Time to enrol? Try before you buy

You'll spend at least three years at university, so it makes sense to case the joint first

hat kind of university would you like to go to? An inner-city campus with live music and wild parties? A leafy, old-fashioned campus that's been honing minds for centuries? The closest one to home - or the furthest away?

There are more than 100 universities in Britain, many offering the same degrees. Each has a unique character and a different style of teaching; some excel in sports, others in social life. This is why university open days are so useful: it's your chance to nose around the campus and find out if it's the right place for you.

Most open days take place in June and July, with the dates advertised on the university's website. Some require you to book a place, which usually can be done online. All universities offer a general open day, with guided tours of the campus and a chance to chat to lecturers at departmental stands set up in a big hall. This can be useful if you are still making up your mind what you want to study.

If you have already decided that, it's probably better to go to the departmental open days, where there is an in-depth talk on the course structure, and the opportunity to explore the facilities, hear a sample lecture and meet students and see projects they have been working on.

This year, the University of Warwick's Manufacturing and Engineering Department will be hosting robot football, with 11-a-side robot teams built by fourth- year students. Goldsmiths music department is hosting soul gospel and modern jazz workshops, while at Nottingham's new School of Veterinary Science, you can try out the "lambing simulator" that will be used to train students to treat pregnant sheep.

Lindsay McCartney, 17, from Parkmain High in Erskine, Scotland, found the departmental open day at the Glasgow Art School a huge help. "We got to walk around all the studios and we met the students and saw their work. It made you realise you need to put a lot of effort into your work," McCartney says. "At universities it's more about your grades, but at the arts school its about your ideas and potential."

In fact, McCartney decided to retract her application as she didn't feel prepared enough, and has registered for a portfolio-building course at a local college. She plans to apply for the art school next year.

To get the most out of your visit, go prepared with questions. For instance, you might already know what grades you need to get in, but what kind of personality do you need to enjoy the course - and the career that follows. The open day is a great chance to discuss this with the course lecturers.

You can ask about how you'll be examined - will it be exam-based, essay-based, oral exams? Universities have different modes of assessment and you might want one that best suits your way of thinking.

Other questions are: how big will the classes be? Will there be a chance to spend a year studying abroad? What kind of bursaries and scholarships do they have? Do they have links with local industry so you could do work experience? And if there may be an interview, you can ask how many people will question you, and what will they look for?

It's not all about study. This will be your home for the next three or four years. And you need to ask yourself: do I like it? Could I live here? Do I like the halls of residence? How far are they from campus? Would I feel safe at night? Do I like the town? Is there good transport? Do I like the weather? Many first-year students drop out because they chose the wrong place. That's a mistake you don't need to make if you ask the right questions on an open day.

Prospective Oxford and Cambridge students can actually spend a night in the universities' college halls of residence. It costs between £5 and £15 for the night - no parents allowed - and you get a real sense of what it would be like to be there.

Sheffield University offers a similar experience; students stay in halls of residence the night before the open day, at a cost of £19. And Liverpool offers tours of the city centre.

See www.opendays.com

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