Each course is a unique mix of many different ingredients — from the subjects covered, to the student body, to the end career it leads to. You can use these points as a checklist of things that you need to find out about courses of interest.
There are many factors to consider when you are weighing up courses and the institutions that offer them, but the key considerations include:
What you will learn
This may seem too obvious to mention, but don't forget that different programs teach very different things — even courses in the same field may be taught differently at separate institutions. They have to teach you about topics you are interested in or are professionally relevant. The first step to success is reading the course handbook thoroughly to ensure that you will be studying something you are interested in and that leads to the career you want.
How much choice they allow
Some courses (engineering, for example) require all students to complete the same "core" subjects to meet industry and government accreditation requirements and don't allow a lot of room to choose electives or explore different subject areas. Other courses in fields that are not regulated (particularly generalist courses like arts) allow you to choose a lot of electives and graduate with a specialisation or major. Check course handbooks to see how much choice is offered.
How you will be learning it
Some courses are mainly 'quantitative' (how's your maths?), while others are 'verbal' or language-based. Some encourage you to have your own ideas, ask the big questions and find out about the world (communications or humanities and social sciences are both good examples of this), while others require you to learn more concrete knowledge and apply it practically (IT and medicine, for example). Some courses involve a lot of writing, while others are very practical, requiring lab work (engineering or science) or extensive practice to perfect artistic techniques (performing arts or design). Another group of courses, especially VET courses, focus on developing practical skills to a required competency.
Courses vary in the time students spend in formal classes and completing self-directed study. You should be able to understand how you will be spending the majority of your time and whether the work is more practical or theoretical by contacting the course coordinator or referring to the course handbook. Some courses (particularly co-ops and VET courses) also have an industry-based learning component that involves students spending time in the workplace.
Who you will study with
Some programs have small numbers and little variation in the subjects offered, so you spend your years with the same group. This makes it easy to make contacts, but can feel a little claustrophobic. Other courses have a large cohort and a wide variation of specialisations, majors and subjects on offer, so you will get to study with a wide variety of people but perhaps without making the same strong connections.
Whether it is tough to study and pass
Some fields of study (and subjects) are notoriously tough, with high failure and drop-out rates. This is especially the case in courses that involve a lot of core subjects needed to satisfy regulatory requirements (dentistry and psychology, for example). If you can, talk to graduates about how difficult they found the course and how they managed. If you're entering a course with a high level of difficulty or a high drop-out rate, the most important thing is that you have a passion for the field and the determination and persistence to see it through. VET courses are generally less demanding than higher education courses, which is something you can keep in mind if you want to ease into your studies.
International study opportunities
Some courses (especially those with "global" or "international" in the name) integrate a compulsory international study experience or industry placement as part of the course content. Other courses allow students to undertake optional study tours, summer semesters or exchange opportunities. These are a great way to develop some international experience and intercultural awareness, and they also look great on your résumé. Be sure to check out the opportunities available within your course and whether credit is granted.
More and more courses are beginning to focus on providing students with practical, industry-based skills and knowledge. While VET courses have always had a strong industry component, many higher education courses are also incorporating stronger ties with industry to ensure students gain "real-world" skills that will enable them to graduate ready for the workplace. Courses in fields such as nursing and teaching always incorporate practical placements no matter where you study them, but you may find that certain institutions outshine others with resources such as on-campus clinics or simulated wards. In other courses, look out for co-ops that involve compulsory industry placements, "work-integrated learning", optional internships and industry-based projects.
Regardless of their subject matter, courses should be taught well by experienced staff and (if applicable) meet industry standards. It's hard to define, but you'll know when you're not getting it. What you should aim to get, at least some of the time, is sheer intellectual excitement. At the very least, a program should be solid, well run and worth the trouble.
The conditions and cost
How you can study
Courses may be offered full time, part time, by distance education or on an accelerated trimester schedule. Not all courses offer all options, and some institutions may offer more flexibility than others. Alternative study options may come in handy if your circumstances change, such as if you're offered full-time work in your field.
How long they take
Courses differ considerably in the length of time they take to complete. While, as a general rule, you will find that VET certificates usually take a year or less of full-time study, diplomas and advanced diplomas around two years, bachelor degrees around three years and so on, there are many exceptions. Bachelor degrees in medicine, for example, require around five or six years of full-time study plus an internship period to gain full accreditation. Double degrees and part-time programs will also take longer to complete, while some courses offer a fast-track option that allows you to complete them more quickly.
Most courses are offered at many institutions, and entry difficulty varies considerably. Entry may require a certain level of education (Year 10, for example), a required ATAR score, subject prerequisites (such as mathematics) or industry experience. Some courses rely more heavily upon the submission of a portfolio, an interview or an audition. When choosing a course, you need to be sure to select one for which you meet the entry requirements or investigate whether alternative entry is available. See Getting into a course for more details.
Whether 'special' applications or applicants are accepted
Alternative entry criteria may be considered by the admissions office. This may include an aptitude test (the STAT test being the most common) in place of an ATAR score, special entry requirements or programs for students from certain groups in society (Indigenous students or students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, for example), special entry requirements for mature age students or recognition of industry experience in place of academic criteria. See Getting into a course for more details.
Be sure to investigate the availability of government-subsidised offerings, such as Commonwealth Supported Places. If full fees are required, check whether you are able to defer these costs through FEE-HELP or VET FEE-HELP, as these can make a huge difference to your ability to fund your course. Don't forget extras such as textbooks and equipment, as well as accommodation and living expenses if you need to live away from home.
Where you can do it
Most courses are offered in a range of locations, but some are available in selected cities and centres only. Your choice of courses will vary considerably if you are willing to relocate for study. You may wish to opt for a course that is offered in a location that specialises in the field of study or has increased opportunities for employment once you graduate (for example, Western Australia for courses in engineering and mining).
The end result
It is important to check whether your course is accredited by relevant industry bodies. There are numerous benefits, the most obvious being that some fields and employers require students to have completed an accredited course and gain membership with the relevant industry association in order to practise. In other fields where accreditation is not a requirement, the completion of an accredited course or eligibility for professional membership can help job applicants to distinguish themselves from the competition by demonstrating that you have the skills that the industry requires.
Where it leads
Some courses lock you into an occupation (dental therapy and surveying are both good examples). This type of vocational study is the main focus of most VET courses. Others, especially arts and science, are much broader in scope. Courses in business or law are somewhere in between, offering skills that would be relevant to a range of jobs or occupations. If you are sure about your future career then you may wish to opt for one of the more specialised vocational options so that you can immerse yourself in your field in greater depth. If you're not 100 per cent sure about your future occupation, you might think about one of the more generalist degrees that will give you room to explore various fields.