So, you've chosen a subject. Great! You're ready to spend the next three, four, five or six years of your life studying this subject at some lovely university that's just right for you. Problem is, with so many of them, how do you choose? Well, as you might expect, each university is drastically different to the next, and it's understandable to feel a bit lost at this crucial stage in your application if you don't know where you're applying to. But don't panic - this guide has been written specifically to help you out and give you an idea of the sorts of things you want to be looking for.
A couple of small, important things to think about straight away. 1. Make sure your chosen university does your chosen subject! If you're a hopeful chemistry undergraduate and you think Cambridge is the university for you, then it might cause you to think again when you realise that Cambridge don't do a chemistry course outside natural sciences, which would probably mean you'd spend a couple of years also studying physics, biology and geology before you were allowed to specialise into chemistry. It's a small point, but it deserves its own section. 2. And remember, no two courses, even in the same subject or with the same UCAS code, will be exactly the same at different Universities. Do your research carefully. Read the course descriptions and compare courses carefully.
Another very important thing to think about is why you are thinking of going to University. This might seem a bit basic, but.... every October/November TSR is littered with messages saying 'I'm soooooo miserable at University' and its usually because they didn't read the course description properly, didn't think about what the reality of leaving home meant, they picked a 'clever' University because they thought it would impress everyone, or went to University just to please their parents. Dont be one of them. Think carefully, do your research yourself and choose carefully - three/four years is a very long time if you are doing a course you don't enjoy.
Undergraduate prospectuses are available from almost all Universities, often in paper form and free to order (though there are shipping charges if you're not in the UK), or often in PDF form and free to download. This will give you basic information about the courses you might want to study, the types of accommodation that are on offer and a general feel of life at that University.
Having a prospectus to read is usually much more helpful than pottering around websites (and getting lost in them) - and you have all the info in one handy format for later reference. There will however, be other information on the University website that there isn't space for in the prospectus. Things like detailed descriptions of course units, different optional courses available, more detailed descriptions of accommodation etc - make sure you also read these as part of your basic research for making your 5 UCAS choices. Suddenly finding out after Results Day that the course you've chosen doesn't have the focus you assumed it did is not a great preparation for going to University.
Higher Education Conventions/University Fairs
HE Conventions and University Fairs allow you to speak to people from loads of universities all at the same place. It's a good idea to try and get to one - if only to pick up prospectuses and course leaflets, and get lots of freebies!
An open day is debatably one of the most important days in a university's calendar. Open days should be seen as a chance for you to get to know the university, not the other way round; a chance for you to see what that university has to offer, what sort of facilities it has, what the atmosphere is like, what the lectures are like, what the accommodation is like... but don't underestimate the importance of the town or city itself! If it's several hundreds of miles away from you, you might want to take the opportunity to go into the city centre or even find out what the nightlife is like. If that sort of stuff is important to you, you can't neglect it. If you're really going to be spending the next three years (or more) of your life living here, you have to make sure it's exactly what you want.
Open days generally need to be booked in advance; most universities are now sufficiently "hi-tech" to allow you to do this online, but the odd few still resort to the old papyrus. (Oh, that's a point; if you don't have any stamps, buy some. They'll be vital for correspondence with a lot of universities, sending forms off and so on.) Humour their ways and book your open day. That's the easy part over; now, how to get there? Megabus is pretty cheap, but its journeys are often slow and restricted to certain times of the day, so unless you get lucky, that's not gonna help you much. Still, if you live in London, it might, so it's worth a mention. National Rail are almost invariably your best bet, and if you buy a Young Persons Railcard beforehand, fares can often be a lot cheaper. Buy at least two weeks in advance with any company you travel with; the closer it gets to the time, the higher the fares are. Don't forget to allow time for getting from the train/bus station to the university itself; setting an hour aside probably won't hurt, and if you find you're 55 minutes early, you can pop into the city centre and grab something to eat.
So what happens on an open day? Well, that varies between universities and the type of open day you attend. Some are general university open days, in which case, surprise surprise, it'll just be a tour round the university, and you might get invited to see some lectures relevant to your subject or similar subjects. Some, in the few collegiate universities, will be college open days, where you'll be shown round the individual college, probably including the bar, the accommodation, the dining arrangements - all important stuff, as I'm sure you'll agree! Some open days are subject open days, though, where you'll normally see a couple of lectures, one on the university, one on your subject, and be taken round the department and speak to members of the faculty.
Again, it's all an opportunity for you to see whether you like the university. If Oxford is a great university but you know you couldn't stand living there for three years, don't apply there. If you decide you love Durham, but wish you'd gone to a different college's open day, because the accommodation in yours is nasty, don't apply there. If Warwick is really the sort of place you want to be, but you'd absolutely hate the idea of commuting from Leamington or Coventry every day, don't apply there. Remember that this is where you'll be living for the next few years of your life, and if there's something you simply can't stand about the university, think twice before applying there just for its reputation.
While the geographical layout of a university may not seem important, you'd be very surprised how important it can actually be. The most important geographical feature that a lot of universities have is a campus. This means that those universities - such as Warwick - contain university buildings, shops, lecture halls, research facilities and leisure facilities all in the same place, so you never have to move far. If that sounds good to you, then great; campus universities do promote a friendly, 'homely' feel, and it's difficult to move from one place to another without seeing someone you know. But beware of the dangers of campus universities too. Warwick, for example, offers accommodation on campus to all first years; but during subsequent years, most students are forced to live off campus due to space restrictions, often in Leamington or Coventry, and have to commute to lectures each day.
