My daughter Poppy is coming to the end of her first year of A-levels. University is the next step and she will start in October 2019. She has known for a short while what she wishes to study and where. Students are advised to put five choices on their UCAS form, so we needed, (and wanted), to visit several universities. Despite going to uni myself, I didn’t know what to expect from university open days.
We went to four open days over three weekends. This is a little bit about our experience at each, in chronological order.
University Open Days In General
I started uni in 1993 and I looked around several but it was nothing like the university open days of today. Of course the internet and digital technology have had a huge impact, (the world wide web was just in its infancy when I applied). Potential students can take a virtual tour, join mailing lists and download an app for each individual university open day. Although hard copies are still available, prospectuses can be downloaded immediately. Students have almost instant access to everything they should wish to know, including league tables and other metrics of interest.
The dates for university open days are online several months in advance. This makes it easy to plan ahead, especially because they all happen within a few weeks, often in June/July and September. There will be inevitable clashes, so it’s important to prioritise according to preference. It’s worth looking at the logistics of the location too. For example, Poppy and I went to Durham on a Saturday, stayed the night in Newcastle, then went to York on Sunday. This reduced our rail travel to and from Skipton because both cities are on the same train route.
Talks and Tours
There are usually lectures/talks and tours. These might need to be pre-booked so allow time to get there in the first place, bearing in mind that it might be difficult to park. Campuses vary in size of course, but it can take quite some time to get from one place to another. It might even be in a different part of town, so factor that in.
There are plenty of well-informed student ambassadors around to point you in the right direction and to answer questions. We found them all to be absolutely excellent and very honest! There will be some at the railway station to show you to the courtesy buses too, so even if your teenager is going alone, they won’t get lost.
There is usually time for questions after the talks. If not, one of the student ambassadors will almost certainly be able to help. We had some specific questions about the courses along with general ones about the accommodation and the city itself.
University open days involve a lot of walking and there are usually, (unsurprisingly), long queues at cafes and eateries.
Liverpool University Open Day
We drove to Liverpool University and parked quite close to the campus. We went to the Student Union building where there were tables with people to speak to about accommodation, courses, finance etc. There was a photo booth too, something both Poppy and I love!
Poppy wants to study anthropology. At Liverpool, it sits within the department of archaeology and Egyptology so we went to a talk by the department. It was very useful if you want to study archaeology or Egyptology. However we soon realised that anthropology is only a very tiny course with just six people in the current first year. It felt very much like anthropology was a poor relative, an afterthought almost. But…we both liked the feel of the university itself and Liverpool is a wonderful, vibrant city.
Durham University Open Day
This was our second Durham open day. We went last September because Poppy liked the sound of the BSc Anthropology course. She fell in love with everything at first sight, so we were ridiculously excited on the train.
We went to the very same anthropology talk as last time and it was given by the same lecturer. It, and he, was just as good as we’d remembered.
We wanted to look at the colleges this time too. (Durham is a collegiate university. In simple terms this means the students chose a college to live in, similar to halls of residence). We looked at three. The first two, Grey and Collingwood both had a lot of plus points. There was nothing Poppy didn’t like, but I could tell she hadn’t fallen in love. I didn’t want to leave until she felt happy, so I suggested we look at one ore before heading back to the station.
She looked at the map and saw that St. Mary’s college was close to where we were at that time, but more importantly, very close to the anthropology building which would be very convenient if she ends up studying in Durham. As soon as we walked in, it felt right for Poppy. The right balance of formal and non-formal meals, the aesthetics of the building. Everything. We left feeling very happy and excited.
York University Open Day
Of the four university open days, York was the one which made the best first impression. It’s a beautiful campus and the sun was shining.
The “Welcome to York” talk was excellent and was in a large lecture theatre. The Pro-Vice Chancellor did the introduction and this was the most formal welcome we experienced.
After this, we went into a hall where each degree course was represented. York doesn’t do anthropolgy but does do bioarchaeology. When Poppy did her research, she found that a lot of modules in this archaeology course were very anthropological and therefore, she felt it would be just as interesting. We met a lecturer whose special interest is among Poppy’s favourite and he spent a lot of time chatting and enthusing. He was fab and Poppy was buzzing afterwards because he told her how impressed he was with her knowledge on the subject.
Several related talks followed along with a tour of the stunning archaeology building, Kings Manor, a fifteen-minute bus ride away. Poppy’s enthusiasm waned a little because it was there that she saw what one would expect of a “traditional” archaeology course- ceramics, pottery and the like, with little emphasis on the aspect of human evolution. As much as Kings Manor is a wonderful facility, the fact it is a bus ride from campus put her off too. It almost defeats the object of living on campus.
It’s so important not to get carried away. Had we only spoken to the lecturer and left when she was still buzzing, she would without question have considered York as her insurance option. I pointed out that his particular topic, while of the utmost interest to her, is only one module within a three-year course. I’m so glad we went to the rest of the tour. Poppy felt a little deflated, but it’s better to feel like that for an hour or so afterwards, than to spend three years on a course that isn’t quite right.
Sheffield University Open Day
We went to Sheffield with the same mind set as when we went to York. Again, they don’t offer anthropology, but the archaeology degree seemed to offer enough by way of human evolution to interest Poppy sufficiently. We had booked onto a twenty minute “Welcome to Sheffield” talk at 10.00am and an archaeology one at 10.30am. At 10.15am, we were still queuing outside of the building for the first talk. I don’t know why and this is something we hadn’t encountered at any of the other three universities. So, we left and headed to archaeology. It was lovely because there were refreshments and the opportunity to talk to members of the department before the talk and tour.
When we saw the overview of the course modules, it became apparent that this course wasn’t for Poppy. It differed to what she had first seen when researching courses. We completed the tour and decided to cut our losses and leave. We went via a fabulous Oxfam bookshop to Pizza Express for lunch! (Mine is the “Anatomy of The Eye And Orbit”, the rest are Poppy’s!)
The Sheffield University open day wasn’t what we expected, but, it was just as useful as the other open days. Poppy has eliminated it because the course wasn’t right for her. It reaffirmed that anthropology is what she truly wants to do, (rather than archaeology with some anthropology modules).
She is now looking at anthropology courses at different institutions. Fortunately she started the search early, so has plenty time to go to the next round of university open days in September.
Top Ten Tips For University Open Days
- Plan and book ahead to ensure you can go to any relevant lectures. Go on uni mailing lists and download the app.
- Plan the journey well so you don’t waste time looking for a car park.
- If travelling by rail, there will almost certainly be a courtesy bus to the campus/university buildings. Ensure you have enough time to get from the station to the first talk/tour. Make sure you know what time the last bus goes from campus to the station. Also, get a 16-25 railcard for your child. It’s only £30 for a year and they get 1/3 off rail fare. It makes a huge difference. We recouped it in one weekend.
- Don’t be afraid to ask very specific questions, especially if you are lucky enough to meet the admissions officer. There is no harm in asking what specifics they look for on the personal statement, for example.
- Make notes and take photos. One university open day can blend into the next, especially if you do several in a short period of time as we did.
- Wear comfortable shoes!
- Take drinks and snacks.
- Go with an open mind.
- But trust your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t the right course or university.
- Enjoy! I loved every moment with Poppy. It’s exhausting but it’s the final milestone in your child’s education. It’s a privilege to be a part of it.