Don't rely on prospectuses, become active consumer when choosing where to study

The sight of Plymouth spreading out from the train station to the sea was the clincher for Richard Trigg when he attended the university's open day. When he discovered there was sailing on offer too, his other favourites, Sheffield and Middlesex, hit the bin.

Now the assistant-principal and head of post-16 at Burleigh College in Loughborough, he is keen that his sixth-formers should attend open days before filling in their UCAS forms. "I tell them that there is no substitute for going to a university and having a look at it," he says. "My own education would have been very different had I relied on the prospectus."

The first season for open days is about to start and the next sessions will be in October. Anyone can attend, but sheer weight of numbers has led many universities to organise a booking system and places fill up well in advance, especially for the autumn sessions.

Throughout the year universities organise other opportunities for prospective students to visit singly or in groups. Oxford and Cambridge and the colleges hold theirs at the beginning of July for Year 12s who must apply by 15 October.

Most universities put the dates on the internet site but students shouldn't panic if they miss them, says Alistair Gates, its founder. "Open days are a chance to explore the campus and meet lecturers in a formal way with thousands of other prospective undergraduates. The more bespoke the tour the fewer people you meet but you may end up with a better feel for what it would be like to study there," he says.

Visits are a chance to see the accommodation, check out the facilities and find out about clubs and societies. They also enable you to get a better idea of the different degree subjects than you can from a prospectus. Liz Hilditch, who graduated from the University of Essex last year, says it was an inspiring talk from a linguistics lecturer that helped her make one of the biggest decisions of her life. Now working for the university as a student recruitment officer, she is keen to get plenty of academics involved so there is time for both structured talks and informal consultations with students.

Students say the standard of the open days varies enormously. Rachel Wills, 18, sitting her A-levels this month at Burleigh College, says she and her friends found some really exciting and others "really terrible". Lincoln, Manchester and Warwick stood out as well-organised and appealing, she says.

According to fellow student Alice Heath, the University of Birmingham wasn't high on her list of choices before the open day. "The visit allowed me to see what the city and university had to offer. I was impressed by the accommodation. I was given the opportunity to meet academic staff who gave me useful information on my degree choice. Seeing the university's campus changed my opinion of the city and it is now my first choice."

Josh Donegani, 18, also from Burleigh College, began to visit universities when his older sister was applying and continued on his own from age 16.

At first he wanted to study architectural design management but when he got a chance to speak to a student on the course and look at his work, he decided construction was not for him.

"I ended up choosing linguistics and the spate of open day visits began again. Talking to lecturers helped me decide. Student-led tours of the cities were also enlightening."

Don't trust the prospectuses, he says. "However many 'best university' awards they have won and however much they big themselves up, you have to visit and judge for yourself."

Questions to ask

* Is accommodation provided for all first-year students? Where do second- and third-year students live?

* How many lectures, seminars and tutorials will I have a week and how big are the groups?

* How much teaching is done by professors, how much by lecturers and how much by postgraduate students?

* If you are attracted by academics who are leaders in the field, ask how much involvement they have with the course.

* If you are interested in a particular sport or activity, ask if there is a club or association and request details of a student contact to check it is active.