And both approaches feature heavily in UCAS applications, year after year, as one camp of students hunkers down with a mountain of prospectuses for months on end, whilst - inevitably - the other camp just quickly clicks on a few places that sound “alright”, i.e. vaguely familiar, and not ‘Alcatraz’.
Now, most of us want absolutely no part in this process. We have our own daily dilemmas to conquer (How to secure that promotion? When to move home? What to do when M&S have sold out of all the BLTs before 12pm?) and our uni days, thankfully, are long gone. But, as teachers, we do hold a neutral position between student and family, or student and friends, or student and financial worries, or whichever push/pull factor seems to be influencing their choices the most forcefully. And that means we are in the position to help if it all seems to get too much.
So, how best can we support students when they seem stuck between a rock and a hard place? Or, more optimistically, when they’re torn between rainbows and riches? The road to university is potent with promise, so choosing the right pathway can become an overwhelming decision for a young person.
Facilitate some research by booking the laptops or the ICT suite for a lesson or two and giving students time to simply request dozens of prospectuses. Loads of them. The more the merrier. Let them scour student forums, departmental websites and even Wikipedia pages of famous alumni. Getting a flavour for each place is really important, and there are lots of different ways to do this.
Provide a set of highlighter pens or a scrapbook for cutting and pasting pages for shortlists. They’ll all start to blur into one after a while otherwise!
Pair students up and get them to try to explain to each other what they find appealing about their choices. Trying to put a preference into words really helps to clarify that decision. Also, get them to play devil’s advocate for each other (“You’re excited about the Manchester nightlife: do you think you might forget all about your studies if you’re too wrapped up in partying?”) You’ll be surprised at the challenges and the level of listening and feedback that this activity can generate.
The lay of the land
Most students like to visit the local area and the campus before they commit to their choices, but it’s not essential. Many students will have supportive families willing - nay, eager - to ferry them around the country to visit prospective universities, but not everyone is so lucky.
If a student seems keen to explore a university, but doesn’t have much support in place, there are things you can do to help (things that don’t involve driving between Inverness and Bournemouth, that is).
There’s likely to be a UCAS exhibition nearby, so check out the website to see when representatives from that university will be coming to you, rather than the other way round. This way, they can still meet people from the university, which can be a really reassuring thing to do.
Get the student to call or email the university and ask to be put in touch with a few current undergraduates who would be willing to discuss their experiences.
Check out cheap transport options (coaches like National Express and Megabus often do budget-friendly cross-country travel). Research the local area by looking on the town’s tourism website, plus TripAdvisor, and Google Maps.
Spend some time on the uni’s website: there’s likely to be video tours of the campus, a link to the facebook page, and maybe a link to the school newspaper.
Push and pull
Try to be aware of what the influencing factors are for your students. A little bit of observation and friendly chit-chat (with the students themselves or their concerned friends) should present most of the issue at hand if someone seems more stressed than usual: Hannah’s feeling pressured by her parents to go to Durham; Abanoub wants to go to Exeter because his best mate Tristan is going there; Amy’s worried she can’t afford to go to Sussex because of the high cost of living; and Celine is just straight-up freaking out at the overwhelming options on offer.
Those scenarios all require a bit of a pat on the shoulder, a listening ear and a word of reassurance. If it seems like things are spiralling out of control for the student (perhaps you’re worried about their mental health, or if they seem unhappy but trapped with their decision), do make use of your college’s provision: pastoral staff, counsellors, school nurse, or even speak with the family or recommend a trip to the GP.
When it comes to ticking those UCAS boxes, the choice, ultimately, must belong to the student. Culturally, some families may set stronger expectations than others to follow a certain path, but for the most part, it should be an acceptable conversation for you to have with your students. So open up a dialogue and try to steer things in the direction of what the student, rather than others, wants and needs. It’s their 3-8 years; the letters will go after their name; it’s their future career path.
So, what kind of factors are really important to consider?
