How to Choose a University (Instead of Looking at Rankings)
By Kate Jones
In your search for the perfect degree program, you’ll probably spend a lot of time browsing through prospectuses, visiting new cities and towns, milling around campus with current students and imagining your life as an undergraduate. As you do this, you’ll obviously want to be paying close attention to the quality of the teaching and the institution’s reputation, but what other elements should influence your ultimate decision?
It’s important to remember that the student experience doesn’t start and end with academia. Instead, the best moments of your time at university are likely to take place far away from the lecture theater, and so it’s important you choose somewhere with a lifestyle and culture that suits you. Do you long for the hustle and bustle of a city, or are more suited to the quiet life of the country or seaside? Are you going to be looking for work while you study? Would you like to take part in a society or club, or are you happy to focus solely on your course? Each of these questions are important to consider before making your ultimate decision.
Campus or city
The choice between living on campus or within a city could have a significant impact on the level of enjoyment you get from your time at university.
A campus university is like a self-contained town, with accommodation, teaching and leisure facilities all provided on one site. This might be perfect for someone who wants to ensconce themselves in an academic community, but for others it could feel terribly isolating and claustrophobic.
A city university, on the other hand, may better suit someone who wants to involve themselves in life outside of their institution and not be constantly surrounded by students. If you want to take on a part-time job or gain work experience alongside your studies, a city university is likely to be more appropriate for you. You’ll probably also have a far greater range of bars and nightclubs to spend your nights in.
Close to home
The distance you’re willing to put between yourself and your loved ones is a key consideration when it comes to picking a university. In the UK, the average student travels 91 miles to attend university, while in the USA the figure stands at 94 miles. Of course, one of the key benefits of studying is meeting new people and making new friends, but each of us has very different wants and needs when it comes to keeping in touch with family.
If you’re keen to spread your wings and don’t feel the need to travel home too often, a university located far from your hometown might well be fine. However, if you’re planning to visit your folks regularly, distance could pose a problem. Make sure you’ve factored in the time and cost of returning home before you make your final decision.
Societies and sports teams
Life at university can be about much more than your degree course if you want it to be. Many institutions are famed for their well-rounded approach to extracurricular activities such as clubs and societies and, depending on your pursuit of choice, location could be a vital consideration. If you’re a keen surfer, a coastal university is going to give you better access to your leisure activity of choice than one in the middle of the country.
If you’re eager to get involved in life outside the classroom, it’s important to check out what’s available. Get in touch with the students’ union and take a look on Facebook or Google to see what else goes on within the student bubble.
Cost of living
Expense is an important factor for most undergraduates. While many will take up a student loan and perhaps top this up with some part-time work, outgoings can add up faster than you might think.
The cost of living will vary widely from one university to the next and should be a key consideration before choosing your place. In the UK, for example, student accommodation costs twice as much in London as it does in Northern Ireland, and the Welsh capital of Cardiff is the most cost-effective student city overall.
Ultimately, choosing a university should be as much about what suits your personal situation as it is about the picking the right course. While the primary purpose of undertaking a degree is to arm yourself with a distinguished qualification in the subject of your choosing, it’s important to enjoy the experience too.
This article was originally published in February 2018 . It was last updated in December 2022