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Create a firm foundation [Steps 1-24]

Human Pyramid

Careful, evidence-based research is the key to good decision-making.

Only by creating this firm foundation can you refine your choices and then apply with confidence.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 1]

Congratulations! You have successfully emerged from your first set of public examinations and your GCSEs have let you enter that zone of privilege and status that you’ve looked forward to: the Sixth Form. Some of you will have left your old school and joined a new school or college, but even those of you who’ve stayed put will have transitions to negotiate, both social (as new students are joining) and academic. If you’re studying for AS/A Level or BTECs, you can now focus on those subjects in which you are most interested and able; programmes such as the IB Diploma require you to keep a broader spread, although here, too, you will have narrowed the field. Some of your subjects might be completely new to you; but, even if you have opted for subjects that you have already studied at GCSE, there will be a jump in standard to negotiate, as the detail becomes more complex, and you will be required to organize your commitments more independently: by asking, for instance, “How do I avoid a work crisis by distributing preparation of several assignments across the time I have for private study in the next week?”

In this crucial period of transition, with so much else to occupy you, it might seem absurd to consider now what you will do after the next two years, at the end of Year 13, especially if you are just entering a new institution. However, I think that there are several things that you can do this Autumn Term to pave the way for a successful outcome to your next transition, when you leave your school or college. Indeed, this preparation will probably increase your confidence and commitment, as you move further through Year 12. 

In choosing A Level (or alternative) subjects your main focus should be on choosing those subjects which you are most likely to enjoy. You are likely to study those subjects with more enthusiasm and thus achieve higher grades.

Don’t focus unduly on university subject choice at this stage, as your views might change considerably during the next year or two.

In spite of this, I think that the first thing that you should do is to check that your Sixth Form subjects qualify you to study a university subject that you are already considering. If you are thinking of Engineering, be aware that Maths. is fundamental and Physics, too, for most areas. For Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine, studying both Biology and Chemistry will give by far the greatest choice. However, it is not true that the “dream team” for Architecture is Maths., Physics and Art, as no university requires all three.

It is important for IB students to realise that, where a full A Level is required by universities, a Higher Level in the IB Diploma will be required as an equivalent qualification. A Standard Level qualification will almost certainly NOT be accepted as an equivalent of A Level.

An issue with Further Maths. is that some uni. departments do not see it as a separate subject from Maths.. You might find it straightforward to apply for Engineering with Maths., Further Maths. and Physics as your three A Levels, but what happens, if you subsequently have a radical change of mind and wish to apply for, say, Law and you find that Maths. and Further Maths. only count as one A Level?

Note also that some degree programmes, such as Medicine at some unis., require three full A Levels (or equivalent) to be taken in Year 13. If you are completing an A Level in Year 12, make sure that you are fulfilling the requirement for the number of A Levels to be completed in Year 13.

The list of university entrance requirements below is intended to be a rough guide of what subjects are required at A Level by universities from applicants for particular courses.
[see the University Entry Requirements section for more detailed lists]

Individual unis. inevitably differ in what they require. For instance, some unis. require A Level Maths. for Economics or Accounting + Finance; of the rest, some need a higher grade at GCSE than others, which is an issue among Business Management programmes, too. If a particular subject or a grade in a particular subject is stated to be “required” by a uni., don’t consider that programme further, if you won’t have that requirement achieved or in the pipeline by the time you apply. Many applications are rejected each year because applicants haven’t looked closely enough at the minimum requirements.

A more problematical issue is when unis. state that a particular subject or subject grade is “preferred” or “recommended”. To me, that is code for stating that “You’ll be a significant disadvantage, if you don’t have it,” and I would steer clear, if I didn’t have it and were faced with that warning. There is a specific issue here with Further Mathematics, as some schools and colleges don’t have staff qualified to teach it. So a uni. that might want to require it feels forced to recommend it, in order not to appear to discriminate against those applicants who don’t have the opportunity to study Further Maths..

The list is based on prospectus entries of the “most selective” universities, which, for the vast majority of degree courses, are those which were members of The Russell Group and The 1994 Group in 2012, i.e., UK research-intensive universities. These are:

Bath                                       Glasgow                                Newcastle                              Surrey
Birkbeck                                Goldsmiths                            Nottingham                           Sussex
Birmingham                           Imperial                                Oxford                                    University Coll. London
Bristol                                     King’s College London       Queen Mary                           Warwick
Cambridge                             Lancaster                             Queen’s Belfast                      York
Cardiff                                    Leeds                                    Reading
Durham                                  Leicester                               Royal Holloway
East Anglia                            Liverpool                               St Andrews
Edinburgh                              Loughborough                     Sheffield
Essex                                      LSE                                        SOAS
Exeter                                    Manchester                          Southampton

The Russell Group universities have produced a useful guide, which I encourage you to consult: “Informed Choices: A Russell Group guide to making decisions about post 16 education” (2012)   

Please note:

1.            GCSE requirements are given only when more than a C/4 grade is required (e.g., Maths. grade B/6 or 5 for many Business courses).
               Some subjects (e.g., Medicine) require very high GCSE grades overall.

2.            Although some university subjects are available to students who have not taken an A Level in those subjects, the students who arrive
               at university with an A Level are clearly at an advantage over those who do not. You are therefore strongly urged to consider studying
               a subject at A Level, if you are seriously considering studying this subject at university.

3.            Admissions’ tutors of courses which they consider to be “academically rigorous” apply a stronger test of “academic rigour” in
              accepting qualifications from applicants, especially if there is strong competition for places. For instance, LSE states a preference for
              “traditional academic subjects” at A Level, and its “non-preferred subjects” include Art, Business Sts., DT, Drama/Theatre Sts., Music
              Technology and Sports Sts.

In the following table “A Maths”= “A Level Maths”, etc.

University degree programme                   GCE A Level subjects required by universities

Accounting & Finance                                     some need A Maths; most need GCSE Maths B/6 or 5

Agriculture                                                        ranges from A 2 Sciences to GCSE Bio & Chem

American Studies                                             some need 1 from Eng or Hist (or Politics or Lang)

Ancient History                                                 no specific A Level subject requirement;
                                                                            some: A Hist/Anc Hist “helpful” or “preferred”

Animal Science                                                  some need A Bio; some need A 2 Sciences

Anthropology                                                    no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                            some prefer Arts/Science mix

Archaeology                                                       no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                            some prefer Anc Hist/Hist/Science/Lang….

Architecture                                                       no specific A Level subject requirement; a few need A Art
                                                                            some need GCSE Maths B/6 or 5 or A/7
                                                                            evidence of artistic ability can usually be satisfied with portfolio

Biochemistry                                                      all need A Chem; most need either A Bio or A Bio/Phys/Maths;
                                                                            some need GCSE Maths B/6 or 5

Biological Sciences                                           a complex picture – partly depends on which area of Biological
                                                                            Scis. is the focus.
                                                                            all courses would be available to someone with A Bio & Chem;
                                                                            some need GCSE Maths B/6 or 5

Business / Management                                   no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                            many need GCSE Maths B/6 or 5

Chemistry                                                           all need A Chem; some need A another Science/Maths.

Classics                                                               most need A Latin &/or Greek
                                                                            (all offer beginners’ courses in Latin &/or Greek)
                                                                            no specific A Level subject requirement for non-linguistic courses

Computer Science                                            most need A Maths; a few need another Science

Dentistry                                                             A Chem & Bio would satisfy all courses

Drama / Theatre Studies                                  no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                            Eng “preferable” for some

Economics                                                          all have Maths requirement: ranges from A Level to GCSE grade C/4             
Engineering : Integrated                                   all need A Maths; some need A Phys – others “prefer” it

Engineering : Aeronautical                               all need A Maths; most need A Phys

Engineering : Chemical                                    most need A Maths & Chem

Engineering : Civil                                             all need A Maths; some need A Phys – others need A Sci.

Engineering : Electrical/Electronic                   all need A Maths; most need or “prefer” A Phys

Engineering : Mechanical                                 all need A Maths; most need or “prefer” A Phys

English                                                                all need A English

Environmental Science                                     most need A 1 Science; some need A 2 Sciences

European Studies                                              all need A in Lang to be studied or a Lang

Fine Art                                                              no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                            N.B. many students (have to) do 1 year Foundation Course first

Food Science                                                     most need A Chem & another Science

Geography                                                         most need or “prefer” A Geog;
                                                                             some have no specific A Level subject requirement

Geology                                                              most need 2 from Bio/Chem/Phys/Geog/Maths

History                                                                 most need or “prefer” A Hist
                                                                             some have no specific A Level subject requirement

History of Art                                                      no specific A Level subject requirement

Human Sciences                                                some have no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                             others need 1 Science (Biology preferred)
                                                                             N.B. A wide range of courses hide under this title!

Law                                                                       no specific A Level subject requirement

Materials Science                                                most need 2 from A Chem/Phys/Maths;
                                                                              some need A Maths

Mathematics                                                        all need A Maths; some state F Maths “advantageous”
                                                                              (lower grades for F Maths students!)

Medical Sciences                                                all would be satisfied with A Chem & Bio
                                                                             most need A 2 Sciences

Medicine                                                             all would be satisfied with A Chem & Bio
                                                                              some need GCSE Maths & Eng B/6 or 5

Modern Languages                                            all need A in at least 1 Lang

Music                                                                   all need A Music

Natural Sciences                                                most need A in 2 Sciences
                                                                             (otherwise depends on subject combination applied for)

Paramedic Science                                             most need 1 sci.: Bio. gives full choice

Pharmacology                                                     all would be satisfied with A Chem & Bio

Philosophy                                                          no specific A Level subject requirement

Physiotherapy                                                     all need 1 sci.: many require Bio. or PE. Bio. gives most choice.

Physics                                                                 all need A Maths & Phys

Politics                                                                 no specific A Level subject requirement

Psychology                                                          some need A 1 or 2 Science/Maths
                                                                             others: no specific A Level subject requirement
                                                                             most need GCSE Maths B/6 or 5

Sociology                                                             no specific A Level subject requirement

Sport Science                                                      most need 1 Science (Bio or Chem preferred)

Theology / Religious Studies                            no specific A Level subject requirement

Veterinary Medicine                                           most need A Chem & Bio; 3rd Science/Maths gives most choice

Stage 1 : Research: About


In order to make sense of the large choice available within UK universities, it is important firstly to get a sense of the range of what is available. The aim of this section [Steps 2-5] is to give a brief survey.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 2]

On the Government’s website, you’ll find over 800 UK Higher Education Institutions that offer degree programmes
( ). They are divided into “Recognised Bodies” and “Listed Bodies”.

Recognised Bodies can award degrees themselves: 151 universities (including one that still calls itself a University College) and 25 that are not universities. Among the latter are the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose degree-awarding powers date back to 1533.

There is a much larger group of 657 Listed Bodies, whose degree programmes have degrees awarded by one of the Recognised Bodies: many are large Further Education colleges, but there are also many small specialist institutions. There is a huge range: from Anglican dioceses to a prison, from Hewlett Packard to McDonalds Restaurants.

Therefore don’t assume that only universities offer degree programmes.

Most of the programmes in which students are participating can be applied to by the general public. That is the focus of this guide.

Other programmes might be delivered as training for members of particular organisations.

Academic and vocational qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland fit within a National Framework of 8 levels: level 1 is the lowest, level 8 is the highest. (Scotland has a different 12 level framework:  .) Apprenticeships range from Intermediate Apprenticeship (Level 2) to Degree Apprenticeship (Levels 6 and 7). These are some of the academic qualifications in the Framework:

Level 1 :                GCSE grades 3-1 or D-G
Level 2  :               GCSE grades 9-4 or A*-C
Level 3  :               A Level, AS Level, IB Diploma
Level 4  :               Certificate of Higher Education, Higher National Certificate (HNC)
Level 5  :               Diploma of Higher Education, Higher National Diploma (HND), Foundation Degree
Level 6  :               Bachelor’s Degree with Honours: e.g., Bachelor of Arts (BA), Bachelor of Science (BSc)

Level 7  :               Master’s Degree: e.g., Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc)
Level 8 :                Doctorate: e.g., Doctor of Philosophy (PhD or DPhil)

Levels 4 to 6 cover the area of undergraduate study. Most students will emerge after 3 or 4 years of full-time study with a Bachelor’s Degree. The phrase “with Honours” means that the degree is classed (First Class, Upper Second Class, Lower Second Class, or Third Class) rather than merely a “Pass”, the level immediately above a fail. Most students have in the past achieved Second Class degrees, which is why that class has been divided into Upper and Lower (sometimes distinguished as 2:1 and 2:2).

Levels 7 and 8 refer to postgraduate study, which is outside the scope of this guide.

If your grades at Level 3 are too low to get you straight onto a BA or BSc programme, you might get onto a 2 year Foundation Degree programme (see Step 47). If you complete Levels 4 and 5 successfully, you might be eligible to do a further “top-up” year and get a Bachelor’s Degree with Honours. In this case you would graduate at exactly the same time as if you had been on the Bachelor’s programme from the start.

A university’s student body therefore consists of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Some in each category will be part-time students, others full-time. All of the undergraduates and some of the postgraduates will be on taught programmes; other postgraduates will be studying only by research.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 3] 

This section illustrates that those institutions with the title “university” in the UK have evolved in very different ways. A basic knowledge of the main developments is relevant to understanding the range of what they offer.

