Choosing which five universities to put on your UCAS form can be a difficult task. With around 130 to select from (not including higher education colleges), applicants are certainly spoiled for choice.

In this post, I explore how the decision process can be just like trying to stick to a diet (as well as providing some valuable advice on what to consider when narrowing down your choices!).

#1 You’re researching unfamiliar territory

There are thousands of different diet plans out there (some of which people would describe as “fads”), including vegetarian, vegan, crash, detox, low-fat, low-carbohydrate and belief-based diets. For each one, you will always find people swearing it works wonders, while others complain it never helped them shift an ounce.

Discovering which of these diets might appeal to you is much like looking at the local area of a particular university, and deciding if it’s the right kind of place for you. For example, is it situated in a large town or city, or is it somewhere more rural? Do you want it to be far away from home or close enough so you can pop over for your Mum’s Sunday roast once in a while?

Think carefully about where you want to be, and whether it’s in the middle of somewhere hip and happening, or joining a slower and quieter way of life. Finding the right environment is essential for feeling comfortable over the next few years, so your initial research of the local area is extremely important.

#2 You want to find the best option out there for you

Once you’ve decided on the type of diet that would suit you, you’ll want to find out which one(s) in this area appear to be the best for actually getting rid of that unwanted weight.

For example, you may find that a fruit fast has proven to be one of the better detox diets around at the moment.

The same applies to universities – once you’ve decided what type of environment you want to be in during your studies, you can start taking a look at which institutions are in this particular area.

For example, if you’ve decided a small town will meet all your needs just fine, then Bangor University might be an option (if they offer your subject).

At this point, you should also take into consideration the number of students that the university teaches – do you want to be part of the masses, or mix with a more tight-knit community? You can get a better idea of what this is like at an open day (please see point #6 further down).

While looking at league tables and the list of the UK’s Russell Group universities will help you find what are considered the “best” institutions the country has to offer, this doesn’t mean they will be the best for you.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that even though a highly ranked university generally means better teaching, facilities, student satisfaction, graduate prospects etc., it doesn’t mean you will achieve better grades. This is down to you as the student, so it’s up to you what you get out of your time there.

Take a look at universities outside of the top 20 rankings and those not part of the Russell Group, and see if any appeal to you that meet your local environment criteria.

With the diet, that fruit fasting might not necessarily be the right detox diet for you, so it’s important to do your homework. Yes, there are lots of universities to wade through, but trust me – it’s worth to end up spending the next three or four years as a happy student.

#3 The right support network needs to be in place

Starting a diet doesn’t mean going it alone (you might only last a week if this was the case!). You need support in the form of a book or two, online resources, family members, friends, and maybe even a handy mobile app to make sure you’re following the plan.

Attending university also requires a support network to be in place if you are going to successfully complete your studies. Take a careful look through each university’s website, and see if they provide the following to their students:

  • Personal tutor system
  • Careers advice
  • Health centre
  • Chaplaincy
  • Student funding team
  • Accommodation advisors
  • Mental health coordinators
  • Safety bus
  • Counselling
  • Union society
  • Student advice centre
  • Security team
  • Nursery (for student parents)

Most, if not all, of the above will be important for ensuring you have a safe, comfortable and stress-free time as a university student, so it’s a good idea to check these are provided by any universities you are interested in applying to.

#4 It will affect your social life

Going on a diet often has an effect on you and the relationship with your friends – sometimes this can be a negative one, through comments such as “What?! That diet sounds awful!” or “Why aren’t you drinking tonight? I’ll order you a glass of wine”.  

On the other hand, it can be a more positive social experience, by meeting new people if you choose to join an exercise class, or do some sort of weight-busting activity with a friend, like swimming or jogging. It’s possible you’ll find it has both types of social impact, but whatever happens, it’s best to ignore the negative and embrace the positive.

Attending university will also affect your social life since you will have to spend a good chunk of your time studying, although this doesn’t mean you should shut yourself away in your room for weeks at a time. University is a balancing act between hitting the books and socialising.

This means you need a good recreational outlet for the next three or four years, so take a look at the range of clubs, societies, sports and other activities that are available to join, and check that there are at least two or three that appeal to you.

#5 You have to ignore the influence of your friends

Unfortunately, some of your friends may not approve of you choosing to go on a diet – they might not think you need to lose weight, they’ll worry you won’t want to come out down the pub so often, and some may even feel a tinge of jealousy that you’re actually trying to switch to a more healthy lifestyle.

Others may try to push you toward a particular diet, or offer their own tips and advice to try and help you. But at the end of the day, you need to stick to your guns and follow the diet plan you’ve chosen.

Applying to university will put you in an identical situation, by forcing you to leave behind the social circle you had at school or college, and make new friends and acquaintances. This is unless you listen to your mates telling you to apply to the same universities they are, but I wouldn’t recommend this, since different timetables might mean you won’t see much of them anyway.

It will also stop you from forming new friendships, and you may become isolated, which you don’t want over the next few years. Part of university is about making connections for life, and only by breaking away from your old ones can you really achieve this (although of course this doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t keep in touch with them).

So try to ignore any influence from your friends, and select universities that you feel are a good fit for you, otherwise you could end up somewhere you don’t really like.

#6 Trials are a must

You never know how you’re going to get on with a diet unless you give it a go – even though it seems like the right one for you on paper, in reality, it just doesn’t work for you. We’re all individuals with different likes, dislikes, preferences, etc. and there are many times in our lives when we need to try something out first before making a decision.

Your original choice of a vegetarian diet may change to a vegan one, or a low-calorie diet to a low-fat one. It doesn’t matter how many diets you trial, or which one you end up choosing though, as long as you end up on a plan that works for you.

This is what university open days are for – they give you a taste of what studying at a particular university is like, and whether it’s a good fit for you.

Signing up for one is easy, and when you arrive, you will usually be given a tour by one of their current students, and given the opportunity to ask questions. Preparation is key, which means jotting down anything you want to ask beforehand, and exploring the fine print through the university’s website and/or prospectus.

If you can, try to get someone to go with you – another pair of eyes and ears might take on board things you missed, and it’s always good to hear another opinion.

Take a look at my post on getting the most out of university open days for more in-depth advice.

Overall, choosing which universities to apply to is much like going on a diet – hopefully at least some of the parallels outlined here are familiar, and highlight the crucial factors you should consider when making those final five choices for your UCAS form.

If you have any questions, comments or feedback on my post, please leave your message below.