Choosing a university is one of the biggest decisions that you will make in terms of your education, and it can be overwhelming if you don’t know where to start.
Breaking it down into seven key factors can make the task seem less daunting and will also help you to focus your research on universities most likely to suit you.
Consider how far away from home you would like be while you study. If you don’t fancy heading too far away, explore universities in your home town or in the next town. However, if you are ready to fly the nest, look at universities further away or even in another country if you’re keen to travel and experience a different culture.
Along the same lines as the first point, ask yourself if you would feel more at home in a big city or in a smaller town. Think about the location you would feel the most comfortable in and then start to tick off universities in places that appeal to you. Picking a location that suits your personality will mean that you will be far more inclined to spend time exploring your surrounding area and making the most of it.
3. Course content
The next thing to decide on is the course that you want to study and the areas that you want to focus on within that subject. There will usually be variations across universities in course content and reading lists, so be sure to have a look at the previous year’s curriculum. However, if you are unsure of the direction you want to take, choose a university or a country that allows you the freedom to experiment with different subjects to help you figure out your areas of interest.
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Moving away from academics, you’ll want to be at a university that supports socialising. If you have an established hobby or interest that you wish to continue while at university, make sure that your prospective institution supports that. Or if you’re hoping to take up a new activity, sport or other pastime, scroll through the lists of societies and clubs on offer and see if there is one that takes your fancy. Additionally, doing some research into the events that are organised by the university or the students’ association can give you an insight into the types of events and activities that you can expect to join.
Whether you end up needing it or not, it’s always important to be aware of the support that is available to you as a student. Check out what the students’ union/association provides in terms of mental health, financing and course materials. Learn about the university’s protocol for supporting students, and make sure you know that there are services in place if you run into any difficulties. And if you have a pre-existing mental health condition, a disability or any other additional needs, be sure to check out what support will be available to you when you reach university.
In relation to this, if you are an international student, familiarise yourself with the support available to you and how the university will help you to integrate with the student body.
With the increasing spotlight on sustainability, universities have no excuse not to dedicate time and resources to being a greener institution. Check out their policies on reducing carbon emissions, plastic use and food waste. It’s important to know what your future university is doing to be more sustainable.
The final thing that you should look at when choosing a university is how much it will cost you. If you decide to stay in your home town, you are more likely to spend less than if you choose to study abroad. On the other hand, however, your choice of study-abroad country could offer better financial aid packages or lower tuition fees than your home country. It could also be that your cost of living in another city may be lower than that of your home town. Weighing up these different scenarios can help you to decide.
Where to look for advice
Sometimes it can be hard to gain an accurate read on the factors that are listed above, especially if you don’t know where to look. Here are some useful sources that can help to clarify some of these factors.
1. Open days – Attending an open day is not always practical, but if you can visit a couple of universities it is always a good idea to do so. You will get a much better feel for the campus. If possible, it’s also worth spending time in the town or city the university is located in.
2. Speak to current students – This may be slightly harder to arrange, but it can be done. There will usually be student representatives at university open days who you can talk to and ask questions. But be aware that because they are working at a university event, they will be likely to have had a largely positive experience at university. To gain a more realistic, rounded view, try looking at student groups on Facebook or Twitter and ask questions on there. Alternatively, you could check online if there are any blogs or vlogs from students at your chosen university and see what they have to say.
3. Admissions officers – If you have a more specific question, don’t hesitate to get in touch with admissions officers at universities. They will have heard every query under the sun, so don’t be embarrassed by anything that you want to ask.
4. University websites, online blogs, social media – A quick google can unearth some interesting information about your university. Look at its website, where you will easily find information on some of the points mentioned, or you may be directed to social media threads or online forums that can provide you with answers.
5. School teachers – Have a chat with your schoolteacher or guidance counsellor if you’re finding it hard to make a decision. They can help you to weigh up all the different factors and figure out which institution will work best for you. They may even be able to put you in touch with former high school students who have gone on to study at your university of choice.
6. Rankings – University rankings are a good source for an overview of how a university is performing. Depending on which ranking you turn to, you can determine different information about an institution. For example, the World University Rankings looks at the university’s global position, the Impact Ranking looks at a university’s commitment to sustainability and equality, the Teaching Rankings explore teaching quality, and the Reputation Rankings looks at how academics view an institution. Depending on what you're most interested in, rankings can help you see how well a university is performing across difference measures.