It's also worth considering the finer details of the geographical location. Are the shops in walking distance of the accommodation? What's the public transport like? Is the university difficult to get to from the train station? Is the area dangerous at night? While these may not seem incredibly important now, it's nice to know that you'll be able to do whatever it is you do at university as well as at home. If you go for a jog at 4 o'clock every morning - and some people do! - then it's often good to know you're not going to get stabbed. If you find you suddenly, desperately need to go shopping, then it's nice to know you're not going to struggle uphill for half an hour with bags back to your accommodation. Do you find it difficult to wake up in the mornings? Would being 45 minutes' walk away from your lecture hall mean that you are definitely going to miss some lectures? If you're the sort of person who finds it difficult to do anything other than roll out of bed and across the road into a lecture hall, then it's worth considering.
The above paragraph goes doubly for anyone who would consider themselves physically disabled in some way, even if temporarily; a half-hour walk might not damage most people, but half an hour going across gravel in a wheelchair twice a day might not be what you want to remember of your experience of student life, and making the same journey on crutches wouldn't be fun either. That doesn't mean don't apply, of course; just make sure there are buses or trains available and easy to get to if you think this might apply to you.
Ah, here we have it. The one you've all been waiting for.
Do not get hung up on League Tables, 'prestige', 'status', or any other of this better/best stuff. League Tables consider a whole heap of things (like industrial research funding, or how many books a Professor in a totally different Dept has had published) that will have absoloutly no bearing on an undergraduate degree.
All Universities are strong in particular areas, be this Pharmacy, English Literature, Graphic Design, Chemistry or whatever. You need to look at the course you want to do, not focus on the branding of the University. No two courses are exactly the same, even in the same subject, at different Universities. Read the course description (all of it) carefully. Go to Open Days at a variety of Universities. Think carefully about what 'being at University' is actually all about.
Using League Tables sensibly means not obsessing about whether LSE is' better' than Warwick because its one teeny-weeny point above the other in a League Table, or TVU is 'worst' of the lot because its somewhere near the bottom. League Tables give you a general idea of where Unis are relative to each other, but decisions about where to apply are much better based on more solid considerations, as discussed above. Coming out of LSE does not guarantee you anything career-wise unless you make it happen, and similarly a degree from a so-called "lesser" university does not of itself disqualify you from entry to careers in Finance or Law or whatever.
Read the course descriptions, go to Open Days. Make your own decision based on your interests and comfort needs, and where you think you will be happy for three/four important years of your life. Don't rely on a League Table to make this decision for you.
Proximity to home
Most prospective students enjoy the thought of university and look forward to freedom, independence, and most importantly, putting a good couple of hundred miles between where they currently live and where they're going to study. It's only natural to want to move away from home around this time, and it's perfectly encouraged. Of course, if you desperately, unequivocally want to stay at home while studying then go for it; apply for your nearest few universities and sit back and enjoy the comfort of your own home. The benefits are self-evident. But for those who want to move away, my advice is purely caution: if you live in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, you might not want to go to your local university, but (unless your family are particularly clingy) the geographical benefits of choosing Bristol over Durham may well be far outweighed by those six £60 train journeys per year. When it comes to geographical location, most students think further is better; truth is, 50 miles is as good as 500, so if you live in Liverpool, don't be put off by the thought of studying at Manchester because it's not quite far enough away!
Long-distance relationships and other commitments
Of course, it simply wouldn't be university without its complications. An often-cited problem is that of the long-distance relationship, but this applies to other commitments such as jobs; should these affect your choice of university? The simple answer is no, unless these commitments are going to be more important than your education, or dropping them is likely to disrupt your education. Of course, it is perfectly understandable that someone in a long-distance relationship might feel that the relationship is sufficiently important to affect their choice of university, or that travelling to university and back six times a year and not being able to hold down a job would have adverse effects on their financial situation which might cause them to drop out; it is strongly advised that, by default, this should not affect your choice of university - that is, unless there is a very good reason for it to do so.
(Though listing such reasons may be outside the intended scope of this guide, so I won't try!)
Transport to, from, and around university
Congratulations; most of you can leave your hard-earned cars at home, because I'm afraid most universities and university cities simply don't have the space or the resources to allow students to bring cars, and fees for a parking space can consequently be rather heavy. Many universities will, of course, allow cars if you need them to get around (due to some affliction or disability). Contact the individual universities if you're unsure.
For most students, it's buses and trains. Check whether student discounts apply; if you haven't already, consider getting a Young Persons Railcard if you're going to be using the train a lot. When travelling to and from university, try and use fairly cheap services such as Megabus, for obvious reasons; however, if that doesn't take you where you need to go, more popular services such as National Express and National Rail won't break the bank. Try and order your tickets at least two weeks in advance, though, particularly if you know the term dates, because ticket prices are prone to sharp increases within two weeks of travelling. (A railcard will pay for itself in just one £60 journey on National Rail trains!) Obviously, if you're within London, check for discounts on the tube; remember that standard National Rail railcards don't apply on the tube.
If you're travelling between London and Manchester then print at home tickets offer very cheap travel, although services are limited .
All Articles in this Section
- University Open Days
- HE Conventions
- Read our University Guides
- Browse Universities by Type
- Firm and insurance choices
- Browse Universities by Location
- Read City and Nightlife Guides
- University Help - how to find out more info on universities
- Where to find further advice
- University Age Requirements
- Disabled Students' FAQ