Choosing A University

It’s July which means that it’s the time of year when Year 12 students start to think about attending university open days and choosing universities to apply to! This may be daunting at first, especially if you don’t know which course you’re looking to study or the grades you think you’ll be able to achieve. I’ve put together this guide as a starting point for anyone who feels utterly confused about the whole process of UCAS and applying to university in general!

Quick Guide:

  1. Introduction
  2. Entry requirements
  3. Choosing a course
  4. Choosing a university
  5. Attending an open day
  6. AHHH I made the wrong choice
  7. Last minute advice


If you’re unsure what UCAS is, it’s the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the UK – this means that any university applications that you make (for undergraduate courses) will be made through them. When applying to university you can have 5 choices which can be anything that you want (aside from Medicine/Dentistry/Veterinary Medicine & Science where only 4 can be these courses and one must be something else).

Once you’ve received your offers you can choose a firm choice and an insurance choice – your firm choice is the university that you will go to if you achieve the grades that you need on results day and your insurance (which usually has a lower offer than your firm) is the university that you will go to if you miss the grades for your firm choice but achieve the offer that this university has made. Unless you contact the universities/UCAS specifically you cannot swap to your insurance choice on results day if you have achieved the grades for your firm choice. With this in mind, you should avoid applying to courses that all have the same entry requirements.

Entry requirements

It’s important to apply to courses with a range of entry requirements to ensure that you do potentially have some lower offers that you could use as an insurance choice. My general guidance for choosing courses would be to pick some ‘stretch’ universities (universities with entry requirements at the top end of what you’re capable of achieving – e.g. AAA), some realistic universities (those which have grades that you feel you have a realistic chance of achieving – e.g. AAB/ABB) and some ‘easy’ universities (those where you feel like you can get the grades required with relative ease – e.g. BBB).

Obviously there’s not set combination of these that you have to choose but I’d recommend a ratio of around 2 stretch : 2 realistic : 1 easy  or 2 stretch : 1 realistic : 2 easy. Either way, I’d always suggest that you have at least one course with much lower entry requirements when choosing where you want to apply to. I’m also aware that this isn’t always possible with courses such as Medicine where almost all of the entry requirements are AAA or above – in this scenario, I’d make sure that your 5th option has achievable grades just in case you’re unable to have a medical insurance choice due to the offer requirements.

However, I’d also like to stress that you should like every single course/university that you apply for and you should never choose a university just because you think it’ll be easy to get into. Whilst it might be nice to know that you’re almost guaranteed an offer, it’s not worth the risk that you might spend 3 years being totally unhappy going to university there. It’s for this reason that you should look at courses carefully before applying.

Choosing a course

One of the things that people struggle most with is selecting the course that they want to do at university – many people have multiple interests and unless you choose a course like Natural Sciences you’re often forced to narrow it down to a certain subject at least. There are several things that you should consider when looking at potential university courses, including:

  • What do you enjoy at school? – this could be a certain subject like History or just a general thing like carrying out practicals in the lab
  • What do you enjoy as a hobby? – sports, dancing, drama, researching/reading about certain things, etc.
  • What looks interesting? – have you always been fascinated by psychology, for example
  • What are you good at? – even if you absolutely love Maths, it may not be a wise choice if you’re only just scraping a pass at A Level
  • What is the course structure? – is there a year abroad or a year in industry?

If you’re still not sure whether you’ll enjoy a course or not, the best thing to do is get experience with it! To do this you could attending a university’s summer school (Sutton Trust coordinates many of these, although there’s usually quite a few criteria you have to meet to be eligible) or attend lectures on specific topics. Details of both of these things can usually be found through university websites or by talking to whoever is in charge of UCAS at your school.

You could also read books on the subject (I’ve made a list of books for potential medical students here) or complete MOOCs. These are Massive Open Online Courses which you can usually complete for free (although there may be a fee if you want a certificate but this isn’t necessary). Some of the best websites to look at for this are Future LearnCoursera and edX – all of which have a wide range of subjects that are usually at a beginner level and only take a few hours a week to complete. I managed to complete this one in around 2/3 weeks before my UCL interview.

Another option is to talk to university staff at open days or contact them via their email (which you may be able to find on university websites) which would allow you to gain insights about the course at that specific university – something that’s useful as modules and courses usually differ greatly depending on where you go. Not only do courses differ between different universities, so do many other key features which is why it’s just as important to take these into account too.

Choosing a university

One of the key things that students tend to fixate on when applying for a certain university is whether it is in the Russell Group or not since they believe that this makes it more prestigious and employers will be more impressed by it in the future. Although it may be worth considering, I wouldn’t get too hung up about it as this groups refers to research so for the vast majority of courses it is irrelevant whether it is in the group or not.

