UK Higher Education

Six things I’ve learnt about how students choose universities

Ellie Back joined the Whatuni team in 2015 and is our Outreach Marketing Manager. Mourning the loss of her student life at the University of Edinburgh, Ellie was delighted she could keep celebrating universities and all they can do for students by giving presentations in schools to help sixth-formers through the university application process. She also enjoys travelling the UK to different institutions to find out what students have loved and hated about their university days. Here she writes about her experiences speaking to sixth-form students about choosing a university. 


In the past year, I’ve spoken to hundreds of students trying to make decisions about where to apply to university. Sometimes their reasoning makes sense, and sometimes it surprises. Here’s what I’ve learned.

1. Available resources
Firstly, there is a massive difference in the amount of help that students get at different schools. I’ve visited schools that boast a whole careers department of four full time staff, and schools where students have very little in the way of guidance. Inevitably, the former get a head start on their research and feel more confident in their initial ideas about places to apply. Of course, part of our role in visiting a wide variety of schools is to provide easily accessible information so all students can make informed decisions.

2. Specialisation
Students interested in specific subjects do better research. If you’re a year 12 who’s managed to narrow down their interests to something as specific as ‘Freshwater Biology’ or ‘Hand Embroidery’, you’ve probably also found out which universities offer this course. I’ve been surprised at how many students are willing to narrow down their university options by setting their hearts on specialised courses.

3. Reputation matters
Whether a university is in the Russell Group or not is still important to students and lots of them have a pretty good idea about which universities are included. This is also important to schools – I once visited a school that had a display of their Year 13 destinations colour coded by ‘Russell Group’ and ‘Non Russell Group’. Perhaps stemming from schools’ desire to collect flattering data, students often have a very clear idea of the ‘reputation’ of a university, well before their research begins.

4. Proximity to home
Lots of students’ options for university are incredibly limited by wanting (or needing) to live at home. For them, location is the main priority, with all other factors (entry requirements, student life etc.) as secondary considerations. Whether to live at home or not seems to be one of the earliest decisions made about which uni to go to and influences all future research.

5. Parents’ opinions
Parents have a big sway on what students think about universities. When you ask students about their initial ideas for uni choices, many replies include reflections on what they think their parents expect or where their parents went. The problem with this, of course, is the outdated advice that comes with it. Some of my most interesting conversations with parents have been about universities they see as “old polys” which are actually extremely well-regarded for the subject their child is interested in.

6. Affordability
Money comes up a lot (but mostly from those who aren’t applying). For most students this is when using ‘it’s too expensive’ in explaining why they aren’t thinking about uni, rather than when deciding which university to go to (with the exception of those wanting to stay at home). Once students have decided they do want to go to uni, and perceive that they can ‘afford’ it, relatively little thought appears to go on any differences in how much unis charge, how expensive the city they’d live in is or extra costs associated with a course.

I also have the experience of talking to students on the other side of this decision, freshers at their chosen university weighing up their new situation. I have heard “man, you can’t even get an uber here” from kids schooled in London who’ve found themselves in rural Wales, but also “I love it, I’ve joined twelve societies and I can’t imagine being anywhere else!” I always hope that by encouraging students to use resources like Whatuni they will have the best possible chance of being the person who knows they made a great choice.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Awesome job Ellie! It’s so good that students have access to tools and websites like Whatuni. When I was in sixth form and needed to choose a university, we had barely any careers advice – we didn’t even know what apprenticeships and Russell Group universities were! It was information that just wasn’t given to us. Had I known all of these things as well as who ranked for what, my shortlist may have looked very different.

  • Chris Winters
    April 17, 2017 2:54 pm

    I like the idea to consider a university’s reputation when making a decision. Our son is going to be graduating very soon and I want him to have a successful future. I wonder what colleges he should apply to, based on his personality and your goals.


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