If you’re considering applying to university this autumn, it may seem a little early to be thinking about your application. You don’t need to get that dreaded UCAS form in until at least the middle of October, right?

Well, yes - but this means choosing which universities you are going to apply to. And if you’re serious about your education, picking five or six out of a hat won’t cut it.

The start of the university open day season is upon us, and there’s no better way to help you decide where you might complete your degree over the next few years than an Open Day. A website and prospectus can only tell you so much, and there’s no better way to get a proper taste of university life than making a visit in person.

So start booking your places now, and read our tips on getting the most out of each Open Day.

1. Do your research

While it’s tempting to just wander around those universities within a hour’s drive or so, surf the net and read some prospectuses to find out at least 3 or 4 that really appeal to you.

It doesn’t matter if some of them are over 200 miles away - doing this legwork now means you’re much more likely to enjoy the results of your journey. Find out and consider the following:

  • Do they actually offer the course you want to take?
  • If so, what’s involved and how is it structured?
  • Does it cover all the content you want to learn more about?
  • How much flexibility is offered in terms of module options?
  • Is there a lot of coursework, deadlines, etc.? If so, do you think you can cope with the workload?
  • Will classes and lectures be in large or smaller groups?
  • Is there an opportunity to take a work placement or year abroad? If so, how are they organised and will you have to make any monetary contribution?

2. Plan your trip

Take the stress out of the journey by deciding how you’re going to get there, what time you need to leave home, where you will park if you’re driving, or how far the university is from the train station if you’re travelling by rail.

Put some loose change in your pocket for parking charges and have the address (including the postcode!) to hand, so you can program your Sat Nav.

Aim to arrive early if possible, so you can make the most out of your day.

3. Investigate the fine print

Can you afford the tuition fees and the cost of living? What textbooks and other supplies do you need to buy for the course? Are there any other hidden costs, such as field trips?

Accommodation is another big issue you'll want to find out more about, since you'll be living here for the next few years at least. Questions you may want to ask include:

  • How is accommodation allocated? Is a place in halls of residence guaranteed? If not, what accommodation is offered outside of the campus?
  • What is the cost of accommodation and what exactly does it include?
  • Will you have to move your stuff in and out each term?
  • What's the impact of self-catering over catered?
  • How large are the rooms? Are they all the same size?
  • Are you allowed to put things on the walls?
  • Are the halls generally quiet or noisy?
  • How good is the campus security?
  • Where will you live after your first year?
  • In your second and third years, will you have to travel far to get to campus? Will you be able to bring a car?

It's important to get answers to details such as these - they could become deal breakers as you start to narrow down your university choices - so make sure you remember to bring that pen or paper with you!

4. Explore the campus

Wander around and check out the facilities - do they provide a gym, swimming pool, WiFi, computer labs, etc?

What about food and drink options? Is there a restaurant, snack shop, and bar?

Are there any clubs or societies you would be interested in joining?

You’ll be spending the next three years of your life here, so it’s a good idea to find out you’ll have everything you need to survive.

5. Talk to staff and students

Yes, they are paid by the university, but they should (hopefully) give you an honest reply to any queries you have. So talk to as many tutors and current students as you can.

It helps if you prepare a list of questions before the actual day. All of this information will then help you decide whether you want to apply or not.

Some questions you may want to ask staff include:

  • What are the entry requirements for the course? And do they accept qualifications other than A-levels?
  • Will all of your qualifications count if they use the UCAS Tariff?
  • What are they looking for in applicants? How are you more likely to be successful?
  • Do they interview candidates for the course?
  • Are they happy to accept applicants who want to take a gap year or defer their entry?
  • Will an early application work in your favour?
  • What is the graduate employment rate for the course like?
  • How many students choose to continue on to postgraduate study, and will it help you get a job?
  • Do have a careers advice centre and/or hold job fairs?

Some questions you may wish to ask current students include:

  • What do you like and dislike about the university and the course?
  • Has your experience so far been an overall positive one?
  • Are the halls of residence clean, decent and comfortable?
  • What is the town/city/local area like? Are there lots of places around for entertainment and socialising?
  • Is it expensive to study here and are they able to adequately cover their monthly costs?
  • Are there plenty of opportunities for part-time work?
  • Does the university offer bursaries, scholarships or fee waivers?
  • Do placements abroad or in the industry affect costs or fees?
  • What societies and clubs are available to join?

Again, taking notes and photos throughout the day will help you remember more about the place when you get back home, and allow you to compare it to other university open days you attend.

6. Don’t strike out alone

While you may feel this particular university is suited to you, it’s useful to get another perspective. So ask a member of your family or a friend to go along with you on the day. They’ll pick up on things you might otherwise miss, and it’s always nice to have some company.

You can also ask them for their thoughts on the university at the end of your visit, and talk through any doubts you may have.

It may seem a lot of hassle to take time out of your schedule and organise an Open Day trip, but actually being at a university and experiencing it firsthand will make it much easier to answer: “Would I be happy to accept an offer from them?”.

£9,000 a year plus living expenses is a lot to spend on higher education, so shopping around to find the best place for you is imperative.

Many students say they knew their university was “the one” after attending an Open Day, and the same could be true for you too.

Do you have university open day tips you’d like to share? Or any comments on my post? Please pop them below!

Editor's Note: This post was originally published in April 2013. It has been rewritten in September 2019 to reflect changes in accuracy and include more useful information for readers.