Thursday, 28 February 2013

University open days: getting the most out of them!

Beyond the prospectuses and pretty pictures lies the eye-opening experience of an open day. Sarah Gordon, Senior Events Manager at London South Bank University (LSBU) offers applicants her tips for test driving their university choices before making a final decision:

It’s that time of year. Offers from universities you shortlisted are flooding in and now you need to make your big decision as to which university will be your first choice offer and which will end up in second place. But how do you decide?

Sarah Gordon,
Senior Events Manager at LSBU
There’s probably a huge stack of prospectuses in your room gathering dust. You’ve probably spent hours trawling university websites, looking at blogs and going through league tables online. You’ve probably spent time talking to your friends and family about their opinions on the universities you’ve shortlisted. But have you been for a visit?

So many students find going to an open day a hassle: taking time out from work or social activities to make a long journey to see a university they’ve looked at online a hundred times. Do you really need to visit as well?

But things have changed so much in recent years, both in the way universities teach and in the cost of higher education. If you were spending a similar amount of money on purchasing something for yourself, perhaps a car or a home, you wouldn’t just go by the online advert and pictures in a sales brochure. You’d take a test drive or visit so you knew exactly what you were investing your money in.  Why not employ the same tactic when choosing your university?  

There is only so much insight you can get from looking at a prospectus or online course guide. The only way you can get a true feel for whether a university is the right one for you is to hop on a train or jump in the car and actually experience it for yourself; the good, the bad and the ugly.

So here are my top tips on getting the most out of a visit to a university open day:

Get out there
Visit as many open days as you can; at least two and ideally three, including one wildcard option. The more universities you visit and view, the more you will get an idea of what is and isn’t important to you.  

Don’t go it alone
Do take friends and family with you if you can. Having someone else with you to help take it all in is invaluable, and everything is always more fun with company. They’re going to remember the stuff that you don’t and will think of things to ask that you won’t.

Capture the experience
Make notes as you go and take photos to remind you of the day afterwards. It may look a little weird but if you’re visiting a few different places, they can soon all merge into one.

Be prepared
Buzz: a busy LSBU open day in 2012
Plan ahead, not only on a practical level (how you will travel there? Is parking available? Are there places for lunch?) but also be prepared to be both disappointed and pleasantly surprised at what you may find when you get there.

I speak to many students who were very clear about their first choice university, until they went to visit. They realised that, despite the pretty pictures in the prospectus and the high ranking in the university guides, it really wasn’t somewhere they could see themselves. Remember, you are not just joining a course, but a university community. You need to know you’ll be happy with the course but also the tutors, your fellow students, the campus facilities and its location. I have also spoken to students who’ve accompanied friends on open day visits, to universities they hadn’t considered themselves and have fallen in love with them.

Let open days open your mind
Be open-minded. Think before you go about what your wish list would be for the perfect university and then think about what you may be prepared to compromise on as you visit.

Get past the gloss
Don’t be afraid to speak to any student guides or ambassadors that are there. Although many of them will be paid to work, they will also happily give you a warts and all view of student life. That’s what they’re there for and they will all be keen to talk to you about the course they are doing and why they chose that particular university.

Sit back and relax
Take time out during your visit to head to the coffee shop or refectory, grab something to eat or drink and sit back and take it all in.  Can you see yourself here for the next two to three years?

Grill the tutors
Finally, talk to the tutors too and ask about the course you’re interested in. Find out how it’s assessed, which building it’s taught in (and visit that building if you can), what a usual week’s timetable looks like. This will help you to start building up a picture of what you’re signing up for.

Open days offer a great opportunity to double check that the universities you’ve chosen really are the right ones for you. It’s not just a course you’re buying, but three years of your life and you need to make sure that you’re going to be happy in your new home.  And nothing will beat that feeling of leaving an open day happy and confident that you have chosen the right place for the next chapter of your life.  

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