Do league tables matter? How to make sure you're choosing the right university

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Finding the right university is about more than number-crunching. Here's what else you need to think about

Are you a slave to university league tables?

Every prospective student spends at least some time trawling through the latest uni beauty parades. But if you’re basing your decision purely on the number against a uni’s name, then you’re missing a trick.

League tables can give a valuable insight into a uni’s performance and reputation, but they’re not the final word. Even high-ranking unis agree.

"League tables don’t take everything into account,” says Lydia Newton, higher education adviser at top-25 university UEA. “There are so many things to consider when choosing a university that they don’t cover, such as the type of campus and style of teaching. These are both important elements that should form part of your overall decision too."

“Use them with caution,” adds Keir Robinson, education liaison officer at 33rd-placed Heriot Watt University. “Just because a university is high up the league table, it doesn’t mean that the course and location is right for you.”

But if league tables aren’t the whole story, what else do you need to know? We’re glad you asked…

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Ask yourself: will I be happy living here?

This is a massively important question, and it’s one that so many students forget to consider until the very last moment. But don’t underestimate how important it is to be happy where you’re studying. You’re going to find it tough going to make a success of your time at uni if you’re miserable where you’re living.

“Think carefully about the things that make you happy,” says Lydia. "Would you prefer to live in a bustling city or do you enjoy quieter places? Will you have access to the sports facilities you need? Are you hoping to take up a new hobby or activity? Make sure you look at the societies and clubs on offer.”

An open day is your ideal opportunity to find out more about the living situation.

“I’ve known students who have changed their mind about a university after visiting, both positively and negatively,” says Karen Nesbitt, undergraduate admissions manager at Aston Business School.

“You’ll spend three or four years of your life at university so it’s important that you’re happy there. There isn’t a league table in the world that can tell you that, only you can decide.”

While you’re visiting the uni, you’ve also got the chance to talk to people about the realities of campus life. “Ask questions such as how many students share one kitchen, the distance of the campus to the nearest train station and how far your accommodation is from the nearest supermarket,” says Kirsty Wilkinson, school and college liaison manager at Loughborough University.

“These may seem relatively insignificant but it is often these areas that can make the difference between settling in and enjoying your new surroundings and not. They are just as important as questions relating to course structure and content.”

If you can, also make sure you check out the city and local life, especially if you’re looking for a good nightlife, shopping and other fun things to do which don’t involve studying.

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Get past the marketing spiel – pick the course apart

“Don’t take the course at face value,” says Kevin Betts, head of recruitment at the University of Sussex. “Many students listen to the sales people like me and the academics who teach the sexy stuff and are sold on it from there.”

However, not all courses are made equal. “There’s no national curriculum in higher education, and even degrees with the same title and course code may be entirely different," says Lydia. 

"Take medicine, for example. Some medical degrees don’t have any patient interaction until the third or fourth year of study. Others, like UEA, have patient interaction from the first few weeks.”

Put the time and effort in to pick apart the course. Look at every module, the style of assessment, the level of contact time. “You’ll have a good idea of the type of assessment you do well in and what you struggle with,” says Michael Nicholson, director student recruitment and admissions, University of Bath. “Think of this when considering your degree choices.”

Once you’ve got a full picture of the course, you’ll be in a position to ask yourself: is this really the course I want to be studying?

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Can you afford to live there?

Think about living costs for the next three to four years, not just first year. The price you pay to live in halls is one thing, but once you move off-campus you’re going to be looking at the going rate in your uni’s city. Some cities are more expensive than others – choosing one where you’re going to be paying less in rent will make life more comfortable in later years.

Most students don't realise just how many bursaries and scholarships there are on offer - and a lot of it never gets claimed. These vary by uni, but most institutions will have a page on their website where the available offers are detailed. Take a look at these pages to find out what each university can offer - then check whether you're eligible.

Scholarships can knock a chunk off your tuition fees, and they're awarded based on varying criteria. For instance, some might focus on academic performance, while others might be sponsored by industry. “The trick is to do your research and apply to everything you're eligible for,” says Keir. “The worst they can do is say no.”

“Always apply for scholarships if you think you might even have a remote chance of achieving one,” says Lydia. “Every year, significant amounts of scholarship money goes un-applied for.”

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What else do you get, other than a degree?

Even though getting a job after uni might seem like a long way off, you should look at the opportunities the degree will offer you to improve your job prospects, says Louise Foster-Agg, admissions manager at Aston University.

“For example, does your course offer a chance to do a work placement, a year abroad or to learn a language?

“You might also to want to consider other course-related extracurricular activities that your department offers such as guest speakers or subject-specific student societies. Particularly if you aren't sure of your long-term career plans, the more experience you can gain during your degree the better.”

Watch more videos about student life

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