University Open Days: How To Survive Them (And Where We Went).

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.

Plan Ahead

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!

Liverpool uni open day

university open days

Liverpool university open day photobooth

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.

Liverpool cathedral

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.

what Lizzy loves university open days

What Lizzy Loves Durham university open day giant deckchair

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.

Durham university open day grey college

Durham university open days grey college

Grey College

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.

Durham university Marys college

St Mary’s College

Marys college Durham

Marys college Durham university open day

Marys college Durham university open days

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.

York university campus

York university campus open day

York university open days

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.

York university Kings Manor

York University archaeology building Kings Manor

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!)

What Lizzy Loves university open days sheffield


What Lizzy Loves how to survive university open days

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

  1. Plan and book ahead to ensure you can go to any relevant lectures. Go on uni mailing lists and download the app.
  2. Plan the journey well so you don’t waste time looking for a car park.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Wear comfortable shoes!
  7. Take drinks and snacks.
  8. Go with an open mind.
  9. But trust your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t the right course or university.
  10. 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.


  1. mummabstylish
    July 17, 2018 / 6:25 pm

    What a lovely post, I bet you had some super time together. What an exciting times ahead for both of you – good luck. Jacqui Mummabstylish

    • elizabeth
      July 18, 2018 / 8:11 am

      Oh thank you Jacqui. We had such a lot of fun and it’s so exciting. I feel quite emotional about it in some ways, but it’s simply the next milestone xxx

  2. July 17, 2018 / 9:44 pm

    I really enjoyed being taken on this journey with you & Poppy. Thank you for sharing Liz. I’m sure it’ll be really useful for other Mums with older children xx

    • elizabeth
      July 18, 2018 / 8:11 am

      Oh thank you Michelle. yes, it really has been a journey and one I’d say we’re only half way through, but it’s been so useful and so enjoyable so far xxxx

  3. Chris Wilding
    July 17, 2018 / 10:42 pm

    A great post. We are at the other side with all the open days long done & dusted for our 3. Number 2 has just graduated & number 3 starts in September.
    I would echo the research theme. Encouraging your child to look at course content/facilities. As well as the type of uni – campus/multi-site.
    Be prepared for a long day!!
    Mostly enjoy the time you have with your child x

    • elizabeth
      July 18, 2018 / 8:10 am

      Oh gosh, you’ll be a complete expert then after doing it three times! It’s so important isn’t it to do the research. Three/four years is a long time for them to be somewhere that isn’t quite right. As parents, I think we get a very strong gut instinct very early on. I certainly did and it’s interesting that Poppy and I felt the same about everything. I say “felt” rather than “thought” deliberately. It’s from the heart rather than from the head xxxxx

  4. Rosemary
    July 18, 2018 / 9:29 am

    Such a well written post Liz. Such fun to accompany you and Poppy on her Uni visits … lovely to see how happy you both are together. Also, great information and advice to anyone who’s planning visits … so helpful! Hope you’re having a good day! Rosemary 😘 xxx

    • elizabeth
      July 18, 2018 / 7:30 pm

      Oh thank you Rosemary. We enjoyed every moment and learned so much on our travels. I’m looking forward to the nest round in September!! xxxx

  5. Louise
    July 18, 2018 / 6:41 pm

    Hi Lizzy,
    My son has just finished his first year st Sheffield Uni studying archeology. Your post brought back many memories for me. I was really anxious about him going but he has fully embraced university life and is growing into a fine young man. Good luck to Poppy in her studies. You are right to go with your instinct – that’s how my son chose his uni. 😌

    • elizabeth
      July 18, 2018 / 7:28 pm

      Oh what a co-incidence Louise! We were very impressed with the archaeology department at Sheffield and went to a talk by a fabulous Italian osteoarchaeologist. We both said, we couldn’t think of a better place to study archaeology, if archaeology is what you love. The course content just didn’t suit Poppy in the way that anthropology does. It’s a vibrant campus with that amazing student union building. I’m not surprised he’s and an amazing first year.

  6. July 18, 2018 / 10:29 pm

    Madam (the monster child) went to Durham and her college was Marys – it was an absolutely brilliant choice for her. I wish your Poppy all the very best in whatever uni she chooses, and once chosen I hope she grabs every opportunity with both hands. I felt Durham was a really caring and positive environment for our Floo, she wasn’t just money or some kid, and also the small city itself was a fantastic place for her course (Sports Science). Floo took a year out between school and uni as she was all set to go and do sports science at a Scottish uni that shall remain nameless, she went for open day and was all excited and came back thoroughly despondent/cross/upset/eventually furious as the course had promised so much in terms of content and resources and going there it was obvious they had nothing like they said (and as she pointed out if they lied through their teeth and got caught – what else were they not telling her…) – so she sat down and drew up an action plan – she went to open days, she identified a lecturer/contact and emailed them a barrage of questions/built a connection, went down for an unannounced visit, collared students… – she was like the Spanish inquisition, and no they weren’t necessarily expecting her either – she would just turn up! Durham actually liked that and she graduated with a first and a very good degree, gravel-guy (the hubster and her dad) is in academia up here in Scotland and he was really impressed with how hard they work and how much support they get out of Durham – but where-ever she goes, I hope Poppy will find her feet and have the most brilliant time. Hugs to you – its hard, but they’re ready xxx

