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Get the best out of university Open Days

What are university Open Days?

University Open Days are held by virtually every university and college teaching degrees. Each institution provides one or more Open Days a year (see calendar of 2018 Open Days). During an Open Day the university puts on its best face for many hundreds of sixth formers who are choosing where they will spend several years (and a lot of money) studying for a degree.

University Open Days are major events, with talks, lectures, displays, etc all intended to give a positive impression of life and study.

Students go on 'pre-application' Open Day visits to help them decide which universities to name on the UCAS form and , once they have applied, have the option of 'post- application' Open Days to decide which universities to accept offers from.

Below are some thoughts, distilled from over twenty-five years supporting students into university. It is not an exclusive list. Talk with those who know you at your college too, so that you can get be best out of university Open Days.

Benefits of university Open Days

University Open Days provide an opportunity to find out what a university, and its surrounding area, is like. However much reading or online research you do, there's nothing quite like a visit to give that extra dimension to your choice process. You get a chance to look at more, to get questions answered face-to-face and to meet people who are actually studying there.

Remember that you are going to be paying considerable amounts of money in both fees and living costs. Unless you have significant private means these costs will keep you in debt for many years. An Open Day is the time to really think about value for money!

Problems with university Open Days

University Open Days are marketing events. Universities want lots of applications (especially from overseas students who pay higher fees), so they will present everything in the best possible light. That's understandable, but from your perspective it means that you should treat Open Days as you would a street market or a profile on a dating app: question and inspect. Don’t take anyone or anything at face value.

A second problem is that it is easy just to be swept along with the bustle and excitement of the day out and come away without finding out what you need to know. You must prepare carefully before the visit (see later on). Decide what you need to see, which events you will go to, and what questions you need answers to.

Finally, there's the cost of attending university Open Days. You will need to get there, which will cost you money for travel. But you should also recognise that the visit will cost you time. If the Open Day is during holidays (and many are) you lose a day you might not have done anything else with. But if you go in term time (even on a week-end) you lose valuable study time. Going to several Open Days during term time could have a serious impact on your studies. Getting the grades is really your first priority in your pre-exam year!

How many university Open Days to go to?

It is tempting to visit all the universities you might apply to - you understandably want to make the best decisions you can. But that will take a great deal of time of time, so you need to be really selective. Do as much research online as you can before deciding on a short-list of universities to visit, and only attend the Open Days of universities that you are seriously considering and which you have a reasonable chance of getting into. And minimise loss of learning by choosing holiday time Open Days where possible.

But, if you have not already done so, you really must visit universities which have made you the offer of a place. If you have been given an offer you will generally also be given an invitation to visit for a 'post application' Open Day.

Every results day I have conversations with students who have gained a place at a university that they have not visited; and now realise they do not wish to attend. Each year I also write references for people wishing to change university in Year 2 as they do not like the place.

If you are going to miss classes do make sure you have cleared this in advance with your teachers and that you catch up the work when you get back!

Prepare

Plan your visit. The university will have a timetable on their website. They will want you to see their institution at their best. They will be paying hundreds of people to look after you and show you round. Do not feel that you have to do what they suggest. You decide what will be most useful to you.

Many universities will lay on taster lectures or seminars. These will be interesting. The university will have chosen their most high profile / best communicating / most dynamic lecturers to give them. Even if you attend that university you may never see them again. If the topic really interests you, and you could reflect on the lecture in your UCAS personal statement, then go. If not, your time might be better spent looking at what the real student experience is like.

Before you go, download a copy of the course details from the university website, so that you can read this as you travel to the university. And print out a map of both the campus and the city so that if your phone battery dies you can still find your way around.

Before you arrive write down the questions for which you need answers. These are going to vary enormously depending on your course, the university and your situation. Before I allow anyone to attend an open day I always want to see at least ten questions that they want answered on the day. If I can easily find the answers with a Google search I might question the value of a day out of college.

