Sheffield University has conducted in-depth research into what teenagers and existing students expect from undergraduate life to help it develop the right sales pitch.
One of its findings was that teenagers who lived more than 50km from Sheffield had little idea about the city. This prompted fresh thinking about open days.
Sheffield, a client of the education consultancy Euro RSCG Riley, found that year 12 pupils knew little about individual universities, while year 13 pupils tended to know about only institutions they had applied to.
There was a roughly equal split between sixthformers who used league tables to make their choice and those who paid them little attention. The most popular tables were those listing the top universities for specific courses.
Thirty-eight per cent of sixthformers said course content was essential in their decision about which university to attend, while roughly one in three said the reputation of a university and the department were key factors.
Bob Boucher, Sheffield's vice-chancellor, said: "It is going to be very competitive, and it will be a service market. We are not making widgets, we are providing a service - and quality matters."