The UK’s oldest universities are Oxford and Cambridge. The most important aspect of their early foundation to you as a potential university applicant is that in their federal structure the constituent colleges have a lot of independence with regard to any central university authority. Tourists will look in vain for “The University” embodied in a central building. Undergraduate applications go to a college: even “Open” applications are allocated to one by a computer. The college decides whether to admit you; if you enter the university, your tutorials or supervisions will be organized by your college, although you will be expected to attend university-wide lectures and use university libraries and laboratories. Don’t be surprised, if publicity from the relatively weak central university authority, such as the prospectus, plays down the differences between colleges: it is not in the university’s interest to foster division among its colleges, and you are unlikely to find it mentioned, for instance, that some college libraries are far better equipped than others.

Most people know that Oxford and Cambridge were founded in medieval times, but you might be surprised to know that by 1600 Scotland had five universities (St Andrews; Glasgow; two in Aberdeen, which later merged; Edinburgh), more than twice as many as England.

In the 19th century, Durham was founded as another collegiate university. However, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, the colleges are not responsible for organizing the students’ teaching. They are merely their residential and social base.

Two federal universities were also founded in the 19th century: the University of London and the University of Wales. However, these federations have started to crumble in the last twenty years, with constituent colleges pursuing greater autonomy and taking independent degree-awarding powers. Thus University College London (UCL) markets itself as “London’s Global University” and Imperial College celebrated the 100th anniversary of its foundation by going completely independent in 2007.

7 “red brick” non-collegiate civic universities were founded in big industrial cities before the First World War: Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield. 6 other universities, which evolved from university colleges whose students took external University of London degrees, achieved full independence between 1926 and 1957: Reading, Nottingham, Southampton, Hull, Exeter, Leicester. Their campuses were less urban than their “red brick” predecessors.

The 1960s was a period of huge expansion within the UK university sector: the number of universities rose from 22 to 45, with a corresponding increase in student numbers; UCCA, the predecessor of UCAS (Universities’ and Colleges’ Admissions’ Service), was established in 1961 to help universities deal with the busier admissions’ process. Most of the new universities were in two distinct categories: the “plate glass” universities and the former Colleges of Advanced Technology. The “plate glass” universities were East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Lancaster, Sussex, Warwick, York. Three of them (Kent, Lancaster and York) adopted and still retain a Durham-style collegiate system, which was felt to break up the student body into smaller and more congenial social groups. The Colleges of Advanced Technology that now gained university status (Aston, Bath, Bradford, Brunel, City, Loughborough, Salford, Surrey) have continued to focus on their vocational roots and, in particular, have pioneered “sandwich” degree programmes, in which a period of paid work placement “filling” appears between years of “bread” spent at university. New universities based on pre-existing institutions also appeared in Scotland (Dundee, Heriot-Watt, Stirling, Strathclyde) and Northern Ireland (Ulster).

The Open University was established in 1969 by the Labour government as the UK’s first major institution solely committed to distance-learning: in student numbers it is now the largest university, claiming 40% of the UK’s part-time students as its members. On the other hand, the University of Buckingham was founded by the Conservative government in 1983 as the UK’s first private university: with about 1,200 undergraduates, it is a very small university and has pioneered fast-track two-year undergraduate programmes.

The other time of great expansion within the UK university sector was in 1992, when polytechnics (and Central Institutions in Scotland) were allowed to become universities with full degree-awarding powers. By 1994 there were 88 UK universities. Although each of these “new universities” had a distinct individual evolution, in some cases from a series of mergers and separations dating back many decades, there has been here, as with the Colleges of Advanced Technology, a strong vocational strand, with many “sandwich” degree programmes on offer. However, some of these universities have also come to offer a range of subjects as broad as that found in the older civic universities, although none has gone so far as to include Greek and Latin.

Over the last 20 years the criteria for defining a UK university have changed dramatically. The requirement was 4,000 full-time students in 2005 but this was later reduced to 1,000, and in 2012-3 10 institutions specializing in arts, land-based and teacher-training programmes gained their university title.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 4] 

It should be clear from Step 3 that there is a huge range of universities within the UK sector based on:
- date of foundation (c1200 to 2017)
- size: e.g., under 200 undergraduate students (Courtauld Institute of Art, Uni. of London) to over 25,000 (Manchester)
- structure: e.g., collegiate, non-collegiate
- range of subjects offered: very broad, more restricted (e.g., Imperial for science and engineering), single area (e.g., music)
- location: e.g., city centre or greenfield campus

To these we might add other criteria:
- single-campus or multi-campus university
- teaching methods and assessment methods (the extent of exams. and coursework)
- academic and non-academic facilities

Each university has its own atmosphere. The criteria above contribute to this, but so do the people who work in it: academic and non-academic staff and students. It is essential to visit any university that you are seriously thinking of entering. You might not have the time or money to visit, before you apply, all 5 universities that you put on your UCAS form. But you should certainly visit before you commit yourself to studying at one of them. I remember the student who started at a uni. and lasted three weeks, because he hadn’t visited. He probably thought it was a prestigious institution to have on his c.v., but the location was not right for him and he left. I have known others who have loved the same place.

In visiting UK universities I have always gone to each of them with an idea of what it would be like. Sometimes my preconception was close to what I found; at other times what I saw was significantly different. Moreover, campuses can change dramatically in a few years. Bath and Plymouth are just two universities whose campuses have been transformed since I first visited.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 5] 

In view of the differences outlined in Step 4, is applying the title “university” to all these institutions misleading? Some have argued that it is.

There are, however, some similarities across these institutions. Oxford and Cambridge, although they differ from other universities in some important aspects, are in many respects similar to each other. However, each likes to stress its individuality by using different terminology (doubtless for good historical reasons!): an Oxford tutorial is a Cambridge supervision; an Oxford quad(rangle) is a Cambridge court.

All UK universities are Higher Education institutions. Now that you are in the Sixth Form, you have already entered Further Education, and those of you who will, for instance, then embark on a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design will remain in Further Education during that year. Higher Education is the next level up (Level 4 and beyond in the qualification framework outlined in Step 2) – the one with the higher fees.

All universities offer degree programmes of different kinds: Bachelor (Level 6), Master (Level 7) and Doctor (Level 8). They have academic staff who are involved in teaching and research, although some will only do teaching or research. This is a significant contrast with schools or colleges, where the focus is purely on teaching.

The research focus affects the structure and style of teaching. Universities devote less of the year to teaching than schools and colleges, to allow more time for research. Oxford and Cambridge are the extreme case, as they pack their teaching into 3 terms of 8 weeks each; so their teaching terms only account for 24 weeks in each 52 week year. No university has terms to match school terms in length, although some students on placement, such as those studying Nursing, might have shorter vacations than when they were at school.

Moreover, just as in the Sixth Form you have less of the school day allocated to lesson time and more to private study than previously, so this process continues when you get to university.

There are some university programmes that are very structured. At Harper Adams University, for instance, a small institution that specializes in land-based programmes, I came across a student who worked a 9am to 5pm 5 day week, with Monday and Friday slightly shorter and Wednesday afternoon off, which is supposed to be an agreed “free afternoon” across universities, to allow for inter-university sport. For her, classes and lectures were small (maximum 40 students in the latter), as were lab. sessions (maximum 10 students). This level of structure doesn’t suit everyone, but for those it does I thought it represented wonderful “value added”. Contrast this with a student in a big urban university Business department, who found himself in lectures of up to 1,000 students and who left after a year, by which time none of the tutors knew him personally.

The last case is the worst I have come across, but it is worth bearing in mind that, if you are attracted by the prospect of going to a big name university, those universities with the biggest names have got these because of their reputation for research rather than for teaching, and they will largely expect students to teach themselves using research methods. This is an important point. In some departments at some research-intensive universities lectures and seminars/classes/tutorials are compulsory and scientists will be required to attend lab. sessions. However, students studying arts subjects might have few fixed commitments in their week. This is nothing new: when I was studying Classics at Oxford in the 1970s, I didn’t have to attend lectures (although I did go to a few each week) and my only compulsory commitments were one or two tutorials per week, but these tutorials were individual or with just one other student. For me, it was wonderful to have the freedom to organize as I wished the research for my essays and my reading of the masses of texts on the syllabus; and in a tutorial to defend my views in an essay read to a distinguished academic. 

In this era of higher fees there is often an assumption that more contact time is better value for money. That is too simplistic: different structures suit different students. However, the quality of the contact time is surely where the focus should be. This is why I think that perhaps the single most important question a prospective applicant should ask is “What is the size and frequency of those sessions (seminars/classes/tutorials) where students discuss topics with an academic member of staff?” Over the last 25 years I have read thousands of comments from my former students reporting back about their uni. experiences. The vast majority of comments are positive, but recent feedback indicates that the range in the size of these sessions can be very great across different departments in the same university: from 5 to 35 students. Same university, same year, same fees; but a wholly different experience. The size of lectures where there is no discussion is less important: a lecture to 10 students is likely to be the same as a lecture to 200.

In my opinion many universities do not give adequate information about the transition from school to university learning and teaching. Undergraduate prospectuses contain a lot of relevant information about the academic and non-academic aspects of the university and its location. There is a recognition in some that university study at a research-intensive university will be very different from what has been experienced at school, but most prospectuses do not give any meaningful detail about teaching and learning methods. There might be a cursory mention of lectures, seminars, tutorials and laboratory work, but very few give a clear indication about what these actually involve. As far as I am aware, only St Andrews in the last few years has given clear details about the likely size of teaching group for each year of the degree programme for each subject. Now they have reduced the size of the prospectus, these details are on their website. I have congratulated them on giving this information, and I would like to see other universities follow this lead.

Moreover, I think that each university should put on its website brief film clips of what a class, seminar, tutorial or lecture might look like. How, for instance, are prospective Medicine students to know whether Problem Based Learning is likely to be right for them, if they have never experienced it before or have never seen a PBL session? It is surely in everyone’s interests for applicants to base their decisions on the best possible information.

A good source of information on what to expect in the teaching/learning culture of a university is designed for international students. I think that UK students would also benefit from looking at the interactive “Prepare for Success” website: .

A further issue is the Personal Tutor (who might also be called by other names, such as Personal/Academic Adviser). Many universities claim that students will have one, but very few give clear information about the Personal Tutor’s role, whether it is up to the Personal Tutor or the student to arrange meetings, or how often these meetings are expected to occur. In short, the Personal Tutor is a protean creature, and a student used to regular contact with a Personal Tutor (or Personal Trainer!) at school might find that a university Personal Tutor has metamorphosed into an unrecognisable form, distant and rarely seen.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 6] 

Before you consider what might be the right subject(s) to study and the right university setting for your personal needs - or whether university is the right place to be considering -  it is important that you approach the research with the right mindset. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have picked up ideas of what university study and university living is like, and we need to test these preconceptions against the best current evidence. This applies as much to those of us who are experienced advisers as it does to those who are considering applying for the first time. There is, in my opinion, more reliable evidence, which I encourage you to use, and less reliable evidence, which I encourage you to avoid. This is an area in which a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but out of date knowledge can be catastrophic. Beware of well-intentioned people who seem to speak authoritatively about what is good for you, if their knowledge on the subject is hopelessly out of date.

Perhaps my most important advice in this website is:
- keep an open mind;
- don’t either assume that a particular choice is right for you or dismiss possibilities out of hand, before you have seen the best current evidence.

The importance of this might become clearer from the following examples of what some Sixth Form students have said to me and my responses.

“I can’t go to a Russell Group university because I won’t get the grades they need.”
The Russell Group is sometimes portrayed as a distinguishable élite of 24 “top UK universities”, usually by people who might find it difficult to name which universities are and are not members. Many people wrongly assume, for instance, that St Andrews is a member and that Durham has long been one. I know of no criterion that distinguishes the current members from the rest of the sector and I think it safer to regard The Russell Group as a kind of trade union set up by 17 research-intensive universities in 1994 to safeguard its members’ interests, after polytechnics gained university status in 1992.

If we were to substitute the term “the universities with the highest entry requirements”, it is important to note that efforts are increasingly being made by these universities to take into account an applicant’s social and educational background.

“Contextual Offers” (i.e., lower grade offers than normal) are now being made to applicants who might fall into one or more of the following categories:
- would be the first in their family to attend university;
- have received free school meals;
- have been in care;
- live in a neighbourhood with a low Higher Education participation rate;
- attend a school with lower than average public examination results;
- have been involved in widening access programmes.

Unfortunately, the way in which individual universities handle this data is not always clearly set out on websites for the benefit of potential applicants. If you think that you might qualify for a Contextual Offer, it is best to discuss your individual situation with Outreach or Schools Liaison departments in those unis. in which you are interested, when you are drawing up a short-list. DO NOT ASSUME FROM THE START THAT THE MOST SELECTIVE UNIVERSITIES ARE BEYOND YOU. You will also find useful advice on the Realising Opportunities website set up by 15 research-intensive unis., in order to widen uni. participation: .

“I don’t want to go to a famous university, because there won’t be many people from my sort of background.”
All unis. contain a broad cross-section of people. The composition of the undergraduate student body varies from one institution to another, whether that be in terms of socio-economic or educational background, ethnicity, nationality, age or gender. Some unis. have a greater proportion of local students; others recruit many students from overseas. I think that every institution is almost certain to contain fellow students with whom any given student will feel a rapport. Some unis. even try to ensure, for instance, through the allocation of accommodation, that people from a similar background will meet. Before dismissing a type of uni. on these grounds, test out your preconception by visiting and meeting students. Again, Outreach or Schools Liaison departments will almost certainly be happy to allay your fears by putting you in touch with students from a similar background to yours.

“If I go to a famous uni., I’ll stand a better chance of getting a job.”
This is an unwarranted assumption. I encourage you to look for a university setting in which you will flourish: flourish academically, flourish socially and flourish through taking advantage of the opportunities a particular uni. has to offer, whether they be related to the degree programme or come from student clubs and other activities. Those who think that all they need from their uni. is a big brand-name on their c.v. are ignoring other important opportunities for personal development that being part of a uni. offers, not least the opportunity to meet a wider range of people than before, who might challenge your opinions and preconceptions and thereby contribute to your personal development. I suggest that a job application from a flourishing student will stand out from those who are going through the motions and getting a rubber stamp, no matter how big that stamp is. Moreover, some prominent companies are now conducting blind selection, in which recruitment department staff aren’t told the name of the uni. attended by job applicants.

