Choosing your university
It’s a big decision, so here’s a checklist of ten important questions to help you look beyond the league tables and make up your mind.
How much will it cost?
Don’t just think about tuition fees, which are broadly similar across most unis. Accommodation will be your biggest expense, so look into that. Will you be in student residences throughout your time at uni, or will you spend some time in private housing? And what about the cost of living in the area? Many unis will help with this info – contact them via social media if you can’t find what you want on their website.
Is the course right?
Different unis take different approaches to the same subject, so make sure you know how they teach, and that the style appeals to you. For example, does the course rely on intense, small seminar groups, weekly essays, or enormous lectures? And how much time will you get to spend with academic staff? Is there an annual rap battle? (Probably not, but you never know.)
League tables are a good rough guide to how effective a course is, but it’s also worth looking at student satisfaction surveys to see what current students make of their degree programme – visit unistats.com for more info.
Is it in the right place?
Location, location, location. It matters. Yes, you want to be in a place that doesn’t make you want to tug out your own toenails in despair, but don’t forget to think about transport links, student housing and local facilities (like cinemas, supermarkets or outdoor spaces). It’s all well and good loving a city, but if there’s nothing to do there, or if it’s hard to get home on public transport if you miss your mum, it could be a problem.
Campus or city?
This is down to personal preference. A campus uni has everything on one site and students live, work and play there; a city uni is spread across different locations. Some students love being immersed in campus life, while others feel smothered. What would you prefer?
What’s on offer beyond your studies?
Even if you have 40 hours of lectures a week you’ll want to do other things when they’re done. Live action role play, where you dress up as knights? A gin and Harry Potter club? Learning to fly gliders? Listening to ALL THE DEATH METAL? Investigate what you can do, it’s another way uni can open your mind. (Yes, all those examples are real uni options.)
Sport is another huge part of student life, so if you’re already into an activity – or know you’d like to start – make sure the places you’re looking at will cater for your passion. Investigate the sports teams, and also what training and equipment they offer. It can all help with your final decision.
What are the facilities like?
You’re going to want the library to be up to scratch, with plenty of working space and good WiFi, but what about course-related facilities? If you’re doing sports science, what gear is on offer? If it’s made of driftwood and old sandals, maybe look elsewhere. Same with theatre – what performance spaces does the uni have?
Don’t limit yourself to course-related stuff, though, as you’ll be living with your uni for a few years. That means bars, cafes, the union and of course the accommodation are all important too, so dig into the prospectus to find out what’s available.
Have you been on an open day and checked out accommodation options?
If you can make it to an open day, they’re usually worth it. It’s a chance to snoop around the site, the lecture halls and any other facilities, meet staff and talk to students. Nothing else will help you get a sense of what a university is like, and that’s always handy.
If they offer tours of student residences, be sure to go on them. They vary a lot, even across the same uni, and you’ll be paying a lot for them, so it’s worth looking around. Would you prefer to be in a small flat with a few other people? Or a single room in a big hall of residence? What’s the surrounding area like? How many spiders are in the bathroom? These are vital questions.
Can you talk to current students?
There are no better guides to a university than the people currently studying there. If you go on an open day, talk to students about what they love and what they hate about their institution. Prepare a list of questions and ask about the course, but also the accommodation, the bars, the social life – anything that helps you build a picture of life at the uni you’re visiting. You can also try social media: forums on sites like The Student Room can also be helpful, but as always, be cautious with who you talk to.
Does it offer professional development and have a good relationship with employers?
At some point you’ll have to leave uni and get one of those job things. If you’ve never applied for one before it can be daunting, but many unis have advisers who can help – see what the places on your shortlist have to offer.
To help you get ready for life after graduation, it’s also handy if a uni has good links with businesses. That way you might get guest speakers coming to give you inside info on an industry you’re hoping to join; opportunities for placements and work experience; and help with developing professional skills or applying for jobs.
How does it feel?
This one sounds vague, but it’s important. Every uni has a personality and curious quirks – Cambridge has punting on the river, York has inexplicably high numbers of geese, Warwick boasts a huge campus miles away from anywhere – which could make it feel like home for some people and hell on earth for others.
You get a sense of an institution’s personality from things like its website and Twitter feed, but again, you have to go and visit to really experience it. Trust your instincts if you come away from an open day not feeling quite right about somewhere that looked perfect on paper – there’s probably a reason for that.