• Abbie Tibbott

Friday Special: Where I Applied to University

It’s another Friday Special! Back in 2015, I visited a total of eight universities, attending their open days around my sixth form study. I narrowed it down to the final five, with which I applied to study history through the UCAS system used here in the UK. I received acceptance offers from everywhere I applied, as well as an unconditional offer to study at the University of Reading as part of the Academic Excellence Scheme, which was targeted at students with great GCSE grades that lived in deprived areas. If you’re considering university, read on to see a snapshot of my experiences.

I thought I’d go through my final five choices and discuss the factors that made me choose Reading as my final choice. I visited Warwick, King’s College London and Oxford (more for a sneak peak than a serious prospect) but decided not to apply as they didn’t offer what I wanted from a university. I’d really recommend visiting universities if you can, as it gives you an idea of the environment on campus and the scale of them, which is difficult to tell from pictures. Where that’s not possible, try and engage with any virtual offerings this year, as you’ll be able to ask questions and view tours of accommodation online.

Let’s get started!


University of Birmingham

I loved this university, and I thought that the course and accommodation was fantastic. I liked that the campus was close to the city, and even had its own train station. Everything was a nice blend between traditional and modern, and it felt inclusive and friendly. We sat in on a sample lecture, as well as touring the department and wandering around campus ourselves. I felt like Birmingham ticked the majority of boxes for me, especially as it wasn’t too far from home, with good transport links to the coast.

My doubts mainly concerned living out in later years, as I wasn’t sure that I wanted to live in a city at that stage in my life. The guides were very diplomatic about the quality of housing available in Birmingham, but I got the impression it was expensive for what it was. Value for money was important for me, and the affordability question never felt answered. My grades also would have been stretched to meet my offer, especially as I didn’t do as well as expected in my AS year. Ultimately, I’m glad I didn’t choose Birmingham as my first choice, as I would have been rejected had I not got the grades, but I think it’s a fantastic university regardless.


Royal Holloway, University of London

Located in Egham, this university offered a proper campus experience! The architecture was beautiful, and the atmosphere was calm and quiet. I liked the offerings on the course and took a tour around the accommodation too. Everything was set in green parkland, grouped around a central building which you could also live in. The staff seemed to want to get to know everyone, and the university was on the smaller side, so there was more of an individualised experience on offer.

The main issue with Royal Holloway for me was that it was quite far removed from everything. It had links to both London and Reading, but lacked the facilities usually associated with a student town. Some people I spoke to said it was pretty quiet, with not much going on outside of the first few weeks. The accommodation was nice, but some of it wasn’t quite what I was looking for in terms of sociability. It definitely seemed to be a place with an emphasis on the degree, rather than the nightlife, so it wasn’t my top choice.


University of East Anglia

Located in Norwich, UEA is in a part of the UK I’d never been to before, but I’d love to go back! It’s steeped in history, and the city is picturesque and traditional. We had a look around the centre, and it seemed a lovely part of the world. The university is on the edge of the city, with 1960s-style concrete architecture, so a real contrast to the historic town. The library was impressive, and there was plenty of provision for sports and societies. The offered accommodation was modern and affordable, compared with other universities I looked at, and the campus felt relaxed and friendly. UEA also seemed to be quite relaxed about entrance offers, which was a nice safety net, and there seemed to be a lot going on.

This university was honestly a massive contender, as the offer I received was lower than Birmingham’s. My main concerns related to the location, as Norwich is quite removed from everything, with a two-hour train just to get to London. It would have meant that I wouldn’t have been able to come home very often and it made me wonder about how I would research for my dissertation in later years, and the cost involved. That said, I very possibly would have ended up at UEA, had I not visited Reading.


Queen Mary, University of London

After my AS year didn’t go as planned, I visited Queen Mary’s in September 2015 as they had a lower entrance offer. It’s in the East End of London, on a small but lively campus. I’d not enjoyed King’s College, another London university, so I was pleasantly surprised at the environment of this campus. The buildings were modern, and the course offered lots of opportunities for personal development, being ideally suited near the centre of the city. The transport links were excellent, and everything felt like it was within easy reach. The career prospects of living in London were a definite bonus, and it seemed like every student had done a placement or internship.

The main flaw here was the accommodation provision. I’d say that a majority of universities guarantee accommodation for students that accept them as their ‘firm’ (first) choice, meaning there’s no worry about finding somewhere to live in the first year. However, Queen Mary had hardly any accommodation as the campus was small, so there would be added pressure if I didn’t get a room in halls. I also felt like I wasn’t ready to move to London, and worried about how I would fit in among a student cohort that seemed fairly middle class. This was just the impression I got, but I still liked it enough to list it on UCAS.