“I have to go to Oxbridge, because that’s where my parents/brother/sister went.”
This is tantamount to saying “I have no individuality” and is diametrically opposed to what Oxbridge (but not just Oxbridge!) is looking for in its applicants: people with the ability to think for themselves. It is the combination of academic potential and academic enthusiasm that secures a place at these unis., which are devoting greater efforts to widening the pool of applicants and entrants. A sense of entitlement will not get you far!

“I want to study Medicine, because I want to help people.”
Virtually every possible job can be seen as helping other people. An interest in scientific problem-solving applied to helping people is likely to be a more compelling basis for considering Medicine. I would even go so far as to insist on a “passionate interest”, as passion will be needed to carry a student through the long and demanding period of training both before qualification and as a junior doctor – and beyond. In my experience, Medicine applicants often do more research than others but usually underestimate the rigours of training.

“I want to study Engineering, because my parents say it’s a degree respected by employers.”
Some employers outside the immediate context of engineering might respect Engineering as a numerate and demanding discipline, whose component elements are externally validated by a professional engineering institute. I am not convinced that it is more demanding than many other subject areas, but it is important that anyone undertaking a degree programme in whatever subject has a genuine enthusiasm for that subject. If a subject is insufficiently interesting to a particular student, that student is likely to put in less effort and therefore find the degree programme so much harder. It isn’t parents or other advisers who have to study the degree programme, so the choice of which programme to be studied should not be theirs.

“University X is good for subject Y.”
There is no absolute “good” or “bad” in universities or departments. What is good for one individual will be bad for another. The aim of this website is to support you in your search for what is good for you. If you do enough research, you will get a gut feeling of what that is – but only if you keep an open mind!

“I can’t go to uni. so far from home, because the cost of travel would be too high.”
In England, for example, as a general rule, the further north you go, the cheaper is off-campus accommodation. So, if your home base is in the south of England, the cost of travelling to a uni. in the north might soon be offset by cheaper accommodation costs. You should factor in the cost of travel, but only in the context of all other likely costs and other factors leading you to consider particular unis..

“I can’t study in London, because it’s too expensive.”
London is a more expensive city to live in than some others, but it also probably has more better paid part-time jobs than other cities. Some areas of London are much cheaper to live in than others and there is a wide-ranging transport system, with 30% student reductions for Oyster cards.

Universities in London devote a lot of effort to trying to persuade prospective applicants that the city is not as expensive as they might fear. Look at their evidence before reaching a decision.

“I’m worried that, if I go to university, I’ll lose my friends.”
There might be different sources for this worry.

If you were to go to what seems a distant uni., you might worry that you would lose touch with your friends back home. However, you should remember that uni. holidays are far longer than school holidays, so you might not be absent from home for as long as you might fear. If a uni. is reasonably close to home, some people commute there daily or weekly from home.

Or you might worry that, amidst uni. study, extra-curricular activities and part-time job, you would have little time to see friends. That is indeed a test of friendship, but some of your friends might be in a similar position to you.

A further worry might be that, if none of your friends is thinking of uni., you might become different in their eyes and feel excluded from their perhaps more locally focused interests. I suggest that you get in touch with an Outreach or School Liaison department of a university and ask to talk this through with a current student who might have felt in a similar position.

“I’m worried that, if I go to university, I won’t know anyone and I won’t fit in.”
If you would be the first member of your immediate family to go to uni., you might be encouraged by the fact that half of the students now entering uni. are in that position.

I think most of us have had this worry about joining any new community. I remember feeling quite lonely during my first few hours at uni., but this disappeared the next day, when I met neighbours and others playing the same sport. These days there are extensive induction programmes and “Freshers’ Weeks” for new students. Draw encouragement from the fact that most new students will have had this same anxiety, but I am confident that the vast majority of current students will assure you that it very quickly disappears after arrival.

“I’m worried that I won’t cope at uni..”
For the many students who move away from home to study, this is their first experience of independent living (managing a budget, cooking for themselves, doing their washing), quite apart from studying in a less structured system, with more emphasis on private study, than what they were used to at school or college. The self-discipline required is potentially challenging but also potentially liberating. It is probable that most students have worried about this, but facing up to the challenges has been a significant part of their further personal development and equipped them to take on responsibility in the world of work.

All universities these days offer a range of support for students. This includes: disability support for those with particular physical or academic needs; counselling and medical services; spiritual support; childcare; individual academic support for those who need it, such as maths. support for those studying numerate disciplines. There are also people employed by the university and the Students’ Union (the body representing the students) who are responsible for offering advice on accommodation, finance and other welfare needs. Many unis. have a mentoring system through which established students support new students. There are also confidential helpline services whose contact details are prominently displayed in unis.. There is a reminder to check out what is on offer at individual unis. in Step 22.

“I have to go to university near my home, as I need to continue my part-time job.”
Everyone has to balance an individual set of priorities. You might face a dilemma: which is more important, getting on the degree programme you really want but giving up your part-time job at home or keeping your secure and well-paid part-time job at home but studying on a less attractive degree programme? At this stage I simply urge you to keep an open mind, do the research and come back to this kind of dilemma later. Your research should also include the possible part-time employment opportunities at or near unis. that you are considering and whether you might negotiate to continue your part-time job at home during the vacations.

“I want to go to Uni. X, because I know people who’ve been there that say the social scene is great.”
Beware of “peer group drift”! Don’t simply go along with what your friends recommend. Keep an open mind, but focus on your individual needs.

There are students who enter a uni. because they think it will have the best social scene and who focus on that in their first year, “because you only need to get 40% in assessments, in order to get into the next year.” This is not an attitude that I recommend! Given the amount of time and money you might devote to being at uni., I suggest that getting on the right degree programme should be a higher priority. Moreover, the attitude of merely “getting through” the first year ignores the fact that the first year is the basis on which later study is established, so it is in a student’s interests for that basis to be as solid as possible.                                                                        

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 7] 

Way back in the last millennium students had to apply separately to each university: they had to fill in different paper forms and even sit different exams.. Since the 1960s applicants have applied using one basic form (now online) from UCAS (The Universities’ and Colleges’ Admissions’ Service). Imagine UCAS as the messenger between applicant and universities: the applicant fills in the form, then the school or college adds a reference and sends it all to UCAS; UCAS sends on the form to the applicant’s chosen universities; the universities in turn send their decisions back to the applicant through UCAS. The universities may also contact their applicants directly, but UCAS is essentially the go-between.

Schools and colleges have evolved different systems for constructing their UCAS references. In my opinion, best practice in reference writing involves requiring academic contributions from all Year 12 and 13 subject teachers for the applicant, as well as a pastoral contribution from a tutor. These contributions should then be compiled by one person who knows the applicant well (whether a tutor, subject teacher or Head of Sixth Form), focusing on supporting the individual’s application. Support involves honesty, not perjury, but the aim should be to highlight positive evidence, wherever possible. It is therefore not exactly the same as a school report to parents or guardians.

The UCAS reference is essentially an academic reference.

By the end of Year 12, your subject teachers and tutor will have the information on which to base the bulk of your UCAS reference. In the Autumn Term of Year 13 they will be able to add further comments about external or internal school exam. results and your progress during that term and to add predicted grades.

Bear in mind that:

- applicants facing an early deadline (Oxbridge, Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary) will have only about a month to provide extra evidence in the Autumn Term of Year 13;

- applicants for other competitive subjects and universities are advised to apply equally early, as most of these make their first offers from the start of October. Don’t be misled by the 15 January closing date given by UCAS, as very few universities wait to receive all applications (“the gathered field” is the technical term) before making their first offers. Edinburgh and St Andrews tend to be the ones that wait, but even they give some earlier offers.

I think that it is important for a potential university applicant to know from the start of Year 12 the criteria against which she or he will be judged by teachers and tutor in a year’s time.

I therefore suggest that during the whole of your Year 12 you collect evidence for your teachers to use, so that they might write as supportive a reference as possible in Year 13. Universities (and other institutions or employers applied to by those not considering university) are more convinced by evidence than by unsupported generalisations.

I have printed below (in italics) the “Advice for Referees” section from a recent “UCAS Adviser Guide”. I have suggested (in bold) what sort of evidence you might give under each heading. I advise you to build up a list of evidence under these headings. The headings also indicate clearly the skills that you should try to develop in your Sixth Form studies, irrespective of whether you end up applying to uni..

Give an assessment of the suitability of the student for the HE courses that they have applied to and, where possible, include the following points:

1. existing achievement, with particular reference to subjects relating to the courses for which they are applying

What has been the level of your oral and written understanding?

What have been your grades in the different types of assignments given, including Trial Exams. and any external and end of year internal exams. taken?

2.  motivation and commitment towards the chosen course(s)

To some extent this depends on the course applied for, but all subject teachers might wish to consider the evidence for “university level commitment”: e.g.,

  • What is the evidence of your enthusiasm for academic work?

  • How punctual are you in arriving for lessons and in delivering assignments?

  • How carefully and thoroughly are assignments prepared?

  • How far have you stretched yourself in class and in private study?

  • Do you enjoy thinking for yourself?

Evidence of research into possible university courses is relevant here.

3. any relevant skills achievement, whether certificated or not

Again this depends on the subject, but this might include developing skills in research, writing essays, debating or conducting practical work.

It might also include Maths. Olympiad or other competition results (see Step 15) .

For some courses, extra-curricular achievement - e.g., coaching awards - might be relevant.

4. potential (other than predicted grades)

This is something to discuss regularly with your teachers, as they can see the development of your work in the context of their knowledge of the whole syllabus/specification and their experience of other students.

Potential might be assessed in terms of a mixture of ability, perseverance and enthusiasm.

5. powers of analysis and independent thought

How well do you analyse orally in class and in your written assignments?

How far do you support all your assertions with relevant evidence?

Are you able to distinguish what is central from what is peripheral?

How good are your note-taking skills?

How easily do you see what a question is asking you to do?

Do you see the shortest route to solving problems?

Are you aware of when you need to say “I don’t know” rather than assume that you do know?

Do you think for yourself or just repeat the views of others?
How effectively do you pursue and produce independent research projects?

Are you prepared to test your ideas in class discussion or written work?

6. relevant curriculum enrichment and other activities


How often have you been involved in society meetings?

Have you participated in the discussion after a paper has been given by someone else?

Have you presented a seminar paper to a class or society?

Have you participated in any school or external competitions? (see Step 15)  

Have you been on any visits – e.g., theatre or laboratory trips - or courses, whether organised by the school or independently?

7. relevant work experience, such as work placements, voluntary work and so on

This is particularly important, if you are applying for courses relating to a particular career area: e.g., Law, Business, Real Estate. For Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and other health and social care subjects regard it as compulsory. Veterinary Medicine applicants must declare, at the time of application, what they have done, and some unis. specify a minimum time (see Step 9 and Step 16).

8. proposed career plan

This might not yet be relevant for many of you, but it will be for some.

9. where relevant, their suitability for training for a particular profession

How aware are you of what the profession and its training involves?
Are there minimum physical requirements (for, e.g., Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine)?

Do you have the stamina?

Do you work well as part of a group?

Do you have relevant professional standards, such as integrity? (see Step 9)

10. any factors, such as personal circumstances, that may have affected, or might affect their performance

11. information about any special needs and other requirements. Do not give information about a student’s health or disability without their agreement.

12. any information you might want to add about performance in individual units of qualifications, for example, GCE AS and A levels, that the student has not already given in the personal statement


Referees will want to refer to evidence of good external or internal school exam. results in Year 12. This will add weight to the predicted grade given.

When an applicant has under-performed (and there are no extenuating circumstances), the referee will probably have to remain silent about the disappointing results. Admissions’ tutors are able to interpret that silence!

So, if you expect an A or a B at A Level, you would be well advised to do all you can to achieve that at AS or in end of year school exams. in Year 12.

13. for UK students, how the school or college is involved in widening participation or Gifted and Talented initiatives, Partnerships for Progression and so on. If students have mentioned any of these activities in their personal statement, comments on their involvement may also be helpful.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 8] 

What does it feel like to be at university? It is important to get some idea about this, as you decide “Is university the right environment for me?” or “What kind of university best suits me?” The only way to answer these questions is by visiting, and the Autumn and Spring Half Term breaks are a particularly good time to do this fieldwork.

Of course, as early as October in Year 12 you probably have little or no idea about which universities you might end up applying to. Those who think that they already know exactly which universities and which subjects they will put on their form are probably the ones who run the risk of making wrong decisions based on uninformed prejudice and a blinkered outlook. Try to keep an open mind!

In terms of preferred habitat, there are among potential university applicants three broad types of creature:
- those who long for an urban setting (“Give me the concrete jungle. I need the buzz from being at the heart of the action.”);
- those who find an urban setting too claustrophobic (“I need trees. I need space. I need to breathe.”);
- and those who, having looked at the first two habitats, would be happy in either.

I therefore recommend that in the Autumn Half Term break you visit a couple of universities of contrasting types: one urban, the other out-of-town campus. If you’ve never set foot in a university before, you have an image of “university” that is almost certainly very different from the reality. If you visit one university, you are much better informed, but your view is limited: you are left wondering how far other universities might be similar or different. If you visit two different types of university setting, you are already in a position to compare and contrast them, and to decide, in terms of preferred habitat, which kind of creature you are.

