resources to help you chose a UNIVERSITy
ADVICE AND WHERE TO TURN TO
I’m sure you’ve been exploring this site widely, gripped and paying close attention. Good.
In that case, by now you’ll be saying, it’s all very well to tell me I need to prioritise universities based on the price of a pint in the student bar and on whether they have a tiddlywinks society, but where on earth do I get that kind of detail? Come to think of it, where do I even find out what courses are available and where, how good they are and what grades they expect me to get?
Worry no more. This section is a guide to who to ask, about what and whether to believe them.
WHO CAN YOU RELY ON?
· Careers Advisers
· Parents, brothers, sisters, friends
· Alternative Prospectuses
· Visits, interviews and open days
· UCAS rating
· Other guidebooks
· Multimedia and video prospectuses
There are six basic criteria for a good source of information and we have given each of them a star rating so you know who to trust.
No stars means that as far as the criterion in question is concerned, that source is as reliable as a Jaffa Cake bridge. Three stars means it’s good to go.
So, those criteria are:
- Accurate: Whatever they tell you, it must be right.
- Comparative: Do they compare one place to another, judging them equally or make it possible for you to do so?
- Comprehensive: Can they tell you about all your options and every university in the UK?
- Detailed: How much depth of information can you get?
- Independent: The advice should be warts and all, with no axe to grind, no vested interests, nothing to sell.
- Understanding: Do they know what you want? Do they talk your language?
Obviously, Push is the best, the most reliable, the sexiest… no, but seriously, folks, we’re genuinely trying to provide helpful stuff here. Push was started by students who thought most sources don’t come anywhere close to the six criteria above and so we set out consciously to match them. If you think this resource has been handy, then we hope it’s because that aim has come out in our approach. If not, we’ve failed, so don’t trust us and skip the next few paragraphs — they’ll make you hurl.
· Push’s idea is that we provide everything you need to identify the right university for you and we do it…
· independently — Push is answerable to no one but applicants
· accurately — our research is the most detailed into student life anywhere in the UK, involving visits to every university every year
· and accessibly — our staff are all students, recent graduates and experts in the field.
Basically, we keep it real and tell it like it is.
Push also produces a number of books (published by Hodder Arnold) and organises school visits giving regular talks in schools and colleges all over the UK.
Enough of the shameless plug, already. What about the other sources?
Problems: Contrary to popular belief, teachers are human. This means they are fallible.
Therefore, although their advice will be well-intentioned and quite possibly well-informed on their own subject, they are unlikely to know more than two or three universities personally.
Quite unintentionally, they are bound to have their own preferences and prejudices which will be based on where and when they were at university. If that was more than ten years ago, you can forget the star for accuracy.
What they’re good for: Teachers, however, do know you — although maybe not all that well and they may have the wrong idea — and they also want to see you do alright. Therefore they’ll try to help. In particular, they’re good at pointing you in the right direction to make decisions. They know what resources your school or college has and they’ve been through the application process so many times with other students that they’ll have picked up some useful stuff about how and when to do things.
Verdict: Good on the process and where to find stuff out, pretty poor on most other things.
Problems: Careers advisers tend to be better informed than teachers, but are still limited to personal knowledge of maybe a dozen universities out of more than 130 to choose from (and we’re not counting HE colleges).
Furthermore they probably don’t know you from Adam — or Eve.
What they’re good for: Take their advice on individual universities only with a pinch of salt.
They are, however, excellent on the wider range of options and on the whole application process and general paperchase. Also worth listening to about what specific qualifications might do for you in the long run and what jobs might open up for you.
Verdict: Good on the process and the wider context.
PARENTS, BROTHERS, SISTERS, FRIENDS
Problems: Your family and friends, unless they happen to have specialist knowledge, probably don’t know what they’re talking about on this one. Or at least, not when it comes to knowing the differences between individual universities.
Parents, in particular, probably haven’t been to a university in the last two decades — a period that’s seen some of the biggest changes ever to the whole system.
Even friends, brothers and sisters probably only know one university at most (the one they go to or went to, if they went at all) and their experience of even that one is a very personal one.
What they’re good for: The above is also, however, their strength.
They have a good insight into what it was or is really like to be a student. They can answer questions in more detail than most other sources because they’ll take their time — although don’t rely on the detail to be anything other than vague impressions rather than specifics.
They can also say what became important to them during their studies and what they would like to have known beforehand.
They also know you pretty well and, let’s hope, care about you and want to try to give good advice.
Verdict: Okay on student life in general and on their university experience in particular but take what they say with a wheelbarrow of salt.
Problems: Universities’ prospectuses are sales documents, produced by the universities themselves and they should be taken with the best part of a Siberian salt mine.
The photos tend to be taken early on sunny Sunday mornings when there are no students cluttering up the place and they’ll try to crop out the chemical works in the background.
They provide almost no comparisons with anywhere else and, apart from spouting the same PR puff as every other prospectus, they don’t go into much detail about student life beyond the courses.
What they’re good for: The parts that aren’t busy selling tend to be the most accurate source of information about the university in question.
This means that prospectuses are the best resource for finding out exactly what courses are available, what each course will actually cover, how it will be taught and assessed and what you’ll have to do to get in.
