Selecting the Ideal UK University

Gareth Davies
June 13th 2024

For students in the last two years of school, you have exciting decisions to make as to which five university choices you will put on your UCAS application.

Where possible, try and visit as many universities of interest as you can. Remember you will be living and studying as an undergraduate for at least three years and therefore it is important to give this part of the process as much thought as possible. You will likely have some input from friends and family, and a number of your peers will probably be applying to similar universities, but the choice must be right for you. You would be surprised at how different you can feel about a university when you actually visit it for an open day. Speaking with current students and walking around the campus can give you a fantastic insight into what student life is like there, and what it's like to study at that institution. You might also be able to attend a taster session or lecture as part of an open day or similar event, and this will give you a feel, albeit a brief one, of what it might be like to be at that university for at least three years. 

Questions to ask yourself when considering a university

Think about the following:

  • Does the university that I'm looking at offer the course I want to study? This is probably the most important first question
  • What are the likely entry requirements? Depending on when you are doing your research, it may be a little early to think about predicted grades, but it goes without saying that you must consider whether you will be able to achieve the likely required grades for a particular course at a particular university.
  • Does the course structure and module breakdown suit me? Does the course contain lots of modules that I'm really interested in and excited to study, or are there some that are of less interest?
  • Do I want a city-based university experience, or a campus-based one? They can feel very different indeed. 
  • Must all my choices be Russell Group universities?
  • Do I want to apply to Oxford or Cambridge
  • Is there a particular part of the country where I really want to study? Near home or near friends and other family or not? 
  • Did I enjoy the open day or taster day that I attended?
  • What was the feedback like from current students that I spoke to?

Once you are in your final year of school, you will have to decide which universities to put as your firm and insurance choice only once you've received decisions from all 5 universities. This is normally by early June (check the date carefully for your application cycle). You can make one firm choice and one insurance choice only, and any other offers you have been fortunate enough to receive, must be declined.

How do you know which university to make your firm and insurance choice?

Hopefully you would have had plenty of opportunity to visit as many of your five university choices as possible during the application process. This is not always possible, but universities also now offer virtual open days as well as online campus tours run by current students for those that are not able to attend in person for whatever reason. Universities will also arrange offer holder days which can be very useful in order to narrow down your final firm and insurance choice. 

You will probably have a very good idea about which universities you want to put down as you will likely have been thinking about it for some time. Although unconditional offers certainly do exist, it is likely you will be choosing from conditional offers, mainly dependent on the grades you achieve in the summer.

For your firm choice, of course this must be the university that you want to attend above all else. However, you must also consider the entry grade requirement. Depending on how your studies have been going, you might feel more or less confident about achieving those requirements since you applied. If you genuinely feel that you won't achieve the required grades, then you should think very carefully indeed about putting that university as your firm choice, even if it's the one you really want to go to. Of course, universities do sometimes accept students who've missed their offer by one grade or so, but at this stage you certainly cannot rely on this. It is unlikely that your firm choice university will accept you with lower grades if it is a very competitive course or it is a university in high demand with very high entry requirements. Putting a university as your firm choice that you know you won't get the grades for is essentially a wasted choice, and you would then be just relying on your insurance.

Your insurance choice should have lower entry requirements than your firm choice. If you choose one with the same entry requirements and you miss the grades for your firm university, you will then have missed both. It is not unusual to receive several offers with the same grade requirements. If that is the case, then make sure that your firm choice is the university that you really want to go to. It is important to point out at this stage that your insurance choice is not a university that you can go to just because you might prefer it when you get your results. It is there as insurance if you do not meet your firm choice requirements. If you get the required grades, then you are obliged to go to your firm choice university.

Whatever stage you're at in the UCAS application process, our higher education consultants at William Clarence can help. Book an interview with one of our team today for expert advice and guidance through the university selection process.