Going to a university open day can give you a great taster of campus life.
It's an opportunity to find out more about the course you fancy and see where you could be studying, as well as a time for meeting the teaching staff and speaking to current students.
You'll get the most from an open day if you're armed with a list of useful and relevant questions. Here are eight to get you going.
1. How is the course assessed?
No course is assessed in the same way; even the same subject will vary across universities. If you hate exams, you don't want to end up on a course that's assessed almost entirely by exams.
If the percentage of exam and coursework assessment isn't covered in the uni's prospectus, you'll want to ask about this at the open day. Also find out what’s involved on the coursework side. It might not be as straightforward as just writing an essay, it could mean group work.
Group work at university can be tricky, especially if not all members pull together to do the research and write-up. It requires a whole new skill set to pull off a successful group assessment – team management, diplomacy and communicating feedback constructively. That's one to think about if you would rather learn under your own steam rather than in a group.
2. How is the course taught?
How do you like to learn? Will the setup of the course get the best out of you?
Teaching methods vary from uni to uni, from course to course. Find out which modules are lecture-based and which are seminar-based. Seminars are a lot smaller, there might be only 10 of you in a group compared to 50 – 80 in a lecture hall. Seminars can be more discussion based; if you haven’t done your follow-up reading prepare to be busted.
Lectures can be less interactive with the lecturer talking more and asking fewer questions, but it really does depend on the lecturer’s style and what they are talking about.
If you're fairly local to the uni you're interested in, you might be able to pop along and listen in to a lecture. This will give you a really good flavour of what learning in this way will feel like.
3. How much contact time will there be?
Contact time is the number of hours of formal learning you’ll have at the university. Ask how much you'll get and how it changes during of the course.
As a history undergraduate I had eight hours of contact time each week during first year. By third year it was down to four hours a week. More practical and vocational courses like medicine, nursing or dentistry will offer far greater contact time, but the number of hours in placement at the hospital versus lecture time will vary greatly throughout the course.
4. How much self-study is required for the course?
You’re about to enter the world of independent learning. You may have done a bit of this at school or college, but uni is a whole new level. I remember receiving reams of paper at the beginning of my first year modules – this was the reading list.
You’ll be expected to get through the advised course reading throughout the module, as well as tackling specific chapters or texts ahead of seminars and lectures.
Try to get a sample of the reading list and check out a few of the books. Are you enjoying what you’re reading? If you’re bored after the first paragraph you might want to have a re-think.
Find out how many hours you're expected to study alongside the contact time. If you're planning to work part-time while at uni, you’ll need to factor this in before applying for jobs.
5. Will the course change or develop during my time at uni?
When researching the course, consider the modules for the entire duration of your time at uni. Ask whether there are any plans to change course, so you don't get any surprises after you've signed up.
If there are optional modules, ask about their availability and whether the uni can guarantee you a place.
6. Will the course leader have much involvement?
Love your chosen subject? Prepare to be inspired by the faculty staff who have spent most of their working lives researching and writing about it. One word of warning though. Universities will promote their academics both at an open day and in their prospectuses but that doesn't mean you’ll ever even see them at uni, let alone be taught by them!
Ask who is teaching the course, ask about their experience and find out how easy it is to contact them outside of seminars and lectures. Don't forget to ask about the personal tutor who will be assigned to you. How often will you meet with them? What support do they offer? When can you approach them with a question?
7. Can I use those shiny facilities?
Universities love spending millions on new libraries, sport centres and laboratories, all of which feature heavily in those glossy prospectuses. But will you actually get to use those facilities when you go to uni? It's not as silly a question as it might sound; new state-of-the-art facilities won’t necessarily always be available to undergraduates.
8. How satisfied are the students who are currently on the course?
These stats are published in the annual National Student Survey, but it's worth bringing it up at an open day too. It can feel like an awkward question, so consider rephrasing it. Something along the lines of “how has the course evolved following student feedback and do you have any future plan following more recent feedback?” will get you some useful insight. Current students will also be available on the day; take the opportunity to grill them too!