If you’ve come to this page, you’ll already have thought about apprenticeships and school leaver programmes, and decided that university is the best option for you (and if you haven’t, you really should).
The bad news is, the decision making isn’t over. The good news is, the next question is one of the most exciting of your life: “which university should I go to?”
This is just as important as the decision to continue to higher education, and with so many institutions all competing for your attention, you need to make sure you do your research thoroughly and make a careful, informed choice.
To make that process a little bit easier, we’ve set it out step by step.
1. Know the facts
But before you even start contemplating thinking about considering a university, there are some basic facts you need to know about the application process:
- As you probably know, you apply for your UK university place through an online service called UCAS.
- For 2017 entry, you can start applying for UCAS on 6th September.
- The UCAS deadline for 2017 entry is 15th January.
- You can apply to up to five universities through UCAS (helpful hint: use all five places!).
- If you want to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, you have to complete a separate application, which is due in before the UCAS deadline, on 15th October.
- Most medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine/science applications are also due in early – again, on 15th October.
2. Make your long list: Decide what you’re looking for
Next, you need to come up with a criteria for picking out some likely options in the first place. This is probably the most important step as it will help you home in on the universities and courses that are best matched to you.
To get you started, we’ve created a spreadsheet (GCSE IT, here we come!) to help you form your criteria and compare universities to it. It comes complete with instructions and it should help you come up with a shortlist of universities to visit (more on that in step 3).
What subject do you want to study?
It might sound obvious, but you should start with the subject you’d like to study (and if you haven’t made up your mind yet, we’ve got a whole article dedicated to just that). If there are two or three similar or related subjects you haven’t decided between (like philosophy and psychology, or maths and physics), don’t worry. If you have a fairly strong idea of the subject route you’d like to take, finding out about course content should make your final decision easier.
Where do you want to study?
This is a broad question in itself. Maybe you’d like to study overseas – in Europe or the United States for example. Of course, if this is the case, the first thing you’ll need to find out is what language any possible courses are taught in, and how the university decides to admit students from other countries. Start by taking a look at our article about choosing an overseas university.
Most of you will be planning to stay here in the UK, but the question still applies. Lots of students like to get away and get a flavour of independent living, which makes university a good time to learn some of those basic life skills that might make your stomach sink, such as cooking, doing the laundry and managing finances.
On the other hand, you might prefer – or need – to live within easy reach of your nearest and dearest, or even at home with your family while you study.
Finally, you might be thinking about studying in a different country within the UK – for example, if you’re Scottish and planning to study in England, or vice versa. You’ll need to bear in mind that things like course length and tuition fees can vary from country to country, so make sure you find out about that first.
What are your grade expectations?
This is relatively straightforward, because by the time you apply to university, you should have a good idea of what you can expect to achieve in your exams. Use this as a guide when selecting universities, and pick a mixture of ambitious options and places you can be confident of getting an offer for.
You can use UCAS clearing if you don’t get the grades you were hoping for. However, it’s best to use this as a fall-back option rather than a reason to gamble on six ambitious places, particularly as competition can be tough.
If you do better than expected, you can always use UCAS’s adjustment option to look for university places with higher entry requirements.
How much contact time do you want?
People learn in different ways. Some of us are independent learners and are happy to plough through a stack of books, while others learn best by talking. You’ll need a good mix of both, but you might prefer a course that is weighted one way or the other.
Bear in mind that many of the world’s most famous universities are have got their reputation because of the quality of their research. This doesn’t always mean their teaching is as good. Use open days to find out about the teaching quality from students and staff, particularly if independent learning isn’t your strong suit. You can also see reports on individual universities on the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education’s website.
What is your ideal study/life balance?
Just because you don’t want to spend all hours studying, that doesn’t mean you’re not “university material”. But it does mean you need to find a course which strikes a realistic balance.
Whatever people tell you, academic ability is not the only indicator of what university you should apply to.
