Choosing Your Dream University: Essential Tips for High School Students

4 Jan, 2024 | University Preparation

If you’re a high school student looking to go to university, and are looking for some top-tier advice on how to pick which university is right for you, then this is the article for you.

Choosing the right university plays a crucial role in determining your future, and we’re here to help you navigate the decision. We have a wealth of resources on the OxBright blog, as well as other tools and resources like the University Preparation Report.

In this post, we’re going to go over nine essential tips which will help you to find your dream university…

…with a musical twist for fun!

1. Understanding What You Want from a University

“Do what you want to do, and go where you’re going to. Think for yourself!”

The Beatles are here to remind us that picking your dream university is a personal choice.

Understanding what you want from a university requires a lot of self-reflection. Consider your aspirations, preferred learning environment and career goals.

But how can you understand what you want from a university? Here’s a checklist of some questions that you might want to consider.

Is this university in the right location for me?

Is your chosen university close enough to home, or on the other hand, far away enough? Where do you want to live? Is commuting OK?

How would you feel studying in a country different from the one you grew up in? Do you speak the language?

Some of these questions can seem a bit overwhelming – it certainly feels like a big decision! Try to look at each consideration separately, before zooming out to look at the bigger picture.

Does this university offer the course I want?

Is your chosen university well-known for your course? Which professors and tutors are available?

This can seem particularly difficult to approach while you’re at school, and it really underscores the importance of reading around your subject, and discovering academics you admire in your field.

That said, just like you shouldn’t choose an A-level or IB subject because you like your teacher, you shouldn’t choose a university based solely on the staff – you might not end up having any contact hours with them, or they might be on research leave for a chunk of your undergraduate degree.

Does this university have the campus culture that I want?

Is your chosen university campus or city-based? Is it collegiate? What type of university do you prefer?

If your chosen university isn’t based around a campus or college, are there lots of clubs and societies you can join to ensure you can find friends?

The best way to work out whether you ‘d prefer a campus or city university is attending open days and chatting to current students at each. You’ll likely get a sense of which style you prefer – and if you don’t, you might be happy with either, which opens up more options.

Group of students relaxing and socialising on a sofa

What are the extracurricular opportunities offered by this university?

What clubs and societies are on offer at your chosen university? Do they align with your passions and interests?

Does the city or campus facilitate your interests? For example, if you like mountain biking, is there a trail nearby? If you want to be creative, what’s the local theatre scene like?

Thinking beyond your course and academics can be difficult when you’re considering universities, but we promise you’ll have lots of time to explore beyond your university over the three years you spend there, so it’s important to be happy in the location, as well as the institution.

2. Researching Universities Effectively

“Searchin’ every which a’way yay-yay.”

Take a leaf out of the Coasters’ book – get out and start searching!

Luckily, finding your dream university doesn’t require swimming any rivers, or climbing any mountains – or, at least, it shouldn’t! – just some thorough and effective research.

How can I use official websites to help my research?

The websites of individual universities will inform you about the values and culture of the university, the courses on offer, and the entry requirements you need to meet.

You might also want to check out the UCAS website for more advice about picking a university, and alternative types of higher education on offer in the UK.

Who can I talk to about this?

Have a look at university rankings and league tables online, talk to your friends and family, and look at blog posts to get some personal accounts relating to different universities.

Remember to think critically about your sources, and keep in mind that everyone who attends university will have different priorities.

When looking at league tables, you should ask yourself how the data has been gathered, and think about its reliability as a source.

This isn’t enough. How can I get my own experience?

At certain times of year, you can visit university open days to learn directly from university and subject leaders, explore the campus or city, and view the accommodation and facilities on offer.

You might also want to apply to residential summer schools based at universities to get a real taste of what it would be like to study there.

3. Evaluating Course Content and Structure

“You’re the one that I want!”

In Grease, Sandy evaluates Danny’s character to figure out that he is the one that she wants, so long as he shapes up to her expectations.

The university you pick will be teaching you your chosen course, so you should make sure that their teaching methods align with your goals.

To find the best teaching style for you, follow this checklist of questions:

How will the course help me with my career aspirations?

Does this university provide any accreditations and practical experience opportunities you’ll need for your career after graduation?

Examples of these might be British Psychological Society (BPS) accreditation if you’d like to work in clinical Psychology, for example.

How is this course taught?

Which teaching method is employed by this university for your course? Do you want a lot of contact hours for mentoring and guidance, or do you prefer to have more independence? How does this university balance theoretical and practical approaches to your subject?

If there doesn’t seem to be enough information on these topics on the course page, you can reach out to current students at open days.

Wide shot of a lecture hall filled with students

What’s this university’s teaching reputation?

What is the reputation of your chosen university for teaching this subject? What’s the university’s reputation for teaching in general?

How will I be assessed?

Will your learning be assessed by exams, coursework, both, or neither? Which do you prefer?

University is likely the first time you’ll have some real control over how you are assessed – make sure you don’t ignore this in your university research!

4. Considering University Reputation and Alumni Network

“I don’t give a damn’ bout my reputation.”

Despite Joan Jett’s protestations, a bad reputation can harm the future opportunities available to you.

While there are many, many aspects you should consider before settling on a university, and you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you might want to think about how the name of your chosen university will look to future employers.

To assess your chosen university’s reputation, you might find it helpful to look at some of their notable alumni and see what they’re getting up to – are they successful? Which career paths have they taken? Has anyone done what you want to do through this university?

Isn’t this a bit shallow?

Reputation can play an important role in the variety of future opportunities available to you. That being said, if your dream university doesn’t have a great reputation right now, that shouldn’t stop you from applying and making a good name for it with your success!

