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University challenge: Tips to help you make the right choice

With the school holidays fast becoming a distant memory, many teenagers and their parents will now be preparing for the future and stepping on the merry carousel of university open days.

Study time – be prepared for your next steps in life
Study time – be prepared for your next steps in life

But there are many minefields to cross between those wide-eyed visits and becoming an undergraduate.

For first-time parents and new students it is quite a daunting journey. Having recently been through the trials and tribulations I learnt a few lessons and some good advice:

  1. Do your research. Check out university league tables for your child’s chosen course. The Complete University Guide grades not only on results but also student satisfaction and graduate prospects. It is also worth checking out students’ reviews.

  2. Be aware of UCAS deadlines. The deadline for most undergraduate courses is in January but applications to courses such as medicine or to Oxbridge are October. Universities insist it is not ‘first come first served’ but as, in my experience, offers do come through before the January deadline, maybe the early bird catches the worm. Also, the personal statement needs careful crafting and you need a reference – teachers may not be so generous if given lots of late requests.

  3. You can’t start on the personal statement soon enough. There are only some 450 words to convince the university to take you over the next applicant. Put the work in beforehand. Carry out volunteering or work experience, get off the XBox and do some extra-curricular activities to show you are an interesting, well-rounded individual. Don’t be tempted to copy a statement from the internet or your pal. Universities have sophisticated techniques to check out plagerism. Also, the personal statement applies to all of your five course choices. If torn between courses, eg biology and film studies, it will take some creative writing to convince a university that you are passionate about either course.

  4. Be realistic about your estimated grades. You don’t want to set yourself up for a fall and get your heart set on one particular university and put too much pressure on yourself if there is the chance you may not make the grades.

  5. Visit several universities. Yes the first visits will be long days as you will take in every talk from the university experience to student finance to studying abroad. But similar talks are offered at each university so you can later focus on getting a feel for the university, the course and the accommodation. The days begin early so it may be worth travelling up the night before.

  6. Plan your day. Talks take place at different parts of the universities which can seem like small towns as you run from one to another. Check the schedule online – and the map – and plan your day accordingly.

  7. Speak to current students. There will be plenty acting as guides who can give the inside track on life at the university and answer some of your more practical questions from which accommodation is best to whether it is worth paying for gym facilities.

  8. Where to live. This can be a worry for parents as our babies fly the nest. It is also like having a second mortgage. Costs vary massively from self-catering rooms with a shared bathroom to fully catered, en suite ‘palaces’. Check them all out as even the cheaper options are OK, particularly on campus. Sharing a kitchen is a good way to get to know your housemates.

  9. Plan B. Once the offers come in you select a first choice and a reserve. Make sure the reserve requires lower grades, it takes the pressure off a little. Remember there may be disappointment in August so have a plan B.

  10. Finance. You can apply to Student Finance England for a tuition fees loan and a maintenance loan of up to £8,700 if living away from home outside London but this is means tested. You apply from late spring and parents have to provide evidence of income etc.

  11. Accommodation. You can register for accommodation at your preferred choice ahead of getting your results but the books only open afterwards. It’s then that the real scramble begins so be prepared.

  12. The best-laid plans. All may go array on results day. Carefully made plans could be ripped up as the clearing frenzy begins. You can prepare for this too by checking out universities offering the course in clearing beforehand and doing your research.

Remember it’s not the end of the world – it’s the start of a new adventure, just on a different path.

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