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What are undergraduate degrees?

If you are considering studying at university for the first time – whether you will be finishing college soon, or you’re thinking of returning to study – then one of the things you are likely to be considering is an undergraduate degree. Undergraduate degrees are the next step up from A-level study (or the equivalent) and you can choose degrees from a wide range of subjects. A degree should provide you with an in-depth education in the field that you study, and can help to prepare you for working in a certain industry. 

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What is an undergraduate degree?

An undergraduate degree is usually the first programme of study that university students undertake. They are usually studied over a significant period of time – often three, four, or five years, depending on the subject, and whether the programme includes a year in industry, or a year abroad. An undergraduate degree is usually an essential requirement for entering higher degree programmes, such as master’s degrees. Undergraduate degrees are sometimes referred to as bachelor’s degrees.

How long does it take to complete an undergraduate degree?

In the UK, students usually complete an undergraduate degree over three academic years. In reality, this typically means between 30 to 35 months, with terms starting in September or October, and finishing after exams are completed in May or June. 

Universities offer plenty of flexibility for students who need to study at a different pace, or who are unable to study a full-time programme. It is common for students to study a degree part-time over six years, or even longer, depending on personal circumstances, whether the university deems it appropriate, and the rules for the qualification. Some students complete an undergraduate degree in a shorter time-frame, although this is less common. 

At institutions worldwide, rules are quite different, and in countries such as the USA, undergraduate degrees are more likely to take up to four years to complete. 

What types of undergraduate degrees are there?

In the UK, the two most common degrees are BA (Bachelor of Arts) and BSc (Bachelor of Science), but there are a huge number of specific degrees that can be studied. Many of these are specific to the industry that graduates enter, such as Bachelor of Laws (LLB), Bachelor of Engineering (BEng), or Bachelor of Medicine (BM). You can see an extensive list of the types of degrees that it is possible to achieve in the UK here

There is a huge range of subjects that you can study at undergraduate level in the UK, from accounting to zoology, and with many variations of degree subjects in between.

If you don’t know what you want to do as a career, then you might decide to study something that interests you, or choose a combination of subjects that would allow you to move into jobs in a range of sectors when you graduate.

How do I choose an undergraduate degree?

Considering that are more than 50,000 undergraduate courses at around 400 institutions in the UK, there is little wonder that some students struggle to decide what to study. There are so many types of degrees and subject combinations to consider, that you might find it hard to know where to begin. 

If you know you have a certain career in mind, then choosing your degree is much simpler – and you can search for the course that has the most interesting syllabus, or is being provided at the university that you want to study at. 

If you don’t know what you want to do as a career, then you might decide to study something that interests you, or choose a combination of subjects that would allow you to move into jobs in a range of sectors when you graduate. 

There are subject guides available on the UCAS website, and you can use their search tool to help you narrow down the type of course you want to study.

Of course, it is unlikely that you choose your undergraduate degree solely according to what you will be studying. Your choice will be influenced by:  

  • Where you want to live 
  • The sort of extra-curricular activities you want to be able to take part in 
  • The cost of living in the area
  • Whether you want an on-campus experience 
  • If you want to study full time or part-time
  • Your personal circumstances 



These are just some of the things you’ll be thinking about when you’re choosing – and there might be many more things to consider before you make your final decision too. 

What will I do when studying for an undergraduate degree?

It very much depends on the subject that you’re studying and the career that you’ll be aiming for when you finish. Typically, undergraduate degree learning takes place with a mixture of lectures, seminars, and tutorials, but there are often practical sessions (particularly where the degree leads to a certain type of career). These practical sessions may be held in laboratories, studios or even in hospital settings, in the case of medical degrees.  

Coursework and assessment will be required, and types of assessment vary depending on the subject. Typical types of assessment include: 

  • Essays
  • Portfolios
  • Practical assessment 
  • Performances
  • Exams
  • Dissertation 

 

You can find out more about the type of assessments that you will be required to complete successfully to be awarded your degree by contacting the university, or on the university website. 

There are more than 25,000 universities around the world, and the majority will offer undergraduate degree programmes.

Where can I study for an undergraduate degree?

Undergraduate degrees are offered by universities worldwide. There are more than 25,000 universities around the world, and the majority will offer undergraduate degree programmes. You can find lists of universities worldwide here, should you be interested in studying in a particular country.

In the UK, you can study undergraduate degrees by moving to live on campus, as many young and international students do, although more students are now staying at home and studying at local universities, to avoid needing to pay for accommodation. 

If your circumstances prevent you from studying in person, or committing to attending at certain times then you can study at home (or anywhere with an internet connection) by studying a distance learning undergraduate degree programme. The Open University pioneered distance learning programmes in the 1970s, and today many universities offer online and distance learning programmes, allowing students to study for their undergraduate degree wherever they are, when it is convenient. 

What are the entry requirements for undergraduate degrees?

Each university sets its entry requirements for each degree programme, and there are often huge variations between institutions, even for the same type of programme. You can find out the entry requirements on the course listing on the university’s website, or the UCAS website. 

Some degree programmes will set subject requirements too – a good example of this is for medicine, where you usually will have had to study biology, chemistry and either physics or maths at A-level. This doesn’t always apply though, as you don’t have to study law at A-level to get a place on a law degree. 

It isn’t just college-level study that may be required to reach a certain subject either. Entry requirements may state that you need to have reached a certain grade at GCSE too, particularly in English, maths, or science. 

In addition to being able to obtain an appropriate visa, international students will need to meet the entry requirements to enter an undergraduate degree programme, and will need to show a high standard of English to be given a place on the course. This will usually mean an IELTS qualification or equivalent. Some universities may require international students to study a foundation year before being allowed to progress to an undergraduate degree. 

