Four steps to choosing your university


With 189 higher education institutions offering thousands of courses, deciding on which option to take can be difficult for students. Owen O’Neill offers some advice.

The decision whether or not to go on to higher education has never been harder. With tuition fees of £9,000 per year it is a costly option, yet one that almost half of young people in England decide to pursue according to government figures.

And for those who choose to go, the volume of information out there is phenomenal. For most this choice will be by far the biggest and most complex they have made in their lives so far. It is hardly surprising therefore that a recent survey by Which? showed that 26 per cent of undergraduates wished they had done more research before making their choice.

Schools have three roles to play in this process. First, they need to communicate the importance of the decision and the need to invest time in making it. Second, they need to avoid the decision appearing too daunting by providing pupils who need it with a structure that can help them navigate the process. Finally, schools should advise pupils, sharing their experience and insights.

Making the decision manageable

In the UK, some 189 higher education institutions offer a bamboozling variety of 50,000-plus courses. Many of these courses are variations on a theme, others are unique. The good news is that there is more information available to prospective students than ever before.

Pupils immersing themselves straight into this swamp of opportunity are likely to find it counterproductive. Instead they should plan an approach that will underpin how they choose their degree or other course. 

A four-stage process often helps to breaks the decision down into manageable chunks. 

Stage 1 – interest

Prospective students should brainstorm what interests them in the broadest sense. They should note down their hobbies, their favourite subjects at school, their wider interests. Then they should compile a list of jobs and professions they think might interest them. Having finished their brainstorm they should consider where their interests and career ideas overlap before starting to think about subjects that will interest them. 

It is important they understand that while very few of us at the age of 17 had any real idea about what we wanted to do, it is better to make a considered decision than to simply fall into something.

Having identified a handful of subjects, discussing them with someone they respect will provide further confidence that they are on the right track. 

It should be noted that pupils with a specific career in mind should research it in-depth before mapping out a path that will enable them to land their dream job. Speaking with someone doing that job will help pupils to understand whether the career is what they expect and how to get there. 

Stage 2 – elimination

For a subject such as English at this stage the variety of courses will be huge. Pupils should drill down further to narrow the choice – for example to 18th century literature or creative writing – before moving on. 

Prospective students now need to be ruthlessly realistic. Having identified their subject(s) of interest, narrowing their search to a realistic range of UCAS points can help filter the number of courses down to something more manageable. 

Prospective students should also ensure that the subjects they are currently studying leave them eligible for the courses they want to study – for example many medical degrees require A levels in chemistry and biology. 

Stage 3 – filtering

Depending on the subject(s) they are interested in, many prospective students will still be left with an extensive list of courses at this stage. This needs to be filtered down to a maximum of 10 courses before the final stage. Some of the most important criteria they should apply at this stage are:

  • Future prospects: universities now publish data on a wide range of performance indicators including graduate employment rates and graduate salaries. These are available for free on a number of websites, the university’s own sites, and Unistats.

  • Course reputation: for those who have an idea of the career they want, it is worth speaking with prospective employers to ask whether there are any specific courses with great reputations. Again independent figures on student satisfaction with individual courses are available.

  • University reputation and life: The Guardian and The Times (among others) publish league tables of universities, but university life is not simply about career prospects. Pupils who enjoy university are likely to get better grades so they should consider, for example, whether they would be better suited to a collegiate, campus or city university, together with the range of clubs and societies offered.

  • Location: as well as the surroundings, the ability to get home (in terms of time and cost) can make a meaningful difference to a student’s university experience. Google maps is a fantastic resource here, making it easy to check journey times by car or public transport in moments.

Stage 4 – decision-making

With pupils looking to settle on a list of four or five courses they should now review the course prospectuses to eliminate those courses from their lists that focus on areas of the subject they value less.

Attending the open days of their preferred courses is absolutely crucial. The gut feeling the open day will give pupils about whether or not they will enjoy the university is for many the crucial decision-making factor. 

The open day also provides the opportunity to quiz the lecturers further about any questions raised by the prospectus as well as providing an opportunity to meet students currently studying the course.

A useful list of questions that pupils might want to ask at the open day can be found on the University Compare website. Open days also offer the chance to explore first-hand the non-academic elements of university life, including clubs and societies, the students’ union, and the general facilities to ensure the buildings are well-maintained.

Advisors and sources of information

Having offered pupils a structured approach to making their decision, teachers are also well placed to provide further guidance. After all you will know pupils’ academic aptitude and inclination, as well as having seen many prospective students go through this process in previous years. You will also be in a position to put them in contact with former pupils who might be prepared to share their experiences. 

The range of useful information available to prospective students at no cost means that there is little excuse for a poor choice. Many university course prospectuses are online; similarly most universities, and even some courses, have their own social media pages providing insights into the level and type of activity.

Similarly, there are a number of student discussion forums where pupils will be able to get independent feedback, as well as performance data collected by independent bodies.


University applications are a huge decision for an 18-year-old. It is three or four years of their lives and on average it will cost them around £45,000. While the final decision has to be theirs, giving them a simple structure like this can help to ensure they approach it logically and have the best chance of success.

  • Owen O’Neill is the founder of University Compare, a website that aggregates data and generates content to help students make higher education decisions.

Further information
University Compare has put much of this information together in a handout for students. The handout also includes useful questions to ask parents, current students, and an idea about which statistics matter the most. Visit


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