This article was originally published in the 2010-2011 academic year.
Ah, the good ol’ topic of “soft subjects” at college and university. It seems to roll around like clockwork as if it’s obliged to crop up somewhere in the media every so often. As such, I can’t say I was particularly surprised to see it being a source of much discussion (yet again) recently. This time around, the story goes that the Russell Group of universities have been advising students to take ‘traditional’ subjects at A-level if they are to stand a good chance of getting into higher education or else risk “disadvantaging” themselves – but to what extent should this be believed?
Well, as we all know, getting into university is not an easy task. We students currently here at the University of Essex are a lucky bunch – while there may seem to be quite a lot of us, there’s just as many (if not more) people out there who weren’t quite as fortunate and missed out on a place. And now, what with tuition fees being set to sky rocket, things are going to get even tougher for those who want to become a graduate, and the value of the degree itself is going to be even more significant. So, my personal thoughts on the matter are: rather than just dismissing the “soft subject” argument, perhaps now is the time to take heed and choose wisely – it’s actually rather sound advice.
It’s no secret that universities are more likely to favour applicants that have what are considered to be ‘strong’ subjects under their belts. These subjects include the typical line-up of Maths, English, Biology, Chemistry and Physics, as well as the likes of History, Geography and Modern Foreign Languages, all of which are being described as “facilitating” – and it’s true, achieving good A-levels in a selection of these subjects is going to boost your overall chances of getting into higher education. But it doesn’t just stop at university; employers are (for the most part) going to be more impressed by someone who has got a qualification in a more traditional, arguably tougher, area of study. From this perspective, what the Russell Group says seems quite sensible – why damage your chances of a successful education and/or career unnecessarily?
The main problem is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that these subjects are amongst those perceived to be the most difficult. Though it can be argued that every subject is challenging in its own respect, you’re more likely to find someone writing off something like Maths because it requires too much effort as opposed to, say, Media Studies (though having studied the latter, I can confirm it’s not a total cakewalk like everyone makes it out to be). And that’s fair enough. If a student has little to no interest in a subject, then taking it is going to seem like a chore. Ultimately you have to study what is right for you, whether that be as a result of a passion you have for a certain subject, or because it’s what’s required for the profession of your choice (though preferably the two should overlap – if you’re studying something you don’t enjoy, then it’s doubtful you’re going to enjoy a career in it either!). Not everyone is a whizz kid who can get excited about complex equations and all manner of other mathematical whatnot, after all. Personally, I chose to study Linguistics here at Essex because I find the analysis of language to be very interesting and it’s something I wanted to delve further into – the fact that it’s a more traditional subject is just a happy coincidence.
Ideally, it can be said that students should aim for a healthy mix of what they enjoy and what will be beneficial for their overall prospects. In an A-level scenario this could involve taking a couple of tougher subjects alongside a couple that will be less strenuous but more interesting, and in a university scenario (if you’re doing a so-called “soft subject”) trying to do as many extra-curricular activities as possible to enhance your CV.
In the end, it’s a matter of compromise. You need to study something you actually want to study if you’re going to get the best out of your education, but the likes of Maths, English, and Science can act as a key that will unlock a more promising future for you. Whether or not they’re actually worth more in the long run is debatable, but it’s undeniable that they look better on paper than some other subjects. Don’t write them off completely.