worry about your job prospects upon graduation, think again. ‘I’m a big fan of generalist degrees,’ Associate Professor Mussap says. ‘What gets you a job is resilience, hard work, critical thinking and adaptiveness. Generalist degrees are a fantastic way to get those.’

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Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap
Assoc. Prof. Alexander Mussap

Associate Professor, School of Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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