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Choosing a University

  • Find out the institutions which offer the courses in which you are interested. (UCAS Course Search on CD ROM, available in May) 
  • In discussion with your tutor, make a realistic judgement about the A2-level grades you are likely to get if all goes well over the next year. 
  • Choose three or four universities which demand grades which reflect (ii) above. Unless you have excellent grades, in very popular subjects do not include more than three of the following universities (which sometimes operate as a group and may restrict offers if others in the group have made an offer): Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Imperial, King’s College London, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Southampton, University College London, Warwick. It should be emphasised that this is not an official list but is based on experience and observation over a number of years. 
  • In addition, choose two Universities which you wish to go to and which are likely to offer lower A2-level grades than those you hope to achieve: one of these will become your “safety-net” offer. 
  • If you are a late developer then it might be the case that your prospective A/S -level and prospective A2 grades are relatively better than your GCSE grades. It is still important to include less popular as well as more popular universities on the application form, in case your GCSE grades cause you to be rejected by the latter. If you are rejected by your favourite universities but, in the event, your A2-level grades are significantly better than forecast, you may abandon your UCAS application and re-apply post A2-level. Some universities have very specific entry requirements for certain courses. This information may be obtained by reading the subject prospectus. 
  • Applicants to read Medicine can apply to no more than 4 medical schools. They may use the remaining two "slots" to apply to study courses allied to Medicine without prejudice. 

Many students and parents think in terms of "which is the best University?", but this is not really a sensible way of looking at the problem. One University may be well regarded for, say, English, but its Engineering Faculty may be considered relatively poor. Reputation is a fleeting concept, often based on the merits of the academic staff who, of course, are likely to move from time to time, and may not be concerned with undergraduate teaching in any case. So, whilst reputation should be one consideration, think also about the factors mentioned below, and above all choose somewhere that you would like to stay for three years or more. In this respect seemingly unimportant matters (like football teams, potholes, social life and golf courses) may take on a new significance for some. However good your course is, if you hate the environment you are unlikely to get maximum benefit from Higher Education. 

Unless particular circumstances prevail, think in terms of getting right away from the South East area and participating fully in a completely different social environment. Choosing a University like Essex, Kent, Surrey or Sussex because it will be easy to get home for the weekend is not usually a good idea as you will tend to miss out on many of the real benefits of University life (although there can be other good reasons for choosing any of those Universities cited). In the case of some London University Colleges accommodation may be difficult for 'local' students, and you may have to commute on a daily basis from home: generally a totally unsatisfactory arrangement. 

Map of British Universities

List of British Universities 

Some Universities are housed in what is essentially a self-contained campus which may be some distance from the nearest large town, whilst others are integrated into a town with different departments and student services spread out and fitting into the normal environment of a busy centre. 

This factor obviously affects the style of student life. Some students prefer to live in an atmosphere which is apparently divorced from the real world, and prefer the company of fellow students, whilst others find a town-based University more to their liking. The atmosphere of any institution is very difficult to ascertain, and your impression of it tends to depend on the people you are with, your mood, and so on. Like travel brochures, the University prospectus tends to paint a glossy picture (although factual information on location is obviously reliable). 

Even campus Universities cannot provide accommodation for all students for the duration of their courses. Most try to ensure that all first-year students have a place in a Hall of Residence but in some cases this can be a serious problem. You should be able to get the facts about accommodation from the prospectus of the institution, but this is worth comparing with the Alternative Prospectus available through the Students Union. Once you have an offer, you may wish to write to the Accommodation Officer to see what arrangements will be made for you if you accept the offer. 

What goes on is of obvious importance. Will you be able to pursue your own interests and participate in new activities? Usually the answer will be 'yes', as most institutions have an extremely active 'social calendar' (normally organised exclusively by the students themselves) and offer an extensive range of sporting and social facilities. Alternative Prospectuses give a good idea of the range of activities, clubs etc within the University town/city. 

Parade of Dons 
Some institutions are particularly keen to list names of their academics who are pre-eminent in their field. You should, however, remember that the greater the reputation, the more likely it is that they will be away from the University or concerned only with the higher degree work or their own research. On the other hand, some Professors take special care to teach undergraduates. Finally, the ability to write authoritatively on a subject does not ensure the ability to lecture with interest. 

