If you decide you want to go to university, choosing where to apply is a big decision.
All sorts of factors come into play. What you want to study, where you want to live, whether you want a city uni or a campus uni...
It’s a process that can be exciting, confusing and overwhelming in equal measure.
Wherever you decide, you’re going to spend at least three years of your life there, so it’s worth taking the time to do your research and consider what you want to get out of your university experience.
We’ve put together this comprehensive guide, complete with tips, tricks and useful resources, to help you choose the right university for you.
How to begin
Do your research!
There are more than 150 higher education institutions across the UK, each with their own distinct identity.
UCAS only allows you 5 choices (4, if you want to study medicine, dentistry or veterinary science), so set aside some time to explore your options.
Research which universities offer the degree you want to do, what their entry requirements are and whether they seem like the kind of place you’d be interested in studying.
There are several ways you can do this:
- Search online: a university’s website should be your first point of call. Here you’ll find all the most up-to-date information on courses, entry requirements, fees, accommodation, etc.
- Attend university open days: an open day is when a university opens its doors to prospective students, inviting them to come and look around the campus, lecture halls, accommodation and other facilities. Some universities do one open day, others do multiple throughout the year. In light of the pandemic, many now offer a virtual option; check online for more information. Open days are the perfect way to see what a university can offer you and there’s no better way to get a general feel for the place than visiting in the flesh. Go to as many as you can! You’ll also be able to meet your future professors and current students, who’ll be on hand to answer any questions you may have.
- Get in touch with current or past students: if you have friends or relatives who attend (or used to attend) the university you’re looking at, reach out and ask them about their experience. If you don’t know anyone personally, ask around the people you know; a neighbour or the sibling of a friend may be happy to give advice. You could also ask a teacher or UCAS advisor if they could put you in touch with a past student who went on to study at your chosen institution.
- Look on student websites, forums and social media groups:
- The Student Room has hundreds of university forums, where current and prospective students can discuss everything from halls to degree courses to freshers week. Trawl through old threads to find the information you need, or ask a current student for advice.
- StudentCrowd is full of reviews written by its active student community. It also has useful application information (entry requirements, offer and acceptance rates, Covid-19 response info, etc.) presented in an easy-to-read format on each university profile.
- WhatUni? allows you to compare top universities and courses across the UK.
Consider what’s important to you
Once you’ve done your initial research and discovered what a range of universities have to offer, take some time to really think about what your priorities are.
- Brainstorm what is most important to you - do you want a course with lots of contact time or are you happy working independently? Would you rather live in a big, thriving city with lots of amenities, or somewhere quieter, with fewer distractions? Are you looking for a relaxed, modern academic environment, or something more formal and traditional? Asking yourself these questions will help you narrow down your search.
- Write a pros and cons list - write a profile of each university you’re considering. Include practical information such as the grades needed for admission and the course fees. Then list the advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Discuss your options with people you know - when it comes to choosing a university, you’ll probably find there are lots of people in your life eager to give you their advice and opinions. Whilst this can be overwhelming, discussing your thoughts with those around you may help you gain some clarity. Pick up tips from friends who are also applying, get insights from your teachers or UCAS advisor, or ask your parents or other family members to talk through your options with you. The people who know you best may have insights into what would suit you that you hadn’t even considered.
Just remember: university life is different for everyone! It’s easy to feel influenced by the people around you, or to feel pressure about what you think you should be doing. How you choose to complete your education is a personal choice. Taking the time to figure out what you want will really help.
Think about your future now
It might sound scary, but it’s a good idea to start thinking about your career before you leave school so you can properly prepare and set yourself up for success.
The following resources are useful places to start:
- The UCAS website
- The National Careers Service
- Success at School
- Your school careers advisor, if you have one
- An InvestIN programme!
An InvestIN experience gives you a unique insight into a range of career paths before you leave school. Each programme is made up of authentic career simulations, inspiring site visits and personalised career guidance, designed to help you choose your career with confidence and maximise your potential. Choose from 28 of the world’s most desirable industries and start your career journey now.
Things to consider when choosing a university
There are several key factors to consider when choosing the right university for you.
It goes without saying that your degree subject is one of the first things you need to think about.
If you can’t decide, or are choosing between several different subjects, consider the following:
- What you enjoy
- What you’re good at
- What subjects you studied at A-level
- What job you want to apply for after you graduate
Then, compare the courses at different universities you’re interested in.
- What are the grade requirements? Are you able to realistically achieve them?
- If you studied the subject you’re applying for at A-level, think over which modules or topics most interested you. Does the degree course cover these areas? You’ll feel much more motivated to study what you’re passionate about. It could even be a speciality to pursue in your career!
- Is the course very prescriptive? Are there set modules you have to study throughout, or do you have the freedom to choose? Is this important to you?
- Who teaches the course? You may find names you’ve heard on the teaching staff!
- How much contact time does the course have? Is it mostly lectures or are you taught primarily in smaller groups, in seminars, labs or similar?
- Does the course include a year in industry or study abroad options?
- Does the course have good job prospects? What have graduates gone on to do?
Aside from the course, the location of your university is probably going to have the biggest impact on your time there.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you want to live at home whilst you study?
- If you want to move away, how close do you want to be to your family and friends?
- Do you want to experience something similar to where you grew up, or something completely different?
- Do you want to live in a city or town, with a buzzing nightlife and plenty of cultural opportunities? Or would you prefer the quiet of a more remote, rural area where you can concentrate on your studies without distraction?
- How are the transport links? Will you be able to easily go home, visit friends at other universities or travel abroad?
University league tables are not the be-all and end-all.