There are many other factors which should factor into your decision far more than whether it is within the group or not, including:

  • Location – is it far from home or close? Country or city?
  • Style – is it a campus or a city university?
  • Size – do you want a large university or a smaller one with less people?
  • Nightlife – how many places are there to go on a night out to?
  • Research opportunities – are there ways that you could get involved during your course?
  • Employment – how many of its graduates are in employment afterwards?

All of these can be a little baffling at first so I’ve made a printable which you can use to compare universities on these key features. I’ve left two columns blank so that you can fill them in with things that are important to you. To download the printable, click here!

Once you’ve decided on a few universities that you might be interested in, you should start to attend their open days! This gives you a good idea of the feel of the university and what it’s actually like to study there.

Attending an open day

Open days are where universities will try and sell themselves to you – after all, they need students to attend in order to make money! It’s also your opportunity to find out any information that you don’t already know about the courses that you’re interested in or the university itself. My number one recommendation would be to prepare a list of questions that you want answered by the end of the open day before you go and make a note of any answers that you’re given. This ensures that you don’t get swept up into various activities and forget the important things.

I would also recommend that you attend any taster lectures that are put on for courses that you are interested in as this gives you a chance to meet the teaching staff as well as get an idea of the kind of things that you learn whilst on the course. You should also speak to any current students if you can as they are much more likely to give you the truth about the course than the lecturers are (although they’re very unlikely to say anything truly awful about it).

Don’t worry too much about dressing up to go to an open day; it isn’t an interview and the staff will likely see thousands of students within the span of a few hours so they’re unlikely to remember you anyway. So don’t be afraid to ask questions to the lecturers even if they seem a little bit silly – they’re not going to reject you for it and if anything it just shows that you’re truly interested in the course!

AHHHHH I made the wrong choice!

It’s okay, don’t panic! Many students change their minds about the courses and universities that they’ve applied to once their applications have already been sent off. If you’ve changed your mind within 14 days of submitting your application/receiving your welcome email, you can change the courses that you’ve applied to within UCAS Track. Similarly, you can change your responses to your offers if it is within a 14 day period by contacting UCAS advisers – if you are changing your response after this period, it is much tricker although it isn’t impossible. For more details about changing choices/responses I’d recommend looking at this UCAS page.

If you were unhappy with all of your choice and rejected any offers or didn’t receive any offers, you could also use UCAS Extra. This allows you to apply to one more course/university providing it is available in Extra. This can mean you have less choice than you originally did as some courses (particularly competitive ones at top universities) may not be available so you cannot apply to them. There are also certain deadlines and procedures associated with doing this, so once again I recommend you check out the UCAS page about it.

There are also two other options that you can use once you get your results. Clearing is used by many students who missed both their firm and their insurance offers, although you may also use it if you were accepted into one of your two original choices. In this scenario you need to contact your university and ask them to release you into Clearing before you can search for or apply to any courses. Once in Clearing you can apply to one other course providing it is available (once again this is unlikely for top universities or extremely competitive courses, although it is not unknown) and the university can either accept or reject you.  It may be worth noting that you should still take the time to consider your options carefully – more students who get accept to a university through Clearing drop out than those who applied the regular way; this may be because on results day you can find yourself panicking and rushing into a choice which isn’t right for you. To learn more about Clearing, look at this UCAS page and the UCAS Clearing FAQs.

The other option is Adjustment which is only available when you have met and exceeded the requirements of your offer. Unlike Clearing you do not have to be released from your firm choice and if you are unsuccessful in finding another university you can still retain your original place. If you want more information about this, here is the link to the official UCAS page with all of the details.

Finally you can take a gap year and reapply in the period following results day. This may not be ideal but it does give you time to get more experience, perhaps undertake further qualifications (you may resit or take additional A Levels, etc.) and consider what you want to do more carefully. This also comes with the benefit that you will already know your results before you apply so you can make sure that you only apply to places where you fit the entry requirements.

Before deciding which route you want to go down, I’d suggest talking to your teachers and whoever manages university applications at your school as they’ll have likely been through this before with other pupils so they’ll have helpful advice for you.

Last minute advice

  • You only get one personal statement which every single university receives so try and keep your course choices within a certain area as it’ll be impossible to make it specific enough otherwise.
  • It is only your choice – yes your parents and teachers may try to push you in a certain direction but at the end of the day, you are the person who has to go and study that course at that university so focus on what you want.
  • Don’t panic if you don’t get the grades, there will always be another way to achieve your final goal whether that’s through a different university/course or something like an apprenticeship.
  • Apply early – honestly you do not want to be panicking about UCAS when it gets close to the deadline and it just means that you can focus on other things like your schoolwork once it’s out of the way

If you have any further questions about choosing a university/course you can DM me on Instagram or email me below!

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