Verdict: For course info and cold hard facts, prospectuses are a must. For all else, extreme scepticism is advised.
Problems: These are sometimes produced by the students’ union and the students who put them together usually have very limited knowledge of anything other than their own university.
As a result they tend to describe it as either the best in the world or the worst and rarely anything in between the two.
What they’re good for: The students’ own views of a university, however biased, are worth hearing and you can read a lot between the lines about the atmosphere, which otherwise is hard to pin down.
Verdict: Worthwhile (even the ones you have to pay for), once you’ve narrowed down your search to serious contenders.
VISITS, INTERVIEWS, OPEN DAYS
Problems: It’s difficult to know exactly where to go once you’re visiting and universities will often try to show you only their best parts. But there’s no point seeing the new cybernetics department if you want to do French.
Also, there’s not half as much point visiting one university as there is in visiting two. Only then can you start to make comparisons. However, you won’t get a proper idea until you’ve been to at least three. Four’s even better and, while you’re at it, you might as well make a point of going to any that might make it into the five on your UCAS form.
What they’re good for: Make sure you see the kind of accommodation you would be in, the department you’d be applying to, the students’ union and any specific facilities that matter to you especially.
A trip to the bar might even be in order and take the chance to chat to some regular students about what they think of the place. Even if they like it, you may not like them.
Remember: interviews are as much about you interviewing them as them interviewing you.
Verdict: If at all possible, go see for yourself any university you’re seriously considering. See if it passes your taste tests. So long as you know what you’re looking at, there’s no more reliable way of seeing if it’s the right university for you. (That even includes Push.)
Problems: UCAS’s various publications, its website and helpline cover only courses, colleges and codes.
Strangely, UCAS’s independence is a bit of a handicap, because it means that, although it often seems they deal only in hard facts, in fact they deal only in official information provided by the universities. A very different thing.
What they’re good for: UCAS is very good on what courses are available where and what you’ll need to get in (especially their website — it’s not the easiest to use, but persist, there’s plenty of stuff in there). UCAS is essential, of course, for the application process itself and all the paperwork that has to fly all over the country. On these matters, they are very helpful and surprisingly efficient. (They’d be even better if their systems were simpler and they wrote instructions in plain English.)
Verdict: Good on what’s available where. Essential for the basic data and the process, but it ends there.
OTHER GUIDE BOOKS
Problems: There are other books, magazines and websites out there apart from the ones produced by Push and, to be fair, some of them are good — but, quite frankly, what would be the point in producing The Push Guide if we didn’t see problems with others and didn’t think that we do it better. If you don’t agree, then feel free to ignore this whole section.
Each has its own drawbacks, but, in our opinion, they tend to miss a few critical things. Some seem to believe there’s such a thing as ‘the best’ university. Push hopes we dismissed that right from the start. Most don’t do any of their own research at the universities but instead take information provided by the universities. And some don’t involve students in the process and so don’t understand what’s actually important.
Having said that, we’re only too happy to recommend them when they’re worth it, as we have done.
What they’re good for: In particular, check out Brian Heap’s books — dry as bones, but the best of the rest.
Problems: Unless it’s a website from a reputable organisation, such as Push Online, UCAS(www.ucas.com), or NUS (www.nusonline.co.uk), you have to assume it was put together either by people who had something to market — as in the case of universities’ own websites — or who may not have got their facts right.
Most websites that cover a range of universities have obtained their information from someone else anyway, either by lifting it (in which case you’ve got to doubt not only the original research, but how accurately it was lifted) or by buying it in.
What they’re good for: University’s own websites are like more up-to-date and interactive versions of their prospectuses and are very useful to the same extent. The same goes for students’ unions’ websites as a more easily accessed way of getting the same information as in alternative prospectuses.
Other websites — if reputable — can be an excellent way of researching specific issues or aspects of student life. Skill’s website, for example, is very good for students with disabilities (www.skill.org.uk).
Verdict: As ever with the web, there’s a lot of hay in that stack, but a fair few silver needles too.
MULTIMEDIA AND VIDEO PROSPECTUSES
Problems: Some universities provide prospectuses on video (either as cassettes, DVDs or CD-Roms), but the main problem with most of them is that they’re so damn dull. TV’s a great medium and they could do a lot to show you what the university’s really like — but, no, usually it’s just a walking, talking version of the printed prospectus. And because they cost more to produce, they’re usually out of date.
What they’re good for: If you can ignore the guff that the commentary usually spouts and focus on what the place actually looks like, it’s better than nothing. However, they’ve probably chosen a sunny day to shoot and they haven’t bothered to film the worst parts. To get a real idea, you have to visit.
Various newspapers and magazines publish mainly second-hand material about universities, but all too often it’s just an excuse to sell ads. As with websites, rely only on the information if you know the source and you know that the source matches the six criteria.
However, around Clearing, the listings in The Guardian and The Independent in particular, and on Ceefax, are invaluable if you are tempted to submit yourself to that haphazard process.
At the same time the BBC usually does a series of genuinely helpful (if slightly self-consciously wacky) programmes and features across TV and radio stations (mostly BBC2, BBC Radio 1 and the various BBC digital channels) under the banner of ‘Student Choice’. They also usually have a telephone helpline.