8 Ways a Summer School Can Help You Choose the Right Course and University for You

One thing that makes choosing your future course and university so difficult, and that leads to so many students getting it wrong, is that it’s hard to get enough information to make a decision. Despite recommendations, very few students end up even visiting every single university they apply to, and there’s only so much that a carefully packaged open day can tell you. As far as courses go, many university subjects are ones that you don’t study in school, or where the difference in teaching style and content is so different between A-level and undergraduate study that your impression of the subject from school isn’t that helpful in knowing whether you’ll enjoy it at university.
A key advantage of attending a summer school, then, is that it can help to provide you with a lot of the missing information about your choice of course and university that you might struggle to access otherwise. Here are ten ways that you can use a summer school to help you choose the course and university that’s right for you and for your future career.

1. Learn more about your preferred subject(s)

ORA courses offer students to get a taster of their chosen subject.

The most obvious way in which a summer school can help you choose your future university course is through the subject you choose to study. Summer schools might have specific courses focused around preparing you for studying a particular subject at university (such as Oxford Royale Academy’s Medical School Preparation, Law School Preparation, or Summer Architecture Programme), or they may offer courses that don’t focus on being pre-university courses, but that can still give you a much better idea of what studying your preferred subject at university might be like than you can get in your day-to-day education at school.
For instance, summer school courses, like university courses, are typically taught in smaller groups. The material covered might more closely resemble the content of a university course. One important factor is the teaching style. At Oxford Royale Academy, we’re inspired by the Oxbridge teaching style, which prioritises discussion and debate, encouraging each student to form and then defend his or her own point of view. This teaches students how to analyse the material they are learning and understand it at a deeper level, rather than simply regurgitating memorised facts.
If after two weeks studying your preferred subject at a summer school, you love it more than ever, then brilliant: you have your answer about whether you should be studying it at university. If you’re feeling more ambivalent about it, then perhaps you need to think again about which subject is right for you. And if you’re trying to decide between several different options, consider a course such as Oxford Royale Academy’s Broadening Horizons, where you can choose three from more than 30 different study options, to work out what might be right for you.

2. Get guidance from experienced summer school staff

Summer school staff are all here to help and support you.

One of the best resources at a summer school is the staff. They’re experienced, friendly and there to help you – so make the most of it! You can speak to your teachers about your choice of subject, which could be asking them whether they think you would succeed in studying it at university, whether it’s the right option for your choice of career, and which university has the course that most closely reflects your interests. There are also more in-depth questions you could get into – for instance, on Oxford Royale Academy’s Engineering Preparation Programme, you can explore the different types of engineering such as Mechanical, Electrical and Civil Engineering to see which one you might like to focus on in future.
But it isn’t just your teachers who are a valuable resource. You’ll also have counsellors who you can speak to. Oxford Royale Academy counsellors are typically current university students or recent graduates, so they will have made the same decisions that you’re currently making relatively recently. Many will be students at the university where your course is located, and they can offer an insider perspective, potentially giving you things to think about that you might not otherwise have considered.

3. Study in the university you’re considering attending

Spending time in a university on a summer school gives you a much better impression of it than an open day could do.

Oxford Royale Academy courses are this year based in the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, St Andrews and Yale – so if you’re considering attending any of those universities in future, you can give yourself a taste of undergraduate life there by living and learning on their campuses for a fortnight in the summer. This gives you a chance to see the side of university life that you seldom see on an open day, such as whether the undergraduate bedrooms are comfortable and what the quality of the college catering is like!
And choosing a university isn’t just about choosing where you’ll study for the next three or four years. You’ll also be choosing a town or city to live in, and that can be just as important. Oxford Royale Academy gives students city tours, led by our counsellors, in order to introduce our students to the history and culture of the city that they might one day choose to make their home. In your free time, you’ll also have the opportunity to get to know the city or town by exploring it in the company of your friends.

4. Explore your own preferences

Factors such as what kind of room you want can be surprisingly important.