Many websites suggest lots of questions that can be asked on university Open Days, e.g. Which University. The most important thing to discuss with people is the course. After all, if you do not want to study the course, is university the right option for you?

Some questions to think about the place you will spend at least three important years of your life.

  • What is the course really like?
  • Where is the student accommodation? Often on university Open Days you will be shown the most beautiful parts of the city. However, is that where most of the student accommodation is?
  • What's the surrounding area like - you won't be spending all your time on campus, and may well move out of university accommodation after the first year?
  • How easy is this place to get to from home? You may wish to get away from carers / parents – but you will also possibly be dependent on them for transporting your kit. How long will this take from home? For international students how close is the local airport? Do flights from there go to your home country? If so, how often?

University Open Days can be attended by tens of thousands of potential students. Many people find going to Open Days daunting and intimidating. Remember that this is a fantastic opportunity for you to find the answers to the questions that you consider most important so that you can make the best decision for you. If you are a keen sportsperson, drama enthusiast, wish to know that you will be supported as being LGBTQI etc. you should ask about these too. Write those questions down so that you ask about all the things that are important to you.

Travelling around the UK can be expensive, so get your travel plans sorted well in advance to take advantage of any lower fares. And don't forget that university Open Days expect you to book a place in advance.

Sometimes people want to go to university Open Days with friends and / or loved ones. However, you will almost definitely go to university alone. Going to an Open Day alone can be a useful preparation for this. Planning your visit alone will also help you decide what is important to you. But if your family want to come along it can be difficult to say 'no'.

I'm an international student - any advice for me?

International student fees are needed by universities, and most universities also want to increase the diversity of cultures that they contain. They know that a diverse student body is good for all students, both academically and socially. As an international student you are going to be highly desired by many universities. University Open Days are your opportunity to decide which place is right for you.

You will need to search out information that is relevant to international students (and if the university has not considered overseas students in planning the Open Day is it the right place for you?) Many universities have a wide range of cultural groups. These will have websites, facebook pages etc. If there is one for your country contact them. In my experience they are always very welcoming. They will often arrange for someone who is from your country to meet you and show you round. This person will not be being paid to tell you the best about the university and is more likely to tell you what it is really like.

Some topics you may wish to ask questions about on an open day

  • Teaching and learning – what is it really like?
  • English language provision – in practice what occurs for overseas students? What is the real level of English you need?
  • Finances - What is the real cost of being an international student? This will differ considerably from the answers for UK based learners.
  • Visas – Does the university have someone who can help you with any visa problems?
  • Qualifications considered for offers – how will qualifications or courses you have taken in different countries be viewed?
  • Is this a place that is multi-cultural? The UK is varied. In some university areas over half the population will have originated outside of the UK, in other areas it is almost none.
  • Is there a group of people from your home country in this place? Is this important to you?
  • How easy is this place to get to from your home country?

On the Day

You should enjoy the day. If not, maybe that university or course may not be right for you. If you have prepared well you should enjoy finding out the answers to your questions.

Remember why you are at the Open Day. You are there to inform your decision about where is the best place for you to study. Do not be distracted by other things. You will have time for these when you are at university.

Checklist of things to do on university Open Days

  • Talk with students doing the course that you want to do.
  • Get a feel for both the university and the town
  • Ask your questions and note down the answers that you receive
  • Get the email addresses of people who can answer all the questions that you forgot to answer
  • (For international students) Speak with people from your culture / country

There are lots of myths about how students can impress admission tutors on university Open Days. These are myths: you will not get a low offer that way!

Afterwards

You will get the most out of the experience if you spend some time talking it through with someone in your College afterwards. This will also be valuable for the person to whom you are talking as it will tell them more about where you have visited.

If you have email addresses from people you have spoken with, email them to thank them for their time and to ask any remaining questions.

George Casley is Key Professions co-ordinator at CATS College London and has also organised open days for a London university.

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