Reputations tend to rise and fall over time, so it definitely shouldn’t be the only factor you consider, but it’s not wise to ignore it entirely either.

Will my university support me after I graduate?

It can also be helpful in your decision-making to check out whether your chosen university has a strong network of alumni.

Support can be invaluable in that crucial stage after graduation – does your chosen university keep in contact with graduates, for example by emailing out career opportunities and networking events?

Again, if you’re struggling to find this information online, reach out directly to the department, careers support team or recent alumni from the universities you’re considering.

Close up of a hand gently resting on a student's shoulder

5. Balancing Aspirations with Realistic Choices

“Take a chance on me!”

Maybe you’ve found some dream universities, but all of their entry requirements are super high. You might be tempted to give it all up. Don’t! Take ABBA’s advice and put yourself to the test by shooting for the moon!

But if that sounds absolutely terrifying, don’t worry. On your UCAS application, you get to choose up to five different universities to apply to. This means that rather than taking a dangerous all-or-nothing approach, you can apply strategy to your choices, in order to make sure you’re giving yourself the very best chances of getting into a university that you love.

You should make sure that you have a good mix of aspirational, realistic and safety options.

What’s an aspirational option?

These are universities you love, but which might have entry requirements that are a bit of a stretch for you. Think big and push yourself to achieve your dreams!

What’s a realistic option?

These are also universities you love, but which have entry requirements you (and your teachers) believe you can realistically meet. This ensures that, should you miss out on your aspirational option(s), you can still attend a university you love. You might like to base these options on your predicted grades issued by your school.

What’s a safety option?

These universities should still be ones you’d be very happy to attend, with entry requirements slightly lower than you’re expecting to achieve. This means that you’ll have a backup in case you have a bad day on one of your exams, and things don’t go to plan come results day.

Having a safety option is only a comfort if you would still be happy to attend the university – there’s no point in applying somewhere you don’t want to go. Remember there are other options if results day isn’t what you’re hoping for, for example gap years and foundation year options.

Why should I bother structuring my options like this?

By assessing the entry requirements in this way, and identifying which universities are aspirational, realistic or safety options for you, you can identify points in your academic record where you might want to improve and use this time to get to work!

This is hard. What help is out there?

Soon, UCAS will be releasing their historic entry grades tool, which will allow you to see the grades that previous students held when they were accepted onto their courses. This will hopefully help to support you in your decision-making.

6. Financial Considerations and Support

“Money, money, money.”

We had to return to ABBA for this one. However you cut it, your finances are bound to play a role in which university is right for you. There are two main expenses at university:

Tuition fees: the money that you pay to the university for their teaching. Check the individual university websites to see how much your course will cost, and whether this will have any impact on your decision-making. This is particularly important if you’re applying to universities in different countries, or a mix of public and private universities in the UK.

Living expenses: the money you’ll spend on accommodation, food and everything else. Check where in the world your chosen universities are, and how this is likely to affect the amount you have to spend day-to-day. You can look at affordability indexes for the cities you’re considering, and check social media platforms for any money-saving hacks there too.

What financial aid can I get if I live in the UK?

If you live in England, you may be able to apply to Student Finance England (SFE) to borrow money to help you pay for tuition and living expenses, to be paid off after you graduate.

Take a look at the GOV.UK website to see how this process works, and when you need to apply.

I don’t live in the UK. Can I still get financial support from the government?

Have a look at government websites to see what student financial support is offered in your country, and don’t be afraid to ask your family and teachers for advice – it’s usually expected that a student will require some form of financial aid. There are also private financial support options you might wish to consider.

If you want to study at a UK university, ensure you know about any student visa requirements you’ll need to fulfil.

Is there any other financial support I can get?

Almost every university offers some financial aid to certain students. Look closely at individual university websites to see what bursaries and scholarships are on offer, and who can get them.

Some of these will be automatically applied to you during the application process, but others you will need to apply for. Ensure you note down any deadlines that apply to the universities you’re considering.

7. Preparing for Application Requirements

“I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Like Royal Blood, you might be feeling stuck on your UCAS application, but there are things you can do now to get moving. Eventually you’ll have planned it out and taken your universities by storm!

Begin by reading our UCAS Changes Ultimate Guide to understand the changes affecting the UK higher education application process in the coming years and get top tips on every part of the application, including writing your personal statement and meeting deadlines.

Check the application requirements for every university you wish to apply for, as these may differ from university to university, and affect your decision-making.

Alongside this, make sure that you’re working hard at school to get those grades you need and secure some solid academic references from your teachers.

8. Seeking Advice and Guidance

Hello, it’s me. I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet to go over everything.”

This is something you might find yourself saying at this point in your academic journey, to friends, family, teachers, career advisors and all other mentor figures in your life.

It’s important to seek diverse perspectives on how to choose your dream university, so follow Adele’s example and get asking!

Parents and child talking to OxBright's co-director, Lavinia

9. Utilising OxBright’s Resources

“Mr Sandman, bring me a dream!”

Whether or not you, like the Chordettes, believe in the Sandman – OxBright can help to make your dreams come true!

We’ve been working tirelessly to collect and create all sorts of resources to help you pick the university that’s right for you, from our range of Ultimate Guides to our lists of top universities for your subject. Check out the University Preparation Report as a good place to start.

Hopefully you’re now feeling better about how you can take an informed and thoughtful approach in your university selection process. Remember that what you want out of a university is just as important as what they want out of you.

For now we want to wish you all the best in all of your future academic and professional endeavours!


By Jen Protheroe

Jen is a finalist studying Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Oxford. Outside of work, Jen enjoys spending time in nature and is a strong advocate for the mental health benefits of this – although she does like to soundtrack her peaceful, scenic routes with punk, rock and metal music mixes.

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