How to pick a university that's a perfect fit.

October 8, 2023

Even if you know what subject you’d like to study, you may find it difficult to figure out how to pick a university that suits your personality and passions. When you have to consider which country you’d like to be in for college, this decision becomes even more difficult.

However, you can take actionable steps to make this process easier. You could check the university league tables for your preferred subject area: you should also consider speaking to recent graduates of the degree in question. This will give you a much clearer idea of the course’s workload, the quality of teaching, and the efficacy of the coursework or practical assignments.

Here’s a breakdown of the 4 key factors to consider when you’re picking a university that best suits your chosen area of study.

1. Comparing Universities and Colleges

When you are particularly dedicated to an area of study, you want to pick the top-ranked university for your chosen subject. Graduating with this degree will look excellent on your future CV. Also, when you choose the best college this ensures you are getting the finest available education for a subject area that you’re passionate about.

If you’re thinking about how to pick a university, one of the easiest methods is to look for online ranking systems. There are websites available that offer university ranking by subject and provide an in-depth look at each of the institutions. You can filter down certain website ranking tables by sub-fields like study level, your subject of interest, and your preferred country of study. In some cases, you can even compare up to 4 different universities or institutions of learning to get a direct contrast between various viable options.  

Best Ranking Sites

Here are a few of the most thorough, accurate, and well-respected ranking sites for universities and subject areas:

If you’ve got your heart set on studying a particular subject at university, try to prioritise the universities that are top-ranking for this subject.

For example, the QS World University Rankings 2022 has this top 5:  

However, if you were choosing to study Linguistics, for example, the QS World University Rankings (for 2021) would  look quite different:

Let’s say that you don’t have the option to study in the States, or you’re a Scottish candidate that wants to save money on tuition and stay near home. You might narrow down your options so that you’re only looking at Scottish universities. Here’s your top 5, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 (worked out by taking the top Scottish options out of the UK top 20):

When you’re looking at universities initially, try to select 15-20 options that look like viable options. You can then break down this list into your top 5 universities based on stricter criteria, like the size of the student population, social life, variety of extracurricular activities, or the available research opportunities.

2. Location and Facilities

University ranking sites are useful indicators of factors like global prestige and research impact, but they don’t always tell the whole story when it comes to important aspects like teaching quality, student satisfaction, and sports or arts facilities.

Prospective students should consider their priorities when applying for a particular course at a particular university. You might rank the degree itself as your top concern, but if you’re a keen and passionate football player, you’ll need to think about the quality of the teams at your preferred universities. You’ll also want to know about the standard of sporting facilities on your chosen campuses. Are there high-quality gyms? Is there a weight training studio for strength and conditioning sessions?

Culture or Nightlife?

If your personal interests lie in culture, you may want to choose a university that’s located in a historic town. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 and is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the world. History and culture buffs will love the collegiate courtyards, cobbled streets, and gorgeous chapels dispersed throughout the city.

You might want to go somewhere with an excellent music scene. If this sounds like you, check out the cities of Manchester, Glasgow, or Boston (in the States): all of these places have diverse DIY cultures, and you’ll find an exciting artist or band to see every night.

3. Considering Finances

Applying to college isn’t just about the tuition costs. When considering how to pick a university, prospective students should pay close attention to the cost of living in their chosen areas. If student loans are available, will these funds cover tuition and living costs or will you have to work part-time in a pub or coffee shop during the semester?

Make sure that you’re considering the cost of living when narrowing down your university preferences. For example, if you’re planning to go out and socialise a lot when you’re at college, you might want to look at cities with low drink prices and nightclub admission rates, like Glasgow, Sheffield, Aberdeen, or Newcastle. This factor shouldn’t be the first thing you think about when deciding where to go for university, but it can help you to differentiate between otherwise similar degree options across the country.

4. The Application Process

You should also consider the application processes for different universities before selecting your top preferences. Different colleges require different files, essays, documents, and references depending on their national ranking or international location. For instance, if you apply to an American college, you’ll have to take the SATs or the ACT: those applying to Cambridge have to fill in an SAQ form.

In addition, you may need to pay an application fee. Again, application fees vary depending on the university in question, so it’s best to research beforehand. That way, you won’t get a nasty surprise when initiating your application.

Considering Prerequisites and Facilitating Subjects

Prospective students figuring out how to pick a university should consider whether they’re applying for certain specialised degrees. Many college degrees require candidates to take facilitating subjects at school in order to create a successful application. In most cases, facilitating subjects are prerequisites for degrees like Engineering, Applied Maths, Natural Science, and Modern Languages. Make sure that you’re checking for any prerequisites on the websites of your chosen universities before picking your A-Levels, Advanced Higher, or IB subjects. You’ll also find that top UK universities require you to achieve a certain standard of grade across your Sixth Form subjects.

For more in-depth information on this process, head to the Acing the UK Admissions Process section of the A&J Website. You can also check out the Russell Group’s useful Informed Choices tool.

Preparing to Apply to University

Whether you’re a prospective student who wants to strengthen your university application or a pupil who’s confused about which higher level subjects to take for your degree of choice, you should get in touch with one of our experts at A&J Education to set up a free consultation. We can help mentor tutees to bolster your chances of getting into your dream university.

If you have the option, you should also consider visiting your preferred universities and talking to relevant teachers, heads of departments, and recent graduates. Often, the best way to choose the right university and course for you is to have in-depth and insightful conversations with those directly associated with the subject area.

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