Make an informed decision

Choosing the right course will require research, be it via books, open days or the internet.
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What do prospective students need to know in order to find that ideal course in a perfect university or college? Even though today's internet generation may prefer websites, three written resources are essential first reading.

What do prospective students need to know in order to find that ideal course in a perfect university or college? Even though today's internet generation may prefer websites, three written resources are essential first reading.

The best starting point is University and College Entrance - The Official Guide. (Studylink Undergraduate - a multimedia database of courses with additional information from institutions on job prospects, teaching styles and comments from current students - comes free with it.)

Next come individual prospectuses. You can find reference copies in school or college, but it's best to get your own. These are especially good for information on course contents plus the facilities the institution offers - including accommodation, the cost of which will be a factor in your choice. Remember that these are the institutions' means of advertising - and therefore should not be the only method of making your final decision.

You will also need the UCAS Directory 2001 Entry. You should be able to consult a copy in school or college. This contains a list of the 336 universities and colleges in the UCAS scheme, lists of their courses and UCAS code numbers. It is also available on CD-Rom. Supplies have been sent to schools and colleges but if you would like your own, e-mail or ring 01242 544610. (Additional paper copies are £6, so try to use school ones!)

You will want some information about the quality of courses and institutions. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) can help here. On behalf of the Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Northern Ireland and Wales, it assesses the quality of teaching by subject, under set headings (including course content, teaching, resources and student support). Similar assessments are conducted by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. Institutions are required to "make available" the grades that they received. Some do so by giving a summary in their prospectus; others give a contact e-mail address or telephone number which you can use to request the information. Departments that received a high grade are not usually backwards in coming forward and publish grades in its prospectus pages. You can view many of these reports on the internet.

Entry profiles are a relatively new concept and are very useful, but not all courses have them yet. Their aim is to describe the personal skills, qualities and experience you may need before starting the course and how they will be developed. You could also use the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which monitors the quality of research carried out by institutions in each subject they offer, using grades from "weak" to "highest international standard". They are more usually of interest to postgraduate students - but at this stage they can give you a good indication of the level of facilities available in a particular subject.

You really need to visit some places. There is no substitute for seeing the place you intend to spend three or four years of your life. It is still not too late to attend some open days - if you can negotiate the time off school or college. Most took place in the summer term but a number are held in the autumn. And if you get to talk to current students you can ask all sorts of questions about lectures, accommodation and social life, and the real cost of living on a student budget.

Open days have various formats but a common one includes presentations to large audiences by key speakers - admissions officers, student union representatives, accommodation officers - followed by visits to individual departments. Minibuses depart regularly to different campuses; students often act as guides and sometimes visits to halls of residence are thrown in. (Warning: the smart hall you are shown on open day may not be the one in which you are eventually placed).

A booklet issued earlier in the year listing university-wide and departmental open days should be available in school or college. Posters announcing them may be arriving daily - and you can also find a list posted on the UCAS website. (See below.)

Later in the year, interviews may give you a further opportunity for research. Even at this stage you still have some opportunity for choice. Fewer students are being interviewed these days - but if you are invited to some you can use them to ask questions of your own. Don't be intimidated! It's a two-way process. Students often make their final choice according to the impression they received at interview.


Additional Resources: contains both quality assessment and RAE reports; has courses and entry requirements, entry profiles, open day dates and links to institutions' sites; for dates, travel details, users' reviews of their open day experiences;