Eleanor writes on many topics, including parenting, single parenting, party and activity ideas, and career and home life.
The past few months have been dominated by my son's imminent plans for university. His transition into the next stage of his life is exciting, yet it is fraught with the stress of upcoming exams and a terrible dilemma. The dilemma, not uncommonly, arose from the question of which university to firm. My son was torn between two universities, neither being his initial first choice—that is, the place he was most interested in before attending any open days.
My son is a student in the UK, therefore this article reflects the process of applying for UK universities and the experience likely to be gained from visiting on open days.
Is It Really Necessary to Attend University Open Days?
Before the process of applying for university began, I hadn't really grasped the reality with regards to the amount of travelling that is involved in respect of the application. I am a single parent who doesn't like driving on motorways or in busy, unfamiliar places. I also have limited funds for public transport, a younger child who has to go to school and a job. We don't have any family nearby to help us out.
During a chat with my mother about the difficulties of travelling to all these universities, just in case they were 'the one', she queried as to whether it was really necessary. After all, a university open day is a marketing opportunity: their priority is to successfully sell themselves so that a student, really, really wants to part with several thousands of pounds in order to gain a place. They don't want unsuitable applicants who will end up dropping out. But they also don't want unfilled places.
So, is it necessary to attend an open day? Or is it simply an event that can be bypassed? How much does a student really gain from making the effort? What about if they just choose the 'best' ones that they think you have a shot at? After all, all universities have online prospectuses, and there are student forums for asking a whole myriad of questions, from how far you have to walk between the Law block to the accommodation, to whether there is an orienteering club. Why do you even need to turn up for an open day at all?
My son is hoping to achieve the grades to study a Masters Degree in Physics. At the very start of the application process, his main ambition was to gain a place at Nottingham University. In the UK, you can apply for up to five universities through UCAS. In theory, this could mean trawling around a great number of universities in an attempt to choose the five best suited to you.
That would be illogical, though. In practice, most students visit just a handful, and make their choice from those. My son was only interested in visiting two - the University of Nottingham and the University of Birmingham. Nottingham, he felt, was his favourite.
Feeling the Vibe of the University
In truth, you can only really experience the 'vibe' of a place by actually being there.
Of course, all universities put on their best face for any open day. It's a marketing opportunity for them, and they want to recruit enough students to fill their places. They want to attract the best students they can. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't pick up the general feel for a place. Even just walking across the campus can give you an idea of whether you can really see yourself studying there. And that is the biggest benefit from actually visiting a place before you apply - or certainly before you firm it.
During an open day you can usually meet and chat with lecturers and other students. You can ask any questions you choose, and you can certainly get a sense of whether the lecturers are passionate, inspiring and relatable. The disadvantage is that you won't see the general day-to-day running of the university, or the students during regular lectures.
Campus or Not?
Most students are aware of the difference of a campus university and one which is spread out within a city. However, it is a good idea to visit in order to get an idea of the reality of either scenario before you commit. The best university in terms of league tables may not be right for you if you do not feel happy within your environment. In fact, league tables are ambiguous anyway, since they are liable to change every year and consider a pool of different factors. Every student is an individual, and as such, every student has different needs.
A campus, perhaps rather obviously, offers an on-site community that is always around you. Certainly, in the first year at least, you might hardly need to leave the campus at all unless you want to, except perhaps for the occasional shopping trip. Everything you do, from studying, to living, to socialising, is done there.
Non-campus universities, on the other hand, usually consist of completely separate buildings spread out across a town or city. This may lead to less of a feeling of community, particularly for a new student.
Viewing the Department
Whatever school you plan to apply to at university, the department for your chosen subject should be a big part of why you want to go there. In fact, the quality of that department, as opposed to any other part of the university, is ultimately the most important point to consider.
Although you can learn about the modules offered online, and the direction that the course will take, nothing can really beat taking a tour of the department itself. When my son toured physics departments during open days, he found he was much more excited by some than others. Part of that was due to the inspiration and passion displayed by the lecturers and students, which is something that can't really be ascertained without actually being there.
The two universities he liked the best had extensive laboratories with many hands-on experiments set out to try, and lots of people at hand to ask questions during the day. Not all universities have exactly the same facilities, and not all universities have the same research potential.
If you, as a student, have a particular interest in a specialised topic, you can use the open day to discuss your options in that field. It is absolutely not true to assume that every university will have a dedicated team allocated to your specific field. The depth that you can delve into your chosen subject, taking your own individual path, can vary between institutions, so you can use an open day to discuss in detail your options throughout the course.
During an open day, you should be able to attend a number of talks in the lecture theatre.
Meeting Real Students
My son particularly enjoyed meeting other students who were already studying physics. At Birmingham University, he was able to have a long and in depth chat about many aspects of the course. He found this really useful and being able to chat with another student (someone of a similar age and who was recently in the same boat as himself) about everything from the course modules, to the difficulty and amount of work was definitely one of the highlights of his day.
