Degreekey Blog

How to Get Insight into University before you Apply

Eliza Mahoney
October 16, 2020

University can often seem like quite an uncertain prospect; many students know they want to apply to university, but struggle to get a genuine sense of what universities are actually like! Worry not - this blog will provide you with tips and ideas for any student who wants to better understand what universities are actually like.

Narrowing university applications down to a mere five options can often seem like a daunting and intimidating task. That’s why it’s absolutely vital that you do the relevant research beforehand. What is the relevant research, and how does one go about it? Read on!

Tip 1: Visit!!!

It’s such an obvious point, you’ve probably heard it all before. But the cliché is true; there really is no substitute for visiting a university, and we’re about to explain why.

Most universities are city-based; some are based just outside of a large city (for example, Warwick, which lies on the outskirts of Coventry). Visiting that city will give a realistic first insight into the atmosphere of the university, which is probably built upon, and revolves around city-life. For example, you might find you prefer a place like Warwick, in which the University campus is separate, but close to the city; alternatively, you might prefer a university which is better integrated into the city (such as Edinburgh). 

Furthermore, some universities are campus-based: this means that the university is situated on one site, with student accommodation, teaching and research facilities, and leisure activities all together. Other universities are collegiate (namely, Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, York, Lancaster and Kent); this means that the university functions are divided between a number of different colleges (which are kind of like mini-university communities). Together these colleges make up the University body. If you want a better sense of the pros and cons of Campus vs Collegiate Universities, the best possible way to do that is to actually go and have a look; you might find you prefer one or the other.

It is also worth noting that many universities offer open days, in which you get exclusive insight into University life, as well as the chance to talk to Professors and Lecturers. It will be extremely helpful for any prospective applicant to research when those open days happen, and to schedule a full day (or two!) to go and visit during that period. In particular, most open days offer example lectures; make sure to go to those so you get a genuine sense of what university teaching is like. You’ll find that your course is taught very differently at different universities; attending these ‘tryout’ days can be a genuinely useful way of deciding which you like best.

Of course, given the current pandemic, visiting may not always be an option, which is why it is important to...

Tip 2: Research the University in depth

There are several ways to go about this. Firstly, in the absence of physical ‘Open Days’ (detailed above), many universities are offering ‘virtual open days’. These are super accessible, and provide a great way to get insight into the university, without even leaving the comfort of your room! These can include online seminars, lectures, video/3D tours of the university and even chats with existing students and lecturers. It really pays to do a bit of research beforehand, so you know which online events to attend, and what questions to ask. Furthermore university websites will give very precise details about individual papers and modules within that uni. So if you want to compare courses at various different universities (which you should, because the course is one of the most important factors to get your head around, before you apply to a specific university), then make sure to compare the individual ways in which they teach and examine your chosen subject. For example, some universities might offer a more coursework-based study system, whilst others might be all exams; this could be a deciding factor for you. 

The second, and maybe less self-evident tip, is to acquire resources, feedback and answers from the students themselves. Your first port-of-call should be The Student Room - an absolute wealth of experiences and reviews from students who have already been at that particular university! Chances are, if you have a specific question or query, then that will already be up there as an FAQ. If you know people from your school who are studying at that university (or who have already graduated), then make sure to get in touch! Alumni love to help out prospective students, and you have nothing to lose by emailing/messaging them with a couple of questions. Speaking to current or ex students is one of the most helpful ways in which you can get genuine and honest insight into a University. If you do not know anyone who is already at uni, worry not; there are ways round this! You can try and find someone on LinkedIn (a social network designed for jobseekers, but which you could definitely find helpful). To do this, simply search for your chosen university, and use LinkedIn filters to narrow the list down to people who have been to your school, or who are friends of friends. Furthermore, you could have a look at the Student Union Pages for your university, which generally give a more honest and intimate view into university life (as well as the name of students who you could get in touch with!). Remember: it’s important to be proactive, and make sure you’re getting a well-rounded view of your university by looking at official reports (from the university), and ideally, unofficial reports (from the students).

You can also sign up and have a look at our student life blog posts, which cover topics such as extra-curricular opportunities, managing social life and work and maintaining a good sleep schedule! 

Tip 3: Ask the right questions (and follow them up)!

Another cliche (but for good reason!): in order to get the right answers, you need to ask the correct questions. To do this, you need to know what exactly it is that you’re looking for in a university. So on top of your more generalised research, which is aimed at finding and understanding the basics - academics, atmosphere etc, - write down some more specific, personal questions. 

For example, do you have a specific niche in your chosen subject which you love, and does the university offer modules relating to that? Alternatively, is there a module which you detest, but which the university makes compulsory? Because your university course should be one of the main factors in your decision making process for applications, it is an excellent idea to create a table of modules on offer from various universities (you’ll be surprised by how much these differ!), and to compare these side by side.

Alternatively, Is there a sport you love, which is well-represented, and funded at the University? Likewise, if you play an instrument and you’re passionate about it, will you have the chance to continue at University? Obviously most universities will offer a huge range of sports and orchestras/bands, but do a bit of research, and you might find that one university makes their team/band/group stand out. It’s also worth noting that different courses may have different levels of contact hours (that is, the amount of time you spend actually being taught in classes/seminars/lectures, rather than working alone). If you’re particularly passionate about a hobby such as sport, you may want to opt for a university and course which allows you the maximum flexibility.

A final point to consider is that some universities offer ‘Taster courses’ (although in the midst of a pandemic, these may be less than feasible). By all means, attend if you can, but do not feel compelled to, especially if these courses are expensive; there are other and cheaper ways to get insight into a university... 

So in conclusion…

Getting an honest and candid sense of the universities to which you are thinking of applying is not easy, by any means, but by being proactive and starting your research early, you can ensure that you feel confident about each and every one of your choices in time for UCAS applications. Do try to visit, but, failing that, make sure to do detailed and targeted research. Create your free account at Degree Key today, and gain access to reviews, blog posts and insights into the university life you are hoping to lead; you’ll have chosen your unis and started your applications in no time!

about the author

Eliza Mahoney

Eliza Mahoney

Eliza is in her third year at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where she is reading English. This year she has taken optional papers in the Victorian period (1847-1872) and in visual culture (art, photography and film). Her first dissertation centred around beginnings in the prose of Stevie Smith, and her final dissertation explored the relationship between dance and literature, focusing on Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre'. She is a Full Blue in dance and spent this year as the captain of the Cambridge Dance Team - she has danced for 19 years! Eliza has been accepted to study for a PGCE in Primary Education at Cambridge and looks forward to returning for her fourth year in September.

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