University of Reading

My eventual choice was the last university I visited, and it was on the advice of my dad, who had spent six years working at the local hospital when I was younger. I had a great time at the open day, sitting through sample lectures, meeting staff in the department and touring all the accommodation. The campus was green, and everything was on one site, but the town centre was only a half hour walk away, with a bus that came onto campus. It’s 25 minutes from London by train, and the transport interchange could get you to all over the UK. The town was vibrant without being too busy, and there was a nice amount of history mixed into the modernity. Overall, I felt like Reading had a great balance of student life and study, which drew me to apply there and eventually accept it as my firm choice.

With hindsight, no university is perfect, and there are definitely some downsides to every university! However, I felt like Reading was a great fit for me, and it felt right on the first visit. I also want to talk about my offer, as Reading’s was unconditional. I’m from a deprived area, and I had high GCSEs compared to the average for that area. My university’s logic was that high grades at GCSE was a good indicator of success at degree level, and showed a commitment to supporting students from lower income backgrounds. Attending a university that had a good proportion of state-school students was important to me, as I wanted to make friends easily and not feel out of place on my smaller student budget. That is not to say that there are not privately educated people that attend Reading, but I never felt like I was in the minority. Attending a university purely based on the prospect of an unconditional offer is something I would never recommend, as the university must be a good fit for your lifestyle and course interests too. Reading just so happened to be a great fit for me, so I took the unconditional as a sign that they wanted to invest in my education. Honestly, without it, I may not have got into any universities that year, as my results were a bit of a flop! Everything happens for a reason, and I’d like to think I’ve given back in terms of my work with student recruitment, as well as my academic success.

Coming up with a list of criteria for universities is a great way to narrow down your choices, especially if you want to pay some of them a visit. Here are some things to consider:

· Location – how far away from home is acceptable for you? What are the transport links like?

· Campus or city? – do you want everything on one site, or do you want to commute across the city?

· Course – are there modules that interest you? What is the department like? Are the lecturers interested in your personal development? Are there opportunities to study abroad or take placement years?

· Student population size – do you want to attend a small or large university? Are large lecturers a main factor of the university experience for you? How easy is it to make friends? Is an individualized experience important for you?

· Local area – what’s in the town centre? What’s the public transport like? What’s the cost of rent for later years? Is it easy to get a job?

· Accommodation provision – are you guaranteed a room in your first year? Is it close to campus? Are there options that you can afford?

· Cost of living – what is the average cost of accommodation? How expensive is food and socialising?

When visiting universities, I’d recommend taking along a notebook, or noting down your initial impressions and concerns on your phone. This is a great way to record how you feel on each campus, which can help you make your final decisions later. Open days can be really busy, and it can be daunting to choose what talks to attend or what to see. From someone who has worked on these events, there are some key things I’d recommend that you attend:

· Course events – attend a talk which covers what you will study on your course; visit the department to pick up specific literature and speak to current students there.

· Campus tour – if you have time, these will be led by a student guide who will take you on a walk around the campus and show you the facilities. Talk to them!

· Accommodation talk – sending your parents on this one may be an idea, as it will discuss costs and what’s included in your rent.

· Accommodation tours – have a look around different types of accommodation with different price points, and get an idea of the distance between campus and halls of residences as you walk to each one.

If you have spare time in your itinerary, I’d suggest:

· The Student Union – have a look at sports and societies on offer if you’re looking to join some, as well as the opportunities offered by the union and any membership costs or employment opportunities if you need to find a job once you arrive.

· Touring facilities – have a look at the sports provision, lecture theatres, support centers and nightlife offerings. These are all things you’ll have access to and that you’re paying for!

· Exploring the local area – pass through the town on the way back to see what’s there and ask students what the public transport is like and how expensive it is.

· Ask questions – don’t worry if you’re shy, students will be happy to answer queries on anything to do with university life. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions about money, disruption to learning or academic issues.

Overall, my process of choosing a university was a journey in itself, and involved a lot of travelling and walking around. It was definitely worth it, as I finally found somewhere I could imagine myself studying for the next three years. There are many factors to consider when choosing your place of study, which I’m sure I will come back to in a post later this year. I hope this was an interesting insight into my decision, and I’ll be back with more specials later this month.

Happy studying!