How do you choose which universities to visit? If you have a relative or friend who is a student, I strongly suggest visiting them, as you already have a guide who is an insider. Even if they’ve only just started, they will have vital information and, even if they’re not studying what might be likely subjects for you, they might introduce you to friends who are. Otherwise, opt for universities that are relatively easy to reach from your home. If your school or college keeps records of where former students have gone and you can get in touch, take advantage of these contacts: even if you don’t know these students, they will probably be happy to give you a tour and share their insights in return for catching up on the school or college gossip.

Why visit so early? Surely it’s better to wait until later, when there are Open Days and when you’ve got a better idea about likely subjects? The advantage of visiting now is that you have the opportunity to experience something of the atmosphere of a university when students are in residence. Autumn and Spring Half Term breaks are the best time, because in the equivalent break in the Summer Term universities are in exam. mode, the undergraduate teaching has largely, if not entirely finished, and the atmosphere is very different from that during the rest of the year.

Remember that universities have shorter terms than schools; and that Oxford and Cambridge even limit their teaching to less than half of the year, so that the academic staff can spend more time on research. So, if you visit during your longer holidays, you will almost always find a university out of term: you can see buildings and a few graduate students on the campus, but you can’t sample anything of the undergraduate atmosphere.

Remember that Open Days for prospective students are also usually held out of term. You will meet a lot of Sixth Formers on Open Days, but Open Days in any institution hardly represent “business as normal”.

But, if you don’t know any students, how can you visit? Can you just walk around a university? In virtually all cases the answer is “yes”. Many parts of virtually all universities are open access. There are some exceptions, for security reasons, in central London. However, I urge you to look on the website for the School Liaison Department and contact them before you visit: they are often happy to give you a chat and a tour, perhaps with a student who has a part-time job as Student Ambassador, which all universities now have. If that’s not possible, some universities offer guided tours of the campus (with Student Ambassador guides) on specific days of the week. Take advantage of the opportunity to quiz your guides on things not included in their script: e.g., frequency of assessed work; ease of finding accommodation off campus in Year 2 and beyond. Other universities offer self-guided tours, though access will be limited: e.g., you won’t be allowed to wander unaccompanied into the Learning Resource Centre (as the Library is now likely to be called). All will have campus plans on their websites.

If you have the chance to chat with current students, I suggest asking:
- What are the best things about your degree programme?
- What are the worst? (Or how is it different from what you expected?)
- What is the size and frequency of tutorials/classes/seminars?
- What is the weekly contact time?
- Who can you contact, if you have a problem understanding a topic?
- What are the best/worst features about the non-academic side of uni. life?
- How is the accommodation?
- What extra-curricular activities are you involved in?

Questions like these easily start an interesting discussion. If you are speaking to a couple of friends together, they sometimes learn new things about each other!

Here are just a few out of the many comments I’ve heard that have helped me to gain an insight into the atmosphere of a university and its hinterland:
“There are lots of pubs and small clubs. Come to Aber - it’s awesome!” (Aberystwyth)
“Aston is friendly. There is very little trouble in the campus area or in the city centre.”  (Aston)
“More local students like me are looking at this uni.. I thought it was a snobby place until I did a pre-application residential.” (Birmingham)
“I’m not from this area. The city is amazing. I’m staying.” (Bristol)
“The quiet campus encourages work, but the place is not dull.” (Buckingham)
“I am from Cambridge, which is rougher than Norwich. Norwich has cheap nightlife.” (East Anglia)
“I pay less rent in London than my best friend in Bristol.” (Goldsmiths)
“The college system is a plus. The rivalry is friendly.” (Lancaster)
“I’m from London. I feel safer walking around Liverpool at night than I do in my part of London, because people look out for you more here. They’re more likely to intervene, if they see you’re having a problem.” (Liverpool)
“Eating places don’t get over-crowded, the food is good and the price is OK.” (Oxford Brookes)
“I found it quite hard at the beginning to fit in, due to the huge difference from previous experience, but now I love it and am better for it. The people here that I have had the privilege to meet are wonderful and very accepting.” (Salford)
“There’s a campus atmosphere in SOAS.” (School of Oriental and African Studies)
“Trinity Hall accommodation mixes people up from different backgrounds. English students are referred to as ‘team England’.” (Trinity College, Dublin)

Fieldwork is both fun and productive! There is no better source of information than current students, although we should always remember: that theirs is an individual view that others on their programme and in their university might not share; that, unless they have changed programme or university, they have nothing to compare it with; and that we do not have an academic or pastoral context for their comments
(see Step 29 on the benefits of school/college feedback from surveys of former students now at uni.).

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 9]  

There are some degree subjects that require specific work experience (direct involvement, by doing things) or work shadowing (indirect involvement, by observing others) before you apply and others where it is strongly recommended.

If you are thinking of applying for degree programmes that lead to a teaching qualification (BEd or BA/BSc with Qualified Teacher Status), you might be required to have spent at least 10 days’ observation in an educational institution, before you start at university.

However, those of you considering Medicine, Dentistry, Veterinary Medicine or other health and social care subjects need to test your interest earlier than others by doing relevant community work or observation of a relevant medical practice over an extended period. You need to be aware that you will be expected by the relevant university departments for these subjects to have undertaken voluntary or paid work in which you could demonstrate your commitment to the core values of the NHS:
- working together for patients;
- respect and dignity;
- commitment to quality of care;
- compassion;
- improving lives;
- everyone counts.

Your Personal Statement and performance at interview might be assessed against these or the “6 Cs” criteria set out in a 2012 by leaders of the Nursing profession:
- care
- compassion
- competence
- communication
- courage (embracing moral strength and adaptability to change)
- commitment.

As your assessors will look for evidence of engagement in relevant situations with the public over an extended period of time, you should undertake relevant work sooner rather than later.

For much of Year 12 it doesn’t matter, if you haven’t decided which specific area you might apply for. Some of you might not even be sure whether you want to treat animals or humans. Veterinary Medicine programmes have specific work experience requirements related to different kinds of animals, which need to be completed before application. However, the principles and behaviours enshrined in the NHS Core Values or the 6 Cs apply to all aspects of health and social care work.

A very good place to start for advice on work experience is St George’s, University of London’s website called “A Taste of Medicine”: . I can’t praise this highly enough: its combination of video clips and interactive features make it one of the best resources for potential uni. applicants that I have come across. There are 4 sections:
(1) Getting Started (Why study for a career in health? What is it like? Where do I start?);
(2) Experiencing it (Getting good experience; Making the most of it – before/during/after; Giving a great interview);
(3) Scrubbing up (improving skills by analyzing videos of dramatized situations);
(4) Virtually there (contains information on different study settings – e.g., lectures, seminars, peer learning – and situations where different study techniques – e.g., note taking – can be practised).

I would recommend all potential uni. students to look at sections (2) to (4) of this excellent site. All potential health and social care applicants should also look at section (1) at an early stage, as it highlights the wide variety of roles available in health-related work and includes an interesting interactive section where you can match your attributes with those required for particular roles in health care. As for work experience, section (2) sets out in detail how to find relevant placements and how to make the most of them. My only small note of caution is that, as the site was created in 2011, some of the financial information is a little out of date.

The NHS has produced a website on careers in the NHS called “Step into the NHS”, which includes advice on how to find work experience/shadowing:

It is worth mentioning here that competition for university places in Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine subjects is particularly tough, and that very good GCSE results (i.e., most at A and A*) will be held by most of those applicants who achieve an offer, even if universities state minimum GCSE qualifications that are lower than this. There might be some leeway for those applicants from schools whose average GCSE score is significantly below the national average, and these students should also investigate 6 year degree programmes with a foundation year that offer greater academic and pastoral support: they might be called, e.g., “Medicine with a Foundation/Preliminary Year” or “Extended Medical Degree Programme”. Equivalent Veterinary Medicine programmes have the title “Gateway Year”.

Health and Social Care subjects

There are particular issues related to Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Medicine, so I shall treat each of these separately below.

In addition to the “A Taste of Medicine” website highlighted above, you might also find useful advice by consulting the professional body related to each discipline. The Health and Care Professions’ Council is the body that regulates 16 health and care professions, and their website will give you links to the websites for specific disciplines:

In order to assess the quality of information about work experience for prospective applicants on uni. websites, I looked at the programme details given for 2 specific disciplines: Physiotherapy (40 unis.) and Paramedic Practice/Science (32 unis.).

Applicants need to know the criteria against which admissions’ staff at unis. will select them. I find it remarkable that at over a quarter of the unis. offering Physiotherapy programmes I couldn’t see any mention of work experience on their website. Moreover, a vague statement like “Tell us about your relevant experiences, including any clinical visits” is not helpful, unless the applicant is told what might be relevant. A further quarter of these unis. suggest that work experience is “preferable” rather than essential, but this doesn’t help the potential applicant, who might be left wondering “Will my application still be considered, if I can’t show any work experience?” My recent experience suggests that it probably will not, and I think that it is unfair on the applicants not to state this explicitly.

6 unis. in their statements recognise that finding a placement in a physiotherapy practice can be difficult, as does the professional body, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, on its website, but the CSP offers useful advice to the potential applicant: . Only about half the unis. offering Physiotherapy programmes state that work experience in a physiotherapy or other health and social care setting is necessary. A couple even require one or two weeks to be spent in a physiotherapy practice, which is tough on those for whom these placements are difficult to secure, but I think that all potential Physiotherapy applicants should assume that, as the St George’s website states, “There's no such thing as too much experience. It does not have to be full time but regular experience over a period of months is preferable to a couple of weeks here and there, as it demonstrates commitment.”

There is, however, helpful advice offered to the applicant by some Physiotherapy departments, in addition to that mentioned above. Canterbury Christ Church, Leeds Beckett, Liverpool and Oxford Brookes give useful ideas on where relevant experience might be found. I think that Bournemouth and Brunel offer especially helpful advice, with recognition of the difficulty in finding placements. There is good advice on how to reflect on these experiences in a UCAS Personal Statement from Hertfordshire and Worcester. Plymouth offers good general advice across a variety of topics, including work experience, for applicants to programmes in its School of Health Professions.

Potential applicants for Paramedic programmes are likely to find clear guidance even harder to locate. Of the 32 website entries from individual unis., I couldn’t find information about work experience on 15 of them. A further 7 refer to “relevant” experience without indicating what that might be. 12 unis. indicate that some experience is necessary, a few of which need a reference from those who have given an applicant paid or voluntary work in a care setting. Worcester clearly states that 6 months’ full-time or 12 months’ part-time work in an adult care setting is needed; while Greenwich requires 20 days in health and social care work. In addition to the website information mentioned above from St George’s, it is good to see that there are one or two other unis. that offer helpful comments on what might be relevant, whether that is general (Wolverhampton: “anything that involved attending or working with people or patients in need of caring services”) or more specific (Bournemouth specifies 6 months’ experience required from a list of possible placements and invites potential applicants to contact them for further clarification).

There are two other issues for potential Paramedic applicants to consider, both of which involve transport.

Firstly, the professional body, the College of Paramedics, makes it clear that, although in theory you can become a Paramedic without being able to drive, in practice it is very difficult to succeed in this career without being licensed to drive to C1 level (vehicles up to 7.5 tonnes). Some unis. state that they require applicants to have a B level (car) licence when they apply and to have applied for a C1 provisional licence before they enter uni. (a couple require C1 to be passed during the degree programme); some require that there be no penalty points. However, 13 unis. don’t mention the ability to drive at all. Birmingham City offers the best advice: regard a C1 driving licence as essential for pursuing a career in this profession.

Secondly, Plymouth and Worcester highlight how widely dispersed their placements can be and suggest that, in effect, it will be necessary to have your own car. I am left wondering how far this must apply to other unis.’ placements. I advise potential applicants for all health and social care programmes to ask unis. about how distant the placements are and how they are expected to get transport to them. Moreover, East Anglia usefully raises another issue: as students are expected to work day and night shifts, for health and safety reasons, where the travel time to the placement area exceeds 45 minutes according to Google maps, the student must make alternative arrangements for local accommodation. I advise applicants to consider whether there might be similar issues elsewhere about local accommodation needed for students on placement and how this might affect any tenancy agreements they have elsewhere.

If I were a potential applicant for health and social care programmes, I would be most strongly attracted to those unis. that offer the best information on their websites.


For Medics, work experience does not necessarily have to be in hospitals or GPs’ surgeries, which can be difficult to achieve because of issues of Health and Safety and patient confidentiality.  However, experience with people is very important indeed, and could include working with the elderly, the disabled or children. An extended period of community service is recommended, which could be what you are doing as part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. Some of you might have a relevant part-time job in a café or a shop. On several occasions I have heard Medicine admissions’ staff state that working on a supermarket checkout is more useful work experience than shadowing a hospital consultant, as someone working at a checkout meets a broad spectrum of people, who, like patients, are not necessarily feeling relaxed; and the checkout assistant has to develop strategies to deal with the different individuals in a courteous and helpful way. Of course, it is valuable to “shadow” or talk with consultants and GPs, too, if you have the chance, but don’t dismiss your community service or part-time job as low status or irrelevant. It is probably highly relevant in demonstrating your commitment to developing communication skills.