In other aspects of university life, students are an invaluable source when it comes to finding out what it is really like living in the different types of student accommodation, what the food is like, whether you really need an en-suite and what you might expect from the nightlife and social scene. Speaking to students can also help to quell any nerves a potential student might have, particularly those relating to every day life and being away from home.
All universities publish details of the accommodation they offer online and in their prospectus. It is often also possible to view the accommodation by video tour. Does that offer a realistic view, though? Personally, I think you can only really obtain an accurate view by visiting in person. Photographs can be somewhat deceptive, and camera angles can make a poky room seem much more spacious. Also, the distance from the accommodation to the university is something that you can get a better idea of when you are actually there.
However, a particular accommodation is not usually something that will be guaranteed along with your initial offer, so it's a good idea to remain flexible and make sure that you do not put the accommodation above the quality of the course. It's also important to remember that most universities only offer on-site accommodation for the first year anyway.
Also, it may not be possible to visit accommodation during an open day, either due to time restraints—even campus accommodation can be a 25 minute walk away—or because the university has a special 'accommodation day' set up for that purpose. During initial open days, you might be able to join an accommodation tour (we did at Nottingham) but you might just be shown a separate 'show' room which is not really quite the same.
Even though a university campus is like its own little town, its location will still have at least some impact on your general experience of student life. This might be particularly true in the second year and beyond, since it is often a requirement that second year students move out of halls and rent within the wider environment.
Visiting for an open day can certainly give any prospective student an idea of whether they actually like the place in which the university is based. Location can be an enormously varying experience. London universities, for example, offer a very different living environment as opposed those in smaller cities. On top of that, London universities tend not to be campus based, which means that you won't get that community feel in the same way that you might elsewhere.
Each student will have their individual likes and dislikes—for example, a preference for being in a place with a lot of live music, a busy place with lots of nightlife, a wealth of cultural opportunities, an ethnically diverse location, or a quieter, more compact place. Although it is possible to gauge what the location has to offer without actually visiting beforehand, it's still a good idea to visit in order to get a proper feel for it.
It's all very well assuring yourself that undertaking a six hour journey or multiple changes on the train is something that you can easily live with - but that might be before you've tried it.
Travelling is tiring and can be expensive. If, as a student, you plan on returning home for weekends on a relatively regular basis, it could be difficult if you are too far away as too much of the time will be taken up by travelling. Of course, you might plan to just return occasionally for holidays - but at the very least give the journey a trial run before you commit.
My son's furthest journey for an open day was 4.5 hours each way on the train. There were many good universities that were much further. He would have still considered them if he'd really wanted to go there, but in hindsight the 4.5 trip he undertook already felt like a long way, and probably further than he was expecting! It's also not really feasible for a two day weekend visit.
Every Student is Different
On the parent's tour of University of Birmingham physics department, I started chatting with another parent. She said that her son had visited Durham University Open Day on his own, and hadn't liked it at all.
Durham is a very respectable university but it has a collegiate system, and he really felt that it wasn't for him. However, it had taken the journey to Durham, and the experience of actually visiting some of the colleges, to realise that he just didn't like it.
My son, on the other hand, applied as an after thought to Durham, visited it and really did like it - despite also thinking that he wouldn't like the collegiate system. In fact, by that time he had already felt sure about which university he would firm (Birmingham), but the visit to Durham led to him changing his mind.
The point is, all students are individual people, very different in their likes and dislikes and what they hope for out of university life besides the degree itself. It is also very apparent to me that my son would have made completely different choices if he had not visited them beforehand!
It's Like Buying a House
Knowing whether or not a university is right for you is a bit like buying a new house. You probably wouldn't buy a property without viewing it, so why would you sign up to a course that is going to cost you thousands of pounds without first checking it out? Just because someone else — or a league table — says it's good doesn't mean it's the right one for you. Arguably, the most important factor when studying is to feel happy in your surroundings, as that alone will give you the confidence and outlook to succeed. Happy students work better, and choosing a university is a personal choice. Not only that, but league tables are often skewed in favour of certain criteria, so replying on them completely isn't a good idea.
So, Are Open Days 'Worth It'?
In a nutshell, yes. For all the reasons above, but particularly for that 'feeling' that you just get when you know something is right for you. It's that 'feeling' that you can only really get when you have experienced something in person.
My son originally wanted to go to Nottingham University. He really, really liked the idea of it. But after visiting both Nottingham and Birmingham during one hectic weekend, he quickly decided that Birmingham was the place for him. He absolutely loved everything about it. But then, eventually, he decided on Durham. His change in decision was, in large part, due to the open days he attended.
It's arguable that you won't see the reality of student life during a university open day. Whilst that is true—any institution will present its best side in the interests of securing applications—you will certainly gain more of an insight than if you didn't go at all. You can only really experience being a student if you are a student, or if you visit during student term time . However, being able to imagine yourself studying at a given place, as well as feeling an enthusiasm for one place over another, is one of the main advantages of making the effort to attend.
Yes, they might give you a bag of 'stuff'—like a cheap pen that only works for two weeks— that you don't really need. But knowing where you're going when you finally do receive confirmation of your place at a university can be very reassuring.
I do feel that the open days we attended were worth the travel time and cost.