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How to pick your 5 University choices for UCAS

Updated on September 16, 2015

An important choice

Which university will you choose?
Which university will you choose? | Source

Choosing a University

So you know you want to do a degree in a specific subject. Your next step is to find the best university choices for you. Where is the best course? What type of university do you want to attend? How far do you want to travel? What are your predicted grades? How much will it cost? What is the employment rate for graduates? There are a lot of questions you will want answers to before you make your choices.

Don't panic! You have time and you have plenty of places to go to for help.

Step 1 - What do I want?

You are going to spend 3, 4 or perhaps even 5 years at university. You are going to pay fees, take out loans, live (perhaps) in a new and unfamiliar place. You need to ask yourself a few questions before you start your search.

Do you want to live in the heart of a city? If so, you will want to look at city universities (like Liverpool, Birmingham etc). If not, you will want to look at 'campus' universities, where the main campus, buildings and accommodation are all on one site outside of a city centre. An example of this is Lancaster University.

The advantage of a city university is that you don't have to pay bus fares, taxi fares or have a long walk to get to local cafes, shops, pubs and clubs as they are on your doorstop. You will also be near the train station so travelling to and from is easy. The disadvantage is that it can be expensive to find accommodation and you may find it noisy, busy and overwhelming.

The advantage of a campus university is that everything you need is on one site. Once you are on site there's only ever a bit of walking needed to get to any of your lectures or classrooms, the library, shops, the launderette, the Student Union etc. You can roll out of bed and be in class 15 minutes later (if you want to!!). The disadvantage is that you will have to pay for your transport to and from the nearest city whenever you want to go further afield, and it's an extra journey to get home, as you will have to travel to and from the train station.

The next thing to consider is how far you want to go from home. Do you want to stay in the region? If so, this will limit your search to those universities in your vicinity. If you don't mind travelling, how far do you want to travel? Living in Newcastle and travelling to Southampton university might be a long, expensive journey. Are you prepared for that? Do you want to set a maximum journey time (say 4 hours by train) and only include the universities within that distance? Think about the practicalities and advantages of living near (or at) home, and the practicalities and advantages of living away from home. Which do you prefer?

Now you have a place to start.


Step 2) What are your predicted grades?

You won't know which universities you are eligible to apply for until you know what your predicted grades are. For this, you will need to talk to your Personal Tutor at college/school, or perhaps your individual subject tutors. Predicted grades will be based on any exams you have taken or work you have completed in your first year of level 3 study and what your teachers feel is possible for you to achieve overall.

Once you have your predicted grades, it will help you rule out some universities. For example if you wish to do a Maths degree, and like the look of Cambridge University, you will have to gain A*A*A at A level. Is this a grade you will realistically reach? If not, then you should not apply to Cambridge university as it will 'waste' one of your choices. If your predicted grades at A level are AAB, then there are still plenty of universities you can apply to. (**Please note, you don't need to gain AAB at A level to apply to university. There are plenty of providers who will make offers based on lower grades, and on Extended Diplomas (BTEC qualifications).) The entry requirements vary from course to course and university to university, which is why you have to use UCAS to research them.

You should always aim to have at least 1 top choice out of the 5 available to you. This 'top' choice would be your ideal course and place to study and will probably be the one you need the highest grades to apply to. You should also aim for one good 'insurance' choice. This will be a course at a university you still want to go to, but one that offers you a place placed on slightly lower grades. An example of this would be:

Top choice: Sociology degree at Smith University - grades needed to secure the place: AAB

Insurance choice: Sociology degree at Jones University - grades needed: ABB

This means that you know that if you don't quite manage to get AAB grades, but just miss an A in one of your subjects and gain a B instead, on results day you will still have a great place to go to university. You may not know what your ultimate first and insurance choice uni will be, and for this reason it is good to include, if possible, a range of universities in your 5 choices.

Step 3) Investigating the universities

Now you know which course you want to do and which region(s) you would like to study in, you can move on to the next step, which is finding which universities in that area offer your course.

The quickest way to do this is to use the UCAS website. Go to the course search screen found here.

Type in your chosen year to start your study, the region (England, Wales, Scotland) and then the name of your degree in the 'Course Title' box. You leave the 'Provider' box empty but if searching for a particular region (e.g. Lancashire) you can add that into the Location box.

Click the 'search' button. You will then see a list in alphabetical order of all the universities in that region and/or location which offer your degree.

Scroll through and pick out ones you like. click on the name of the university and it will bring up information about the university itself. If you click on the degree title, this will give you more information about the degree itself. Always check the entry requirements for that degree at that university (find an example of this screen here).

From the list on UCAS write down which universities you are eligible for and then google their website directly to find out more information about the university, accommodation, further information on the course and facilities etc. Make a shortlist of the universities which appeal to you most.

UCAS - an excellent resource!

Make the UCAS website your first port of call
Make the UCAS website your first port of call

Step 4) Visit the universities on your shortlist

If you are going to spend 3,4 or 5 years living in a new place, you will need to like it! What looks great on a website may not actually feel so great when you arrive. You can never get a feel for whether you like a place or not, without visiting. Sometimes a place looks great online, but feels awful when you get there - and vice versa!

Most universities now will try and hold open days on a weekend, so you don't miss school or college. Go to this website for a list of every open day at every uni throughout the year.

If you have missed an open day here and there, still try to visit. If it's a city university go and find the buildings - it's still good to know location and look of the place, and whether you like to city itself. If it's a campus university, park at the campus and wander round. Would you like living there? You could also ring the department at the university which offers your course and see if anyone is available, and kind enough, to give you a quick ad hoc tour.

Would you like to walk round this quad every day? You won't find out until you visit!
Would you like to walk round this quad every day? You won't find out until you visit!

Step 5) The Statistics

So you have narrowed down your choices, but you still have more than 5. Or you are debating between a couple of choices for your top or insurance choice. The league tables may help.

League tables will tell you what students themselves think of universities, how successful students are on their courses (by results), how many graduates were employed within 6 months of leaving and which are the top universities in the UK, or region by region.

A good site for the latest league tables (particularly as they are broken down region by region) is 'The Complete University Guide'.

Every year The Guardian also offers league tables, one of which is based on a 'value added score' according to how much students improve over their course and come out with a better degree than expected.

For a quick list of the top 116, try this Telegraph article.

To find out where one particular university stands in 3 different league tables compiled in 3 different ways, try this website and find your university from the alphabetical list.

Once you know what the rankings are, you will have more information with which to make your choice.

Statistics give you a clearer idea about how well you will achieve at a particular university.
Statistics give you a clearer idea about how well you will achieve at a particular university.

Step 6) Ask!

There's nothing better than a recommendation from someone you trust. If you have older relatives already at university, ask them what they think of their uni.

If you have a passion for a particular subject, ask your subject teacher which is the best university for that degree.

If you visit a university on an open day, ask the students what their favourite things about the university are.

It never hurts to ask! Find an expert.
It never hurts to ask! Find an expert.

And finally...

When you have done all your research and asked all the questions, the last thing to do is go with your gut feelings. You will have an idea about which university you prefer, and which ones you want to add on as your other 4 choices. Get your application done and wait for the offers to roll in! Good luck.


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