A-level results 2016: How to pick a university that’s the best for you

Post-results day, most sixth-formers are probably ready to stress out over which university to go to - but it doesn't have to be stressful

Bridie Pearson-Jones
Tuesday 16 August 2016 15:14
A record 64,300 students found university places through Clearing last year. The system has transformed into a 'respected and important' route to university, says Ucas
A record 64,300 students found university places through Clearing last year. The system has transformed into a 'respected and important' route to university, says Ucas

If you’re in turmoil over which university to chose, relax. It’s not as big a deal as you think. I’ve never heard anyone say: “God, I had such an awful time at Cardiff. I really wish I’d gone to Manchester instead.” Because, wherever you go, be it your first choice, your second, or your ninth, you’re going to have a good time.

That said, though, it can be daunting trying to make a choice of where to go. There are over a hundred universities in the UK, and distinguishing between dozens of apparently identical institutions can be hard.

Firstly, not all universities are the same. While you’re probably going to enjoy it regardless, there are some big things to consider; do you want a bachelors or a masters degree? Are you willing to stay at university four years (as is the norm in Scotland)? Will you be able to study abroad or learn a language in your course? Can you get a part-time job while studying? Some universities, such as Oxbridge, frown upon part-time work, while others, such as London’s Birkbeck, openly encourage it and run all their lectures 4pm to 8pm so their students can work. So, what other factors should you take into consideration?


How far you want to be from home is something to really carefully consider. It can be tempting to go to uni on the other side of the country in the name of independence and freedom from Mum and Dad, but when your paying around £50 or more on train tickets every time you have to go home, it can get old pretty fast. Look at ease of travel - trains and buses - as well as how quick it is to drive home in an emergency. Plus, think about the city itself; is there lots of culture, is there a great nightlife? Helena Fesenko - who graduated in 2015 with a degree in economics from Bristol, but is originally from Reading - told the Independent: “I liked that Bristol was a big city to explore, and that it was particularly good for my course. As well as that, it was fairly close to home and had a great nightlife.”

Cost of living

This also plays a big part when looking at location. Generally, the north is cheaper than the south, and if money is a worry, avoid London and Edinburgh. Oxbridge and Brighton also have much higher rent and higher general cost of living than other university towns and cities. Places like Belfast, Manchester, and Cardiff, on the other hand, have much lower rents than the average. NatWest does a study every year on cost of living among various universities and it’s definitely something to read if you’re concerned about making ends meet.

The 20 hardest universities to get into

City or campus?

Another question to ask yourself. Do you think you’re going to thrive from the bustling atmosphere of feeling like you’re in a big city environment, or would you prefer the cosiness and comfort of a campus lifestyle? There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s just personal preference. Dan Linstead, who’s just graduated in English from Southampton, said he chose the city because it had a specialist humanities campus which had “an amazing community feel.” He added how he felt Southampton had great opportunities for him: “The city has the highest number of clubs and societies of any university in the country, and I knew it meant I could try loads of stuff out. Plus, it has renowned media societies; knowing I wanted to go into a career in radio, I knew Southampton was the place for me.”

Ignore the league tables

While it’s a great achievement to get into a Russell Group university, there’s really not much correlation between graduate employment prospects and where the university ranks in league tables. Birmingham, King’s, Sussex, and Buckingham are all in the top ten universities for employment after graduation, despite ranking somewhere between 15th and 55th place. The best university in the country for getting a job is St George’s, University of London, but only ranks in the 40s overall. Unless you want to go into a very specific industry, it’s not going to make a huge difference where you go. Employers care a lot more work experience.

University rankings are mainly based on research, and employers aren’t looking to see if you can write 2,000 words on the influence of Nietzsche on Camus’ early work, or what your personal tutor wrote their thesis on. They care if you can do the job. University league tables change year on year - no one is going to remember if your institution is 8th or 25th the year you graduate.

The main point of university is to get a better job, but increasingly, graduate employers are looking less at the academic aspect and more about what you’ve learned outside of your degree. Does the university offer you a chance to build up leadership skills, confidence, and business awareness? Are there societies you can help run to boost your CV? These are better questions than ‘how often is my professor published in journals?’

Students’ unions and clubs

For a lot of people, academia takes up relatively little of your time at university, and it’s one of the things that varies the least between institutions. Do you love swimming? Look at the universities that have the best swim teams. Budding journalist? Look at which places have the best newspapers. Entrepreneur? See which campuses have the best business societies, Overall, this will probably take up more time than your studies.

The best thing to do is to do is be well-researched, but don’t stress - every university is different, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

Bridie Pearson-Jones has just graduated from the University of Southampton where she studied politics and economics. This September, she’ll be studying for a masters in interactive journalism at City University London

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