Friday 5 April 2024

So you're thinking of going to university?

My IRL Self provided a check-list for wannabee students based on our experience of being SLO School Liaison Officer - organizing Open Days for my Department at a mid-tier UK University through the 80s. It was published in New Scientist in 1989 . . .

In the next few months, thousands of prospective undergraduates will be travelling round Britain, trying to find a university which will take them for the next three or four years (or to decide which university they should take their custom to, depending on your point of view). What most of them do not realise is that effective teaching and the quality of student life come fairly low down the list of priorities of these institutions, which tend to offer more reward and encouragement to the research side of the university coin than to undergraduates.

However, as research is likely to be of only tangential relevance to students, I exhort all university candidates to consider and number of questions to ask on their visit to university. 

Most of the questions can be asked directly, some by observation, and some by taking a little extra time at beginning or end of the official day. (Any chance of arranging to spend a night with a local student should be seized). For each question you should think about the best person to address: current undergraduates will often be able to give more meaningful answers than lecturers. Although some of the questions will not be answerable in the context of any Open Day, they are nevertheless important. After all, if you are going to stump up the train-fare for the visit you may as well get the most out of the trip as possible.

  1. Does the tour guide appear to be taking any interest in me?Does this person establish eye-contact? Are they showing that open days are a chore? Places which care about student recruitment will put their most personable staff on the job; those that don't will give the work to the departmental deadwood.
  2. Is there evidence that undergraduates have low status? Look for signs such as "Undergraduates may not use the lift" "Staff Toilet". Is there a student common room or (better) a common common room? Do I get a desk? Do I get a locker? Will I be a 'member of the department' or will contact be  limited to lectures and practical classes? Can I park my car near the campus for a reasonable fee?
  3. Can I afford to live here? Are the halls of residence the kind of place where I would want to spend a year? Is there rented accommodation nearby? What will be the effects of geography on my life here? (City centre sites are a long way from the mountains; greenfield campuses tend to be short on cinemas)
  4. Am I going to meet a set of friends who will stick with me for the next three years and the rest of my life? [Ans: probably!]
  5. Does the tour of the department take in the research labs and, if so, how much time will I ever spend there? Do I get the impression that research takes priority of teaching? Can I have a list of research projects carried out by students in recent years? Are projects supervised by lecturers or delegated to technicians or (worse) postgraduate students? Are synopses of the lectures available?
  6. Is there an active degree-based student group or society? Do its activities combine both social and educational events? On the obligatory tour round the local brewery, do I get a free pint at the end of it?
  7. Is there an effective careers information office? Can I look at it? Is it better equipped than the one we have at school? Does each student have a mentor / tutor? Is this person a fund of cogent advice, friendly support and genuine interest in my happiness?
  8. Can I meet the chair of the chess | badminton | hang-gliding club? Is there such a club? Could I set one up?
  9. Can I have 20 minutes to talk to a 2nd year student? Is there an Alternative Prospectus? What are the worst parts of the course?
  10. Does the entertainment offered during the Open Day comprise more than a cup of tea? Do lecturers appear for this? Do they seem more interesting than the poor fish who has been showing us round all day? Is it even the regular tea-break and are undergraduates present? Am I going to be seduced into coming here because they make a nice cup of tea?
  11. Does the Library make provision for recreational reading? (this is particularly important for sites miles from town)
  12. Can I get access to a computer? Can it handle word-processing? Is there any provision for recreational use? Will I be trained | forced to use one? [Cripes that's dated!]

Of course having asked all those questions you still have to answer the most important one yourself: do I want to go to university at all? The wonderful thing about Open Days is that they give you a chance to find out.

[Digging up this olde document was triggered by a question on MeFi - where lots of relevant advice].

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