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How to choose the undergraduate course - and university - that is right for you

Published on 26th July 2019 - Last update on 7th August 2019

If you are considering coming to the UK for a university education you can expect a warm welcome. There are more than 420,000 overseas students in the UK, further enriching a multicultural environment that is already hugely varied.

But which university should you go to? There are over 150 further education establishments in institutions in the UK. Each one offers its own approach to teaching, its own distinct courses – and a huge range of different experiences, courses and extra-curricular opportunities.

In the UK, degree courses tend to be specialised, allowing you to focus on your chosen subject from day one. However, most will have a general option in the first year, which will allow you to sample other areas of study. In some cases, it may be possible to switch to another course at the same university, if you find that your original choice is not what you had expected.

You need to ensure the place you choose is the right one for your interests and needs. What you learn, both in and outside the lecture hall, and the people that you meet may all be key to the rest of your life.

With so many courses available, it's vitally important that you find out more about the course and the university or college before you start to shortlist your options.

Fortunately, all universities and colleges offer online prospectuses which can explain the options they have available. They can be a good place to start – although you should not make a life-changing decision on the basis of a brochure. Ideally, you should see the campus, city, and course lecturers for yourself. Universities and colleges run open days during most of the year. If you live outside the UK, you might want to plan a trip which will let you see various universities for yourself.

Choosing your course

You will probably already have decided on the area you want to specialise in. However, any subject can be approached in a number of ways, and you will need to look closely at the courses available. Not all courses with the same name will be identical in content. What do they offer? Do they cover the topics of particular interest to you? Who are the tutors you will be working under, and are they the experts in the key areas that you want to learn about? You might want to read the books and papers that they have published to get an idea of their approach

Look at the modules covered in each course and identify those that you find the most exciting, or relevant to your career aspiration.

Look at the way the course is structured. Will it be lecture-based, or will the most important work be done in a group in seminars?

How will each module be assessed - does the assessment at the end of each module involve exams, coursework, presentations, or perhaps a combination of all three? What approach suits you best?

With so many universities to choose from, you might find that there are many courses that offer the kind of tuition you want. You should prepare a shortlist and look at the entry requirements of each one. Some may be easily in your reach, while others may demand particularly high qualifications. Oxford and Cambridge, in particular, have very high entry requirements. They may expect you to come and attend an interview before offering you a place, no matter how impressive your existing academic achievements may be.

Looking at the universities

If you have shortlisted the universities offering the courses you want to study, it is time to compare different universities.

They all have different characters. Are they based on a campus, or are they part of a wider community? Both can have their advantages, although many overseas students may opt for a campus, where all the facilities they need are on-site, and the vagaries of the British culture may be less of a distraction.

Do they have sports facilities or societies that you would want to join? What accommodation is available, and is it near to a lively city centre?

Do they have a large presence of overseas students? You can use these online tools to see which colleges and universities are favourites with overseas students from various countries, and the courses that are the most popular.

Talk through your ideas and plans with family, friends, teachers and advisers – and try to get opinions from students who are already at the universities you are interested in. This can be very easy online, particularly if you are a fan of social media or by getting a student viewpoint at Unistats, which can offer subject and course provider reviews.

Finally, do some detailed research. Read university and college reviews from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. You should also check league tables that rank university and colleges on the quality of the tuition they provide. The Guardian, The Times, and The Complete University Guide can all help, and look at the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) for ratings on teaching quality, learning environment, as well as student outcomes.


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Richard Mitchell

Richard Mitchell

Content writer
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