The Student Room website has useful advice:

The Medical Schools’ Council has produced “Work experience guidelines for applicants to medicine” (2014) ( ), which contains very useful advice, including:
- Most UK medical schools will look at work experience within the last year or two as part of the selection process.
- It is a way of checking that applicants understand the realities of working in a caring profession (including the physical and emotional demands) and that they have developed relevant qualities, such as good communication skills and the ability to interact with a wide variety of people.
- It is what applicants learn about themselves, about other people and about how effective care is delivered and received that is important, not what they did.
- It is strongly recommended to work with those caring for people who are ill, disabled or disadvantaged: e.g., care homes for the elderly, hospices, nurseries and special schools.
- Direct observation of healthcare is also useful.
- Longer experience of working with people who are ill, disabled or disadvantaged is likely to be more valuable than repeated periods of direct observation of health care (‘work shadowing’).
- Paid or voluntary work where there is extensive interaction with people and team working can be valuable: e.g., catering or customer service; religious communities; Scouts or Guides.
- An understanding of the role and values of doctors can be gained both by talking to doctors and by reading relevant websites, as well as by direct observation of healthcare.
- Healthcare experience gained in a hospital or in the community is equally valuable.
- In order to understand what the training involves, it is useful to talk to current medical students and junior doctors, as well as attending open days or courses.

Please also check on individual medical schools’ websites for up-to-date information.


In this area Dentistry is unlike Medicine, in that here is no single statement from an equivalent Schools’ Council about work experience, but the Medical Schools’ Council statement above is a useful guide to what dental schools are looking for. Experience of working with a variety of people, in voluntary community service or a paid job, is important evidence for the development of communication skills, and the schools stress the value to be gained (and credit in the admissions’ process to be given) from this.

In addition, some schools look for evidence of manual dexterity. I remember a Dentistry admissions’ tutor once describing Dentistry as “the medical end of the Arts and Crafts movement”.

If you are thinking of Dentistry, you should ask a local general dental practice whether you might come in to do some work shadowing, as this is required by some dental schools. It might also be possible to get a work shadowing placement in a hospital or with a dental technician.

However, in terms of the time that should be spent in a dental practice, the statements from the UK dental schools that admit undergraduates span such a range that an applicant might end up confused. Some universities insist on a specific minimum period in a dental practice, from 3 days to 2 weeks. Others do not require any. A few state “some”, without indicating how much, while a couple imply “as much as possible” by using phrases such as “amount and variety” and “depth and breadth”, which might have the effect of deterring those who do not have the extensive contacts to ensure this.

On the positive side, I think that the Peninsula School of Dentistry at Plymouth offers a statement that is a model of clarity and helpfulness.

There is useful advice on The Student Room website:

Please check on the individual uni. websites for up-to-date information.

Veterinary Medicine

Overall Veterinary Medicine has the most stringent requirements for work experience, but these vary greatly among the different veterinary schools. However, as there are only 8 schools in the UK, you should aim to cover what is required by the most demanding, if you want to give yourself the greatest choice.

Cambridge is the only school that does not require work experience, but states that some experience is useful. Edinburgh and Glasgow do not specify a minimum period of experience but expect experience of veterinary practice and work with animals. Elsewhere, the specified minimum period varies: Surrey (4 weeks: including 1 in a vet. practice); Bristol (2 weeks: 1 each in a vet. practice and an animal-related setting); Royal Veterinary College (4 weeks: 2 each in a vet. practice and an animal-related setting); Liverpool (5 weeks: 2 in a vet. practice and 3 in animal husbandry); Nottingham (6 weeks, across a broad range).

A minority of schools states that the experience must be completed within a certain period, usually the period before application: this ranges from 3 years (Bristol, Liverpool) to 18 months (Royal Veterinary College). Remember that you will be expected by some schools to state details of relevant experience at the time of application, so you must plan this early in Year 12.

Edinburgh is particularly good at showing the range of experience that might be considered by potential applicants - but stresses that it is not a checklist that has to be completed:
- veterinary practice: small and large animals;
- farms – especially dairy and lambing;
- zoos, kennels, catteries, wildlife centres, pig farms, poultry farms and stables
- a day at an abattoir
- veterinary or medical laboratories (to appreciate the scientific basis of veterinary medicine)

Liverpool offers detailed examples of how their requirements might be met through experience in different settings.

Please check on the individual uni. websites for up to date information.

There is useful advice on The Student Room website:

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 10] 

Universities and companies offer many courses to give prospective applicants a taste of what it might be like to study a particular subject at university. There are also “taster courses” that focus on particular career areas. Most of these are one day courses, but some include an overnight stay or even extend over several days.

Those considering Medicine, Veterinary Medicine or Engineering should consider early in the Autumn Term of Year 12 whether they wish to participate in Medlink Intensive, Vet-Medlink Intensive or Headstart courses.

Medlink Intensive / Vet-Medlink Intensive / Medsim

These are two-day residential courses run by a private company at University of Nottingham in mid-December ( ). They are not cheap (£299 for December 2018) and I have found that those who have participated in Medlink divide into two distinct groups: those who thought it valuable (the majority, in my experience) and those who thought it a waste of time and money. This split in opinion is reflected in comments on The Student Room ( ). 

The same company offers Medsim at the University of Nottingham in July:

As it happens, we paid for a family member to attend and took them up there. My first impression was that it was a bit of a crush, with large numbers involved. Although the feedback that we got on the sessions was that they were of variable quality, both participant and funders felt, on balance, that it was worthwhile. A lot of the major issues in medical training seem to have been raised and it helped our potential applicant decide that not Medicine but a related discipline was now to be the focus. Deciding to exclude an option can be a positive outcome from a taster course. Moreover, this course involves staying overnight on a university campus, which might help to clarify views on preferred habitat.

One caveat about this and some other courses is that other organisations attend, sensing rich opportunities. Many potential applicants will find it tough to meet the high UK entry requirements and might find studying Medicine in the Caribbean or Eastern Europe attractive. However, I would want to be reassured by knowing the destinations 5 years after qualifying as a doctor of UK students who have attended these universities – and not just carefully selected graduates, who might be the exception to the norm. Although Medicine degree programmes in Eastern Europe might be taught in English, it is also worth considering the difficulty of learning Czech or another language alongside a tough degree, if students are not to rely constantly on an interpreter in speaking with patients. Using an intermediary runs the risk of the trainee doctor losing the opportunity to develop an instinct for interpreting, through the patient’s tone and choice of words, what might lie beneath the surface.

Headstart Programme (Engineering and related disciplines)

These courses are based at a university and usually take place over several days in early or mid July. They are not free but they are subsidized. Many broad-based Engineering courses are offered as well as courses for specific engineering areas and a few on other STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths.) subjects.

If you are seriously considering studying Engineering at university, I strongly recommend Headstart courses as the best way to test that interest. As 3,500 Year 12 students currently apply, it is good to submit an application soon after booking opens on 1 September, although you’ll not hear whether you’ve been successful until March. Perhaps this is the organisers’ way of ensuring that you apply before committing yourself to holiday or other plans for next summer.

There is a useful Parents’ Guide on the website.

Nuffield Research Placements

Over 1,000 summer vacation research placements are offered in STEM disciplines at universities for 4-6 weeks for students between Year 12 and Year 13. There is no cost.

The organisers particularly encourage students who don't have a family history of going to university or who attend schools in less well-off areas. They state no-one is excluded on a financial basis by covering students' travel costs; and that some students may also be eligible for a weekly bursary in addition to travel expenses.

Application opens at the end of November.

Stage 1 : Research: About


My advice is to consider and research possible post-Year 13 options from an early stage. This gives you time to mull things over and explore different possibilities carefully, so that you can approach decision making more confidently.

Steps 11-15 show you how to do this effectively. 

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 11] 

In any group of Sixth Form students there are likely to be several groups:
(1) those who feel certain from an early stage about which uni. subject(s) they want to apply for;
(2) those who think that they want to apply for uni. but are torn between two or more subject options;
(3) those who think that they want to apply for uni. but are not sure at all about subject choice;

(4) those who don’t know whether they want to apply to uni..
(5) those who feel certain that they don’t want to apply for uni..

You might think that those in Group (1) have the easiest job, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Some potential Medicine applicants, in my experience, are particularly susceptible to the blinkered vision of “It’s got to be Medicine, and I’m not prepared to look at anything else”. This is despite the fact that, because of the competition for places in Dentistry, Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, these applicants have for many years been able to apply to a maximum of only four universities, with the opportunity of using the fifth choice for a different subject.

Moreover, many people change the focus of their interests during the course of their Sixth Form studies. This is entirely natural and common, and it should not be a cause for major concern. Some of those in Group (1) might even end up applying for non-uni. options, while some of those in Group (5) might revise their initial plans and end up applying for uni..

I therefore suggest that, unless there are compelling arguments to the contrary, Sixth Form students should at least investigate the possibility of uni. study.

But what to study, when the choice seems overwhelmingly large? There are degree programmes in subjects already offered in the Sixth Form, but there are also many more subjects that have not yet been available. How do I know what suits me?

Start by considering your mindset. The following story illustrates an important distinction. A Biology teacher had read an article in a scientific journal about an advance in our understanding of genetics: for him, with his academic outlook, this was a fascinating further piece of the jigsaw in place. He was later driving some Sixth Form students in a minibus, when he heard one of them mention the same article: “I had a bit of money saved up and bought a few shares in a gene technology company. Their value very quickly doubled.” This student had a more practical outlook.

It is not that the academic person is unpractical or that the practical person is unacademic. Far from it! There is a spectrum, but it is worth asking yourself why you want to study a subject at uni.. Is it that you are academically curious about learning more in this area for its own sake? Or do you also want to have an end goal of achieving a professionally recognized qualification? It should be stressed that studying an academic subject like History does not make you less employable; and that studying a subject like Law does not make you more employable, as there are far more Law graduates than jobs in law. You are more likely to make yourself employable by studying the subject(s) for which you are best suited. Moreover, a subject like Business Management might be approached with an emphasis more on its academic study or on its practical application in the world of business.

Undergraduate degree programmes fall into two basic categories:
(i) those which are recognized as a professional qualification by external professional bodies, whose content is approved by those professional bodies (see Step 12);
(ii) those whose content it is entirely up to each university to decide (see Step 13).

In deciding which uni. subjects to research it can be helpful to have the results of a questionnaire called “Centigrade” as a starting point. “Centigrade” is an interest-based questionnaire produced by Cambridge Occupational Analysts (COA) ( ), the results of which are presented in a workbook or online. This lists in rank order the apparent interest level in the range of possible Higher Education subjects, in the light of the student’s answers. It then gives detailed information on the areas of greatest interest, including degree programme titles at individual universities, as the basis for further research.

Students, on seeing their results, are apt to say things like “It says I should study…”. However, these questionnaire results are not prescriptive. They merely point to likely areas of interest. If the top-ranked areas are exactly what the student expects, it reinforces a pre-existing sense of what is the best direction to be heading in. If what was thought to be a subject of high level interest is surprisingly low in the list, the student is encouraged to ask why this might be so. Similarly, if a subject that had not been considered as a university option appears surprisingly high in the list, the student is encouraged to look further into this.

The “Centigrade” results, therefore, help to set the scene for a discussion about “What shall I study at university?” by producing something from the student – which is often something different from what the student would have given, if asked to write down a list of likely university subjects.

If you don’t want to pay for “Centigrade”, The UCAS Subject Guides on the UCAS website list degree programme titles across more than 20 broad subject areas: . This can be a good starting point.

My Choosing Your Course sheets section gives lists of other subjects related to each of those subject areas. For instance, your interest in Chemistry might lead you to Pharmacology or another subject not currently studied.

Bear in mind that subjects not currently studied need more research, in order to convince yourself (and ultimately admissions’ staff at unis.) that you really do have a good idea of what the new subject involves. There is a danger of students who don’t feel enthusiastic about their Sixth Form subjects leaping into a new subject at uni. merely as an escape from what they’re currently studying. Needless to say, this is likely to result in disappointment.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 12] 

Under this category come Dentistry, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and other health and social care subjects, as we want all those graduating from these programmes to be equally well qualified, no matter which university they went to.

Therefore The General Medical Council, for example, closely monitors what is being taught in medical schools. But how it is taught varies greatly. There are still a few universities that focus on 3 years of pre-clinical scientific study before clinical skills are learned in Years 4-5. However, since the launch of a new medical school at Leicester in the 1970s, most UK schools have gone over to the more integrated structure that Leicester pioneered: e.g., even in Year 1 tracking chronic patients through GP and consultant routes and asking the patients about their experiences. This integrated approach is often taught in a “systems-based” structure that examines in series the different body systems: cardiovascular, digestive, nervous, etc.. The new medical schools opened since 2000 have launched a third and very different way of teaching Medicine: Problem Based Learning (PBL). The focus is more on group work than teaching by lecture, on the grounds that health professionals work in groups.

Medicine is an extreme example of the fact that content determined by an external professional body does not mean that there is similar delivery across the different universities. In Engineering there is more uniformity of approach, but even here there is an equivalent of Medicine’s PBL: CDIO (Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate) was devised by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in USA in the 1990s and launched together with three Swedish universities. As a result, Liverpool rebuilt its Engineering department around this more project-based philosophy.

If you wish to study Law and practise as a lawyer, you should opt for an LLB Law degree, as this is the degree recognized by the profession as a “qualifying degree”, the first rung on the career ladder. These Law degrees will include seven compulsory subjects: Criminal Law, Law of Contract, Tort, Property Law, Equity and Trusts, Constitutional and Administrative Law, European Union Law. It would be useful, if each university highlighted these essential components in its module descriptions, as I have found it difficult to work out what extra compulsory elements have been added to these by some university Law departments.

About Law there are four very important points to note:
1. BA Law degrees are not qualifying Law degrees (apart from those at Oxford and Cambridge!).
2. Scottish law is very different from other UK law. If you wish to practise law outside Scotland, don’t opt for a Law degree that only entitles you to practise in Scotland.
3. You don’t have to study a Law degree, if you wish to practise as a lawyer. If you study another undergraduate degree, you can take a one year “conversion course” (Common Professional Examination) to put you in the same position as Law graduates. It is a tough option to cover those seven subjects in one year, and expensive, if you don’t get a firm to sponsor you, but there is no career disadvantage by taking this route, and many people opt for it.
4. The seven subjects together constitute more than half an LLB programme. Therefore, if you opt to study LLB Law and another subject (e.g., Law and French), you might end up studying 2/3 of a Law degree plus 1/2 of a French degree. Law with another subject (i.e., more Law and less of the other subject) is probably a more reasonable combination, but you might have little or no scope to take extra optional subjects in Law.

