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Open days: Ditch the prospectus and see it in the cold light of day

The University of Warwick is a lively, cosmopolitan place, with shops, banks, bars and restaurants, according to its prospectus. Everything a student will need is close at hand on a campus that is easily accessible by road, rail and air, it says. No wonder David Kim, a sixth-former, put the university high on his wish list. Until he attended an open day and discovered that he didn't like it.

"I was very keen on Warwick from the prospectus. The nice scenery and the modern facilities in the pictures created a dynamic university in my mind, but I found the reality a bit dull and very isolated," he says. "I know people who have gone there and loved it, and there was nothing wrong with the university at all. It's just I had created a different university in my mind, and it wasn't until I got there I realised I wanted to be part of a town," says Kim, 18, a pupil at Coombe sixth-form college in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey.

Others had a very different reaction. "I really liked Warwick. I liked the campus and I was very impressed with the music centre," says Christine Leung, 18, a student at Farnborough sixth-form college in Hampshire.

That's why university open days are so important, says David Peters, head of Coombe sixth-form college. "Students get the feel or the vibe of the institution or the city and they have often revised their views when they return."

Most universities will be holding open days in the next few weeks inviting upper- and lower-sixth-formers and their parents to inspect the facilities and meet lecturers and students. Over the year, there will be opportunities for guided tours and shorter visits, but open days have become the big showpiece event, particularly at the "new" universities.

Universities in historic, lively cities have a natural advantage, but they don't suit everyone. Jessica Crandon, 17, from Farnborough sixth-form college found that she didn't like Cambridge, despite its pretty buildings. "I thought there was a very snobby attitude towards A-levels," she says. "One of the lecturers told us that you don't learn anything taking an A-level and she prefers the International Baccalaureate. I didn't feel I would fit in."

Laura Stewart from Farnborough fell in love with Bath but ruled out Warwick, saying it didn't match up to claims on its prospectus. Fellow student Tom Llewellyn, 17, liked Bristol, especially since he was able to attend mock lessons, and Jonathan Stead, 17, said he felt more at home at Cambridge than he'd expected.

It's not possible to get a really detailed impression from a visit, but you can get a feeling for the atmosphere, which helps you make a decision, says Priyanka Patel from sixth-form, who has visited Oxford, Bath, Warwick and LSE.

Universities always put pictures of the best parts in their prospectuses, says Coombe student Alex Duffy, 17. "They are trying to sell the university. Then, when you get there, you see the parts they wouldn't want to show," she says. "If you are going to spend three years somewhere, you want a good atmosphere and friendly people. I didn't really take to Exeter, but I liked the friendliness of Sheffield and I loved Durham. People I talked to at Durham were really enthusiastic about the place and the course and I can imagine myself there."

A lot of the talks on open days are boring because they just repeat the prospectus, she says. "I want to be excited about studying a subject and they talked about the practicalities."

As well as taking in the atmosphere and talking to staff and students, open days are also a chance to inspect the accommodation and facilities. A lot of bars on campus may suggest a lively social life but can also be comforting for parents because the students are more likely to do their drinking in a relatively safe environment.

Open days have limited places and fill up quickly – more than 6,000 visited Warwick last Saturday. But most universities host visits and tours later in the year and many students and their parents pay informal visits to get a feel for the campus and location.

Five things to ask on open days

Is accommodation provided for all first-year students? And what happens in years two and three?

What are the class sizes for small-group teaching?

How much undergraduate teaching is done by professors and postgraduate students?

If there are academics who are leaders in their particular fields, how much actual involvement do they have with the courses?

How big are the library holdings? At an "old" university, it should be a million items or more. How big is the holding for your subject? LL