To a large extent choice is dictated by subject and predicted grades, so as you trawl through the Times Good University Guide trying to offer guidance to your offspring, here are a few thoughts:

There is now so much information available on the internet, and so many ranking tables of ‘best’ university that the selectionuni girl process can seem like a minefield. What does ‘best ‘mean – is it based on hard facts and statistics or more woolly criteria? Who wrote the report and why – what is their angle and are they reliable?

University brochures offer a lot of slick marketing. After all, students and we parents are becoming very discerning customers, faced with the prospect of spending £27,000 on an educational establishment. So comparing and contrasting all the information available, and looking through all the hype can be hard.

First there are the official sites of the individual universities and :
UCAS at www.ucas.ac.uk
and the Government at www.directgov.uk/uni

Go to unistats.com for a Gocompare-style guide to 30,000 university courses now issued by the government and Microsoft on everything from hours of tutoring and graduation rates to potential salaries and job destinations. It also encourages students to give feedback, so watch out for that too.

Then there are all the ranking tables, which pull together a variety of less official criteria, such as student enjoyment,post university employment stats etc:

The Times do one at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk
The Telegraph has a University Course Finder at www.telegraph.co.uk/student
QS offers www.topuniversities.com
and there is the Complete University Guide at www.the completeuniversityguide.co.uk

One of the best sites for potential students to look at is The Student Room at www.thestudentroom.co.uk where there are loads of info full forums. Student newsletters are often now on line and will give a good feel for what’s on on the social side.

Which university?

Excellence in specific subjects is not now limited to the traditional academic giants, and employers are giving more weight to the strength and depth of the department rather than the university’s traditional standing, particularly for vocational subjects and those requiring technical expertise. So rather than using the overall ranking of a university as the key factor in their choice, students should also have regard to the standing of a university in their chosen subject. This broadening of options also brings the benefit of applying to universities outside the “Top 10” which, on their reputation alone, are vastly oversubscribed to and hence inevitably reject some of their most able candidates, causing much angst to the student.

40% of students who don’t complete their degrees say they leave because the course didn’t live up to their expectations, so encourage your child to sit in on a couple of lectures on the open days. A large proportion of those who quit live within 25 miles of home – whether that is about logistics of studying or a curtailed social life isn’t clear, but it is a factor worth considering.

Quality and amount of teaching.

With fees having risen significantly from September 2012, getting value for money from a course is becoming an increasingly important issue for students – as evidenced by recent student protests. Finding out the number of teaching and tuturial hours to expect is a good starting point for comparisons.

Having your time occupied by a reasonable amount of structured teaching (lectures, lab work, tutorials) can help enormously in adjusting from the defined schedule of a school education to unmonitored self study. It will also give a focus to the first term, and allow less time for feeling lonely.

There has been a groundswell of complaints amongst students of poor quality teaching, insufficient contact time and a lack of assessed work. The latter is becoming a particular issue, as it is has been known for students to go through half the first year without any work being assessed.

With the hike in fees, universities now have to publish a “Student Charter” with guarantees of the contact hours students can expect to have with lecturers, both in lectures and in seminars. They also have to set out the frequency of lectures generally, and tutorials with key academics and how much work students will be expected to do independently, together with assessment methods, and how often students will be examined. Drop-out rates, and statistics on employment prospects of graduates are given too, so comparison of courses to maximise value for money is now easier to assess. Information is provided course by course and in a standard format as a condition of state funding. The charter also includes academic and sporting facilities and standards of accomodation. Average lecture sizes and tutorial group sizes are also questions worth investigating.

Location

Does your child love outdoor activities and the countryside? Then maybe a big city university isn’t a good idea. Look instead at those near the coast or with easy access to fresh air and greenery. Quiet by nature and leaving a small school? Then encourage them to consider a smaller university that won’t seem so overwhelming.

Halls

Don’t be disappointed if they don’t get their first choice. If they don’t like it, or feel they would settle better in a different hall where they have made friends, there are always drop outs and swaps in the first few weeks which will free up rooms. Just hope you don’t have to go and move their kit again!

On the question of catered or non-catered halls, whilst 44% of students surveyed for Emptynesting chose non catered, if they could choose again 66% of that group said they would opt for a catered hall. Unless they have a food allergy, it’s just an easier option not to have to think about buying and cooking your own food with everything else going on.

And a word of warning to pass on – Halls are now frequently taking every opportunity to fine students for smoking in their rooms, loud music, dirty kitchens etc. It is a good revenue booster for them, and a nasty shock for the student.

Studying abroad

The number of students sitting the US university entrance tests has risen by a third in recent years to over 10,000 as fee rises and increased competition for the Russell Group universities has made more students consider studying abroad.

The Open University

The OU offers an excellent and flexible alternative to the traditional university route, but students need to have self discipline to study on their own – although they will receive strong online tutorial support. Online studying enables them to fit in studying around work, and they will get credits if they have attended university, even if they didn’t complete the course. It also offers a wide range of work related learning and over half its students are part funded by their employees.

Interestingly about 25% of its 260,00 student undergraduates are under 25, and have made a positive decision to take the OU option. The big advantage for many is that there are no entry qualification requirements, and they won’t rack up the large student debts from a conventional university. Students can even enrol as 16 year old school leavers. For the young technically aware, who are used to communicating in digital space, it provides a rich study experience, often with more contact time and tutor involvement than at traditional universities, and with hugely popular lectures on iTunes.

A personal tutor is allocated, and on most courses students will have the option of face to face tutorials, or if preferred they can do it all online. Tutor responses are prompt, and students can talk to fellow students via the forums. In any event the chances are they will get more contact time than at many conventional universities. The cost is £4,000 to £5,500, and the OU ranks third in terms of student satisfaction. Loans are available to help meet the cost of fees.

How to write a personal statement

The personal statement is the most important element of an application to university. It is what will make a student stand out from the crowd and grab the attention of the reader from amongst the 100’s of others that will cross his desk. It is absolutely critical in convincing admissions tutors to offer a place, so it has to be clear and convincing. Its a personal promotion tool, and probably a students only opportunity to demonstrate passion and interest in a subject, and show that they have the ability and motivation to study their chosen subject.

The statement is limited to 4000 characters, and that includes spaces and puntuation. It has three key purposes, which are to explain:
1. why a student wants to study a particular course
2. why the applicant will excell in the subject
3.how other interests, activities and work experience support and compliment the chosen subject.

The website student room suggests the statement is divided into six sections:

  • introduction, and why the student wants to do the course
  • how the applicant engages with his/her work at school
  • how the applicant furthers them outside of school
  • work experience
  • skills and interests
  • a couple of lines on why the university should choose you

The statement must have a focused structure to catch the reader’s eye as something original. Remember that UCAS uses programmes to identify plagarism, so students should never copy phrases from another person’s statement – it will get picked up and rejected.

Start with a punchy enthusiastic opening statement, explaining why the student wants to study the course. This should be followed by evidence of aptitude to study, and then by a brief and succinct section on extra curricular activities and interests, to show motivation and self drive. It is important to include the books and journals that a student reads, and explain what new events in the academic field have intrigued, challenged or inspired them. Extra curricular activities should take no more than 30% of the statement.

Keep rereading and editing the statement, and don’t be afraid to start again and rewrite it. Try to avoid the usual expressions of life changing experiences – they sound too artificial. Check spelling and grammar, get teachers to check it, and do not exceed the 4000 character limit.
A useful article which will help you offer support and guidance can be found at How to write a personal statement

Durham University has published a list of the application criteria that it uses to sift applications, which is very useful.