University League Tables 
All universities have now had every course GRADED for both teaching quality and research quality. Those grades are available in the Careers Department and you should take due note of them, particularly in relation to teaching. But it is your selected course which is crucial and, unless it is downgraded by the tables, you should not be unduly influenced. They are also available on the Internet. 

Departmental Facilities 
These should be assessed from the Departmental rather than the General Prospectus and are vital in practice (particularly in subjects such as Pure and Applied Sciences and Modern Languages). Look out for well-equipped departmental libraries, resource centres, laboratories, etc. 

Central University Library 
Ready access to material is particularly important in Higher Education. This refers not just to standard texts, but research papers, periodicals, newspaper files, etc. A good library can save much frustration and aid study, as well as reducing the need to purchase little-used texts from a student's limited budget. 

Go and visit two or three of your choices, either on an open day or on a privately arranged visit. Make a determined effort to speak to academics and students. Ideally visit at least 1 city and 1 campus based university. 

Sandwich Courses 
These are often very popular with employers. Sandwich courses follow different patterns, but the most common is two years in College, one year in employment and a final year in College. Students are paid during their time in employment. The application procedure is unchanged from that stated above, but students should bear in mind questions such as: 

a) How closely should I tie myself to a particular career or employer? 

b) Do I have to find the Sandwich employer, or will the college place me? 

c) How valuable will the employment experience be? 

If in doubt on any of these points, ask the admissions tutor for the course and make sure that he or she does not answer evasively. If difficulties or doubts arise, consult a member of the Careers Department.

Oxford and Cambridge 
Only pupils with 7 or more GCSE A grades AND predicted A2-level grades of AAA should normally apply: the competition is great. You cannot apply to both Oxford and Cambridge. 

If you are thinking of applying to Oxford or Cambridge it is important to decide by half-term in the summer term of the Lower Sixth (even if you change your mind before September). This is because you will need to do some extra reading and preparation for the admissions tests and interviews. 

Those applying to read subjects not studied at school, such as Politics, Philosophy, Law or Architecture will need to read around these subjects: this also takes time. 

Applicants are often asked to send to the University two pieces of their best work. If invited for interview they will be asked some searching questions related to the subject and, possibly, to other matters, such as current affairs. They may also be asked to take a written test. The few who get over this hurdle are made offers based on A2-level grades, often AAA or AAB. Cambridge may also ask for specified grades in STEP papers, details of which subjects and colleges may do this are in the Undergraduate Prospectus. Even if a college does not ask for a STEP grade it can still be worth taking since it may compensate for a slip in an A2-level grade. 

Choice of College 
Some colleges are easier to get into than others because they attract fewer applicants for places. Information about this is published in the university prospectus. If you are uncertain, we can find out by ringing up the university. It is not normally wise to apply to those colleges which attract especially large numbers of applications. Having discussed colleges with Dr South or a Head of Department, you should visit the university on an Open Day. 

Colleges much prefer to be "chosen" so it is not wise to leave choice of college "open" on the application forms. 

Open Days 
Details of both department and college Open Days are circulated to interested pupils as soon as they arrive in school. It is important for any applicant to have his own university and department prospectus. 

University in Scotland 
Here are some distinctive features of (especially the older) Scottish Universities: 

  • admission is generally to the faculty (a grouping of similar types of department - e.g. St Andrews has Arts, Divinity and Science) not to a specific course or department. The advantages for the student are difficult to over-stress in respect of the flexibility of choice this gives in arranging one's course of study 
  • students often study three subjects in the first year and either two or three in the second year, giving greater breadth. In addition to your main subject, you can usually take any two other subjects in your first year, providing that these courses have not already been filled with students for whom they are their first choice. 
  • honours courses normally take four years, allowing greater depth of study; this is related to the shorter time which Scottish students spend in secondary education. Admission to the second year of the course is sometimes possible. 
  • the first degree in Arts is the Master's Degree (MA). The Ordinary or General Degree (3 years) has a structured course involving a broader range of subjects but less specialisation than an Honours Degree. 
  • the "applied" nature of technology is a feature of the "newer" Scottish universities. 
  • at Stirling, the teaching year is divided into two semesters of fifteen weeks, with two intervening vacations. The courses provided are based on this arrangement. A semester-unit is a course of teaching and study in one subject which lasts for one semester, and each semester-unit is calculated to occupy roughly the same proportion of your working time. Each semester-unit must be successfully completed for an Honours Degree, and this system gives you great flexibility in choosing your programme of study.
E-mail Steve Margetts