But if academic merit, prestige and international reputation are top priorities for you, take a look at the following resources for world, UK and subject-specific rankings:
- The QS World University Rankings
- The Complete University Guide’s League Tables
- The Times Higher Education World University Rankings
Take a look at student satisfaction rankings to get an idea of how students rate their general experience at a particular university. This score can encompass things like quality of teaching, course content and the level of support received.
City or Campus?
A campus uni offers a very different experience to a city uni.
Each have their own merits.
Campus universities are self-contained university hubs. Here you’ll find all (or most) of the university buildings, halls of residence, libraries, student facilities, even shops, cafes, bars and clubs, all in one place.
Size, style and architecture of campuses do vary, so it’s worth visiting or looking at pictures online to get a feel for it.
Advantages of campus universities:
- Everything you need is in one convenient location.
- They tend to be safer, as they are away from the bustle of the main city and are usually monitored by security.
- They offer pleasant surroundings with lots of green spaces.
- You're surrounded by other students, which makes for a real sense of community - great for group studying and socialising. You’ll often bump into people you know, and if you want to visit friends who live in different halls, or run to the library after midnight, you won’t have far to go.
If you’re nervous about leaving home, a campus university could be a good option.
Disadvantages of campus universities:
- Some students can find campus life claustrophobic.
- If the campus is far removed from the nearest city or town, transport to and from shopping excursions, nights out or visits home could prove inconvenient and expensive.
Examples of campus universities: Cardiff University, Loughborough University, Queen Mary University of London, University of Nottingham (multiple campuses), University of Southampton (multiple campuses), University of Warwick, University of York.
City universities have buildings, facilities and accommodation dotted around a city. If a number of university buildings are grouped together, they are sometimes called ‘city campuses’.
Advantages of city universities:
- You get to experience the buzz of city life.
- You have access to a whole range of amenities including shops, supermarkets, gyms, banks, restaurants, cafes and bars
- You can make the most of the nightlife on your doorstep
- There are more cultural opportunities on offer, e.g. museums, galleries, markets, concerts and festivals
- The transport links are great, both to other areas of the country and abroad
- You can truly exercise your independence and live alongside a range of different people, rather than just students
Disadvantages of campus universities:
- The wealth of things to do could prove distracting
- Crime rates in a city are inevitably higher than on a campus
- There’s not as big a sense of community: students are diffused across the city, potentially making it harder to make friends and increasing the time it takes to get to friends’ houses or social occasions
- The commute to and from university could be longer
Cost of Living
The location of your university will greatly affect the cost of your accommodation, bills, food, transport, social activities and other expenses.
If you apply for student finance, your living costs will be covered by a maintenance loan.
Capital cities like London and Edinburgh are notoriously expensive, though students in London do get an increased maintenance loan to compensate. Cities like Newcastle and Manchester in the north of England and Nottingham and Birmingham in the midlands offer cheaper alternatives, as do areas across Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
There are various articles and comparison tools online that will help you get an idea of the living costs in different areas. To get an idea of accommodation prices, check the university website for halls of residence costs and housing websites such as Rightmove and Zoopla for local rent prices.
The culture and feel of a university can have a huge impact on your experience there.
Universities can become informally known for all sorts of things. Academic excellence, a sociable atmosphere, an emphasis on creativity and self-expression or a highly-charged political atmosphere, for example.
To get a sense of the overall atmosphere of the university you’re considering, check out a student forum or speak to someone who goes or went there.
Many universities have reputations that precede them, but take these with a pinch of salt. They can be outdated, irrelevant or even untrue, and just because they represent some people’s opinions, doesn’t mean it will be yours!
Extracurricular Activities and Other Opportunities
One of the best things about university life is the wealth of extracurricular opportunities on offer.
Whatever institution you choose, there will be clubs, societies and teams you can join, talks, events and initiatives for you to make the most of.
When doing your research, take the time to explore the following:
- Societies, clubs and extracurricular activities - every university will have a range of clubs and societies you can join. From Amnesty International to animal rights, Buddhism to breakdancing, you’re bound to find something that interests you. If you’re looking for something specific, search online or ask at an open day beforehand to see if the university offers it. Though if it doesn’t, you can always set it up when you get there!
- Facilities - if you’ve got a particular passion or hobby it’s worth checking whether your university has the facilities to cater to it. Love drama? A university with a theatre will make performing all the more exciting. Can’t get enough of a particular sport? Check if your chosen university has adequate sports facilities.
- Study abroad - studying at an international university offers the chance to broaden your horizons, improve your language skills and experience new cultures and perspectives. If living in another country is of particular interest to you, make sure you look into the study abroad opportunities on your chosen course.
- Services - student services cover everything from libraries to health centres, disability services to mental health support. Think about which of these are important to you and look into what exactly each university offers.
- Career opportunities - does the university have a sufficient careers programme? Are there services in place to help you secure your first postgraduate job? Does the university offer work experience, internship or placement opportunities? Links with particular companies or organisations that are related to your future career could prove useful.
Choosing a university that’s perfect for you is an important and exciting process. It’s a decision that will have a huge impact on the first few years of your adult life.
Do your research, ask yourself the right questions and take the time to think through what’s important to you before you apply.
A rich and fulfilling university experience awaits you if you do!
How to Choose the Right University For You: Key Questions
- What results am I likely to achieve?
- What career might I want to go into?
- What subject do I want to study?
- What kind of modules or areas do I want my course to cover?
- Where do I want to live?
- How close do I want to be to home?
- Do I want to live and study on a campus or in a city?
- Do I want the buzz of city life or a quieter, distraction-free atmosphere?
- Is prestige important to me?
- Are world rankings and international reputation important to me?
- How much money will I have?
- What kind of university culture am I looking for?
- Is good nightlife important to me?
- What extracurricular opportunities might I want to make the most of?
- Do I want to study abroad?
- Do I want a university with internship or placement opportunities that will help further my career?
- What student services will I need?