    • elizabeth
      July 19, 2018 / 2:19 pm

      Oh Juliet, what an absolutely fabulous comment! Thank you so so much. I will make sure I show this to Poppy as soon as she gets back from Tanzania (she’s away for two weeks on an expedition).I got the impression that Durham is very caring too. It’s a beautiful environment and as you could probably tell, Poppy felt totally at home in Mary’s. It is her first choice at the moment, but we really do need to visit some more in September to make sure she has an insurance choice too. Things may change of course.She may fall in love with somewhere else.
      Congratulations to your daughter on getting a First. She obviously is a determined young woman to go to all of those lengths to research Durham. She deserves success and I am sure this is just the start for her. And it’s very reassuring to know that your husband, (I love his nickname!!), with Durham. He will have a different and valuable perspective.
      Thank you again. It means so much that you took the time to leave such a long, informative comment xxxx

  7. Sue
    July 21, 2018 / 9:29 pm

    Hi Lizzy, what a great article. We went through open days last year and did 6. It was well worth it, as you say, you get a good feel for the different types of campus/facilities and the courses. However, I did have to smile at your advice re preparation. I totally agree with you, but parents with sons may have a somewhat different experience. We did Exeter with my son and a friend of his and his parents. We were all tearing our hair out as the boys had done very little ‘planning’ for the day, although they had signed up for some talks, but not looked at parking etc. We did that in the hotel the night before. We had a great day and one of the talks fired Matt up to look at Genetics rather than Medicine and that is what he has applied to do. We then looked at Nottingham, Leeds, Newcastle, York and Sheffield. In the end York didn’t make the cut, for him the campus didn’t feel right. Leeds, Newcastle and Exeter were the preferred options. After his offers were made we went to his first 2 choices, Leeds and Exeter to find out more about the courses. Again, well worth doing. The two courses were so so different. Leeds appears to be plant based genetics and is part of the Biology department. At Exeter it is part of the Biomedical Sciences course and with medics and sports scientists. The ways of teaching are very different, more small group work than lecture based and I suspect far more suited to Matt. I hope so as that is where he hopes to go. We got such a different feel from the two visits. Both great Unis, but …. I have to say we visited Newcastle and York with a friend and her daughter and it was very apparent how differently the two sexes had prepared for the visits. Her first port of call was the Library then the relevant departments and accomodation. Matt’s were breakfast then the subject department, the sports facilities and then accomodation if in the mood for it….. I have to say that Quilliam Brothers in Newcastle did the most amazing breakfasts – they win that category hands down! Anyway, good luck with future visits. We are now just waiting for the 16th August and results day… A new phase of life is on the horizon.

    • elizabeth
      July 22, 2018 / 6:31 pm

      Hi Sue, oh thank you so much for the lovely reply. Hee hee!!!! I am absolutely certain that things will be very different when I take my son in two years time!!!! And I know for sure he won’t sit in a giant deckchair with me!!!! It is so interesting isn’t it how a course by the same name can be taught so very differently. It sounds like you and Matt had the same experience with genetics as we did with archaeology. It sounded so different in the prospectus. These visits are invaluable aren’t they. Poppy now knows for certain the archaeology isn’t for her, yet before we went, she really thought it might be so similar to anthropology that it would work. it just shows.
      I am sure Matt will have done brilliantly- do let me know- and thank you again Sue for sharing your experience. I think there will be a part-two to this post when we’ve been to some more! Love Lizzy xxxx

  8. Sue Leatherdale
    July 22, 2018 / 8:36 pm

    Hi, of course, I was forgetting that you will go through it again with your son. I the experience you have had will stand you in good stead and will look forward to hearing how it all goes. We have had years of football, rugby and cricket at weekends, with the first two being replaced by hockey 5 years ago so I have a lot of empathy. Matt being able to drive in the last 12 months has made a huge difference as we are no longer needed as a taxi. With only having the one life has changed a lot. We know have a puppy so that will keep us out of mischief, but also means Matt will be keen to see us when we go to visit – so long as we take the dog with us apparently! Enjoy your summer. Sue
    PS – I bought the Lotus pewter espadrilles you reviewed and have had comments every time that I have worn them. To the extent that I ordered the blue ones too when they appeared on Amazon at half price!! They have also been commented on each time.

    • elizabeth
      July 23, 2018 / 11:44 am

      Oh a puppy will keep you busy indeed! Yes, all of the football/rugby taxiing takes a lot of time doesn’t it but we wouldn’t have it any other way! And I’m so glad you love the Lotus espadrilles. They’re gorgeous aren’t they.So comfortable and sparkly. I wear mine over and over xxxxx

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