Having visited several university open days with my eldest daughter, I have realised that, as good as they are in helping you to choose the best place study, there are some questions that can go unanswered unless you proactively ask them. I'm not suggesting that universities are deliberately withholding information, but we both found that there were some matters that were not addressed during subject talks and accommodation visits.
Ultimately it's important to consider what makes your ideal learning environment that brings out the best in you and then asking questions based on that. Of course you may need to compromise on some matters but the answers will at least enable you to make a well informed decision.
So here are 5 questions that we felt it was important to ask at university open days:
1. At what stage in your first year do you need to start planning for your second year accommodation?
During one university visit we were told by a current first year student that she had to arrange her second year digs by Christmas. She was unaware of this when she started and it came as a bit of a shock. This means that the pressure is on to make good friends in the first term. Of course, if you leave it later you're not going to be homeless, but the longer you leaver it, the less choice you have about where you live.
2. What does a typical timetable look like?
Walking into a large lecture hall full of students can be quite intimidating when you've been used to classes of 20-30 at school or college. Lectures will generally take up most of the face to face learning hours and there could be in excess of 200 students in a lecture. Lectures will be supplemented with seminars which are more like your typical classroom numbers of anything between 15-40 students. We discovered that seminar numbers can range from between 6 hours per week to 1 per term. Only one out of the 10 universities we visited shared a typical first year timetable during a course talk.
3. How many of your students actually do a placement in the third year?
If you're looking at sandwich degrees (a wise choice if you want to improve you're employability), it's worth finding out the answer to this question. We discovered from our visits that the answer can range from 10% to 75%. Prospectuses do normally state that the university cannot guarantee a placement and the onus is on the student to actively find a placement. I imagine many students are less proactive in seeking and securing a placement than others,but it does make you wonder how much is down to student motivation and how much is down to university support and their links to industry.
4. How accessible are lecturers if you need support?
In addition to lectures and seminars, universities will offer drop in sessions of say 1 or 2 hour windows per week, where students can bring their individual queries or concerns. Some may also run weekly tutorials - small class sizes where students can deal with matters such as exam technique, essay writing skills and other general support issues. Some students will need less support than others, so the answer to this question may or may not be a deal breaker for you, but it's still worth asking.
5. What is the ratio of assessment by exams and coursework?
If you can't stand exams (like my daughter!), this is an important question to ask. However, it can be a difficult one to answer accurately for many degrees as it depends on the optional modules you choose. If you're tactical, you can choose more modules which are assessed purely by coursework.