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Researching universities can be an immensely complex task for students (and their teachers and counsellors). These 15 questions will help them get started on the path to choosing a university.
Choosing a university is one of the biggest decisions many students will have made in their lives. Guiding them as they get started can be daunting – you have the power to shape their entire futures!
And the first step to choosing a university is, of course, thorough, detailed and structured university research.
But for many students, and by association their teachers and guidance counsellors, 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, can make university research complicated.
- Whether it’s focusing on university rankings, or choosing a university based on external pressures from parents and families, students may start their research with a few pre-existing biases and misconceptions.
Choosing a university can be difficult, and when faced with all these problems, students can feel overwhelmed or disheartened and may approach university research with very little structure and purpose. This can mean that they don’t always approach the application process with the necessary clarity about why they want to study at a particular institution.
Guidance counsellors and school careers advisers often tell us about their uncertainty when it comes to helping students begin their university research, especially if they already have existing preconceptions, or aren’t very engaged.
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 when it comes to choosing a university.
These three steps comprise leading questions, designed to help students start thinking about their personal preferences and structure their research as they start shortlisting universities.
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Step 1 in choosing a university: 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 as students set about choosing a university, they have options where they can really be happy.
Here are some of the other questions to ask in this first step.
What’s the climate like?
The University of St Andrews in Scotland is one of the most highly ranked institutions in the UK. While that may make it a very prestigious university on paper, there’s no point in 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, or 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 in choosing a university: researching 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 experience as a whole when choosing a university. We’ve included five important questions in this section, but if you want to get even more in-depth guidance on helping students choose a campus, check out our guides to the city vs campus distinction, and the key criteria your students should look out for when choosing a university.
Does this university offer the qualifications your student needs for their future?
University fit depends on what students want from their future career. For example, some universities are better suited to specialist professional subjects like Medicine, Law or Architecture.
Likewise, some universities 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 choose a university that offers them direct work experience?
Some jobs in certain countries require specific accreditations. Make sure that students take 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?
If students are unable to visit in person, many universities are offering virtual open days and tours of their accommodation, so it’s worth checking on their website.
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.
As we mentioned above, many universities are holding virtual open days, and this can be a great chance for your students to talk to alumni.
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 in choosing a university: researching the 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?
This might seem like an obvious question, but it’s an important one for students choosing a university. Do they 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 question helps students think about how they like to learn. Some degrees offer larger, lecture-based classes, whilst others will consist of smaller seminars and tutorials, where students have more contact with teaching staff.
A lot of universities provide an option for online learning, with many now adopting a hybrid model. Though students applying might not have to follow these models, it’s worth them researching the provisions a university has made for remote learning, just in case!
How is the course assessed?
This is an important question for students, as they are more likely to enjoy a degree that is aligned with how they like to learn.
So ask your students: are they more comfortable with lots of essays and coursework? Or are they happier 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 when choosing a university, especially in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where tuition fees are higher.
But don’t let your students be deterred by an intimidating price tag. Encouraging them 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 students generous financial aid, scholarships and bursaries.
Which leads us nicely to our last question…
What kind of financial aid/scholarship package is available?
Many universities and governments in countries all around 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, grants, and individual student finance options for their shortlisted universities.
A flexible programme for choosing a university
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 when they start the process of choosing a university.
It’s worth noting that there’s no time limit on this three-step process. For example, Step 1 is a wider exploration of where in the world students want to study – this is something you could start as early as Year 11/Grade 10! It may be worth introducing the subsequent steps into your guidance programme in later years, as the cohort gets closer to the university application cycle.
The perfect tool for students choosing a university
But there’s even more you can do to help. By creating a free BridgeU account for your school, you’ll give every student access to our intelligent matching tools, which make creating a university shortlist simple. Students also have a wealth of reliable information on over 28,000 universities, and personalised content feeds – all of which make university research easy, engaging and enjoyable!
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