• Abbie Tibbott

UCAS: Researching Prospective Universities

So, you’re thinking about applying to university and want to know where to start. The simple answer in on the internet, as all universities have comprehensive websites that tell you everything you need to know about student life. Before planning a visit to a campus, it’s worthwhile seeing if a university fits your basic checklist and ticks enough boxes to be worth the travel in the summer. In this post, I’ll help you to build your checklist so you can decide where your university journey will take place.


 

Creating your university checklist


It’s important to decide what things you are willing to compromise on, and those that you aren’t. For example, there’s no point researching a university on the other side of the country if you are firmly decided that you don’t want to be more than an hour away from home. I would always advise flexibility though, as you may regret refining your choices so early on.


Here are things to consider:


· Course – if you have a subject decided, fantastic! If your course is more specialist or unusual, be aware that some universities may call it by different names, so it’s worth checking websites thoroughly and reading course descriptions carefully.


· Location – think about the maximum/minimum distances you’re happy with, and search up to an hour outside of these distances for flexibility. Remember that cities and large towns have great transport links, so getting home will be faster than if you go to a university in the countryside.


· Campus or city university – aim to see at least one of each, as the size of city campuses vary as well as their proximity to accommodation. Campus universities will vary in size too.


· Accommodation – think about whether you would be interested in living in halls, private halls or private renting. Consider whether you want to live with others or by yourself, and research what each university has available.


· Cost of living – cities will be the most expensive, but public transport is cheaper. Rural areas often have older buildings and more expensive travel costs, and one supermarket may have the monopoly in a remote area. Think about whether you’ll need a car, and what the average monthly rent is in the private sector.


· Style – some universities are very modern and multicultural, with no dress requirements, flexible timetables and different modes of study. Others will have formal nights, required socialising, a “college” system or departmental commitments.


· Paid employment – if you need to work, see if the university has a dedicated jobs centre where you can work on campus, or have a look on The Student Room to see what’s available in the nearest town/city.


· Socialising – see what nightlife, societies and facilities each campus has, and align that to your personal budget and lifestyle. Going to a small university in a small town won’t offer you the nightlife experience that you’ll get if you went to a university in a city.


 

Once you’ve compiled this checklist, it’s time to do some research. Universities make things pretty obvious on their websites, and that’s the place to go if you want up-to-date financial information, rankings or other statistics. Remember though that a lot of student testimony found on these websites has been given by students who really love their course and want others to choose it, not by those that didn’t have the best experience. Those views are normally expressed in the National Student Survey results, which are available to the public.


Getting a prospectus is a sensible step on the ladder, and universities will send them out for free if you request one from their website. Prospectuses will include general information about the university, entry requirements, course content and assessment details. It may also include some examples of where students have found careers or placements, as well as statistical data. These booklets are reviewed regularly, but it’s important you have the current prospectus, especially when looking at entry requirements!


Getting in touch with a university with questions you have about any aspect of the university experience is a great way to answer a specific query without writing a university off. If you have a disability or special requirements for living and studying, having a chat with staff over the phone or through email can detail exactly what the university can do to support you individually. Websites will have contact information for different areas, usually towards the bottom of the page.


As a general rule:


· Contact general admissions for anything related to entry requirements; clearing; exam results; gap years; special circumstances regarding results.


· Contact accommodation offices for anything related to rent costs; adapted accommodation; catering and meal plans; what’s included in the rent; length of contracts.

· Contact departmental offices (or a nominated member of staff) for anything related to course content; module choice and selection; departmental staff specialties; further study; coursework; exams; study space.


· Contact student services for anything related to placements; paid employment; volunteering; disability support (this may have its own contact); financial support; scholarships and bursaries, and anything else!


Once you’ve had your questions answered, it’s worth asking what the students think. Some universities have their own chat forums, which means you can choose a current student that is studying the subject you're interested in and ask them questions. I’ve been a student doing this, and no question is a silly question! I’ve had students ask me about how big lectures are, how many presentations I had to do and whether the library had a good café (very important) so it’s a great resource for prospective students to access. My only warning about this method is that students are likely being paid by the university, so will not tell you anything overtly negative. If they do have something like that to say, they will balance it, such as:


“There isn’t too much study space in x department, but the library is massive so I prefer to sit there as I always get a seat.”


If you read between the lines, it’ll be easy to work out what a current student is really telling you, but don’t expect these people to blast their university, as they’re being paid by them!


A final port of call before you book onto a visit day is The Student Room, a massive website with threads about every aspect of university life. Most universities pay students to manage forums for a few hours a week, answering questions about their specific university or course subject, as well as starting new threads themselves. However, there are plenty of students that will answer questions just because they want to, and some people are super active in the forums. These opinions are pretty unbiased (always disregard hateful posts as they’re usually down to an individual experience) and can be useful in forming opinions about aspects of a university.


For example, you may have seen pictures of a university gym, but on the pictures it looks empty and you can’t see all of the equipment. Going to the gym is important to you, and it’s a facility that you’re looking for in a university. You could post your own thread in The Student Room, or just type in to google, “university of x gym the student room”, and it’ll bring up existing threads. You may discover that the gym is currently under refurbishment so will be bigger by the time you get there, or that half of the equipment is dodgy and it’s always full of massive guys who hog the weights machines. Finding information on the things that are important on your checklist is another way to narrow your choices, but if in doubt, visit the university and see for yourself.

 

Now you’re ready to book your visit, and I’d recommend seeing as many universities as your time and budget will allow, but this should have been useful in narrowing your search.


Happy studying!