When I grow up I want to be... Personality and university course choice

Posted 15 February 2013 by
Paul Deakin, Senior R&D Consultant at OPP, with Tatiana Gulko
Girl in front of blackboard

University application figures in England have taken a plunge following the recent increase in university tuition fees. Applications for a university place fell by 8% in 2012, and were the lowest they had been in six years. Given the financial burden a university education now entails, it has never been more important for a prospective university student to feel confident that they are embarking on the right course. But whilst an array of research exists on the subject of career choice in general, little is known about how students choose their university course. Universities in turn want to be confident that the students they recruit will be satisfied with their chosen course, and see their studies through to fruition – so we decided to find out how personality affects young people’s course choice.

The research team at OPP asked approximately 100 young people how they chose their path of study. Interest, or passion for a particular subject, is amongst the factors that influence course choice, and we found that personality also has a part to play in this decision-making process.

In this particular study, 35% of current students stated that they would choose a different course if they were given the chance.

When we looked in depth at the reasons behind students’ course choices, we found that a powerful personality characteristic, anxiety, had an influence. Specifically, students with lower levels of anxiety were more likely to follow their dreams, choosing their university course as a result of long-standing interest in that subject. Interestingly, students who had developed an interest in their chosen university subject more recently, whilst at school or college, were more likely to have higher levels of self-efficacy, that is, more confidence in their own ability to master a task.

What is not clear at this stage is whether or not the relationship between anxiety and following your aspirations is causal. Are more anxious students less likely to follow a course even though they have been interested in it for a long time? Or was it the fact of following such a course that made others less anxious? Such questions are best answered with longitudinal research, where individuals are followed at various points throughout life.

These findings may have implications for young career entrants, as well as the advisors who counsel them. Choosing a course that will interest and motivate you over time does not just amount to adding up the salary and practical benefits you will receive in the future, or even continuing down a path you have always imagined yourself on. Do young people at this crucial life stage also take their personality into account? Are they aware of their personality characteristics and how these could affect their satisfaction levels, both during and after the university whirlwind? We believe there is more work to be done in this area – but identifying the personality characteristics of students, alongside their motivation to study for a particular course, will help work towards improving a young person’s career satisfaction and prospects.

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