University Open Days: Make sure you leave your parents behind

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The Independent Online

Going along to a university open day or two has become almost as fixed a part of the application process as leafing through prospectuses and agonising over the first sentence of your personal statement.

But are open days really worth the train fare? Are they a good way of choosing where to spend the next three or four years of your life? And if so, how can students get the most out of them?

There are as many different reasons to choose one university over another as there are students to fill them, but for many applicants it is still important to feel secure about their choice. Open days can sway close decisions and even help motivate you towards exams by giving you a clearer picture of exactly where good grades might take you.

The fact is that, like a degree itself, open days are really only what you make of them. Turn up with a notebook and a sharp eye, knowing exactly what you want to see, who you want to talk to and what you're going to ask, and you're likely to leave with a clearer idea of whether a university is for you.

So it is a good idea to figure out what you want to find out from the day; and listing all the concerns you have beforehand will help you think constructively.

Getting over any initial reticence and talking to as many people as possible will ensure you get a broad sense of a university's atmosphere. That said, bear in mind that while a charismatic tour guide or lecturer might impress, it is best to try and form judgements based on broader, more substantial factors than individual personalities.

One of the best things to do, if feasible, is to meet students who are already on the course you are considering. Different universities often teach the same subject in surprisingly different styles, so don't just ask about course content. Try to get a firm sense of what it is about a particular university's approach to a subject that makes it enjoyable, and then think seriously about whether this appeals or not.

Many students suffer the indignity of traipsing around draughty lecture theatres with their parents. On these occasions, the mums and dads will invariably wear unsuitable knitwear and insufferably earnest expressions, and when they're not reminiscing tediously about their own humdrum heyday they'll be conjuring up visions of the improbably wholesome years they think lie ahead of you.

Parents and open days just don't mix. They may occasionally ask a reasonable question, and they'll probably pay for lunch, but, if they insist on coming, the best policy is to abandon them to their own devices between meals. Ask them if they wouldn't mind inspecting the swimming facilities on the other side of town while you check out the library and student union.

This is your decision, not theirs, and you're more likely to ask genuine questions and get honest answers if they aren't peering over your shoulder.

Many students are also torn between campus and city-based universities, and open days can help resolve this one way or the other. Often, getting a feel for the place itself is just as important as the programme of talks and tours laid on by the university.

Katy Winskell, 22, had always been attracted to Newcastle University, but after visiting both Newcastle and Leeds, she was surprised to find herself drawn to Yorkshire rather than Tyneside for her law degree. She also visited Aberdeen, and though she was impressed by the law faculty, she remembers being instantly put off by the unpleasant smell in the station as she got off the train.

Of course, some take a less constructive approach to open days than others, and they don't necessarily suffer for it. Malcolm Reid knew exactly where he wanted to go to study modern languages, but attended a couple of open days at other universities. To the first of these he arrived hopelessly late. He spent some hours in a coffee shop before catching the lunchtime train home with no intention of returning.