How to Choose a University: Narrowing Down your Top 5
Choosing your favourite university is not easy. There are so many things to consider — staying local or flying the nest, expenses, the social life… With over 130 universities in the UK, how do you even begin to narrow it down? It all comes down to what your priorities are. We’ve put together a little guide to help you make the right choice. By the end, you’ll know exactly what to look for.
Check your budget
Whilst this isn't the most fun thing to consider, it’s always good to start your university journey informed. Whether you are getting support from your parents or solely reliant on your student loan, make sure you research more into how much it’s realistically going to cost to go to university. For example, studying in London will be considerably more expensive than studying in Belfast.
Choosing a university in a cheaper location means that your money will be able to go further, meaning you’ll be able to afford to socialise more often as well as nab nicer accommodation in the long run.
On the flip side, choosing a university in an area that stretches your finances could leave you feeling overwhelmed and stressed when it comes to any additional expenses.
If you are unsure of how to budget your expenses or how you’re going to afford university beyond your first year, there are plenty of student financial support services available to help you work things out.
Another important thing to consider is how long your degree will take. Most universities offer 3 year degree courses, however many universities in Scotland require 4 years of study.
Consider how an extra year could either help or hinder your financial situation when deciding what universities to add to your UCAS application.
Think about where you want to be?
One major factor for choosing your top 5 universities is where you want to be. Are you looking at North, South, East, West, UK or abroad? Do you want to be as far away from your family as possible, or would you rather they were only a few miles away?
Typically, students want independence and freedom, whilst others might feel homesick and want to be at a close distance. If this sounds like you, you can always narrow your search down to local universities. If you find a local course you could even save money and live at home while you study. Although, depending on the commute, you may miss out on key social aspects and the full ‘university experience’.
An alternative option is to move to a different city or country entirely! You have 3 years to start an adventure — why not make the most of it and travel, too? This is the perfect opportunity to explore a new environment whilst studying. Consider it a fun and fresh start. Several courses offer a “year abroad” option, particularly for language students. The best of both worlds...
Check entry requirements
Each course and university will have different entry requirements. Usually, this is based on a UCAS score in your AS or A2 Levels, EPQs and others. Some universities may require “BBB” or “ABB” — each grade represents a certain number of UCAS points. Make sure to check what the offers are and how you can achieve them.
Also, consider whether these are conditional offers or non-conditional offers. A conditional offer is one that is subject to you achieving the grades assigned. Whereas a non-conditional offer means the university just loved your application so much, they’d take you on-board regardless!
Research and compare courses from different universities
Whether you know exactly what you want from your university course or are just about settled on a subject area, always research into the university's course overview for the next 3 years.
Whilst universities may offer the same course title, what the course actually entails can differ significantly. Consider whether you are looking for a placement year within your degree, whether your course offers any trips or opportunities to study abroad and if the course description includes everything you want it to.
Another thing to look at is course rankings. Most people tend to just go with the overall rankings of a university when researching their potential choices. Instead, delve deeper into the course ranking for your subject, you might be surprised at what university come out on top!
Think about university culture
Every university is different. Think about the university culture that appeals to you most. Will you thrive being surrounded by like-minded students or are you happy to mix with older students?
You can also check things like male to female ratio on courses, amount of postgraduates and research what your university is known for.
Loughborough for example has historically been distinguished as one of the best universities for sports, whilst St Andrews is known for hosting prestigious charity fashion shows and fancy black-tie events.
Either way, make sure you visit your university before you select it as a choice. Not every decision can be based solely on research and metrics. Sometimes, you need to visit the place to get that “gut-feeling”.
Take a look at clubs and societies
Some universities have hugely successful Athletic Unions, run professional theatre productions and have thriving arts communities.
For example, if sport plays a big part in your life at school and you are thinking about joining a sports team when you get to university it’s worth taking a look at a university's sports facilities and if there are any teams you can see yourself being a part of.
Here is a breakdown of some of the universities that are best known for their extra-curricular activities.
Some of the best universities that offer art courses, design and incredible facilities are: UCL, University of Leeds, University of Oxford and Newcastle University.
To date, these universities offer the most elite sports services, programmes and societies: Loughborough University, Durham University, University of Edinburgh and the University of Bath.
One of the most popular extra-curricular choice is theatre and performance. Our research shows that the University of Cambridge, University of Bristol, University of Birmingham, Aberystwyth University and the Anglia Ruskin University offer top-notch facilities.
Consider university rankings
One of the first things you should do is check out the league tables. The University Guide shares the top rankings on all universities across the UK.
It’s also worth finding a specific league table for your course or subject choice. This sometimes changes the ratings as universities will specialise in particular courses. So if you want the best university for your subject, that’s your first port of call.
A word of caution: some universities rank well but have awful student satisfaction ratings. This includes the overall student experience, teaching facilities, wellbeing services and support from professors. Obviously, this is important as you want to get the most out of your experience.
Another thing to consider is whether you want to go to a Russell Group University, Oxbridge or a Redbrick university. Research suggests that Russell Groups offer better opportunities for graduates, but this is not always the case.
Safety and security
Most universities and colleges have an excellent security system on campus. If you choose to live in halls or student accommodation in your first year, there’s usually 24/7 security.
Whilst it’s not the nicest thing to talk about, it’s a good idea to check the crime stats for your university city or town. Do your research into where most students live after they leave their first-year accommodation.
When choosing a house or apartment in your second and third year, you want to avoid “student roads”. This is where common burglaries and theft occurs as it’s a prime site with poor security. Everyone knows that most students don’t have the funds to invest in a snazzy alarm system or triple bolted door.
Campus vs city university experience
Whilst choosing a campus or city university doesn’t seem like much of a difference, you are in fact, wrong. Some people like the hustle and bustle of a city. Others might want to escape to the country to study in peace. It’s personal preference.
What you want to remember is: are you the type of person who needs a local shop? Campus universities tend to be in more rural areas. The nearest supermarket could be a 30-minute drive away, so you’d have to plan ahead or buy in bulk online.
The nightlife also varies between a city vs. campus experience. Exeter, for example, only has around 3 nightclubs compared to the likes of London or Manchester. If you’re the type of person who lives for the disco, then a city university might be better. Although, you can’t ever beat an old’ English pub.
Career support and job prospects
You might also want to consider your future job prospects when selecting your Top 5 universities. Look into whether there is sufficient support on offer after your graduation. Check out what alumni have to say about their experience both during and after graduating.
Some universities have specific careers days, where you can sign up for graduate internships or get early access to job offers. After all, that’s one of the reasons you’re paying for higher education! This future planning can make the transition after university a lot smoother.
Wellbeing support services
Last, but not least, always check the wellbeing support services. University is both an exciting yet overwhelming time. Essays, exams, dissertation, work-life balance — it often spirals into burnout.
Although students like to joke about “university stress”, it does take a toll on their mental health. You want to make sure that you’re in the right hands if you do feel low. See what provisions are available, like time off or deadline extensions. This can help ease your stress and worries.
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