In 2017 The Institute of Fiscal Studies reported that the average student in England will be graduating with more than £50,000 in debts. That’s the average! For students from poorer backgrounds that figure is far higher.

But university has always been a huge financial commitment. To commit three years of your life without earning any income – wow, that’s a big step, especially when you don’t have a support network behind you.

There are other reasons not to go to university as well. It is not the only way forward that’s available to you. There are many other options you can consider, each with the potential to kick-start your career.

1. Don’t Panic

Many modern industries are turning away from university qualifications. What matters is talent and transferrable skills, not a certificate. This is especially true of creative and tech industries, where the best candidate is somebody who thinks outside the box, rather than somebody who can recite scholars.

Transferrable soft skills are more and more important; such as a willingness to learn and a focus on personal growth. And just because you didn’t go to university doesn’t mean employers will think you are unwilling to learn. As university courses have become prohibitively expensive, employers have turned more flexible in their search for the best talent.

2. Think Positive

Apply for a degree and there’s a choice of universities. Now you’re not going to university you have more choice. Your choices are wider and more varied, which can be scary as it’s not clear-cut. But out of choice comes opportunity.

The challenge is going to be finding something that’s right for you. But more on that later. Right now you should be thinking positively. There’s a world of opportunity and you are perfectly positioned to start exploiting it all.

3. Consider Your Options

Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship is a full-time job. You’ll get paid a salary and gain practical, job-specific skills. It’s a great first step on the career ladder and is proven to have significant long-term benefits.

You do get paid. Once you have turned 19, and completed the first year of an apprenticeship, you are entitled to the national minimum wage. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that you’ll be learning from experienced industry professionals and working towards a formal qualification. Plus you won’t be paying our £9250 per year for a university degree.

Studies show that is increasingly difficult for university graduates to find a job. Statistics in the UK indicate that over 90% of apprenticeships stay in full-time employment after completing their internship.

Choosing an apprenticeship is as life-changing as choosing a university course. You’ll work and study in a specific industry, so it’s important to ask whether the industry is right for you.

This detailed article covers everything you need to know about apprenticeships in the UK, including how to apply. It suggests a six step plan to applying:

  1. Know your starting level
  2. Career research
  3. Apprenticeship research
  4. Get yourself job ready
  5. Perfect your cover letter and CV
  6. Getting ready for interview

Online Courses

It’s amazing how little people utilize their graduate degrees. Only a small percentage end up working within the area they studied. Online courses can help you focus in on exactly what you want to do, with a far lower cost and time commitment. Complete on online course and use the certificate to get one foot into a career.

Most online courses are part time, designed to fit around full-time jobs. That gives you time to work while studying, overcoming the huge expense of choosing university. While modern industry is moving towards transferrable skills, having a specific skill provides a key entry point into employment.

That’s what you should be looking for from an online course – a specific skill that can be used to kickstart your career. It’s tempting to browse for courses first. Better to do it the other way around – search for jobs and careers you are interested in, then find out the type of skills they are looking for, specifically, the skills you must demonstrate (with your certificate and new skills).

Self Employment

Okay, self employment sounds scary. There are big fears you must face: am I good enough and who is going to help me? There is not a single self employed person out there who 100% knows what they are doing. Or to clarify, as a self employed writer, I know 100% what I’m doing…until tomorrow when I find something I’m yet to learn.

You shouldn’t think you are too young or too inexperienced to be self employed. This crossroads time in your life is actually a positive. You have a blank slate to start from, without other commitments. Many freelancers and self employed people had to make a grinding choice: comfort and employment vs self employment and potential reward.

So if you have an idea then cultivate it. If you have a wanted skill then train it, the more niche the better in today’s world. If you have a passion think of how it could become a business. If you’re sat at home twiddling your thumbs, waiting for the world to come to you, trying out freelancing is a low-risk opportunity that could lead towards self employment.

Internships (With or Without Qualifications)

Many employers prefer a candidate with one year’s industry experience, over a three-year graduate with no practical experience. An internship is an opportunity to build valuable experience, skills and a professional network. Although they are stereotyped as opportunities for employers to get free work, the vast majority of internships are paid.

This article provides a complete guide to internships in the UK, covering paid and student internships, as well as how to find one.

Don’t do an internship for the sake of something to do. This is a stepping stone into a career and you must be focused on the long-term goal. Search online and many internships you see are graduate internships. Don’t be disheartened. Many firms want interns. They just don’t have the time or knowhow to grab one.

So widen your network and put yourself out there. Approach companies with a polished CV, telling them about your skills and why you want to work with them. A remarkably high percentage of interns go on to have full-time paid employment after their internships has finished, making this a very viable first step in your career.

Some established internships programs also help you work towards an accredited qualification, typically a NVQ (National Vocational Qualification), although some companies also sponsor degree programs for talented interns.

Gap Year – Gaining Skills

Almost every young person wants to zip off somewhere else in the world. The opportunity! To experience something new and to experience the freedom of travel! In Denmark they actively encourage gap years for 18 year olds, as it provides time and space for young people to focus on what they really want. If you’re completely stuck on what to do then a change of scenery will help to sharpen your thoughts.

Traveling on a gap year will also increase your confidence and impress the sheer possibility that is out there. But it’s important to be serious about it. Drinking yourself around Southeast Asia for three months usually leads to credit card debt and bad decisions.

Look at opportunities to volunteer, a chance to use and develop skills in wildly different situations. Look at places where you can work informally for a stipend – by living and working in such new environments you’ll be developing skills needed for a successful long-term career.

Starting at the Bottom

Studies show that more than half of all jobs are internally filled. Many companies do over 90% of their recruitment internally. A good example is McDonalds (yes, you probably don’t want to work there). They want people who know the system and company culture inside out. So they appoint from within, the person flipping burgers rising up the career ladder to become branch manager and more.

When you are young and don’t have a degree, there are still lots of job opportunities when you start right at the bottom. The job may not sound appealing. It’s a step in the door. You’ll learn, develop, and hopefully move on to something more suitable for your skills and interests.

If this is something for you then focus more on the company than the actual job role. The company’s culture isn’t going to change; your job could change a dozen times in ten years. Research the career progression that’s available and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you have an interview for flipping burgers ask how long it will take before you are branch manager. They’ll either be impressed by your mindset or will find it problematic – both are good because you don’t want to start at the bottom without opportunity for quick career progression.

4. Network

University courses can be immersive and insular. For the most part you study within a bubble. Choose a different path and you can take your energy in the opposite direction: broad and expansive.

Without a graduate degree you have three years to get ahead of the competition. It’s time to start building your network, time to start spreading your (real and virtual) wings and connecting: peers, industry professionals, successful people who were in your position just a few years ago.

The further you broaden your network the greater opportunity you will find. And by being expansive you’ll dip into new possibilities.