You might be a straight A student and have a real passion for learning, but if you have priorities other than studying, Oxford, Cambridge or a Russell Group university may not be the right choice for you.
On the other hand, if you look on university as an opportunity to learn as much about your subject as can possibly be squeezed into three years, then you might be looking for a more comprehensive course.
Look at the course content to see what you can glean about workload, and talk to students and staff on open days to find out how much work you can expect to do.
What will my employment prospects be like?
You should compare employment statistics for the universities you’re applying for. Not only will this suggest how well your degree will set you up for a job at the end, it could well be telling you something about the quality of the course itself. Also find out whether your options have links with employers as this might help get onto internships, summer placements, or grad scheme.
What other factors are important to you?
The quality of the learning experience is the most important factor of your time at university. You will probably rack up more than £27,000 in tuition fees alone, not to mention living expenses and other costs, so it’s important you find a course that helps you in your career, and which you get a lot out of in its own right.
At the same time, you probably have other things on your mind, like nightlife, transport links, and yes, maybe even culture (by this, we mean things like museums, art galleries, theatres, cinemas, concert venues).
The good news is, there are over 100 universities and colleges to choose from in the UK alone, so there’s probably somewhere that ticks most of the boxes, if not all of them.
3. Pay a visit: Get up close and personal
Open days are great! They’re fun, you get free food, goodie bags to take away with you (making them a great way to stock up on pens) and they really whet your appetite for university. And if you’re undecided about going to university, talking to students and tutors, and checking out the vibe, is a great way to help you make up your mind.
Open days are held throughout the year, and there will usually be a few of them in the autumn-term run-up to the UCAS deadline.
Deciding which universities to visit
We suggest you consult your spreadsheet (you know, the helpful one we made for you, which you can download here) and research as many as possible. Google the university’s name plus “prospectus” and you should be taken straight to their information for potential applicants. This will tell you the grades you need to get in as well information about your course, accommodation, the university’s ethos and plenty more besides.
Shortlist the universities that most closely match your criteria. The exact number will depend on your quality of your long list, but eight-12 is a good ballpark figure as you’ll want to have a strong set of options for your final six.
All you need to do is Google the university name plus “open days” and the page you need will most likely be the top result. The earlier you do this, the better, as you don’t want to miss any open days.
Missed the open day?
If you have missed the last open day or can’t make the dates, don’t worry. Contact the admissions department (Google the university name plus “admissions”) and any university worth applying to will arrange for you to visit on another day. Usually, they will give you the chance to meet some students, tutors, and even have a tour of the university.
What to look out for
Open days are a great chance to see whether the university matches up to its advertising! Here are our tips:
- Talk to students: Ask them what the course content and workload is like and if it meets their expectations. Find out what they think of their tutors, supervisors and lecturers. Ask them if anything could be improved.
- Talk to staff: You will be learning from these people, so find out what they are like. Do they seem friendly and easy to get along with? Are they passionate about their subject? What’s their approach to teaching? How much contact time can you expect?
- Check out facilities: Science students should ask to see labs if they’re not on the tour. English students should ask to see the library. You get the picture.
- See accommodation: In first year, you’ll probably be living on campus, and the chances are you’ll spend a good chunk of time in your student rooms. Don’t be too picky, but make sure you’ll be comfortable. You don’t want to be too grossed out to work, too hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter.
Remember, if you’re refused access to anything or given an evasive answer, keep asking. You’re spending a lot of money on your university education so you need to know what you’re signing up for.
4. Pick your final six
When you’ve visited all of your shortlisted universities, you should have enough information to make your final judgement. Look at your original criteria and pick the six which mostly closely fit the bill.
But don’t try to be too scientific about it – if you got a really good feeling about some of the places you visited, it’s always worth throwing in a few wildcards. Trust your gut!
“Which university should I go to?” could be one of the biggest questions of your life, and you won’t regret giving it careful thought. To help your decision, check out the top 10 UK universities 2016.