Choosing A University

One of the hardest parts of applying to university in the UK is choosing which universities to submit your application to.

With 164 institutions across the country and only five places allowed on your UCAS form, deciding which universities will make it onto the form can be a difficult task,

We've made this task a little easier by putting together a checklist of items you may want o think about when making your university shortlist. If you're applying to university in the USA, check out Choosing The Right College.

1. Do your research

Before you start choosing which universities to apply to, you'll need to pick your subject first.

Many UK degree courses can now be found on UCAS, where you can filter them by location.

Once you’ve narrowed it down and chosen your degree, see what detailed information is available on the university's website that you're interested in applying to.

Look at their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Snapchat pages.

They may run online sessions where you can chat with academics or students, and ask questions about the course and the university in general.

2. Location

Unless you already four or five specific universities in mind, location is a good way of starting to create a shortlist.

Research the local environment of each university that interests you, and decide if it’s the sort of community you can see yourself living in over the next few years.

Think about how far away from home you want to be (remember, the further away you are the more costly it will be to visit at the weekends or during holidays!), and whether you want to be in a bustling city or a quieter, more rural location.

Different universities will suit different people, so think carefully about the kind of area you want to spend the next few years living in.

3. Course structure

This is also important, as many people have preferred ways of learning. Look at the university's website to find out more about how you will be taught and assessed, e.g. does the course have a lot of exams, essays, or group work?

You will also need to consider the course content, to make sure the university covers all the topics you want to learn about before applying, otherwise you may regret your decision later on!

You can compare university courses over at Which? University and Unistats.

4. Size and type

Think about the size of the university, its reputation and if you want to go somewhere with a greater emphasis on research or teaching.

Some universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and Manchester are extremely old, and their architecture reflects this. Other universities, such as Oxford Brookes, Plymouth and Bath, are more modern, with a different feel.

Ask yourself whether you would prefer a historic environment, or to study in a more modern setting.

Looking at photos on the university's website and social media profiles will give you an idea of what a place is like, although attending an open day will also help.

Please bear in mind that some universities are currently only offering virtual open days due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so check carefully whether you can actually see your preferred universities first-hand.

You should also think about the size of the university - UCL, Birmingham and Leeds are all large instutions with around 20,000 undergraduates.

Cumbria, Keele and Bangor all have less than half of this number, so think about whether you would be more comfortable at a larger university with lots of students, or a smaller one with more of a community feel.

5. League tables

A good way to start researching universities is to look at university league tables.

You can look at university ratings in the Guardian, which allows you to filter institutions by subject. So if you’ve already decided which degree course you want to do, you can see which are the best universities to attend for studying that particular subject.

This will allow you to see how well a particular university is doing in comparison to others by recording marks for:

  • research quality
  • student satisfaction
  • entry standard
  • completion

plus other important aspects.

A higher placing in the table generally means facilities, grades and teaching standards are better. A higher ranking usually also means more student satisfaction, better career prospects and more money spent per student.

However, remember that going to a university higher up in the league tables does not automatically mean you will achieve better grades – whilst the quality of the teaching, etc. may be better than other universities, it is down to the individual student how well they perform during the course.

You can also check out our dedicated section to UK University League Tables for more information, plus our own university reviews section, for honest views on life at various universities straight from students who've attended them.

Unistats.com is a useful website that allows you to research subjects and universities before deciding where to apply to.

Here you can compare subjects, compare universities and colleges, look at student satisfaction ratings and find out the figures for getting a graduate job after completing a course.

Unistats also has the results of the National Student Survey and some statistical information on universities, colleges, subjects and teaching style.

6. Student support and services

Sometimes, students need a little extra help with settling into university, so it's a good idea to check whether the university offers all the necessary support to students to maintain their well-being (both physical and mental). This includes:

  • careers advice
  • a personal tutor system
  • counselling
  • a safety bus, and
  • a union society.

You'll need a decent support network throughout your time at university if you're going to complete your studies successfully, and achieve your best possible grade.

7. Facilities and social life

The social side of university is a very important part of student life, so it’s important to make sure the range of social, sports and cultural activities and clubs offered by the university match your requirements.

Taking a degree isn’t all about studying – you need to balance your life as a student with some fun!

It may take you a little while to find the right balance between working and socialising, but you will find your feet eventually.

There should be a page on the university's website about clubs and other activities that you can join, and you can always ask about these in more detail if you attend an open day.

8. Friends

Some students let their friend’s choice of university influence their own decision on which institution to attend.

Whilst you may feel better having the security and comfort of your friends around you, it also reduces the chances of you striking up new friendships.

This could isolate you from the main crowd, which you don’t really want if you’re going to be studying with these people for three years.

Even if you go to the same university as your friends, you may actually find that you won’t see them very much if they are taking a different course and therefore have a different timetable.

9. Open days

You can also visit the universities you are thinking of applying to by going to one of their open days.

These will be advertised on their website, and will allow you to get the feel of a place by going on a tour with one of the attending students, as well as offering you the opportunity to ask questions about the social environment, facilities, and any other aspects you wish to know more details on.

Don’t forget to contact the university for a prospectus, or grab a copy on the open day, as this will have information on courses and the institution in general.

You can find university open days with UCAS's open day finder. As mentioned earlier, it's important to note that some universities are only holding virtual open days at the moment, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

While this can make it more difficult to decide which university to attend, you might be disappointed with your new surroundings if you didn't get the chance to view them in person. However, if you really have your heart set on somewhere, then go for it!

10. Make your final choices

Having already decided the course you want to do will make narrowing down a university to attend easier.

If you are still uncertain what course you will be taking, it is worthwhile checking out the teaching quality, facilities and social aspects of universities and compare them to try and pinpoint some specific areas where you would be interested in attending university.

Looking at the factors above, it’s important to realise that you should consider many things when choosing your university – there’s no point making a decision based on one or two characteristics, as you are likely to find it doesn’t meet all your needs.

A combination of open days, university websites, social media and talking to others will at least help you create a shortlist.

Each university is unique, although won’t appeal to every prospective undergraduate – it may take a bit of research, but hopefully you will find a university that attracts you more than others, and you will know this is the right one for you.

Further information

For more tips and advice on applying to university, please see:

You can also find more resources over at our blog.