Bio: Rob is a keen writer, reader and comedy fan. He runs the blog for FULL FABRIC, a London based technology start-up which designs software solutions for universities across Europe.
While a quick survey on Google Maps might give you a vague idea of what the campus looks like, a first-hand look at a university is invaluable. A 2015 study by University of Derby found that 28% of students wish they’d done more research before choosing a university, highlighting how preparation is critical in ensuring a fulfilling uni experience. There’s no better way to research a place of learning than actually seeing it yourself. To help ensure you make the most of your trip, here’s seven tips for students and parents visiting a university for the first time.
Do your homework
As the yellowing poster in my school’s sports hall read, ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’. There’s roughly 370 universities in the UK alone, so you'll have to narrow it down a bit: make a shortlist of four or five universities you’re genuinely interested in. Use the ucas.com open day search tool to see which unis are offering open days, when and what they will cover.
When it comes to the day itself, preparation is once again key. Many universities require you to register for open days, so check the website and look out for a timetable – universities often post these for visitors to print out. And, of course, don’t forget the basics. Research your route to the university, allow extra time for disruptions and print out a map of the campus before setting off.
Speak to faculty members about the course
University staff are a friendly bunch and will be happy to help. To make the most of any conversations you have during your visit, it’s a good idea to come up with a list of questions. Think about who you’ll ask particular questions and split them into categories: for instance, lecturers will know about course content in most detail, the admissions team will be the best people to ask for tips for your personal statement, and current students will know the most about nightlife. If you’re struggling to think of questions, this list by Which? University may come in handy.
Get the real picture
As the Guardian has reported, although open days are widely attended, many feel that they don't provide an honest representation of a university. Instead, feedback suggests that visitors see them as overly positive facades which gloss over the less attractive aspects of what it’s like to actually be a student. See if you can speak to existing students – they may be more likely than staff members to provide an honest representation of the university. If you want to see what the campus looks like during term time, there’s no harm in stopping by for a midweek visit. Most universities are free for the public to access and many will accommodate you for a tour if you give them notice.
See the library and learning facilities
While it’s important to know in great detail where all the bars are, do remember that you’ll also do some studying at university and that it’s worth seeing the facilities while you’re there. Many open days will incorporate a tour of the library. Have a look around and see if you can imagine yourself being productive there. Is there space for both individual work and group workshops? Do the desks look fit for revision sessions and inadvertent napping? Does the vending machine have a wide variety of confectionary? It’s also a good idea to have a peek at the lecture halls and seminar rooms. Do try to see the facilities used by the specific course you’re applying for: head for the labs if you’re a chemist in waiting or see if you can stick your head in the rehearsal rooms if you’re a budding dramatist.
See the city as well as the campus
It’s where you may end up spending the best years of your life, so you might as well have a look around. If the campus is based outside of the city or town, travel by public transport and note how long a typical journey takes. Take an aimless walk and see if you can imagine yourself feeling at home in the area. If you’re a film fan, try and track down a local cinema: or if you love to stay active, look out for your what could be your new gym.
Have a look at accommodation
It pays to do some first-hand accommodation research. After all, it’s where you’ll sleep, socialise and host that poorly attended Pokémon-themed fancy dress party (or maybe that’s just me). Many universities offer tours of campus accommodation – if a uni you’re visiting doesn’t, ask a member of staff and a porter may be able to give you a quick look around. Try to imagine yourself living there and find out as much as you can: ask, for instance, how many people share a kitchen and bathroom; how much you can expect to pay; and whether it’s a sanctuary of calm or more of a hotbed for loud music and partying.
Find out about societies and social life
University societies often have a presence at open days. Many have members in attendance answering questions while some offer taster activities. University societies tend to run the gamut all the way from sports clubs and debating societies to left-field initiatives like University of Sussex’s Pirate Society, University of Leicester’s Curry Society and Tunnock's Caramel Wafer Appreciation Society at University of St Andrews. So whether you fancy joining a football team or dressing up as a buccaneer with a group of cheering compatriots, make sure you check out the societies in attendance.
So, there’s seven tips to help you make the most of your open day visits. Keep in mind that each university takes a different approach when throwing its gates open and every open day is a different beast. For instance, University of Exeter runs course-specific open days while Durham University’s is an overnight experience.
But if you can’t make it to an open day, don’t worry. See this UCAS list of virtual tours for an in-depth digital look at unis across the country. It’s also wise to consider attending a higher education exhibition: UCAS holds 48 a year.