Choosing a university: what to consider

Choosing a university: what to consider
Choosing a university: what to consider

A, student life – it’s all about the cheap beer, great nightlife, digs within stumbling distance of the local pub…

But when it comes to picking a university it’s probably best to consider a few other factors as well.

With a wealth of colleges across the country offering everything from Aromatherapy to Horology and Photonics to Youth Justice, navigating the maze to choose just one course and one location can be as much of a headache as the exams that get you in there in the first place.

For Universities Week here are our top tips on what to look for when deciding on a university. So halt before you fill in those UCAS forms – the best boozers and gig venues are important, it’s true, but there’s more to ponder before you pick:

Do Your Research

Your first port of call should be the Universities and College Admission Service (UCAS) website at, which lists all the available institutions, courses and entrance requirements as well as info on league tables, locations and university open days.

Make a Shortlist

You’re bound to have at least some idea of what kind of course you fancy so make a long list of your favourites and pinpoint all the universities that run them. It may be time-consuming but doing your research thoroughly will hopefully ensure you make the right choice.

Get the Prospectus

Once you have a shortlist of 10 or 15 institutions, send off for their undergraduate prospectus. This will include information on everything from courses and facilities to entry requirements. Universities may also publish departmental booklets. (Oh, and don’t be swayed by the attractive types that seem to populate the place in the brochures – universities often recruit actors and models to pose for pics!)

You can send off to individual universities for these, have a look at their websites or visit a higher education fair where most colleges will have a stand to give out information.

What Subject?

Try not to be limited by the specific subjects you are currently studying – i.e. just because you are studying Maths and Physics, doesn’t mean you have to go on to study Maths or Physics. You could try Engineering, for instance. Biology could lead you to Environmental Science or Agriculture. English Lit could lead you to Literature in a World Context. Try the Stamford Test, a short questionnaire on the UCAS website that can help match your interests to potential subjects.

Also consider that you might combine subjects, either through a joint degree that gives equal weighting to both subjects or a major/minor combination. Some sandwich courses offer a year abroad to study or a year in employment.

Course Structure

Some courses are traditional in structure and assessed at the end of each year by written exams. Others are made up of a series of modules that are assessed individually. Some have practical coursework (such as film-making) as well as exams. Consider which might suit your way of working the best.


If you have an idea of what you may want to do once you leave university, see if your chosen field of work accredits any particular subject (for example, Town Planning or Accountancy) or if your preferred profession requires any particular qualification at higher education level. See Prospects for information.

Similarly, will the university or course allow you any work experience? If you want to get into journalism is there a vibrant student paper or radio station, or a well-respected local newspaper in the nearest town?

Location, Location, Location

Can you cope without popping home to get your washing done and a roast dinner on a Sunday? Do you want to visit your boyfriend every weekend – or need a reason not to? Are you a city type or a country bumpkin? Location is a biggie.

If you go for a campus university it’s worth considering what the nearest towns are to suss out if escape is ever possible (or advisable) and where you might end up living once you’re out of halls. If it’s not a campus uni check out the student areas and whether you feel safe and comfortable living there.

Money is another consideration – it’s not just the fact that some areas, such as London, will demand higher living costs, but there’s the expense and ease of travelling back home for holidays and weekends, too. You will want to go home, sometimes, believe it or not.


League rankings can be very helpful. The independent The Complete University Guide uses a mixture of measures to try to give a fair and accurate basis for how good a university or a subject it offers might be.

There are two tables – ‘league tables’ and ‘subject tables’. Even the best universities vary in quality across subjects so check out both university and subject before you decide.

The Guardian and The Sunday Times also publish their own league tables of universities so you may want to compare and contrast.

Check Out the National Student Survey

This annual survey of final year students ( conducted by Ipsos MORI indicates how satisfied they were with the experience they had. Questions relate to everything from teaching to assessment and feedback, academic support, resources and the activities of the Student’s Union.

Your Results

Clearly you need to make a realistic decision about what exam results you hope to achieve and apply accordingly. Don’t be too pessimistic and miss out on your preferred choice because you don’t think you’ll make the grade; equally, don’t get over-ambitious and let the excitement about a university that happens to demand high results cloud your judgment on what you’re likely to get.

If you are overly pessimistic you could scupper the opportunity to go where you want to go; if you are overly optimistic you could end up with very little choice left on your UCAS form.


Are you a rugby fanatic, a film buff or a debating dynamo? Check out the facilities on-site – such as sporting clubs, special interest societies and so on.

Is access to a swimming pool - whether on-site or nearby – the only thing that will keep you sane, or will you feel aggrieved if there are no active political clubs or well-run student newspaper?

Ask the Student’s Union what is on offer – they represent the social, sporting, recreational, cultural and academic interests of the university’s students.


If you plan to live on campus, see if you can find recommendations from current or past students as to which halls are better: some can be quieter, others more sociable.

Similarly, scout around the town where you may be looking for student digs to get an idea of costs. You could even ask a local estate agent that provides student rentals for a look at a few places to suss out the standards.

If you think you might be out late socialising frequently, choose somewhere where your journey home will be quick and safe. If you’re living off-site make sure your journey into lectures will be swift and easy.

Are there convenience stores and launderettes nearby? Public transport? Decent pubs or places to eat? It’s worth compiling a checklist of all the things you think you might need.

The Cost

Now, more than ever, cost is a major factor in the decision you make. English universities can charge up to £9,000 a year tuition fees – and Welsh and Scottish universities can charge English students the same.

Make sure you check their fees but also whether you might be eligible for a bursary scheme. These are on offer to assist students from low income backgrounds or for students who want to study shortage subjects.

If your course starts after 1 September 2012, you may be able to get money from the National Scholarship Programme if your family’s income is £25,000 or under.

Be Creative with Funding

You may be surprised to find there are countless sponsorship and bursary schemes out there, set up by charitable trusts, philanthropists and so on designed to help out all manner of people and to back all manner of weird and wonderful subject choices.

Get advice on what’s available through the university or college or through the Educational Grants Advisory Service (EGAS). Your public library should also have directories of charitable trusts that provide grants and awards, including the Educational Grants Directory, the Charities Digest, the Grants Register and the Directory of Grant Making Trusts.

Get Down There

A personal visit is always advisable: find out when your preferred places are holding their open days and head down there.

Not only will you get a feel for the atmosphere, you will also have an opportunity to talk to staff and current students, explore the campus and facilities and find out more about the subject you are interested in.