Trials and tribulations of picking a university

It's vital to choose the right university for you. So don't just rely on the prospectus, says Chris Green
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The Independent Online

Choosing a university is a huge decision, and one which may well have a knock-on effect on your future career prospects. If studying the UCAS listings and reading every prospectus from cover to cover doesn't help you make your mind up, take the time to actually visit the places you're considering studying in. After all, you'll be spending at least three years there.

Most students find it easy to narrow their options down to a few institutions, and some may turn up for the open day with a clear idea of where they want to end up. But often a personal visit can totally alter your view of a place.

Kieran Docherty, 19, is now in his second year studying medicine at the University of Glasgow. He was keen to study at either Glasgow or Newcastle, but was finding the choice difficult until he went to an official open day at each university.

"I was pretty sure that I wanted to go to Newcastle from what I had heard and read in the prospectus," he says. "But when I went to the open day, I simply didn't like it. I just didn't feel comfortable in the university.

"By comparison, Glasgow was very inviting: the tour was informative and sold the medical school well, and you were really made to feel you would be coming to a good place to study. The open day was fundamental in my final decision."

If you want to avoid trawling through each university website individually, try using, a useful resource with a database of dates as well as tips about what to look for on the big day.

Alistair Gates, who owns and maintains, says that going to visit a university in person is "fundamentally important" in determining whether you will be happy living there.

"When making this decision, people should remember that it's not just about the academics," he says. "The lifestyle is just as important as what subject you are going to study, and will lead to a very different kind of learning experience."

Gates says that while some students may be drawn to more remote, campus-style universities, others prefer the thrill of living and studying in the heart of a city. Each student should make their decision based on whatever is right for them, and not be swayed by where their friends may want to study.

Most open days follow roughly the same format: you'll probably be greeted at the university by some current students, and be given a tour of the accommodation, the students' union and sports facilities. There will usually be the chance to meet some tutors and ask subject-specific questions.

Alison Richardson is in charge of the open day operation at Newcastle University, which is holding its summer event on 27 June. She says that most school leavers jump at the chance of meeting current students to get their side of the story.

"It's a great opportunity for them to ask the burning questions they have about nightlife, and it also adds a personal touch," she says. "But more than anything it gives people a flavour of what it's like to stay in Newcastle."

Paul Govey is head of student recruitment at Manchester University, which now holds two summer open days to cope with the sheer volume of visitors. This year they will take place on 22 and 23 June. He advises potential students to pay attention to their gut feeling on the day.

"The most important thing is the emotional response, and getting a sense of the environment," he says. "Does it feel right? A prospectus or a website can only present information, they can't complete the picture of what it's actually like to be a student at the university. The open day can tick all of these boxes."

Above all, make sure that you go into the open day without prejudice: try not to be convinced that there is only one place where you could be happy. Situations can change very quickly after exam results, so keep your options open and visit as many universities as possible.

Atholl Tweedie, 21, is in his final year studying maths at the University of Bath. A tempting offer from Cambridge made him close his mind to other options.

"I should have taken the Bath open day far more seriously," he admits. "But at the time I was totally geared towards getting into Cambridge, so I was too blasé about the whole thing. I ought to have gone to a lot more open days, because two is just not enough."

So start booking your places now. At worst it's a day off school – at best, it may help you make one of the most important decisions of your life.