How To Start Researching Universities: The 15 Definitive Questions Your Students Need To Answer

Researching universities can be an immensely complex task for students (and by association their teachers and counselors). Use these 15 questions to help them get started.

In many of our previous articles, we’ve stressed the importance of university research as a first step in the application process.

But sometimes telling students to ‘do their research’ can be a bit of a throwaway line and doesn’t always acknowledge the obstacles that they face when actually getting started.

For many students, and by association their teachers and guidance counselors, university research is really hard. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The university marketplace is becoming more globalised, meaning there are more options to choose from, but it’s also hard to know where to start.
  • The Internet, whilst being a super-fast and convenient resource, in some ways, makes university research feel like a manual and complex process.
  • Whether it’s focusing on university rankings, or choosing universities based on external pressures from parents and families, students may start their research with a few pre-existing biases and misconceptions.

Students can approach university research with very little structure and purpose. This can mean that they don’t always approach the university application process with the necessary clarity about why they want to study at a particular institution.

The result? An increased likelihood of students dropping out or switching courses, or having to reapply to new universities. This can be especially frustrating when the cost of study in some countries is very high, and financial aid is competitive.

Guidance counselors and school careers advisers often tell us that they don’t always know where to start when helping students start their university applications; their job is made even harder if they have limited resources, or are juggling the responsibilities of a counselor with a full teaching timetable.

That’s why we’ve put together a simple, three-step plan to help your students structure their university research and ask the questions that will lead to more informed decisions. These three steps comprise leading questions, designed to help get students thinking about their personal preferences and to help structure their research as they start shortlisting universities.

Step 1: Research the destination country/region

This is where all good applications should begin. What’s it like to actually study in the country, region or city where a student is thinking of applying? From climate to culture, it’s vital that students are applying to university where they are going to be happy. Some of the other leading questions to ask in this first step are as follows.

What’s the climate like?

The University of St Andrews in Scotland recently became the second most highly ranked institution in the UK. While that may make it a very prestigious university on paper, there’s no point a student applying there if they don’t want to study in a small, rural town where the weather is sometimes very cold and wet!

It may seem like a small detail, but climate and weather can have a major effect on our mood. Are students happy in a temperate city that sometimes has freezing winters, or are they more attracted to sunnier climes?

What are the language and cultural considerations?

In some countries, studying abroad may require working familiarity with another language. Some of your students may not even be taught in their first language. They need to ask themselves if they’re comfortable with this.

And cultural considerations will come into play too. What will the culture of their host country or city be like? Is it a liberal or conservative culture? Do your students think they will share fundamental values and interests with other students? Most importantly, if they’re studying in a new and unfamiliar place, can they see themselves integrating?

What will the cost of living be like?

Setting a budget for university is essential (especially when you throw tuition fees into the mix). How much will things like accommodation, transport, insurance, a mobile phone cost?

How easy will it be to get a student visa?

Study visas are a vital consideration for students looking to go abroad for university. Applying for a student visa can be a time-consuming and complex process. So make sure that your students know what’s involved. What supporting material will they need to present, and what’s the deadline for sending them?

Step 2: Researching university campus life

This second step hones in on what university campus life will be like for your students, and encourages them to think about the university experience as a whole. We’ve included five important questions in this section.

Does this university offer the qualifications your student needs for their future?

University fit will depend on what students want from their future career. For example, some universities will be better suited to offering specialist professional subjects like Medicine, Law or Architecture.


Top tip: Some university systems will offer specific, professional degree courses at undergraduate level, e.g. studying towards a Medicine degree. In other countries, a student won’t be expected to study towards their professional qualification until after university, e.g. students in the US attend medical school after completion of their first university degree. It’s worth students bearing this in mind as they consider international destinations.

Likewise, some universities may offer degrees with a work placement, or a year in industry (for example German Universities of Applied Science). Is this something that’s important to some of your students? Are they keen to study a degree that offers them direct work experience?

Some jobs in certain countries require specific accreditations.  Make sure that students are taking this into account when looking at a university or a degree course.

What type of accommodation does the university offer?

Encourage students to research accommodation thoroughly. Does the university offer halls of residence/dorm accommodation for international students? How much will it cost? What’s the commute to campus like?

What’s the social life like?

Students should have a good grasp of the types of extracurricular activities on offer. After all, studying isn’t everything!  Will your students have access to extracurricular activities that are suited to their interests and hobbies? It’s also worth students looking at factors like nearby towns and cities and what they have to offer in terms of culture and nightlife.

What do other students have to say about it?

Finding out what alumni of the university have to say about their experience of studying there is an important research tool. If your students are able to talk to any alumni of the university, they should try and do so. They can also talk to current students when they go and visit the university.

What percentage of students are international?

Some of your students applying abroad will be looking for universities where there are lots of other international undergraduates. For others, this might not be such an issue!

How welcoming is this university to international students? What kind of support and advice does it offer for international students while they are studying there?

Step 3: Researching the university course 

This final step encourages students to drill down into the details of the course itself and understand the day-to-day realities of being an undergraduate at this university.

Does the course look interesting to you?

This might seem like an obvious question – but it’s an important one. Does your student really want to take this course for the next three/four years of their life? Do all the modules and electives look interesting? There’s no point embarking on a degree course they’re not passionate about.

What kind of flexibility is built into the course?

Would your student be studying a very specialised degree all the way through their course? Or can they study a wider range of subjects before specialising (or picking a major) later?

This may have a bearing on the country they apply to. For example, UK university degrees are usually more specialised, whilst US and Canadian universities encourage students to take a wider range of subjects before picking a major later on.

How are classes taught?

This is a question that can help students think about how they like to learn. Some degrees will offer larger, lecture-based classes, whilst others will consist of smaller seminars and tutorials, where students will have more contact with the teaching staff.

How is the course assessed?

This is an important question for students to ask, as they are more likely to enjoy a degree that is aligned to how they like to learn.

So ask your students: are they more comfortable with a course where there are lots of essays and coursework? Or are they more happy being assessed in an exam setting? Will the course require a lot of group work and collaborative study? What’s the balance between theoretical and practical work (e.g. when looking at a science or engineering course)

How much will the degree cost?

This is another big question for students, especially in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where tuition fees are higher.

But don’t let your applicants be deterred by an intimidating price tag. Encouraging students to learn more about scholarships and financial support is another important step in the university research process. Countries like the US, which may seem expensive, offer their students generous financial aid, scholarships and bursaries.

Which leads us nicely on to our last question…

What kind of financial aid/scholarship package is available?

Many universities and governments in countries all round the world offer scholarships and financial aid for students. Access to student finance can be a major deciding factor for students as they consider their university shortlist.

The scholarship research process can feel especially intimidating and complex. So it’s best to encourage students to focus on government-backed loans and grants and the individual student finance options for their shortlisted universities.

And that’s our simple, three-step strategy. Students won’t have all the answers to these questions straight away; that’s why it’s important that you start your university guidance early enough so that they have time to reflect on the answers and gain a good understanding of what they want from a university experience.

It’s worth noting that there’s no time limit on this three step process. For example, Step 1 is more of a wider exploration of where in the world students want to study – this is something you could start with them as early as Year 11/Grade 10! It may be worth introducing the subsequent steps into your guidance programme in later years, as your student cohort get closer to the university application cycle.

To learn more about how you can help students in the subsequent stages of the university application process, download your free New Counselors’ Survival Guide.

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