It’s the start of a new school year, and those of us who teach post-16 students will be spending a considerable amount of time over the next few months giving advice about university applications. If, like me, you have a pastoral responsibility, it’ll feel at some points as if UCAS dominates your entire working life!

Some of your students will have a clear idea of what they want to do and where they want to go. They’ll have gone to Open Days and spent the summer drawing up shortlists and weighing up the benefits of different courses. Others will be less certain. 

This latter group is likely to include students who will be the first in their families to go to university, who don’t have the experiences of parents and siblings to guide them. It’s vital, then, that we help them navigate these tricky waters and think through the difficult choices that lie ahead before they finally submit their UCAS application.

If it’s the first time you’ve supported students through this process, here are some of the things you need to get them to think about.

Checking the course information

This should be obvious, but it’s amazing how many students focus simply on whether they’re likely to meet the entry requirements and don’t check out the fine details of what’s involved in studying a particular course.

There can be huge variations between institutions and differences in terms of how much freedom of choice students have, what their contact hours will be and how their subject is approached.

All of this means that Geography at one university might be a very different course to Geography at another. How many compulsory units will they need to take? What optional units are available? Are there any practical elements or opportunities for work experience or study abroad? What kinds of assessments will they need to submit?

Spreading your bets

Given the hike in grade boundaries this year, it’s wise for students to plan for all eventualities.

The five courses they apply to should include at least one safety net. This is particularly important for those students who are aiming high. What’s their Plan B? They need to have one, and perhaps a Plan C as well.

Female teacher helping sixth form students with university research.

City or campus?

Teenagers often feel swamped by the range of choices available – so getting them to think about the kind of place where they’ll be spending the next three or more years might well help them narrow down their options.

Do they want to be in the heart of a big city, or would they be happier on a campus? A city university could feel energising, or overwhelming – whereas a campus, where everything is geared to the needs of students, might offer a feeling of security but could also feel like living in a bubble.

Ideally, students should visit different types of universities to get a feel for where they might be living. They should also consider whether they’d prefer a small city to a big city, somewhere relatively rural rather than a big conurbation, somewhere near the sea…the choices are endless!

Getting there – and back

Some students will want to stay relatively close to home, but others may be excited by the thought of somewhere more distant. Whichever they choose, they do need to think through the practicalities of getting there and back.

Universities that seem relatively distant might well be easier to get to than students might have thought, especially if there’s a direct rail link. Conversely, a university that’s easy to get to by car might be much harder to get home from if they’re relying on buses and trains. Thinking through different routes and public transport options might bring a different range of universities within students’ reach.

And all students – especially those who are apprehensive about leaving home – should plan an ‘escape route’ and work out how they’ll get back home during term time if they really, really need to.

University of St Andrews. Some students may want to attend a coastal university.

And finally…

It’s all too easy for students to get caught up in thinking that they have to apply to university, especially if this is what the majority of their peers are doing.

If someone’s having a wobble, remind them that even if they do apply and accept a firm offer, they don’t have to take it up next autumn. Nobody will force them to go if they don’t want to. University won’t go away, and there are many mature students who are glad that they left it till later.