So it's somehow already August and that means it's the time of year when students about to go into their last year of school are having to think seriously about university - at least that's how it works for UK universities which is the system I'm familiar with. As someone who has gone through the whole process in fairly recent memory I thought I'd put together some tips for the whole process and explain my rationale behind the choices I made at the time in the hope that it might help anyone who is facing some tricky decisions in the near future. In a way I'm currently reliving the experience because while my brother still has two full years of school to go he's already starting to look at the courses available, so naturally I offer my two pennies' worth at every opportunity whether he wants to hear it or not!
|A small selection of the library of prospectuses I accumulated|
Basically speaking I think there are four main things to consider when narrowing down the long list of universities, so I've divided the rest of this post into sections. I'm also just going to briefly summarise my situation so you have an idea of where I'm coming from with my thoughts and perspectives on all this: I've lived in Belgium for nearly my whole life but I am actually English and I've always known I wanted to go back to the UK for university. However, not having an extensive knowledge of the country or indeed a school which was really geared up for the transition (we had some careers advice sessions but it was pitiful) I didn't really have any preconceived ideas about where I wanted to end up specifically. Also, I did the European Baccalaureate instead of A-Levels which was fine in the end but the two systems are very, very different and it just made everything a bit more awkward in terms of the grades universities typically ask for. I also knew I wanted to study geography because while I didn't love the lessons at school I realised that all the topics I was really interested in fell generally into the spectrum of geography, specifically the human side of it. Finally, I knew that despite the trickiness of moving from the European School system into the UK system I was capable of aiming high in terms of a university's academic reputation. In the end I applied to Cardiff, Southampton, Bristol, Exeter and Durham, receieved conditional offers from all five and eventually accepted Durham as my firm choice and Exeter as my insurance. Then I got the grades I needed to Durham and the rest, as they say, is history.
Okay, now onto the actual advice!
You'll be able to find some of the more common courses, such as business, English literature, physics, history, maths, economics and law at nearly every uni (although some unis have a better reputation for a particular course than others, which I'll get to in a minute). However if you want to study something more specific that might already narrow down the list for you - linguistics, for instance, isn't offered in a huge number of places, and neither is American studies. I was surprised to find geography wasn't offered universally given that it is a standard school subject, but that helped in a way as I was able to rule our some places (like Edinburgh and Bath, for example) simply because it wasn't available there. So if you already have a concrete idea of a slightly unusual course it's worth looking to see which universities offer it.
Also if you still have no idea what you want to study I would recommend looking at the websites of a bunch of universities to see what's out there, or alternatively ordering a bunch of prospectuses (these are essentially brochures about each university and what they offer) and flicking through them at your leisure. In terms of general courses that leave lots of options open, things like business, economics, history, English, law and geography are always a good bet. Having said that, if you truly have no gut instinct as to what you want to study it might be best to take a year out to work out if uni is really for you or just give yourself a chance to realise what you want out of your education/career.
Once you have decided on a course another important thing is the detail of the course content, which is available to check out on the universities individual websites and of course in prospectuses. This is an important consideration as courses can differ a lot between unis, even if they have the same name or code. So be sure to read the detail and compare it between universities, and if possible get in contact with people who have studied that course. You might also have extra considerations: for example, I originally wanted to apply for only human geography courses as opposed to straight geography, which proved tricky because only three unis in the whole of the UK offered the human-specific course - so I ended up compromising on that which wasn't ideal.
It's good to be ambitious about where you're aiming to apply, but it's extremely important to be realistic. Obviously Oxford and Cambridge are well known as the top universities in the country, but if you don't have much of an awareness beyond that (as I didn't) the best way to get a general idea of the esteem institutions are held in is to look at a website which has a list of rankings, or preferably several lists for comparison. I always relied on the Complete University Guide, which is apparently independent and great because you can see the rankings by course too. Of course this may not be the most important factor for you, but it can help to provide some context.
The next step is to check the entry requirements for each course. This can really make or break your feeling about a particular university because you'll know whether the grades you'll need are achievable for you personally - if in doubt, ask a teacher who knows you and your academic performance well. This works both ways too: if you know you're unlikely to get the grades they're asking then it might be better to look elsewhere, but if you're sure you'll easily achieve them then it's worth keeping that uni as your insurance option and aiming a bit higher if the situation is right.
This may or may not be important to you - having a limited knowledge of the UK, I wasn't overly bothered and ended up about as far north as one can be without being in Scotland, but for some people it's a major factor. This can be because they want to stay close to home or actually want to move a significant distance away from it. And then there's the pull of London, which I basically avoided by reasoning that I'll probably end up living or working there at some point in my life so I wanted to experience living somewhere else first. Another thing to think about is travel costs and accessibility. If you go to uni in London then you can pretty much guarantee that there will be some easy form of transport between there and home but other than that it really depends. It takes me about 6-7 hours and £100-200 to get home by train and Eurostar so I knew I wouldn't be going home apart from between terms. This set up worked out more or less okay as for me it was a significant mental step in knowing that I was going to uni in a different country, and so that separated those two parts of my life quite distinctly. On the other hand you might still have commitments at home and need to be back on a regular basis, in which case it's worth thinking about how much time and money that will take.
The type of uni
I realise this sounds vague but bear with me: I mean in terms of the way the university is laid out, which is kind of linked to the location. I tend to mentally divide unis into campus, city, and campus-city and this was one of the other big factors I thought about when I was considering where to apply. Some universities are very much campus-based, by which I mean there is a distinct area, usually some way outside a city, where all the academic building and accommodation are concentrated in such a way that there is a more or less a self-contained area. Others are city-based, so the university buildings can be dotted around the city and might be quite spread out, meaning you need to get public transport to get to lectures. Both of these have their advantages and disadvantages: campus unis can end up feeling like you're trapped in a bubble and you're cut off from the real world, but they can also feel safe and it can be handy having everything nearby. City unis might make your experience more vibrant and interesting, but it can be easy to feel lost and alone in a large place. I really had no idea which I would prefer but it's worth mentioned that it's not always such a clear distinction and luckily Durham fits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. While there is a campus-type area (commonly referred to as the 'science site') where a lot of the academic buildings are located, some departments have their buildings in quite random locations around the city. The college system complicates it even further as there are 14 mini campuses about the size of schools dotted around the place. The other thing about Durham is that it's so small that in a way the university is the city, but everything is walkable and close by. For me it's the perfect balance between city and campus as you can get out and about easily and feel like you're not always 'at uni', but there's is a still central place where I go for my lectures and academic stuff. It will completely depend on the person as to which you prefer and this is one of the main reasons why I think it's important to go to open days or even just turn up somewhere and have a look around to get a feel for the place and the dynamics.
I think this post is getting stupidly long now so I think I'll leave it there. Obviously there are loads more factors to take into account when choosing universities to apply to and I've just covered the ones I think are most important here, but at the end of the day it's a very personal choice and not one anyone one else can make but you. Also different factors will be more or less important to different people. Finally, don't stress - you only have to narrow it down to five to begin with and even if you realise you don't like the one you picked when you get there it's always possible to change. I hope this helped in some way and wasn't just a long rambling mess, please leave me a comment if you found it useful and good luck to anyone starting the uni process soon!