Lots of universities are holding their open days online this year because of social distancing guidelines – here’s how to use virtual open days to pick your ideal university
The point of an open day is to show you what a university is really like, beyond its glossy marketing brochure. On an open day, you get to look around the accommodation, library, sports facilities and students’ union as well as attend talks and Q&A sessions and speak to current students.
Universities know that applicants still want to get the lowdown on student life, even if Covid-19 and social distancing has made it trickier to visit campuses in person. Many are offering virtual open days to help make this happen.
And it’s worth bearing in mind that you’ll also get the chance to go to applicant days at your chosen universities in the spring, by which time things might have moved back to in-person visits. This would give you the chance to have a real-life look before making a final decision.
Missing out on a face-to-face open day isn’t ideal, of course, but here’s how you can make the most of virtual open days and use them to help you make your choices.
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What is a virtual open day?
A virtual open day is an online university tour that should go some way to replacing attending an open day in person.
The exact content will vary depending on the university, but virtual open days may include interactive videos to show you things like the campus, its facilities and the accommodation.
These videos will be up on each university’s website so you can view them whenever you like. Ucas has a comprehensive list of virtual tours and videos from universities and colleges here.
Plenty of universities will also run virtual Q&As, webinars and talks – you should be able to get details on these from the university websites. If you missed one, you could instead email the admissions department with any questions.
More like this: six essentials for your next virtual open day
How should I prepare for a virtual open day?
Just as with a regular open day, you’ll get the most out of a virtual one if you have a bit of a think about the questions you need to be asking yourself – and the university – beforehand.
Here are some ideas of the type of thing it might help to think about.
Make sure that the course fits with your learning style
Read the university’s course description to find out how it’s taught, what methods of assessment it uses and the amount of contact time you’ll get.
You’ve probably got a decent idea of how you learn best. If you prefer an interactive style and can’t stand exams or self-study, for example, you might want to go for a course that has plenty of seminars, lots of contact hours and is mainly assessed through coursework.
It’s also worth checking how the course’s online provisions have worked so far – most universities are offering a blend of virtual and in-person teaching at the moment, so it’s a good idea to make sure that the current students are happy with how they’re being taught.
Get a good idea of which facilities will be available to you
The virtual open day tours should include a look around the facilities, such as the library, the student union, sports and any course-specific facilities.
You’ll want to get a clear idea of what’s available to you and what you’ll have access to – for example, is the library open 24/7 all year-round? This will be particularly essential if you prefer to study at night.
If your course uses specialist equipment, find out whether you’ll be able to use it whenever you need to, and check if it’s industry-standard.
And if there’s something that is really important to you, like mental health services, LGBT+ support or creative studios, ask if the university provides them and if so, what they’re like.
Find out about the accommodation
Sure, a virtual tour should give you a decent look around the accommodation, but you’ll also want to check things like how much it costs and exactly what’s covered in the price.
And bear in mind that a virtual tour is probably going to make the accommodation look a bit better than it does in real life. It might be a good idea to ask current students at the university for their thoughts on what the accommodation is really like, too.
You’ll be spending quite a lot of time in your halls, so make sure you choose a university with accommodation that will best suit you, your budget and your lifestyle.
Think about what kind of area you want to live in
First of all, would you rather live on a campus or in a city? Both have their pros and cons, so it can be kind of tricky to choose between the two.
On a campus you’ll just be living with students, whereas in a city you’ll be in amongst a wider range of people. If you go to a city university, you’ll probably have to do a lot more travelling to lectures and social events – which could also end up costing a fair bit of money.
You could also consider things like how far away from home you want to be, whether you’d prefer a coastal location or somewhere inland and whether an area’s transport links will make it easy for you to visit friends and family.
And if you can't make it to the area to have a look in person, you can always take a virtual stroll through the area on Google Street View to get some sense of what it looks like, at least.
Weigh up your job prospects
Getting a job at the end of your degree may feel like a long way off, but it’s still a sensible thing to consider.
In a Q&A session, you could ask about the specific types of jobs that graduates go into, to give you an idea of how likely the course is to help you achieve your career goals. Find out if it also offers thing like work placements, industry accreditations, guest lectures, field trips and professional qualification, too – anything that could boost your future CV.
Check out the student union
The student union acts as the student representative body, as well as being the base for the university’s various societies.
Societies can be a great way to make friends, explore your interests and add skills to your CV – and student unions can also potentially have a big impact on how the university is run.
If the student union isn’t included on the virtual tour, you can take a look at the university website to get a feel for what it’s like instead. You’ll be able to tell that it’s an active student union if it has lots of busy societies and sports clubs to choose from.
It’s likely that lots of societies will also be active on social media – take a look at their Instagram or Facebook accounts to see the kinds of things their members get up to.
It’s also worth finding out how any societies that you’re interested in are running this year – lots will have moved online or been adapted in other ways to follow social distancing guidelines.
Speak to the students
If the university that you’re interested in is hosting a virtual Q&A with current students, it’s definitely worth attending. They’ll be able to give you an unbiased view on student life there, and you can find out whether they’d recommend the course or university.
And even better if you can talk to students taking your specific course. You could ask them, for example, what they like about the course, whether they have any advice for anyone thinking about studying it and how things have worked this year so far with online learning.
Of course, you’ll also find loads of current students on TSR. Make sure you visit the universities area of the forums – you’ll find hundreds of forums dedicated to specific universities across the UK. Pop in and ask a question for a quick reply from someone studying there.
Go to an applicant day next year
You won’t necessarily have to accept a university place without ever having visited in person. Once you’ve submitted your Ucas application and universities have (hopefully!) started offering you a place, they will probably also invite you to an applicant day. These generally take place in the springtime after your application’s been made, by which time you might be able to make an in-person visit.
Applicant days are a bit different to open days as they’re specific to your course, rather than being a more general tour of the university. You’ll probably meet your future tutors as well as current students, giving you the chance to ask really in-depth questions about the course content.
You’ll also be able to take a look around all the places you saw on your virtual open day – so you can make sure that the reality matches up to the videos before you make your firm choice.
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