How can I apply for an undergraduate degree?

In most cases, you’ll apply for your place on an undergraduate degree programme through UCAS, but in some cases, you’ll apply to the university directly.

Both undergraduate degrees and postgraduate degrees are programmes of study that are delivered by universities to students who are usually over the age of 18.

How are undergraduate degrees different from postgraduate degrees?

Both undergraduate degrees and postgraduate degrees are programmes of study that are delivered by universities (and sometimes accredited higher education institutions) to students who are usually over the age of 18. 

Postgraduate degrees include master’s degrees, MBAs, Ph.D., and professional doctorates. Applicants for postgraduate degrees usually have to have an undergraduate degree to be accepted on the course. As with undergraduate programmes, postgraduate certificates and diplomas may be awarded for partial achievements, or offered as shorter courses. 

Postgraduate programmes revolve around independent research, rather than lectures, seminars and workshops, and requirements for final projects – usually a thesis – are much longer and more in-depth. Postgraduate degrees usually have a viva voce exam too, where candidates are required to defend their work.

How much are tuition fees for an undergraduate degree?

Universities have been charging tuition fees for undergraduate degrees since 1998, and since 2012, institutions have been allowed to charge up to £9,250 a year. 

There are different rules for students who live in Scotland and who are intending to study at Scottish universities. 

This rule doesn’t apply to international students, and so students from overseas who want to study in the UK will be required to pay tuition fees at much higher rates. Fees vary significantly, and can be as little as £10,000, but can be up to £38,000 or more, particularly for medical degrees. 

How are undergraduate degrees classified?

Students need to have completed the required work for their degree, and classification will depend on the marks that have been achieved in their assessed work (usually a combination of exams and assessed essays, coursework, or practical assessments, with most degrees requiring a dissertation). 

Usually, undergraduate degrees are classified depending on the percentage achieved (known as the ‘weighted average’).

First Class Honours:

Usually referred to as a ‘first’, this is the highest honours classification, and requires a weighted average of 70% or above.

Upper Second Class Honours

This is usually abbreviated to ‘2:1″ or ‘II.i’ (pronounced two-one), and is the minimum requirement for most postgraduate degrees and master’s degree programmes in the UK. Requires a weighted average of 60% to 69%.

Lower Second Class Honours

Shortened to ‘2:2’ or ‘II.ii’ (pronounced two-two). The weighted average for a 2:2 is 50% to 59%.

Third Class Honours

Known as a ‘third’, this is the lowest honours degree that it is possible to be awarded, and requires a weighted average of 40% to 49%.

Ordinary Degree

Although most students who are studying for a degree in the UK achieve honours degrees, some universities offer ordinary degrees. Ordinary degrees are also sometimes awarded to students who don’t pass quite enough credits in their final year of study, but have achieved enough to be awarded a degree without honours.

What if I change my mind part-way through my undergraduate degree?

Registering for three years of study is a big commitment at any stage of life, but especially when entering study in the late teenage years. Students change their minds more often than you might imagine. If you change your mind about where you are studying, then you should talk to support staff or your tutor at your current university. 

Should you decide that you want to leave the university that you’re currently studying with and transfer to another university (such as if you have decided you want to be able to study nearer home, for example) staff at both institutions will be able to advise you how to proceed. Depending on the amount of study, or credits that you have completed already (and if you want to switch subjects) you may need to enter the programme at your new university at a different entry point. 

If you want to continue to study with the same university but to switch subjects, then you may be allowed to study for a combined honours degree, depending on the rules of the institution. This is most likely to be allowed where there is overlap within the same faculty (such as psychology and sociology, or English literature with creative writing), or where the subjects complement one another (such as French and business, or maths and physics). 

If you decide you want to leave the programme and stop studying altogether, then depending on how many modules that you have completed you may be offered a qualification that reflects your achievement to date. This may include a Certificate of Higher Education, a Diploma of Higher Education, or if you have almost finished your degree, you may be offered an Ordinary degree. 

What are the alternatives to taking an undergraduate degree?

Academic study doesn’t suit everyone. If you decide that studying for an undergraduate degree isn’t for you, then you may consider one of many other alternative courses that are available. Many of these are the same standard as university level study, but they are more practical or skills-based. You can find out more about the alternatives in our guide to qualifications

Where can I find out more about undergraduate degrees?

The best place to find out more about the undergraduate degrees available in the UK is with UCAS. The information available on the UCAS website will help you decide which subject you want to study, and which universities offer the degree you want. There’s also a whole host of other information, such as fees and funding, accommodation, careers advice, and guidance for international students

Once you’ve decided on the degree you want to study, you can visit the websites for the universities that you are considering, and you’ll be able to attend open days or virtual events, which will allow you to find out even more about the course and the university.

Final thoughts

Choosing your undergraduate degree is a big decision – it is going to take up a lot of your time, and you’ll be investing quite a lot of money in terms of tuition fees and living costs too. Since it is a big decision, and will influence your life for years to come, you’ll want to get it right. Doing plenty of research, and not rushing your application will help to ensure that you make the best decision for you. 

Most students love the time they spend studying for their undergraduate degree, but if you find you made a mistake, don’t worry – you aren’t the first, and won’t be the last! Many students change their minds, and go on to successfully complete their studies in a different subject, at a different institution, or to a different timescale. You’ll find plenty of support available, and you’ll find it has all been worth it when you cross the stage at your graduation ceremony!  

Find out more about the undergraduate courses at UWS London here.

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