Education Quandary

'My son wants me to drive him around the north of England this summer to look at universities. But is there any point in visiting during the holidays?'
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Hilary's Advice

There is always point in visiting universities. In fact it would be risky for your son to sign away years of his life to a place he hasn't ever been to see. The key is to be realistic about what it will be possible for him to see, and to take that into account when weighing up impressions.

In the summer, university staff and students will be on vacation, and campuses will either be depressingly empty or hosting a variety of summer conferences. Instead of students he may encounter groups of middle-aged female choral singers, Commonwealth forensic scientists or American genealogists, all of whom will give the place a very different air from term-time.

But the two of you will be able to check out the city and walk around the faculties and accommodation blocks. You may be able to poke your noses into the library or the students' union, and if you are in luck you may be able to find someone prepared to let you have a look at a student room.

It's always worth checking out the university website for details of summer campus tours, and guided visits. There aren't many, but they do exist. The University of Lancaster, for example, posts one for 25 August. And your son could also phone the department he's interested in, on the off-chance there might be someone available to show him around.

However, it makes much more sense for him to go to a full-blown open day. That will give him a tour, some introductory talks and a chance to quiz students about university life. There is a host of these early in the autumn, so your son could spend the summer doing some online exploration into which universities and courses most interest him.

Once he's narrowed his options, carefully note the relevant open day dates (some come round very quickly after the start of term), put him on a train or a coach and send him off to do his own research.

Readers' Advice

As a careers adviser I am amazed at the number of young people who apply to universities without checking them out, so I think you should go along with your son's plans. Even though it's a quiet time of year I'm sure you will find it useful, as it will be an opportunity to meet and talk to local people, including those who work in universities, who can often provide a valuable insight into what student life there is like. Don't rely totally on prospectuses. Your son should do some "alternative" background reading such as the Push and Virgin guides and seek careers advice on his return.

But is he really ready to make such a big decision? Perhaps he should consider taking a year out or evaluating if university is the right route for him.
Julian Potts, Isle of Man

To choose a university, you first need to get some idea of the course you want to take. You can get lists of what is on offer from university prospectuses in most public libraries, or you can ask current or recent graduates about the pros and cons of their particular place and course.

If your son's main consideration is university location, I wonder if he really wants to study for a degree at all. He might do better with a map and a tourist guide.
Robin Minney, Durham

There is one very useful thing your son could learn during this summer holiday: how to use public transport.
Anne Bate, Oxford

Next week's quandary

We have been living abroad, where our daughter has been allowed to be old in her school year. But the comprehensive where she will start in September says she must join her proper age group in Year 10 - and take her GCSEs in one year. We think she should go into Year 9. Who's right? And can I appeal?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 26 July, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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