Your university wish list: covered.
Where do you start?
There’s no shortage of information when choosing a university – it’s just knowing what to do with it all – league tables, student satisfaction surveys, course rankings and more. There are roughly 150 universities in the UK and around 70,000 courses – it’s overwhelming.
"It's cheaper to travel to an open day than it is to drop out"
One university tutor has a refreshing approach. “Start with a wish list,” says Mike Nicholson, director of student recruitment and admissions at the University of Bath. “What would your dream university experience be? And then see which courses and institutions are the closest match. Remember a league table ranking is just a number – it doesn’t represent the experience you will have.”
Today’s fees of up to £9,250 mean the stakes are high. Roughly one in ten students will drop out of university before their second year, according to HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) – but this varies according to where and what they study.
Computer scientists are most likely to quit, while medical and veterinary medical students tend to stay the course. Elite universities tend to have the lowest drop out rates, with Oxbridge, St Andrews, Durham, Bath and Bristol hanging on to most of their undergraduates, while London Metropolitan, Bolton and Birkbeck tend to lose the greatest proportion – about a quarter - in their first year. More than a fifth of students would have chosen differently if they’d had a second chance, a study by website The Student Room shows.
Choosing well means whittling down your priorities. Any tutor will tell you you’ve got to be deeply inspired by your subject – you’re more likely to be motivated on a cold morning in February to get to class. But on paper many courses look similar, and you might need to dig deeper into detailed descriptions of modules to get a feel for the subject. “I always recommend looking at the course first rather than the university,” says Dr Pragya Agarwal, a senior research associate at the University of Liverpool and formerly admissions tutor at several top universities. Look at specifics, she says – teaching and class size - contact hours are less impressive if you’re at the back of a packed seminar. Will assessment methods play to your strengths – do you perform better in exams or with assignments? Who will teach you, and if it’s a vocational course, have they recently worked in the field, or do they have good contacts? What are academics’ research interests?
“Look too for the ‘value added’ in a course,” says Mr Nicholson – the extras that will make you stand out in a job market. Does a university encourage and arrange work placements and study abroad – two thirds of Bath’s students have some kind of placement and staff are on hand to help – or do they pay lip service without really helping students out?
Ultimately, much of your choice comes down to that slightly unscientific metric of the “feel” of a place – and this is why you need to visit. As one student points out, it’s cheaper to travel for an open day rather than drop out of a university you didn’t even know you didn’t like. If you’ve missed an open day, you can always call admissions or the department direct to ask to pop in on an ad hoc basis, says Dr Agarwal. “Universities want keen students, and they’ll try to accommodate you.”
Lucky students who know what career they’d like to do will find picking a course more straightforward – universities will tell you where their graduates end up – and they often hold more detailed careers information than they’re asked to publish. But realistically, most school leavers haven’t a clue – and this doesn’t matter – you’re not alone. Three years at university is enough time to fathom this out. And this is why, where and what you study must be right to keep you on track.
When applying, you can add an insurance choice – usually with lower grade requirements. But make sure this is somewhere you really want to go, otherwise you might find yourself trying to get released from your offer during the hubbub of A level results.
And of course most students want the fun side, the undergraduate “experience”, which means picking the right campus, accommodation, city, rural location and facilities. Whether it’s clubs or hillwalking that cranks your handle, take time to go beyond campus and look at the surrounding city, town or countryside, says Mr Nicholson. “Even stay overnight to give yourself more time.” Sites such as What Uni? publish city guides written by students themselves. “The best university for you,” says Mr Nicholson, “is the one which matches your needs the best.”