All subjects have ‘gold standard’ departments, known for their expertise and impact. If one university trumps all others in their reputation for Linguistics / Ecology / Art History / insert subject choice here, then that could be just the ticket. Maybe their modules are highly specialised, or there’s travel or work placement options, or maybe the staff are academically renowned. Perhaps there are excellent opportunities for future research and postgraduate degrees. Whatever it is, it’s clear that a degree in Physics or French from University A will never be exactly the same as a degree in Physics or French from University B.
Clubs and societies
Many students will tell you, while hurling a frisbee across the grass at 100mph, that the course is secondary to their university experience. There’s so much other stuff on offer! Societies are an excellent way to make friends and strengthen communities for newly independent adults. Salsa, rock climbing, LGBTQ+, cookery, debate societies and the campus newspaper are all great places to broaden horizons, minds, and networks.
The uni itself
People talk about Oxbridge or Russell Group universities almost as a currency of their own. Just being part of that club adds a certain gravitas to a graduate’s CV. Reputation still opens doors in this not-quite-meritocracy that we live in, and this fact might be a big deal for some students (and their families) trying to weigh up a decision.
League tables can be helpful when comparing individual university’s performances in terms of student satisfaction, grades and employability.
Additionally, some universities may take different approaches to teaching, with the Oxbridge 1-to-1 tutorial style, or a heavier lean towards lectures or seminars.
For freshers, much of their first year unfurls on campus: halls of residence, student bars, and if they are feeling adventurous, maybe even a lecture or two. Even second and third years will benefit from a well-resourced campus: amenities such as libraries, study space, medical centre, Post Office, shops, cafes, banks, bicycle parking and green space all contribute to convenience and quality of life.
The local area
In the same vein as campus facilities, the wider area has an enormous effect on a student’s experience. And just as one man’s meat is another man’s poison, a great location for James may be absolutely horrific for Dionne, and vice versa.
Proximity to home:
Some people are natural homebodies, and others want to demonstrate their independence by getting as far away as humanly possible from their hometown. 50 miles or 500? It’s a very real consideration.
Areas served by a train station and Megabus make it easy to make long-distance trips home for holidays or occasional weekends. And day-to-day travel will be easier in a place that has cheap, frequent buses, and/or good cycle lanes.
Cost of living:
Nobody at Goldsmiths will be bragging about their bargain rent and cut-price cocktails, but their mates over at Leeds will be able to stretch their student loans much, much further. Some fortunate students won’t have to factor this into their decision, but most will - unfortunately - need to consider whether it’s an issue for them.
Students in cities will have more options than those in smaller towns, but it all comes down to personal preferences. Things like live music venues, theatres, beaches, festivals, parks, shopping centres and coffee shops all play different roles to different folk, so it’s worth putting in some research in this area too. Moving away from family puts a lot of importance on friendships to fend off isolation, and friendships are more likely to flourish when there are places to go and things to do.
Graduates often stay on in their place of study when they find work. For teachers, nurses and architects, this may not prove a problem, but for other career paths, it could be critical. TV and media jobs are often based in London, while finance roles are popular in Edinburgh, and marine biologists can find work in Portsmouth.
The general feeling of an area is often strongly tied to its main demographic (young media types/working class grafters/families who wear body warmers, pink trousers and drive a Range Rover). This can have a tangible impact on a person’s comfort and whether they ever feel ‘at home’. Sometimes, sticking out like a sore thumb can be fun, and staying in new places can seem like an adventure. Other times, the friction of community dissonance is not such a novelty. Choosing Brighton over Blackpool may make sense for anyone looking for a particularly socially inclusive area, for example.
Tossing a coin
If in doubt, heads or… no, only kidding. Though someone’s probably done it this way before, right?!
All of that won’t fit neatly in a nutshell because there’s just so much to consider. And that’s precisely why a level head such as your own could be a real help for your flummoxed students. You don’t need to know all this off by heart (after all, we’ve helpfully written it down for you here ;) but just by being aware of some of the push and pull factors, as well as the nuances of the options at hand, you can help steady the boat a bit. Whatever choice they make, there’s a new and interesting challenge around the corner. Heads or tails?