With hundreds of universities and colleges across the country and thousands of courses to choose from, narrowing your higher education choices down to just five slots on your UCAS form can seem daunting. But fear not, we’ve got some top tips to help you when making those all-important decisions!
Location, location, location…
The likelihood is that you’ll be spending at least three year studying at your chosen institution, so you’ll need to make sure it’s somewhere you’d be happy to live! Do you want to be immersed in the hustle and bustle of a big city, for example, or would you prefer the quieter life slightly further out of town? Do you want easy access to the countryside or coast for outdoor pursuits, or are you more interested in a vibrant nightlife or a strong local music scene? You might not find somewhere that ticks all your boxes, but try to think about your priorities and keep these in mind when deciding.
Attending an open day can really help you to get a feel for the location, as well as giving you the opportunity to see the facilities available in your chosen department and on campus. This may need to be virtual in the first instance, but you can still talk to university staff and student ambassadors to get more information. If you’re able to visit in person when restrictions are eased, try to explore the local area as well as just the university itself. Could you see yourself living here?
If you’re planning on moving away from your home town, it’s also worth considering how far you want to go. It might be that you’re keen to escape to the other side of the country, or you might want to remain close enough to keep those home comforts with easy reach. I chose a variety for my own UCAS form, but my final choice was a university around 90 minutes away from my home town: far enough away to feel I was having an adventure, but not so far that I couldn’t pop home for a visit if I felt homesick.
Does the course work for you?
Unless you’re studying a strictly regulated course such as medicine, you’ll find that most degree programmes vary by institution. You’ll generally follow a set programme in your first year and have more flexibility to specialise later on in the course. The modules available will likely vary depending on the specialisms of the department staff, so take a look at their research interests and check they cover the area you want to study. It’s also worth looking at how you’ll be assessed; will it mainly through examinations, coursework or practical work?
If you’re wanting to gain professional experience as part of your degree, see if your chosen universities offer the option for placements or a year in industry. If you’re hoping to study abroad, have a look at partner institutions to see where you might be able to go. You might also be able to gain professional accreditation (such as qualified teacher status) through certain courses, so consider these too.
Remember that your higher education experience isn’t just about studying! When researching universities, check out their students’ union to get a feel for the clubs, societies and sports they offer. You might even discover a few activities you’ve never even heard of; my university’s sports clubs included octopush (underwater hockey) and skydiving, while our societies covered everything from history to Harry Potter!
Many universities will also offer student-led volunteering programmes, so if you’re wanting to get involved in your new local community it’s worth checking these out too. They’re a great way to meet new people, gain valuable work experience, and have fun at the same time!
Making the grade
The entry requirements for certain courses can vary widely between institutions, unless you’re applying for very competitive courses such as medicine. While it’s good to aim high, try and make sure the standard offer is something you could realistically achieve. It’s also worth applying to at least one institution with lower entry requirements, which you could use as your insurance (or back-up) choice.
Depending on your household circumstances, your school and the area you live, some universities might offer ‘contextualised’ offers which can be slightly lower than their standard one. They might also offer bursaries and scholarships to help you manage the financial side of higher education. These can be useful, but don’t be tempted to base your decision solely on these incentives: make sure the location, course and facilities are right for you first!
While the final choice will always rest with you, don’t feel you need to go it alone! There are loads of places you can go to get further help and advice. Teachers, careers advisors and other staff at school can be a valuable source of information; they might even know of former students who have followed a similar path and you might gain useful contacts if your school has an alumni network. You can chat to friends and family as well, but remember that their priorities might be different to yours!
Many universities host services such as UniBuddy on their website, where you can chat to current students through a webchat function. There are also loads of useful resources to be found on websites such as UCAS, and right here on our DANCOP website; we’ll link to some of these below.
Choosing your university is an exciting first step in your journey towards higher education and beyond. Do your research, take your time, ask plenty of questions and trust your gut!