Nine common mistakes you should avoid making at Ucas fairs

Ucas fairs, Ucas discovery days; whatever you call them, these events are a brilliant way to start your university shortlist

Ucas fair newbies. Uni staff can spot them a mile off: roaming in large groups, nabbing the free swag from each table but, crucially, not asking any questions.

Trouble is, when they get back to school with their uni-branded bag full of trinkets, they realise they're still just as clueless about where to apply.

Don't fancy being that kind of student? Avoid these pitfalls and you'll come away from your Ucas discovery event with a few less free pens but a much better idea of what you want to do with your life.

1. Turning up unprepared

The whole point of going to a Ucas fair is so you can talk to a range of universities, and get a better idea of where you might apply.

But it's a good plan to do some research before you get there. Work out your longlist of unis, based on your preferred course and locations. You can then spend your time whittling that down into a short list.

Before you go, write down any key questions so you don't forget them. And don't be put off by thinking your question isn't worth asking. The staff on each stand are there to answer all your questions about their uni - and finding out the answers to the small things can often make a big difference.

2. Over-exaggerating your grades

Make sure you know what grades you’re predicted, and be realistic about your own expectations.

It’s great to be ambitious but it's not worth spending all your time collecting information about courses that your predicted grades won't get anywhere near.

3. Forgetting to ask the important questions

Going to a Ucas fair is your opportunity to dig into the detail about universities, by asking the people who really know. Don't be shy to mention other universities in your conversations. By saying "I'm also looking at xyz uni", the people on the stand can help you understand the differences.

Don't presume your life is going to be exactly the same, no matter which uni you pick. Ask each uni about what life is like there. It will help you understand things like whether you want to be at a big or small uni, in a city or a town, out in the sticks or in the heart of the action.

4. Wasting time with irrelevant unis

It’s OK to only know a general area of study, but there’s no point spending ages with the London School of Economics if you want to study engineering.

5. Following your friends round all day

It's easy to miss out on speaking to the universities you're really interested in, because you're busy following your friends and they're not going to those stands.

Unless you have exactly the same subject, location and grade criteria, you're going to be much better off leaving your mates for a while and going it alone.

6. Letting someone else do the talking

Remember: you're the one that will be going to uni.

If you do go along with a friend or a parent, make sure they're not picking the unis you talk to or asking the questions on your behalf. If you've not got all the answers you need, stick around until you do.

7. Assuming you’re talking to an admissions tutor

Universities send a team of representatives to fairs: some will have a background in sales or marketing whereas others might work in admissions or education.

This means one person may be entirely comfortable giving very detailed advice whereas someone else may simply hand you an email address with a smile. If you want a detailed answer to your question, ask if anyone there can help and hang around until they're free to talk to you.

8. Ignoring other students' questions

Some uni stands might be hugely busy, but if you don't get a chance to ask your own questions straight away you can instead listen to the answers other people are getting. You'll probably find the students in front of you will ask some (or all) of your questions.

It's a good plan to make notes as you listen; this is all good stuff that will help you in working out your shortlist.

9. Loading up on every single prospectus

Prospectuses may be glossy and pretty, but they're also heavy - especially when you're lugging around 10 of them. You'll be able to get a downloadable version instead or - if you really want the physical copy - you can order one online later and have it delivered to your house for free.

Things to do before you go

So, now you know the things to avoid, here are a few tips to help you get ready.

  • Make yourself a longlist of universities to talk to. Start with the university search on our sister site The Uni Guide to find out which unis offer the subject you want to study
  • From this list, remove the ones where the entry requirements are not broadly in line with what you’re expecting to get
  • Think about what’s important to you in a university, and prepare some questions you want to ask

How to ask the right questions

The reps you meet are unlikely to have an in-depth knowledge of your degree course – they’re general student recruitment staff, not academics from your department.

This is particularly the case when they’re from a non-specialist uni with a large number of courses - so questions such as ‘what modules are available on the sociology course’ are unlikely to be met with a full answer. Still, if a question is important to you, be sure to ask it.

When planning out your questions, try to think of ones that are specific. Some examples of good questions:

  • Is there a programme that will allow me to use free choice modules to study a language?
  • Am I guaranteed to get a place in halls? Is this the same if I put your uni as my insurance choice?
  • Would I have to do an interview as part of the application process?
  • Is the university all based on one campus? If not, which campus would I be taught at?
  • Can the university cater for my disability?
  • What sports facilities are on offer? Is there a society for my sport?
  • What bursaries do you offer, what are the eligibility criteria, and if I meet the eligibility criteria am I guaranteed to receive the bursary?