Student Blog: Tips for choosing and applying to universities

Blogger Laura Warner, studying Geography at University College London, presents her perspective on applying to university, now that she's on the other side.
December 11 2015

“If I’d only known then what I know now”

So what do you want to study at university?

Geography, I think. Yes, Geography. I'm good at Geography and it’s interesting. I mean, I really love English Literature but there are so few contact hours and it’s not really that employable…so I want to do that, but I don’t think I can justify it, not for £9,000 a year. So Geography, that’s better, I’ll do that.

And where do you want to go and study?

UCL! I don’t think Oxbridge is for me, but I still want to go to a ‘top’ university because I'm working really hard at my A Levels, and if I can get those grades then I should use them, right? I should go to the best place I can possibly go. I’d also like to be in London – there’s so much going on, and so many opportunities.

This is the dialogue I had with myself, my teachers, my parents and my friends three years ago when I was applying to university. Today I am six months away from finishing my undergraduate degree – older, wiser and angrier – and I have a very different outlook. I've learnt a lot of things at university: about Geography, about how many days in a row you can realistically eat pesto pasta, about how awful estate agents are, and about how universities function as institutions. I wish I’d known more about all of these things before applying, but mainly about how universities, namely UCL, operates; and had I identified this, I think the path I’d chosen would have been a different one.

So here is my list of top things to consider and check out if you’re applying to university:

Make sure you’re doing what’s best for you

If you’re applying for university, make sure it’s because you want to go. When deciding on which course to study, make sure it’s because you enjoy it. When working out where you’ll go to university, make sure it’s a place you want to (and can afford to) live in for the duration of your degree. I would absolutely recommend taking advice from teachers, parents, friends, current students – and sometimes these provide the best insights into university – but be careful to ensure that the final decision is your own, and one that you’re happy with.

Make sure you’re applying for the course, not the university

Too many students pick their university choices based on the university itself and not the course they’re going to be studying, and this will rarely end well. I knew that UCL would allow me to specialise in Human Geography after my first year, and had a strong Politics and Government research strand which matched my interests. There’s nothing worse than picking a course and then realising that your favourite subjects from A-Level are nowhere to be seen in it.

Work out whether you want to go to a research university or a teaching one  

Research universities' primary focus is research, and teaching universities teach: it’s about as simple as that. I chose a research university because of the prestige associated with it, but that’s meant that I get less teaching time – approximately between four and six hours per week. You’ll almost certainly spend more time in lectures and seminars at a teaching university, and less time allocated to independent study and the benefits of this vary depending on how you work best. If you’re not easily motivated and don’t enjoy working by yourself, opt for a teaching university! Even if you do, be aware that it’s hard to structure your week around only a few hours of teaching – even for the most driven students!

It doesn't matter what they offer at the moment, it matters what they offer when you’re there

As a Geographer, a degree course with some good field-trips was important to me. At the open day I heard of trips to America and Australia, which really excited me, but none of which were offered when I arrived at university. Always ask the question what projects, modules, trips you will receive and they will be running when you are there: just because they offer it now, it doesn't mean they will continue to! Make sure you know what you’re getting.

Don’t obsess over finding the ‘best’ university

When I was applying I spent a disproportionate amount of time looking at university league tables, working out which was the best university I could possibly go to, and it wasn't helpful. Since being at university I've learnt that league tables rely heavily on a measure of research output, so they are not directly evaluating my university experience. If you’re going to look in detail at a metric, make it student satisfaction scores – you want to go to a university and study a course where current students are happy. You’ll realise there’s more to life than statistics (unless you study Statistics…) and prestige, and you’ll gain the most from a university where you enjoy studying and living.  

When you get there, always demand more of the university

Universities get away with not providing the services they advertise all too easily and it is not good enough. From day one if you’re not getting the lectures you expected, the essay feedback they promised, a quality of teaching deemed reasonable, and access to clubs, societies, careers services, health centres and accommodation, ask questions and demand answers. I spent my first year at university pretty sad: it wasn't what I expected and it definitely wasn't living up to any of my expectations. I spent my second year angry that I wasn't receiving the service that was advertised to me when I accepted my place, and indeed the one I was paying £9,000 a year for. I'm spending my third year insisting that changes are made, and being proactive in helping these occur. This is simultaneously one of the most important and frustrating things I've done at university. 

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