It’s that time of year again. Autumn leaves, pumpkin lattes and cosy nights in you say? Not for year 13s: UCAS applications, personal statements, interview questions and compulsively checking your emails for offers dominates most of September and October. It may have been a year ago for me, but I’ve got friends currently going through the whole ordeal and, boy, can I sympathise. So with that in mind, I’ve decided to compile 6 pieces of key advice I learnt from advisors, family, and experience, that I think are absolutely essential to remember if you’re in the process of applying to university.
Choosing a uni is probably the most stressful and holy-fudge-this-will-affect-the-rest-of-my-life decision that you will have to make in your life so far. It’s a pretty big deal deciding where you want to spend the next 3 to 4 years of your life (and where you’re willing to invest £30,000 worth of debt- but let’s not go there) and there are so many different factors to weigh up.
1. What should I study?
Choosing your subject is a fairly obvious major deal when it comes to university, which is why I’m going to unabashedly stick with the clichés and say that the Golden Rule is choosing something you genuinely enjoy. You don’t have to spend every waking moment solving maths logic problems for your personal entertainment, or equally have read every canonical text under the sun, but make sure your subject is something you’ll (mostly) look forward to attending lectures on and be willing to spend a lot of time committing to. The simple fact of the matter is is that you’ll work harder and do better if you’re passionate about your degree. A Careers’ Advisor told me that if you can easily talk for 10 minutes on the question ‘why do you like/want to do this degree?’ then you’re on the right track. Remember too to think outside the box and consider joint honours and non-subject degrees such as Engineering, History of Art or Arabic Studies.
2. Don’t rely on league tables/myths and stereotypes
Deciding where to begin even thinking of applying can be a mammoth task, so while it can be tempting to rely solely on what the league tables and other people tell you, try to resist. Send off for as many prospectuses as you can, trawl through uni websites and, even if you can’t decide straight away what you do like, eliminate what you won’t be considering. For me the basic criteria was: Russell Group, but not Oxbridge and not London (the accommodation costs give me palpitations just thinking about it). From here I was able to work out a short-list of about 10 places I thought I might be interested in, and had particularly strong history departments. Looking up course details (I really wanted to have a chance to study abroad) and ordering prospectus’ helped me cut down my short-list even more.
3. GO ON OPEN DAYS
For me, this is the most important thing you can do. Prospectus’ are all well and good, but at the end of the day that picture on the front cover will be the prettiest possible angle of that one old beautiful building on campus. If you want a real feel for the place where you’ll be living, you have to see it for yourself, warts and all. My personal experience of this was my Open Day to Durham. I knew instantly that despite the hype it just wasn’t for me, and if I’d relied on what other people had told me, I could well have ended up putting it as my first choice.
4. Know your stuff
It’s a bit of pain having to be so organised straight after surviving AS exams, but the summer holidays before A2s is the time to really sort out in your mind what 5 choices you’ll put down on that dreaded UCAS form. Pros and cons lists are helpful, and make sure to ask all and any questions you might have at Open Days and preferably speak to genuine students too – the more you know, the more likely you are to make the right decision. I found that going to Open Days on my own meant that tour guides tended to take pity on the poor parent-less child and chatted to me personally, which meant I got a load of inside knowledge I don’t think I’d have found out if my mum had been there.
5. Consider everything
That’s not just the uni satisfaction rating, or the ranking in the Complete University Guide Table – try and think as broadly as you can. Pretty campuses aside, the course is of primary importance, and I was surprised to find how much history varied from one place to another – with some universities offering a very flexible programme with a broad range of modules (kudos to Exeter) whilst others were surprisingly restrictive. Make sure to check assessment styles too (I’m a coursework kinda gal). It’s also important to consider practical things like costs of travel and accommodation (cue my friend’s horrified gasp at working out how much the price of ‘standard’ accommodation at UCL was going to cost over a year), distance to home (bearing in mind how likely you are to get homesick), and how the city/town suits you and your interests (hint: Exeter is not the place for mega nightclubbing but then there is the sea).
6. Trust your instincts
Final, and typically cheesy point. This was my parents’ only advice and it stood me in good stead. I fell in love with Exeter on the Open Day when I walked into the Forum for the first time, and although I tried to keep a balanced, objective-view about it all, I knew deep down throughout all the other Open Days that this is where I wanted to be. You’ll end up finding faults and issues in the minor details for places you just don’t have the right feel for (“they don’t provide a kettle?!”), and that’s usually a good indication.