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How to Choose a University

Are you unsure how to choose a university? Feeling stressed and anxious about making a decision? Get support and advice from our guide on how to choose a university in the UK.

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Updated on 08/07/21

Whether you’re waiting for your A-level results, you’ve just received them or you’re in the university clearing process, you’re probably wondering what to consider when choosing a university. From the course itself to the university location and student union bar, we round up everything you need to think about right here.

After reading our guide, you’ll be better equipped to make the right university choice for you.

How important is choosing the right university?

The choice you make when choosing a university will shape your immediate future. It will determine who you meet (maybe even your future spouse!) what skills you will develop and opportunities you can seize. Therefore, it is a crucial decision that has a lot of impact on the rest of your life. And that, as we know, is quite a lot of pressure.

But just because it is such an important decision does not mean it is a make-or-break decision. You could have a happy and wonderful experience at lots of universities, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to choose a UK university. Thousands of other future students are in your shoes, shuffling one way and the other without really knowing what university to pick.

How to choose a university

Below you can find the biggest considerations when choosing a university. Not all of them will apply to you, but there is some food for thought for every university hopeful.

Consider your course and future

Choosing a university is likely to centre around the course you want to do and the career you wish to have after graduation. Not all universities offer the same courses so you will need to investigate which ones do offer the degree you need. 

Moreover, you may wish to look into the details of those courses to see what modules are included. Does it include a module that you want to specialise in and find interesting? Or are they irrelevant for your desired career?

Another way to judge the course is to look at the professors and lecturers who teach at the university. Are they spearheading the field with innovative research, or have they even inspired you to get into the discipline?

University ranking and employment rate

If you are unsure of how good the courses are that have made your shortlist really are, there are ways to learn more about them without reading flashy course booklets handed to you by the universities. You could try to contact current students on that course to get their experiences and feedback (this is best done on university course open days).

Another way is to look up the course and university position on respected rankings. There are a few different tables you can look at, and not all of them are regarded as reliable. The Times Higher Education is one of the handful that is worth browsing.

Industry connections

Some universities will actively advertise on their course curriculum that they have connections within the industry. This may provide an opportunity for you to get a work placement with a company you dreamed to work for, or a similar opportunity. It’s also a good idea to look at employment rates after graduating from each university – many of them publish this information.

If you can’t find this advertised, email the course leader directly to find out what’s on offer with them.

Online and remote learning options

University courses have always had a remote learning aspect to them, usually in the form of blackboard or another online moodle where course notes and announcements are published, or where recorded lectures are made available.

These types of platforms may be used even further due to the recent pandemic, with some universities potentially taking a more blended learning approach, where some content is recorded and placed online. The details of this may be a consideration when starting university in 2021.

You could always get a feel for what’s on offer by trying some short online courses from a university you’re considering.

University location and campus location

The city or town of your university will probably hold a lot of weight in your decision. You might prefer to live and study in a vibrant busy city or may prefer one of the smaller UK university destinations.

The location may be important for an array of reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Travel time back home
  • Travel time to a weekend job
  • Social scene and nightlife of the location
  • General atmosphere and local amenities/venues
  • Whether you prefer a campus university or one located around a city

Remember to check the campus location of your course and not just where the university is predominantly based!

Think more about the social scene

The social scene is one consideration that usually gets a lot of attention. Nobody wants to go to university in a boring city with few bars and no cinema or special events throughout the year.

Your university life is going to last four or more years, so take the social scene into account when you make your university shortlist.

Extra-curricular activities and sport

Going to university is not only about studying and preparing for a career. It is about character building, making friends and getting involved with things you are passionate about. Whether that be poetry, politics or sports, you may want to look closely at what clubs and societies are connected to the university.

You should also check out what else is in the area not connected to the university.

Erasmus and overseas opportunities

Lots of university courses offer work placements where you get credit for the time you spend on the job. But some courses offer exciting overseas placements where you can go around Europe or further afield to gain valuable experience that will stand out on your CV.

However, be prepared for tough competition for these positions, and it’s probably not best to hang your hat on this factor alone when choosing a university.

The better news is that the Erasmus programme may remain open for UK students even after Brexit negotiations. The Erasmus programme is a way for students to swap universities for a single term or full year and is often an eye-opening experience for many. Currently, the UK’s continued participation in the scheme will depend on Brexit negotiations.

If studying abroad is on your bucket list, make sure to ask if this could still be an option at your university and on your specific course.

And if you do go, get a head start and learn the local language!

The financial aspect

University is expensive in the UK and there is no getting away from the high fees. But you can save money by choosing a university that will not make the cost of living so expensive. For example, living and studying in Newcastle or Carlisle will be far cheaper than doing so in central London. 

But there is a way you can avoid those hefty course fees if you plan to complete your full degree abroad. University tuition costs much less in many European destinations and some of them now offer bachelor’s degrees taught in English to attract the international market. Master’s degrees are widely taught in English and exceptionally cheaper compared to the UK equivalents.

Speaking of master’s degrees…

If you already know that your bachelor’s degree is just a stepping-stone to an academic career, you might already know what master’s degree you wish to do or even have a PhD idea in mind. If this sounds familiar, you should ideally start looking at the acceptance criteria for the master’s degree in question.

What do you need to get on the course? Will the bachelor course you have in mind suffice those requirements? Plan early by considering these things when choosing a university.

Additional support services

Some students may require additional support for their learning. This could range from help to manage deadlines or support for specific learning difficulties. UK universities usually offer additional services to help these students and can provide them with the support they need to earn their degree. But that doesn’t mean every university offers the same services – and some may be streets ahead of others.

If you need additional support, it is always best to investigate what is on offer by emailing and calling the university departments responsible for offering these specialised services.

I still don’t know what university to choose

If you are still unsure about what university you want to attend, there is nothing wrong with taking a gap year and taking the time to figure it out. With university course fees of almost £10,000 per year, using the time to get the decision correct may be wise.

During your gap year, you could try and get some work experience, save some money, travel when possible and read more about the subjects you’re considering.

I want to go this year, but I’m still not sure

On the other hand, you may not be 100% certain that you will choose the right university or course but remain adamant that you do want to attend in 2021.

If you tick this box, then choosing a course that offers transferable skills with a wide range of job opportunities is best. For example, some courses are very restrictive about what careers they lead to, such as accountancy. But other courses, like business degrees and computer science courses, can keep your future career options wide open.

What not to consider

We’ve discussed some of the key points that soon-to-be freshers might want to consider, but what things should you not put too much emphasis on?

The main one is the university choices of your current friends. If your friends from sixth form or college just so happen to want to go to the same university then that’s great. But if you make your decision based on their preferences and follow them to a university, this could limit your new experiences, social life, and personal growth. 

Your university decision should be an entirely personal choice. You can still remain friends with your current gang by going to another university and visiting them often, so don’t sacrifice this important decision just to keep your close friends nearby.

Going to university should be seen as a way to get out of your comfort zone, meet new people and develop your soft skills. Even if you head to a university where you know absolutely nobody, you’ll still meet new and exciting people. 

Everyone understands that this can be daunting, but hundreds of other students will be in the same boat as you and even more open than usual to meet new people.

Final thoughts on choosing a university

For many people, choosing a university is the first major life decision they make that’s entirely their own. While guides and recommendations can provide factors to consider, the weighting you give you each factor and the ultimate decision has to be yours. In some cases, the best university in the league tables may not be in a city that you like, or the one with the best post-graduate employment rate may not have a strong community around your favourite sport.

Talking through your decisions and considering what you want to achieve most in the next 3-4 years will help you with the decision, as will listening to your own feelings and instincts about each option.


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