Clearing: last-minute advice

Decisions, decisions...Choosing a college can be tricky, but ultimately it comes down to knowing what suits you best

By Chris Green
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:22

So you’ve decided you want to go to university and you know what you want to study, but you have to make the potentially life-changing decision about where to go in a matter of minutes. Don’t worry: you just need to think clearly and know what to look for. The good news is that plenty of people have been in this position before, and still managed to land on their feet.

A bewildering variety of factors contribute to whether or not you’ll be happy somewhere, so your task is to find the institution which ticks the greatest number of boxes. Always trust your gut feeling about a place, and if you aren’t happy about it, don’t go.

Deciding on a course

If you have a list of courses which interest you, then read on. If you don’t, skip to the next section and see if it helps you narrow down your options.

Now, print out the course descriptions from the university websites and arrange them on a table. Scour these pages in detail, and courses which initially looked identical will end up seeming very dissimilar.

Are any of the modules compulsory, and if so, would you definitely want to do them? Is there a wide choice of elective modules, and do any of them appeal to you particularly? These are the types of question you should be asking yourself. If there’s time, log on to and compare the courses you’re most interested in.

Do you prefer doing coursework or sitting exams? Some courses will be heavily weighted towards an end of year exam; others will not. Do you work better when left to your own devices, or would you prefer to speak to your tutors and lecturers on a regular basis? The number of “contact hours” each course has every week will give you an idea of how much interaction you’ll have with your teachers.

How much of the course is taught in the lecture theatre, and how much is conducted in smaller, more intimate groups? Would you mind working with other students on collaborative projects, or doing a significant piece of research on your own? Answer all of these questions truthfully, and if a course jumps out at you, then the chances are you’ve found the right one.

Been there done that

Anita Kaur, 20, went through Clearing last year. She is now about to begin the second year of a combined honours degree in management and psychology at London South Bank University (LSBU). “I actually rang up LSBU myself and asked if there were any spaces in the two courses that I was interested in,” she says. “They asked me a couple of questions, and then that was it. It was a bit nerve-wracking at the beginning, because I didn’t think I’d get the courses that I wanted or find the right university. But after I got in it was fine – I was relaxed and didn’t have anything to worry about during the holidays.”

Deciding on a university

Some people simply choose a university by picking the one closest to home, or the one where most of their friends are going. If these things mean a lot to you and dictate where you’ll be happiest, then your decision could be an easy one. But it’s worth bearing in mind that a big part of university is stepping outside your comfort zone. Knowing plenty of people in your year might be fun, but it could also mean that you make fewer friends. Similarly, going to university in a place you already know will make the experience less exciting, and the temptation to live at home might be harder to resist.

On the other hand, choosing to go to university at the opposite end of the country has its own set of difficulties. You will want to go home some time, so it’s worth thinking about how good – or bad – the transport links are. If you have to book a flight every time you want to go home, you simply won’t go home as much as most people. If this doesn’t bother you, fine; but it’s best to be certain of this before you make your final decision.

Again, if you have a bit of time to make a decision, visit and try out the university chooser. This handy little gizmo allows you to submit your grades, the subject area you want to study and any other preferences you might have. At the very least it should help you to narrow down your choices.

A campus university has everything you need on one self-contained site: students live, study and party all within the institution’s grounds, which are often leafy and landscaped. It’s a system which has been perfected in the US, but British examples include York, Warwick and Sussex. Whereas some people love this sheltered approach to university life – campuses are usually safe, friendly and have a strong sense of community – others crave the variety which only non-campus institutions can offer.

Small town universities

Here, too, there is immense variation. While some universities are located in tiny cities, others are based in vast ones. Which type you’d prefer all depends on the kind of learning and living experience you’re looking for. Would you describe yourself as a city person or a countryside lover? Does the thought of living in a small place with a slower pace of life and limited nightlife fill you with dread? Or would you hate having to get a bus across town for your lectures?

Smaller university cities are often very beautiful, and to aesthetically minded students, this can be an attraction in itself. Examples include Durham, St Andrews and Canterbury. Some people find, quite understandably, that studying in a place where everyone knows everyone else make them feel claustrophobic. Others find them cosy, friendly and great places to get their teeth into some serious study.

Big city universities

City-based institutions are unmatched when it comes to culture and social life. Study in Glasgow, Newcastle or Liverpool, for example, and you’ll have theatres, art galleries and the best music venues on your doorstep. Drawbacks include higher rents, less of a community feel and greater distances between university buildings: you’ll have to learn to love public transport if you’re going to study in a city.

Chris Green is the author of ‘The Independent A-Z of Universities'

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