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How to research universities

Deciding what course to study and where can be a long process for some students. We've put together some advice on how you, as a parent or supporter, can help your loved one to make those all important decisions. 

Moving on from sixth form or college to university is an exciting time for young people; suddenly there are lots of new opportunities and, for many, the chance to live away from home for the first time.

It’s not surprising that deciding what to study and where can be quite a daunting process and feel overwhelming for some students. Parents and supporters can play a vital role in helping them through the initial phase of researching universities and courses. So where do you start?


Understanding the application process

A good place to start would be to gain an understanding of the UCAS application process so that you’re aware of key UCAS deadlines. UCAS (University Colleges Admissions Service) is the organisation all students apply to for UK-based full-time higher education courses. This will ensure that both of you don't miss opportunities to visit universities, attend higher education (HE) fairs and other events well in advance of the UCAS application deadline so you can see at first-hand what’s on offer. Read our guide to the application process for details of key dates. 


Course research

Get the ball rolling by talking to them about what they might be interested in and their career aspirations, and then helping them to research the courses which appeal. Some university courses require students to have studied certain subjects at A Level so it’s important to look at any specialist entry requirements as early as Year 11. Whilst at school or college, a student may have visited local universities on ‘subject taster days’ in Year 12 or earlier so they may have an awareness of courses available in the region already. 

A key difference between school and college is the vast range of courses on offer at university. For example, a student may be interested in studying psychology, but did you know that they can specialise in different areas of psychology at university? At Sunderland alone, we offer four different psychology undergraduate degrees: core psychology, forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and psychology with counselling. Making sure you have a good understanding of the difference between specialisms is key.  

UCAS is a good place to start looking at the diverse range of courses on offer. You can look at the UCAS website where there are plenty of helpful articles about applying to university and career routes as well as listing all universities and colleges and degree courses. 

UCAS Higher Education fairs take place up and down the country usually during the day and are a useful way to research a lot of courses and universities in one visit. The fairs can be held in arenas or at a local university, and students can visit university stands and chat to staff and students about courses and university life. Often, schools and colleges organise class visits to HE fairs – either UCAS (for years 12 and 13) or UK University Search (for years 10-13). Schools and colleges may host their own HE fairs, attended by parents, supporters, and Year 12 students. These usually take place in the evening and a range of universities, both local and from further afield, take part. 


University research

The next step is to draw up a short list of universities offering courses that appeal. There are several things to consider when selecting a university: 

Location: is moving away from home an option for a student? If so, where do they want to live? Do they want to move far away or stay local? Do they prefer a big city or somewhere a little quieter? It may seem simple but finding a place where they feel comfortable and happy could make all the difference to their education.  

University facilities: another important consideration is university facilities and equipment, especially if a student is looking to study a degree that has practical elements. For example, at Sunderland, we’ve invested heavily in our sciences complex and offer our health science students state-of-the-art laboratories and learning facilities, fully equipped with the latest in simulation technology. Having access to fantastic facilities could give a student the edge when it comes to gaining employment after university as they will have hands-on experience within an industry standard setting.  

Entry requirements: choosing a mix of universities with different entry requirements and UCAS tariff points ensures that when it comes to accepting offers, a student has the option to select a preferred choice based on grades they hope to achieve and an insurance choice with lower tariff points as their back up plan.  

Reviews and rankings: there is a range of rankings and reviews of universities that you can access online. Rankings include both overall scores at institutional level and at subject level including entry standards, student satisfaction, research quality, and graduate prospects. We recommend looking at subject or course rankings to give a flavour of what to expect. There is also a range of national HE awards which you may find useful, for example, the University of Sunderland was shortlisted as University of the Year, the leading category in The Times Higher Education annual awards 2021. Sites such as The Student Room and WhatUni also provide reviews from current students and alumni. 

Websites and social media: to find out more about specific universities, visit their own website. You’ll be able to find out about events and services, order or download a prospectus and explore detailed information about courses. Looking up universities on their social media channels can help to see what’s going on and to get a feel for what student life is like. 


Open days and events 

University open days are a great way for a student to see where they could be learning and living. There may be several open days throughout the year – sometimes on campus and at other times online. Online open days can be a helpful way of broadening your search parameters and looking at universities further afield. Many online open days offer virtual tours and subject talks, giving you the opportunity to still look around and ask any questions you might have about the course or university. You might then follow this up by attending an on-campus open day or by arranging an individual campus tour. 

At an on-campus open day, visitors can take a tour of the facilities, meet academics and current students and ask any questions about applying to study there. Support staff will also be on hand to talk you through student finance and bursaries, accommodation, the application process, and support services for students. At Sunderland, we provide a parent's and supporters’ talk and a friends and family zone where you can grab a cuppa and relax. 

Once a student has applied, they may be invited for an interview, and this is another chance for them to get a feel for the university and course. After receiving an offer, they may be invited along to an applicant or offer holder day. This is an opportunity for them to continue their research and to find out about the university and their chosen courses in more depth before making their UCAS firm and insurance choices. At Sunderland, we invite applicants to take part in interactive workshops alongside current students, meet our friendly and enthusiastic staff and connect with their future classmates.  

We welcome parents and supporters accompanying students when they visit us at our on-campus open days, campus tours, applicant days, and offer holder (medicine) days. Find out about our next open day. 

Sign up for our parents and supporters’ newsletter. We’ll email you a downloadable copy of our Guide for Parents and Supporters and provide updates about our open days, deadline reminders and advice on how you can best provide support.