Other university subjects whose degree programmes are overseen by professional bodies include Architecture (overseen by The Royal Institute of British Architects), Real Estate Management and other property-related subjects (by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) and Psychology (by The British Psychological Society).

If you are applying for these programmes and wish to keep open the option of entering the relevant profession, you should make sure that you choose a degree programme recognized by the professional body.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 13] 

As for those subjects where the university is free to determine its own programme content, without an external professional body constantly looking over its shoulder, there is inevitably more variety. I remember looking at the content of degree programmes simply called “French” offered by two older universities in big northern England cities. One had a breadth of study, including literature across a broad historical period, film and more contemporary cultural studies; the other was much more focused on contemporary studies, and one of the academic staff had even conducted research into French translation of “The Simpsons”. This is a prime example of the need to dig down to modular level, in order to understand the content of a degree programme.

Never assume from identical programme titles that the content will be similar. In the same way, don’t assume from different programme titles that the content will be significantly different.

Universities sometimes choose their titles for marketing or historical reasons. There was a move a few years ago by some universities to get rid of “Business Studies” in favour of “Business Management”, I presume because the latter sounded more sophisticated. Similarly, Birmingham, proud that its Bachelor of Commerce degree was founded over 100 years ago, clung onto the B.Com. title until recently, when it joined the ranks of “Business Management”.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 14] 


It is good to start this research as early as possible: I encourage some preliminary research of this kind even in the first term of the Sixth Form, but I recognize that this is too early for some students.

I encourage you to research at least 2 possible university subjects. It is important to be able to compare and contrast. Even if you feel 100% certain that you want to apply for Geography, it is good to put something alongside it in your research. If you look at, say, Environmental Science as well, it might be that by looking at this second subject you reinforce your commitment to Geography, or it might be that the Environmental Science research causes you to question your previous interest in Geography.

What do I mean by researching a possible subject? I think that it’s important early in Year 12, if possible, to get a feel of how different unis. construct a degree programme in the same subject area. You can do this by taking a sample of several uni. programmes and investigating how they are constructed at module level. Some unis. might offer only core/mandatory/compulsory modules in Year 1, while others might offer some optional modules at that stage, including modules from another subject. Only by digging down to module level can you get a sense of what a programme in English Literature or Biological Sciences at a particular uni. involves. Only by researching several examples can you get a sense of the possible variety of programmes in the same subject area. The more you do this, the more you will get the feeling that the subject area is or is not likely to be fruitful for you. It doesn’t matter which unis. you choose, as the first half of Year 12 is far too early to be drawing up a short list of unis. that you might eventually apply to. You’re testing subject interest rather than drawing up a short list: there might be some that you know by name or which are local to you; if you’ve used “Centigrade” (see Step 11), you will have a list.

Here is an example of how to do this.

(1) Go to the “Choose your future” database on the UCAS website home page:

(2) Keep “Undergraduate” as the default setting. In the box “Search for undergraduate courses by keyword” type in a subject.

Let’s take “Business Management” as an example. There are more undergraduate (first degree) programmes in this area than any other: over 2,000 come up on the screen, when you press “Submit”.

Some universities, e.g., Bradford, will offer “Business Management” as “Full-time” or “Sandwich”. “Full-time” is a 3 year programme entirely spent at university. “Sandwich” is a 4 year programme, which includes a work placement opportunity, usually in Year 3: Years 1-2, at university, are the “bread”; Year 3, in the work placement, is the “filling”; Year 4, back at uni., is the “bread” on top.

(3) Let’s take the Bradford Full-time programme as an example. Enter “Bradford” in the “Where do you want to study?” box and click on the degree programme title: “Business and Management” Full-time is the first on the list (the 4 year “sandwich” option is the second).

You now get some details, including “Entry requirements”.

(4) Make a note of Entry requirements in a “log book”. I suggest that you use an exercise book or a computer file in which to record basic details of this research. Otherwise, when you get to research your third university programme, the details of the first and second are likely to be already confused in your mind, and you’re likely to have forgotten virtually everything about this research by the next day, so the research will have been in vain.

(5) Under “Course contact details” click on the link “View course details on provider’s website”. This should transport you to the appropriate place on the university website.

With the Bradford example, you are taken to “Business Management BSc (Hons)”. In this instance, you are taken to the same entry, whether you specified “Full-time” or “Sandwich”: the placement year is optional. Don’t worry about “BSc Hons”: it simply means a standard 3 or 4 year degree, as opposed to a lower level 2 year degree.

(6) If you scroll down to “What you will study”, you can then see the overall structure of the degree programme, including which modules are compulsory (“Core”) and which are optional.

A brief word about terminology is needed here. Strictly speaking, universities use the term “course” to refer to an individual component or module in the overall structure or degree “programme”. However, when most people refer to choosing a degree programme, they call it “choosing a course”, as does the UCAS website, under its “Choose your future” heading on its home page.

If we take the Bradford example again, you will now see a list of modules for First Year, Second Year and Final Year (Year 3, or Year 4 after a work placement year in Year 3). In the First Year 5 modules are compulsory; in the Second Year there are more optional modules to choose from, with even more choice in the Final Year. This is a typical degree structure. I encourage you to think of a pyramid: a broad base in Year 1 with little or no choice; you build on this in Year 2 by choosing according to the interests you developed in the previous year, thus slightly narrowing your field of specialization; in your final year you specialize even more, and the apex of your pyramid might include a dissertation (long research essay) in a very specialized field, as a possible preparation for postgraduate research in a second degree, if you wish.

There is more terminology on view. The Bradford example, in the details of each of the First Year  modules, mentions the “Credit Rating” as being 20. This refers to the relative weight (in terms of time and marks) that each module contributes to each year of the programme. At Bradford, as at most other universities, modules should total 120 credits for each year of the degree programme. So, in this example, each of the 5 modules contributes 20 credits to that 120 credit total, so only 1 of the 4 First Year Options may be taken.

It would be very helpful, if each university included an explanation of these potentially confusing terms. It should not be assumed that potential applicants will work it out for themselves.

As it happens, the Bradford example is one of the more informative, as not all universities give details of what is studied in each module and some don’t even list the titles of the modules on offer. Potential applicants need to know what they are buying into! The Bradford example shows best practice in a number of respects:
- it is clearly set out;
- it gives an outline of course/module content and aims;
- it gives some indication of the hours to be spent in formal teaching settings and independent study;
- it indicates the type of assessment used: e.g., written exam. or coursework.

(7) As in (4) above, record in your “log book” the major features of this programme, so that you can compare and contrast it with others that you look at.

This is such an important part of your research in finding an appropriate choice of subject(s) and degree programmes that I want to illustrate it with a further example.

(1) Go to the “Choose your future” database on the UCAS website home page:

(2) Keep “Undergraduate” as the default setting. In the box “Search for undergraduate courses by keyword” type in “Fashion” as an example. Over 450 degree programmes come up on the screen, when you press “Submit”.

(3) Let’s take the Norwich University of the Arts Full-time programme as an example. Click on “Fashion”.

You now get some details, including “Entry requirements”.

(4) Make a note of Entry requirements in a “log book”.

(5) Under “Course contact details” click on the link “View course details on provider’s website”. This should transport you to the appropriate place on the university website.

With the Norwich University of the Arts example, you are taken to a page that offers useful links to, e.g., a long film on the most recent NUA Graduate Fashion Week Catwalk Show.

(6) In order to discover more about the degree programme content, click on “BA (Hons) Fashion Course Specification”.

This example also shows best practice in a number of respects:
- it is clearly set out;
- it gives an outline of course/module content and aims;
- it gives some indication of the hours to be spent in study (though it would be good to see how far the 40 hours per week is likely to be distributed between formal teaching settings and independent study);
- it indicates the type of assessment used.

(7) As in (4) above, record in your “log book” the major features of this programme, so that you can compare and contrast it with others that you look at.

I suggest that you do stages (1) to (7) above for 5 or 6 universities for each of the subjects that you are researching. If you do this, you will start to get a feel for how similar and different is the construction of a degree programme by different universities for the same subject. You will also start to get a gut feeling about whether a particular subject at university level is or is not likely to be appropriate for you. The two examples illustrated above indicate that this useful information might be presented by different unis. in different ways. Unfortunately, not all unis. match the level of detail and standard of presentation shown in these examples

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 15] 

There will be some among you who, as a result of earlier interest or this current research, are attracted to the possibility of studying a subject at university that you are not currently studying for A Level or other examinations. It is important that you now test this interest by further reading. This reading is vital in helping you to decide whether this is or is not the right area to pursue. In the longer term, if you do decide to apply for such a subject, you will have evidence to convince admissions’ staff that you have done proper research and are not simply searching for an “escape subject” (i.e., you’re not keen on what you’re currently studying, so you’re looking for something that you’ve not yet become disenchanted with). If I were part of an admissions’ team, I would be particularly keen to examine the UCAS Personal Statements of those applying for subjects not yet studied for the evidence that these students offer that shows they have some idea of what they are applying for. For instance, if someone were applying for Engineering, I would ask: What relevant reading have they done? Have they done relevant work shadowing? Have they been on a relevant “taster course”? I would want to see more than merely good Maths. and (probably) Physics results.

If your school or college offers you the opportunity to take the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ), you might wish to choose a subject area for your research related to what you are considering studying at university. All universities will expect undergraduates to adopt a research-focused approach to their study, and this is especially the case at the most research-intensive universities, the “big name” universities, which have got their big name largely because of their research rather than their teaching. A few universities will make an offer one grade lower, if you get an A (or, more rarely, a B) in the EPQ.

It is, however, possible to do similar research without taking an assessed qualification: you might think, for instance, that the EPQ’s reflective diary aspect is less relevant to your needs and that writing this intrudes too much into time needed for A Level study. As with so much else, it is a matter for individual choice.

If you are an IB Diploma student, you might consider writing your Extended Essay on a topic related to what you might study at uni..

There are many national essay and other competitions with cash prizes for Year 12 students. Some are organized by individual universities or colleges, others by organisations representing individual subjects (e.g., Royal Geographical Association). Don’t assume that the competition will be overwhelmingly strong: some of those listed in the Resources section are so little known that the full prize is not always awarded. Even if you don’t win, the process of research and presentation is developing your academic skills, and you will be able to mention this in your UCAS Personal Statement as evidence that your interest goes beyond an examination course.

At any rate, I recommend testing your interest in a new or current subject by reading relevant books or articles at this stage, perhaps during the Christmas vacation.

I would particularly encourage those of you who are thinking of applying for degree programmes which have the toughest entry requirements to think of this extra reading as a means of making yourselves more competitive. However, if you regard this as a chore rather than a pleasure, you are possibly looking at the wrong degree programmes.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 16] 

If you have a part-time job, consider how this might be relevant to uni. subjects that you might be considering and what you might learn, both by observing what happens in the workplace and by speaking with your colleagues. I suggest writing down your major findings in a log book. Working in a business is clearly relevant for those who are considering Economics and Business Management, and more specialised disciplines of the latter, like Hospitality, Retail, Real Estate or Logistics. However, there is also much that others might learn. Those contemplating Sociology or Psychology can learn a lot by looking at people’s behaviour in shops or schools or in groups like Brownies or Cubs – or in their homes, if you are a baby-sitter. Even Architecture has a social dimension: architects have to consider how people might best use the structure and internal space that they are designing, and you might consider how the commercial or domestic property in which you work fulfils this criterion. Working in a café has a relevance for both potential Food Science or Biochemistry students and Law students (anything from health and safety issues to consumer law). Older colleagues can be rich sources of information about the history, geography and sociology of where you live.

Regard your colleagues as part of your network of contacts. They might know someone who is able to speak to you about a particular subject discipline: a current or recent student, or someone whose work is in a relevant field. Don’t underestimate the value of the area and people that you know.

For uni. subjects that most obviously lead to a particular area of work, including degree programmes accredited by professional bodies (see Step 12), it is clearly useful to get relevant work experience, if possible. However, I think that it is beneficial for a potential applicant to get some insight into how any uni. subject might lead directly into the workplace: whether it is gallery work for History of Art or Fine Art or working in an MP’s constituency office for Politics.

If, on the other hand, you are already thinking of an area of work unconnected with your uni. plans (e.g., you are thinking of entering a career in law without having taken a LLB Law degree), it is sensible to test out this interest by relevant activities now (e.g., work experience in a solicitors’ office or seeing a trial in a Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court).

With all due respect to Sixth Form students, you might not have the necessary training or experience to do much fruitful hands-on work experience in many contexts, so it might be preferable to try to secure a shorter period of “work shadowing”: i.e., following a trained and experienced practitioner.

Don’t necessarily expect to be paid for such work experience! It is the level of insight rather than the level of pay that should be the focus.

Don’t feel that you have to rely on people you know, in order to ask for such work experience. A lot of companies are happy to accommodate Sixth Form students. If you can’t get a period of work experience or work shadowing, ask if you might speak for a few minutes with a relevant person. If you get this opportunity, draw up a list of questions before you go: e.g., What advice would you give to someone considering this career area? What are the most rewarding/most challenging parts of the job? How far is this career area likely to change in the next few years? What has your career path been? But don’t ask about the person’s salary!

