12 UNIVERSITY & COLLEGE PROSPECTUS GUIDE; Map for a blackboard jungle

Redbrick, campus or Oxbridge? And which course? The choice facing applicants for places is wide and difficult. Stephen Pritchard advises; 'The main criterion is the course. There is no point in applying for an AAB course if your predicted grades are three Cs'
WHAT TO do, where to go: finding the right university place is a hard balancing act. With 107 institutions offering degrees, each with a wealth of courses, sifting through prospectuses is a daunting task.

The advice offered most often by careers advisers, heads of sixth forms and university admission tutors is to select somewhere where you will be happy to spend three or four years.

Everybody has their own criteria. In some cases, the choice will, of course, take precedent over all other factors. Medicine, for example, is restricted to the large civic universities and Oxbridge; aeronautical engineering is offered by only a handful of institutions, such as Southampton and Kingston.

Elsewhere, especially in the arts, the choice is much more open. But check course details carefully. Academic programmes vary: modern history is interpreted more broadly by some departments than others; languages may be literature-based, or may come closer to the social sciences or European studies.

"The main criteria must be the course and what your interests are," advises Angela Bogg, Manchester University's admissions officer. But it also helps to talk to teachers about expected grades. "There is no point in applying for an AAB offer course if your predicted grades are three Cs," she adds.

Domestic considerations are also important.

Finance is a key issue for students, and cost of living is higher in some cities than others. Oxford, Cambridge and London are particularly costly, not just for housing but for student staples such as beer or entertainment.

With the grant falling by 10 per cent each year, accommodation may now swallow up a year's money. Studying in a city with an abundance of cheap rented housing can help, although it might not be in the most salubrious part of town. The number of places in halls of residence is also worth checking - as are their locations; in London especially, some halls are a fair way out and travel costs need to be allowed for.

Studying close to home is one way to save money. Travelling can be expensive and time-consuming, and the grant for living at home is less than for those living away. But with students coming from wider backgrounds and age groups than heretofore, commuting to university is far more commonplace than it was even five years ago.

Universities can be placed in a number of groups, each with their own characteristics. Oxford and Cambridge still occupy their particular niche, although the Brideshead image is less and less valid. Entrance exams have gone, but the universities still operate their own admissions procedures which need careful research - and an early Ucas application.

Next, in terms of age, come the Victorian redbrick universities. These often offer the best social life, as they are located in city centres. The two most popular universities last year, Manchester (in terms of overall applications) and Nottingham (applications per place) are both redbrick, and both in cities which are vibrant but not too expensive.

The campus universities date mostly from the late 1960s. They are a little way out of town, and they are smaller than the others. This gives a more intimate atmosphere, and shorter travelling times between lectures, at the expense of a smaller local town, such as York or Colchester. Sometimes, this is a benefit: Lancaster, for example, is within easy reach of the Lake District, which appeals to outdoor enthusiasts.

The "new" universities, or former polytechnics, are usually in or close to city centres. They are often highly innovative, for example, in offering flexible modes of study; modular degrees were pioneered in the polytechnic sector. They also have a history of providing for mature students.

It is also possible to take a degree, or an HND, away from university altogether. Higher education colleges offer degree programmes, and local further education colleges may have "franchise" degrees from a university in the region. In some cases, students can complete the whole course at the college; in others, the FE college teaches just the first-year programme.

Teaching methods also vary from institution to institution. Oxbridge retains its famous tutorial system, although groups of two or three students are now more common than one-to-one groups. Most universities use a combination of seminars, classes and lectures, as well as lab practicals in the sciences. The exact mix varies, and it is worth finding out more before applying, if only to avoid a shock later.

Although it can be a lot to take in in a short space of time, it is difficult to have too much information about a university. As well as the official prospectus, and national guides to universities, some student unions also produce their own unofficial guides, which are often entertaining as well as informative. Open days and visits are especially useful because they allow applicants to meet real live students. It is also worth talking to friends, or friends' brothers, sisters or distant relatives about their experiences.

Spend time finding out about every choice on the Ucas form; any one could make an offer. "There is no point in putting somewhere down on the form to fill up space," says Jess Enderby at Ucas. "You have to be prepared to spend three or four years at any one of your choices."

Although it may seem a way off, applicants should also think about where their courses will lead. It is important to check the success of a university's graduates on the job market, says Richard Broom, admissions officer at City University. This might be in the prospectus; otherwise contact the department, the careers service at the university, or the admissions office.

In fact, applicants should see the admissions office as their ally. As Angela Bogg at Manchester points out: "We are happy for people to ring up. Students and applicants are our customers, and we are happy to help them where we can."