How NOT to Choose A University

Just as there are many excellent ways to help you choose where you might want to study, there are a few that are abjectly, objectively terrible that I highly recommend you avoid.

1. League Tables

Let’s get this one out of the way first, league tables are a waste of mine, yours and everyone else’s time. They are inconsistent with each other, all use different metrics and the positions jump around so much year to year that you’d think these departments were in constant flux. This is obviously true to a very small extent given that staff and module content might change in their minutiae, but newspapers are writing them to sell newspapers and websites are writing them for clicks and ad revenue.

If you are going to insist on doing this, then just avoid choosing somewhere that’s right at the bottom of the list across multiple lists, but other than that I really don’t think it matters. Employers don’t care, I don’t care, and you shouldn’t care either. If you’ve found somewhere you want to go, then go there and don’t let anyone give you sh*t for it.

2. It’s close to home

This is admittedly a very tough one, and will be contentious - but ultimately it comes down to being somewhere where you can live away from home. I think that one of the great aspects of university living is that it gives you control and makes you responsible for your own life.

I went to Newcastle University, approximately 2-3 hours by car away from where I live, which was close enough for me that I could still get back urgently if necessary, but crucially still allowed me to shape my own existence. Being somewhere else, even if it’s just student accommodation, even for just the first year of the course is an experience that I think everyone should have.

In that time you’ll learn by necessity to cook, clean, socialise and fundamentally become a more rounded member of society (or at least in theory). This won’t be for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine, but living in the sheltered bubble of home will I think deprive you of certain things.

"Being somewhere else, even if it’s just student accommodation, even for just the first year of the course is an experience that I think everyone should have"

3. The Minimum Grade Offer

I will examine this topic in more depth in the future, but remember that the minimum UCAS or grade requirements for a course DO NOT indicate how good that course will be for you.

These requirements indicate two things at best: Firstly, they reflect how competitive entry is, because if they have a fixed number of places but a ton of applicants, they need to be more selective by definition and raising boundaries is a good way of eliminating a large number of people very quickly. Of course it does stand to reason that better courses will have more applicants, but that does not necessarily have to based on quality of teaching - there are more than likely a multitude of factors at play that warrant further investigation.

Secondly, universities are playing a game with the UCAS system that plays on the above point. Schools want to fill all their degree places because that means more money, so it is reasonable from their perspective to inflate the entry requirements. More students will then assume that it’s a better course, apply for it, subsequently fail to make the grades, but the university will take them anyway. It’s a devious game but it’s easy to see how unwilling students can be preyed upon like this.

4. Your Parents Said So

The absolute worst reason of all, and something I’ve noticed multiple times when giving tours of Newcastle. Your parents, while they love you very deeply and I have no doubt want the absolute best for you, do not share your mind. They do not know as well as you do where it is you want to go and study, and if you are not able to stand up to them and tell them that, realise that it’s probably a good indicator of worse problems to come later on in life.

This is usually a particular type of parent, and it can lead to uncomfortable standoffs, but it’s far better to get it out the way - I myself have taken parents aside while doing tours and tried to recommend that they back off and allow the student to ask me questions. In cases where it’s plainly obvious that the applicant doesn’t want to be here, I’ll tell them that too, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Go where makes YOU happy, not your parents. If at all possible, go to open days without them, and then have a second visit with them in tow if you’re still interested.

How to Choose A University

Here in the United Kingdom there are currently more than a hundred universities, each of which represents a viable place to study for new applicants. In this article I'll go through a few ways you can narrow down your search in time for the UCAS deadlines.

Keble College, University of Oxford

Keble College, University of Oxford

1. What subject?

The first and potentially easiest way of choosing your university is deciding what you might like to study. Here’s an easy exercise - if you’re applying with A levels or some equivalent through UCAS, open up a spreadsheet in Excel, write down the names of some universities (choose them at random if needs be!) and see if each place on the list even offers the course you want. Mark down the grades you need at each school and then rinse and repeat for as many subjects as you want - this is a nicely organised way of working through it and will make it easier to compare your options.

You’ll normally find all the relevant information on the university website, such as the aforementioned grade requirements, details of the application process (entrance exams, interviews etc.) along with aspects of the course that might be specific to that school - this is a great means of learning more about what each institution offers and might entice you towards or even repel you away from a particular place. This sounds negative at first, but in both cases it makes the final considerations simpler.


2. The Russell Group

Listen, I am not (or at least would not like to think I was) an elitist when it comes to education - I was happily state-schooled, and I have met people from an enormous range of backgrounds in the academic sphere who were all fantastically competent. By and large, I do not think that whether a university is part of the Russell group should sway your decision.

However, in my opinion, if you are considering biology or chemistry I would perhaps let it play on your mind just a tad. My reasoning is this: In such a university, your lecturers are more likely to have their own academic research going on which will enhance your chances of extracurricular opportunities in this area (see point 4). I think there are sufficiently few people taking maths and physics courses at present that demand exceeds supply for competent graduates in these areas, but this does not appear to be true as a whole across the sciences.

This is very much a generalisation, and many people will disagree, but this goes for all subjects of study - if you think that academia as the endpoint could be what you desire, (or industry research for STEM fields), then I think I would be doing you a disservice by not at least suggesting that you look into this aspect.

The IGEM competition as of present is only entered by research-focused UK universities

The IGEM competition as of present is only entered by research-focused UK universities

3. Non-Academics

Of course you’ll only spend so much time studying (although at least in my case far less than I’d have everyone believe) so find out what you can do in your downtime. The best way to do this is to look up the students’ union website, with societies being a great place to start - most universities will have a ton, ranging from sports clubs and subject societies to musical theatre, liberation groups and even more esoteric things like beer brewing and beekeeping.

As a general piece of advice, if you’re thinking about going to university and studying all day every day, you’re setting yourself up for failure and in all honesty I think you’d be wasting your time. You need to unwind (and I say this as somebody who is chronically bad at doing so) - find new things to interest you and it’ll make your time better spent and your experience all the richer for doing so.

4. Career goals

Another potential way to look at this is to see what the graduates of the university are doing, which rings true if your subject naturally leads into a career and even if it doesn’t. In the former case, for example if you were wanting to study something like engineering or my own subject of molecular biology, does the institution have good networking links and extracurricular opportunities? Competitions and research projects over holidays are a fantastic way of getting a leg up on other students both during your degree and when applying for positions after university.

Equally if you fall into the latter camp, perhaps doing a humanities based subject or something unusual, the same rules apply. They can be extended however by linking to the previous point - what opportunities with societies are there to enhance your skillset and expose you to new concepts that might help you steer your trajectory a little bit if you feel you might need it.

5. Visit It

It’s one of those very strange things which is often very difficult to quantify, but I think that by far the best way to choose your university is to visit it and have a good look round. Remember that you’ll usually be spending at least three years of your life there and paying through the nose to do it. While my entry to university was somewhat unorthodox, I was lucky enough to be familiar with Newcastle already and I knew that I could be happy there.

Book onto an open day (these are usually held several times per year) and make sure to check out the buildings for the courses you think you might apply for, the student accommodation, the union, anywhere you think your daily life might take you - even if you’ve missed the official days, get in touch with the admissions office and they may be able to arrange a tour.

With that in mind, leave yourself an afternoon spare to wander around the city and get a feel for things - oftentimes you’ll come to a sense of ‘knowing’ that this is where you want to be.