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 17] 

The beginning of January is the time for all potential applicants in the year before application to think about undertaking one or more “taster courses”, to test their interest in possible university subjects to study. This is valuable for those considering taking one or more of their current subjects to a higher level, but it is particularly crucial for those wondering about a new subject.

If you’re thinking of Engineering and haven’t looked at Headstart courses, look now. There might still be places available on some: .

If you’re thinking of Medicine but didn’t participate in Medlink, the same company offers Medsim at the University of Nottingham in July:

If you didn’t look before, check out other taster courses mentioned in Step 10.

University of London Taster Course Programme

In early January the University of London, in partnership with other universities across London, publishes its extensive programme of free courses, which are mostly one day long. The only cost is your travel. There are dozens of courses to choose from, most of which take place in June and July (with some much earlier), and it is well worth looking at the full list, if London is at all accessible to you. With very few exceptions, I have had good feedback about these courses, which also give you an opportunity to see inside a university in London.

These courses are particularly useful, if you want to test your interest in a subject that you’re not currently studying: e.g., Anthropology or Law.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 18] 

Please refer to Step 8 .

If you visited only one university in the equivalent break in the Autumn Term, the Spring Term Half Term break is your chance to visit another of a different type, so that you can feel confident about your preferred habitat. This is possibly your last chance to get a sense of a uni. during term, as in the summer exam. season the atmosphere is untypical.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 19] 

Although some Scottish events occur during the Autumn Term, March is when the bulk of these regional events (formerly called HE Fairs) start to spring up across the country. Many universities are represented at these, along with organisations offering information about apprenticeships, volunteer and “gap year” opportunities. Some of them occur on university campuses; others do not.

Consult the UCAS website for the list:

I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of these events, although some people do find the information gleaned there useful. They are largely prospectus-gathering events, and, although school-liaison staff are there to answer questions, they are unlikely to be in a position to answer detailed questions about specific degree programmes. Given the choice, I would always opt for an Open Day over one of these events.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 20] 

For the poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century, April signaled the start of the pilgrimage season. For the university applicant the Easter vacation marks the beginning of the major Open Day season, although nowadays there are Open Days in every month of the year.

Open Days are a great opportunity to learn about a university and its degree programmes. Like Open Days elsewhere, they should be seen in the context of an institution’s wish to show its best face to the public, in order to attract interest and, ultimately, business. They thus complement prospectuses and websites as a marketing tool. However, if you approach them carefully, they can be a rich source of useful information.

The UCAS website has a list of Open Days:

I am here going to discuss pre-application Open Days. I’ll discuss post-application Open Days later (Step 63).

You are usually asked to register, in order to attend Open Days. This is partly so that the university can keep sending you publicity, but in some cases there are so many students attending these events that a limit has to be put on the number of people allowed into particular presentations. So the message is “Book early, to avoid disappointment.”, especially if you are wanting to hear a presentation on a popular subject at a popular university. The booking process via a university website should be straightforward.

You may attend an Open Day as an individual prospective applicant, with family or friends, or as a member of a school/college party.

My main advice, if you want to get the most out of the day is:
- arrive early, if you can;
- go to key subject presentations;
- take advantage of the opportunity to see student accommodation and the Student Union (the building that usually houses the main cafés and bars, shops and welfare offices);

- speak with the student helpers (who will be wearing coloured T-shirts to distinguish them) and ask them about their impressions of their degree programme and the uni. in general.

The last point is crucial. The departmental talks might give you important information, but you should remember that they are there to convey a positive impression of the university and its departments’ programmes. Only by speaking with current students can you hope to get a sense of what it is like to be studying on one of the programmes and to be living as an undergraduate student in the university. I visit at least one major Open Day each year, and, although I do go to some of the official talks and find them useful, I spend most of the day quizzing students about their experience. They are almost always very open and keen to chat.

Please see Step 8 above for the sort of questions that you might find it useful to ask.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 21] 

If you are a student with Specific Learning Differences, it is important that you take full advantage of a uni. visit to research what provision there is that is relevant for your needs. It is useful to begin researching several unis. in Year 12, to give you an idea of the variety of provision.

These are some of the questions that you might wish to ask.


Is there a Disability Coordinator in each department or faculty?
Or just one department overseeing all the different needs of those with learning differences?
Is the Disability Services centre subdivided into those responsible for, e.g., Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Disorder?
How many staff are involved in Disability Services?

Is the emphasis more on equipment and software (self-help) than on mentoring (personal support), or is there a balance?


What contact is made by the uni. at different stages of the application process?
- after initial application?
- when a Firm/Insurance decision has been made? (Is there priority given in accommodation?)

Are there pre-entry information visits offered or an early start to help new students to settle in?

Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)

What might be covered by this?
- personal support (mentors, etc)?
- equipment allowance? Are a new laptop, scanner, software and printer regarded as basic needs?
- materials (extra printing)?

Once an initial assessment of requirements has been made, how easy is it to re-adjust these in the light of experience?


Do lecturers provide their slides on the uni.’s VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) intranet before and after the lecture?
Can a note-taker be provided?
Is the note-taker a trained student in a year above?
How soon after a lecture are they expected to produce notes?
Does the note-taker sit beside you or separately in the lecture?
Can recording equipment/software be provided?

Is a Dyslexia Reading Pen available?


Is there a personal mentor who helps with the skills required in preparing for multiple assignment deadlines?
How often may you meet and for how long?
Who would the mentor be? (Some unis. get private companies to arrange this, but might still use postgraduate students, among others, to deliver it.)
Is there a specialist tutor who is more orientated towards your subject work?
How often may you meet and for how long?

Can the mentor/tutor help with:
- mind mapping software?
- using the library?
- planning an assignment?
- structuring an assignment?
- reading back software for proofreading?

Is speech recognition software available as an aid?
How much training is given? (N.B. Some people might need a lot of training.)

If you have software already, is the uni. prepared to update it, when you arrive?


How are requirements assessed: e.g., extra time, laptop use, amanuensis, speech recognition software?

Is speech recognition software permitted in exams.?

May you dictate the first draft then do your own editing by hand?

Maths. support

What support is available?
Who gives it: undergraduate or postgraduate students? academic members of staff?

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 22] 

All unis. offer support services in the area of health, including mental health. However, with the recent increase in student numbers at many unis. it has inevitably become more difficult for teaching staff to know their students as individuals and to detect any problems arising from loneliness, stress or other health issues.

It is therefore important on an Open Day or any other visit to ask searching questions of uni. support services, in order to get a sense of the likely response from the uni. in this area. (You might find the level of detail in the questions given in Step 21 a useful guide.)

When you are drawing up a short list of unis., don’t forget to add this to your list of important criteria in your decision making.

In checking the support system set up by “Gap Year” organisations in distant places, I urge prospective volunteers to use the “appendicitis test”: i.e., ask what immediate support there would be, if the volunteers suddenly fell seriously ill and couldn’t fend for themselves. You might find it helpful to put scenarios to prospective unis., in order to gauge their ability to respond sympathetically, appropriately and quickly to any urgent individual needs that you might have.

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 23] 

“Prospectus” is a word derived from the Latin for “view” (whose Latin plural is also “prospectus”, not “prospecti”, so please stick to “prospectuses” as the English plural). A university’s undergraduate prospectus is useful as a view, in text and photographs, of what a university looks like and what it is offering. However, like any other prospectus, it is a marketing tool in an increasingly competitive market and needs to be treated with care.

In reading a prospectus it is hard to avoid the feeling that universities are trying to boost their image with prospective customers, by stressing how wonderful they are and how their students’ enjoyable stay will be the means to achieving a decent job. Statistics, like photographs of beaming students on sunny days, are used to encourage a “feel-good factor” about an institution and, increasingly, about this institution as opposed to others. The aim of the prospectus is, after all, to attract interest and gain customers, and it is understandable that universities wish to select as much useful “evidence” as possible in achieving those ends.

Because websites contain much more information, a few universities have recently abandoned paper prospectuses completely or radically cut down their size. However, most universities still produce paper prospectuses, as they clearly think that this considerable annual investment is a valuable way of attracting potential applicants and, ultimately, entrants.

There are stylistic innovations each year, but a standard prospectus usually contains 20 basic elements, not necessarily in the order given below. The photographs are carefully chosen to complement the text and to appeal to as broad a range of potential applicants as possible: so in subjects where there is traditionally a gender imbalance in the intake the photographs will not necessarily reflect this, and you can expect to see female engineers and male nurses. As I travelled around the UK universities, I took my own photographs on uni. campuses, including features that would be excluded from prospectuses, such as temporary classrooms.

Many prospectuses contain photographs of individual undergraduate students with quotations relevant to subject-related or other issues. We do not, of course, know how representative they are of what other students might have said about that degree programme or whichever other aspect of uni. life is being discussed.

I do think that you can learn a lot from critical scrutiny of a prospectus: in itself this is an interesting exercise in trying to detect rhetorical “spin” from the marketing people. I like, for instance, to apply the “vibrancy test”: how soon in a prospectus is the word “vibrant” used to describe the university or its location? In one recent year two universities even got it onto the front cover!

Once you have looked at a few examples, you should be able to compare and contrast prospectus entries and thus detect areas of greater or less strength across different unis.: e.g., in careers guidance provision. Every year I enjoy looking through these documents, to learn about innovations, remind myself about key features, and update my information on likely entry requirements in individual university programmes (see the University Entry Requirements section).

1. Vice -Chancellor’s introduction
All of these can be summed up in three words: “We are wonderful”. Occasionally there is something specific that is highlighted here and developed elsewhere in the prospectus.

2. league table rankings, statistics + awards
I give my reasons elsewhere (see Step 26) for treating league tables with a great deal of scepticism. Be aware that statistics have become a more common feature in prospectuses in the last 15 years, as a “league table mentality” has pervaded management in other branches of education as well as institutions such as the NHS.

3. the town/city location
There might be some useful information here in text and photographs, but I think that an aerial shot of the campus and the surrounding area gives a good impression of location before you visit. The Durham prospectus usually obliges with one, and I use it to show potential applicants where the different colleges are. In a more urban context, the Goldsmiths’ aerial view highlights the small campus surrounded by South East London.

4. general details of academic study
You might expect this to be the most useful part of the prospectus: where university study is distinguished from Sixth Form study. However, I am very often disappointed.

In 2014 I looked at how far the undergraduate prospectuses for 38 UK universities mentioned the issues involved in academic transition to university study. There was a recognition in some that university study at a research-intensive university will be very different from what has been experienced at school. However, half of these prospectuses did not give any meaningful detail about teaching and learning methods. Half of the rest gave a cursory mention of lectures, seminars, tutorials and laboratory work, but only a quarter gave a clear indication about what these actually involve.

If I were considering devoting a lot of time and money to entering a degree programme, I would want a university to answer two basic questions: “What am I being offered?” and “What does it lead to?” (i.e., What do graduates from this degree programme go on to do in the world of work?). I’ll consider the second question in Step 24. A major factor in answering the first is, in my opinion, the size and frequency of those academic groups (classes/tutorials/seminars) where students may discuss subject topics with an academic member of staff. My experience from speaking with students on uni. visits and from questionnaires received from current students is that, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, where you will certainly be in small groups, you should make no assumption about the size of these academic discussion groups, which can range in size from 5 to 35 students at the same university: same university, same year, same fees, but a wholly different experience across different departments. As I have been trying for many years to persuade universities to give this information to prospective applicants, when St Andrews started giving this a few years ago, I contacted them to congratulate them. For several years this information was in the prospectus, until the size of the prospectus was reduced. However, this important information is still available on the website.

I hope that other universities will follow this good practice. Meanwhile, I strongly advise you as prospective applicants to ask unis. on your short list about the size of tutorials, classes or seminars, stating that St Andrews does give this information. Otherwise, you are playing a dangerous game of chance with something that is likely to have a significant bearing on how far you will flourish and be happy in the uni. that you enter. If these unis. don’t give a straight answer, you might become suspicious that they might be trying to hide group sizes that are embarrassingly large.

5. study abroad/work placement options
Most UK universities have developed partnerships with unis. abroad in recent decades, and some have even set up their own overseas campuses. The prospectuses highlight the opportunity to spend time at these partner unis. and many students find that a semester or year spent abroad are an enriching part of their uni. experience.

However, if you are thinking of taking up this option, I advise you to explore carefully both how far the level and style of study in the uni. abroad might match what is offered at the UK uni. and what level of support the UK uni. offers to students abroad in return for the large proportion of the UK fee that you will still be paying to it. It is likely that the uni. has sent others from the same degree programme to the uni. abroad that you are considering, so you should ask to be put in touch with them. The worst story I have come across was a biologist sent to a “uni.” on a Greek island, which turned out to be a small institution without full uni. status, all of whose students, apart from the one student from the UK uni., spoke Greek. The biologist had to find her own support network: two friendly locals whom she happened to meet soon after arriving.

Some unis. have offered work placement “sandwich” years for decades. Many more are now offering them, which indicates that unis. realise, in this era of higher fees, that those considering uni. are looking closely at how far a uni. degree enhances employment prospects. I deal with “sandwich” degree programmes in Step 48.

6. library/IT facilities
It is surprising that some prospectuses neglect this completely, as the IT facilities and what is available in the library/libraries (more commonly called a Learning Resource Centre these days) are likely to have a major bearing on a student’s experience. Maybe it’s an area of the uni. that is considered difficult to bring alive in a prospectus, unless there is a smart new building to show off.

7. accommodation
This tends to be one of the topics that is handled better. The uni. is likely to show off its newest buildings, but the best prospectus examples give clear details, including prices, of the choices on offer for Year 1. Key facts here should lead you to even more detail on the website.

8. student life: Students’ Union + clubs
All prospectuses make as much as they can of the “vibrant” student atmosphere, but this section, too, should be a selection of salient points that are expanded upon much more in the website.

Be aware that the Students’ Union is two things. It is the building which houses offices for student representatives who can offer advice on, e.g., welfare and academic issues; it will also contain shops, eating places and bars/event venues. However, it is also the term used for the student body that represents students and oversees activities such as societies and sports. At some unis. it goes under a different name: e.g, Guild of Students.

9. sports
Facilities and standards vary both across the UK unis. and for different sports within any given uni..

This section should enable you to see how far the uni. caters for both élite athletes, who might qualify for sports scholarships, and recreational athletes. What are the facilities – and where are they? Some London institutions, for instance, have sports’ fields a long way from their campus – perhaps at the end of a tube line. Those unis. that have a college system (Cambridge, Durham, Kent, Lancaster, Oxford, York) already have a structure for inter-college league and cup competitions, which in turn enhances students’ sense of college identity.

The website of BUCS (British Universities’ and Colleges’ Sport) gives detailed information about individual sports and institutions: The points gained in inter-university competitions over the last few years should give you a clear indication of which unis. are strong in which sports, if you are interested in competing at this level.

10. student services (health/counselling/disability)
There should be a brief section that sets out what is on offer, with links to more information on the website.

The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 (replaced by the Equality Act of 2010) set out statutory duties for universities. When I did some research over 10 years ago on what unis. were offering to dyslexic students, there was a huge range of information given by unis. to prospective students, so don’t believe that all unis. will offer similar support now. (See Step 21 for advice on questions to ask.)

11. careers + employability
This is the area that has seen the biggest change in prospectus presentation. It is now a much bigger feature since the big rise in tuition fees in 2012, as prospective applicants are now more insistently asking “Is it worth going to uni. and ending up in debt?” Some unis. have reacted more vigorously than others. A few might appear, from the little evidence about preparation for employment in their prospectus, to be relying on their brand name as a passport to the workplace. This is a dangerous assumption for anyone to make these days. However, many have set up schemes to develop “employability skills”: Birmingham, for instance, has a voluntary Personal Skills Award, in addition to offering internship opportunities and one-to-one mentoring from practitioners in an area of interest; Bristol has recently launched a “curriculum enrichment scheme”, Bristol Futures, which includes Personal Development Planning offered through the personal tutor system.

In researching your uni. choices, consider how far your short-listed unis. have gone beyond offering the traditional c.v. workshops, psychometric tests and individual careers interview.

12. alumni
This receives little or no attention in some prospectuses, but other unis. are keen to parade their alumni network. Don’t be star-struck by the couple of famous alumni who smile at you with a declaration of what the uni. did for them. Rather look at the detail of how the uni. operates the network for the benefit of current students. Don’t underestimate the potential value of these contacts for work experience and potential future employment.

13. international students
There is usually a section highlighting how cosmopolitan the uni. is and giving information about induction and English language requirements and support. The extent of the information might show how much the uni. focuses on the needs of these students, how much it relies on international recruitment or how much it plans to increase international recruitment (or a combination of these). Bangor’s 2019 prospectus, for instance, devotes as many as 6 pages to this section.

For information on the breakdown of student numbers in a particular uni. (undergraduate and postgraduate; those from UK, rest of EU, rest of the world) go to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) website: .

14. fees + funding
There should be a section on this in every prospectus with a link to more detailed information on the website. Look for whether a uni. offers bursaries for those from particular socio-economic backgrounds or in recognition of academic, music or sporting excellence. Some departments might offer a “golden hello” financial incentive in subject areas where graduates are in short supply but high demand.

One example of a university that makes a range of such awards is Sheffield, which even offers Asylum Seeker Scholarships.

15. part-time study, access + outreach
The emphasis given to part-time study and access courses (designed to allow those without the usual qualifications to enter the uni.) very much depends on the extent of a uni.'s provision for this. Queen’s Belfast has a prospectus which is a model of thoroughness when it comes to entry requirements, and this includes several pages devoted to those offering an Access to HE Diploma.

Most details of outreach activities are to be found on a uni.’s website, but some unis. will mention or even highlight these in their prospectus.

16. How to apply + qualifications
As you might expect, you should find details of the application process in every prospectus. Sometimes this is placed immediately before the large section containing details about individual degree programmes; sometimes it is at the back of the prospectus.

Some prospectuses give details about entry requirements other than A Levels: e.g., IB Diploma, PreU, BTEC, international qualifications. This will depend on how far these are mentioned in the section on individual degree programmes and how many applicants to the uni. tend to offer particular qualifications.

Universities that make offers based on the UCAS Tariff (of equivalences between A Levels and other qualifications) sometimes print a copy of the most commonly offered qualifications and their Tariff points but don’t always give details about what kind of qualifications can be used to, make up that offer. A Level grades under the most recent Tariff are scored: A*=56, A=48, B=40, C=32, D=24, E=16. An offer of 120 points can be made up from BBB or ABC at A Level, but a prospectus (and often a website) will not mention whether this could be made up of BB at A Level (80 points), grade C at AS (12 points) and grade 8 (Distinction) in Music performance (30 points): total 122 points. The UCAS website provides a useful Tariff calculator, but it is best to ask your likely unis. individually, if they are likely to make points’ offers:

17. university research
Some universities are keen to boost their research credentials to prospective applicants in their undergraduate prospectus, and state, for instance, that “research informs our teaching”. It would be clearer to add that “optional subjects in our degree programmes largely reflect our academic staff’s current research interests”. A few devote a couple of pages to research stars among the academic staff.

Most reference to research is usually confined to the section on individual degree programmes. Sometimes the evidence is derived from the Research Excellence Framework, which, as I explain elsewhere (Step 27), is the only assessment or ranking that I think offers any reliable evidence.

18. A to Z of degree subjects
Some prospectuses offer a large double page spread or more on each subject area, and the result is a heavy prospectus but also one that heavily emphasises the academic provision.

Some unis. offer a lot of Joint Honours combinations of two subjects and opt to reduce prospectus entries to as little as a short paragraph on each programme. I know that there is probably a lot more detail on the website, but, if a uni. is serious about attracting serious students, I think that it should give a serious amount of space to each subject in its prospectus, even if Joint Honours are given less space, in the interests of avoiding repetition.

19. town plan + campus map
As I read a prospectus, I want to locate on a map the places mentioned, like the Student Union or accommodation halls. It’s also useful to see how the uni. is integrated with or separated from the nearest urban community. Most uni. prospectuses include a useful map. However, a few omit this.

20. Open Day dates
As a major aim of the prospectus is to get you to visit, the Open Day dates are given prominence: often on or inside the back cover; sometimes near the front; rarely in the middle.

“Alternative prospectuses” are sometimes produced by students at a particular uni.. Their tone is much more informal and the subjective comments are sometimes designed to be provocative and entertaining rather than reliable. You should recognise that they are likely to be based on the views of a small minority of students, but you might find them an interesting check on the official prospectus. Cambridge’s is a good example of the genre:

Stage 1 : Research: About

[STEP 24] 

University websites offer a huge amount of information, some of which can be very valuable to the prospective applicant. Remember that the areas open to the public are still part of a university’s marketing material, so the same issue of tendentious choice of illustration and text applies as in the hard-copy prospectus. Needless to say, some sites are more informative than others and some are easier to navigate than others.

I am here using the same 20 headings as in Step 23. In many instances there is no significant difference from what is in the prospectus, although there might be more detail. So I’ll only comment on some of the headings.

3. the town/city location
Expect video, accompanied by lively music, to be used to convince you that the location is “vibrant”. I enjoy watching these films, particularly ones like that from Portsmouth, in which aerial shots with highlighted details are used to accompany an authentic-sounding insight given by a student. Some films are so fast paced that I soon feel sea-sick!

4. general details of academic study
As in the hard-copy prospectus, there is often not enough information about the different kinds of academic interaction, such as a seminar or tutorial. A five minute film of a few subject areas (without lively music) would do a lot to inform prospective students about what they might expect. It is especially important to give applicants an idea about types of interaction with which they will be unfamiliar: for instance, Problem-Based Learning in Medicine, or moot debates in Law.

Congratulations to Bangor on including a section on “How is University different from School?” and “Words to know before you apply”, a useful glossary of terms used by universities.

7. accommodation
You should find on the website comprehensive information about the different accommodation options for Year 1 students, including prices. Don’t assume that all “university accommodation” is owned by the university: these days there are many halls of residence that are run by private companies.

About a dozen years ago, when I noticed the proliferation of en suite accommodation being built across the UK’s campuses, I naively assumed that this was being done to attract conferences to use university facilities during the vacations. However, it is clear that this was the result of higher expectations from students. Different people will have different priorities in choosing accommodation. I simply urge you to look at the wider picture. On my visits across UK campuses I particularly enjoyed staying several nights at University of Liverpool’s Carnatic Halls. There is a regular bus service from the city centre campus out to Mossley Hill 3 miles away. Don’t be put off by this: here there are green open spaces to relax in. When I visited, the Halls were not the smartest, but the buzz in the restaurant, which caters for over 1,000 students, was wonderful, and the large bar area downstairs was running popular themed evenings (Moulin Rouge, when I was there). There was a very good sense of community.

Look carefully at the support given in finding off-campus accommodation in Year 2 and beyond. There should be clear advice on dealing with landlords and examples of landlord-tenant agreements. Does the university even inspect properties that it advertises?

8. student life: Students’ Union + clubs
There should be a lot of information about what is offered in terms of welfare support, entertainment, societies and other facilities. Each Student Union has full-time elected officers, who work on behalf of other students in a sabbatical year. The Student Union website will often include the election manifesto of each of these, and these sometimes highlight major issues within the student community that do not appear in the marketing material. For instance, at one big-name urban uni. the Education Officer aimed to campaign to get rid of “zero-hour contact time” courses and “tutorials which are on-line only”.

11. careers + employability
In Step 23 I stated that, if I were an applicant, I would want a university to answer two basic questions: “What am I being offered?” and “What does it lead to?” (i.e., What do graduates from this degree programme go on to do in the world of work?). I expect the second question to be answered in this section of the university website.

However, despite the fact that unis. are required by the government to submit to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) detailed information about graduates’ destinations six months after graduation, very few unis. offer this to the public. 

Best practice is to be found at:
Bath :
Loughborough :
Newcastle :

The examples above provide information about every graduate from each subject cohort, including the numbers of those unemployed or whose destination is unknown. This is crucial evidence about employability, and it is a pity that most unis. don’t offer it to the public. Parading the destination of one or two graduates offers no help to you, the prospective applicant. The survey is being relaunched in December 2018 under the title Graduate Outcomes, with students asked 15 months after graduation (with first results due to be published in January 2020). It would be better if the survey were conducted 3 to 5 years after graduation, as post-uni. gap years and many postgraduate qualifications will have been taken by then.

It is significant that the four unis. above have for a long time offered many degree programmes that include an optional work placement year, as there is a strong culture in such institutions, among both students and uni. staff, of focusing on post-uni. employment.

As most unis. don’t offer this information, I encourage schools and colleges to conduct an annual survey of students who left several years before. I arrived in a careers department that was already conducting a survey of those who left 7 years before. After 7 years most will have passed through university and entered the world of work. These are an invaluable source of information on recent student experience across a range of subjects and unis., and offer answers to the question “What does this degree lead to?” We knew these students, so we have a context for their comments.

I encourage schools and colleges to conduct such surveys and ask questions like:
What were your impressions of any Gap Year organisation used?
University name - subject(s) studied for degree - class of degree
Do you feel your choice of academic course was for you: INAPPROPRIATE – APPROPRIATE -  HIGHLY APPROPRIATE ?
Would you describe the student life at your university as: DISAPPOINTING – SATISFACTORY – EXCELLENT ?
What were the greatest problems you had in changing from school/Gap Year to university?
What was the approximate number of students in classes/seminars/tutorials for your course (give maximum and minimum, if appropriate)?
What did you feel about the teaching quality?
How accessible were the tutors, if you had an academic problem? 
How good were the facilities for your course (e.g., library, labs)? 
What advice would you give to anyone considering studying your course?
What postgraduate course(s) have you taken either at university or as part of professional training?
Please list significant jobs with: Occupation - Name of Company - Dates (in years)
What advice would you give to anyone seeking to get into your career area(s)? 
What employment/education plans do you have? 
Would you be happy for our current students to contact you by email to discuss your university or employment experiences?

The results of such surveys are gold dust!

17. university research
This is a key area to investigate further, if you are considering applying to a research-intensive university, as the research interests of the academic staff will be reflected in what is being offered in undergraduate degree programmes. Even in programmes accredited by professional bodies the fact that a department has a research group focusing on a particular area might make that uni. more attractive: for instance, a Psychology department whose research in the Cognitive branch might be more attractive to some applicants. A university has more freedom in constructing programmes that are not externally accredited, so these are even more likely to reflect academics’ research interests.

Look carefully at the number of academic staff in a department. In some subjects at some unis. there are very few who teach undergraduates. Consider what might happen in a department of three, if one has a sabbatical year. Don’t assume, for instance, that an Italian or German department is large just because a uni. boasts of its international outlook. Far fewer students have been taking languages at school and therefore at uni. over the last 20 years and many uni. departments have closed as a result. I have calculated that from 1998 to 2013 the number of unis. offering Spanish declined by 12%, Italian by 16%, French by 26%, German by 39%, Russian by 54%. However, the number offering Chinese increased by 60%.

18. A to Z of degree subjects
It is vital to get down to module level of uni. programmes that you are considering. I have already dealt with this in Step 14, but I can’t emphasise enough how important this is.

Remember to log your findings.

19. town plan + campus map
Some uni. websites offer videos of the campus or of students talking about the uni.. The UCAS website has a useful index:

Stage 1 : Research: About
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