Do you like to share a room or do you prefer to have your own space? Is an en-suite non-negotiable? Does living in a city where everyone cycles drive you up the wall? Do you need your room to be no more than 250m away from the nearest Starbucks?
These are the kind of factors that you ought to take into account when you choose your university, and they might not be questions to which you know the answer. For instance, it might be that sharing a room is something you find enjoyable and sociable for a fortnight, but by the end of that time you’re looking forward to getting back to your own space. That would tell you that perhaps you should avoid American universities and the handful of British universities, such as Durham, where room-sharing is the norm. Attending a summer school can help you figure out the answer to these questions; they might seem minor, but if it turns out that being on your own in your room leaves you feeling lonely, it’s better to find that out now than be miserable for all of first year.

5. Think about the size of city, university and college

A small town like St Andrews is ideal for some, but stifling for others.

A particularly important example of how you should take the time to explore your own preferences is in the size of city, university and college that you prefer to be in. All three can vary considerably, from cities of 10 million such as London to towns of under 10,000 such as St Andrews, universities of 40 thousand such as Manchester to universities of 7 thousand such as Aberystwyth, and finally colleges of over a thousand such as Trinity College, Cambridge to colleges where each year comprises just 370 people such as Peterhouse, also in Cambridge.
Some of us love to live somewhere where everyone knows everyone else and you’re the only person in your year with your first name. Others of us strongly prefer the anonymity of a big city and not feeling like everyone you interact with knows your business. If you’ve always lived in a big city or a small town, you might not realise how important the difference can be; getting out of your comfort zone at a summer school can help you figure out what you prefer.

6. See if you prefer an ancient university

Being surrounded by ancient and beautiful buildings is a key priority for some students.

Almost all of us think that we prefer ancient universities to modern ones, but that may not prove to be the case once you actually show up. It’s wonderful to swan around medieval corridors, past Renaissance portraits and gargoyles, before eating your lunch in a hall that’s older than some countries. On the other hand, navigating a bureaucracy that’s been eight hundred years in the making and trying to figure out how to stop a draft getting in through mullioned windows can make the rest of the experience feel a good bit less fun.
It may be that two weeks in a summer school at an ancient university is enough to make you think that perhaps you’d like to study somewhere with a little bit more glass and steel. Or it could be that it’s the beginning of a lifelong affair with Gothic architecture and the occasional draft in winter is something that you decide you’re more than willing to put up with.

7. Find out which extracurricular activities you might like to get involved in

Many students get involved in new extracurriculars when they go to university.

Almost all large universities will have almost all of the same extracurricular activities available, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all created equally. For instance, pretty much every university will have a drama society, but some universities will have much more by the way of theatres and rehearsal spaces. There can also be cultural differences; some more traditional drama societies will stick to Shakespeare, while others will seek out the oddest of the avant garde. There are also extracurricular activities that are dependent on location; Cambridge University has an active hill-walking society but not many local hills, and you’d be hard-pressed to join a rowing society in a city that doesn’t have an easily accessible river. Prospective wind-surfers are advised to avoid Oxford, which is 68 miles from the sea.
There are some extracurricular activities that you might typically only get the chance to try out once you get to university, and this is where summer schools can help out. At a summer school, you’ll get the chance to try your hand at a range of extracurricular activities that you’d normally only encounter as an undergraduate – so if it turns out that you love punting, archery or real tennis, you can make sure you pick a university where they’re a possibility.

8. Take part in university preparation activities

Sometimes the act of getting ready to choose a particular university helps confirm whether or not it’s right for you.

Several courses at Oxford Royale Academy include time for you to work on university preparation activities. One of the most important for students applying to study in the UK is the UCAS Personal Statement – a 4,000 character statement about why you want to study the course you’ve chosen and why you’d be a great candidate for universities to pick. It’s your opportunity to sell yourself to the universities you’re applying to, and it can be a vitally important part of your application. For many universities, a strong personal statement can be a deciding factor in whether or not they give you an offer. At Oxford Royale Academy, our teachers can help advise you on how to write a personal statement that shows you in the best possible light.
This process of writing a personal statement can also be of significant help in figuring out whether you’ve chosen the course that’s right for you. Some subjects are easier to write a personal statement for than others (for instance, writing a compelling personal statement for Maths is famously challenging) but if you’re finding it impossible to think of any reasons why you’re suited to your subject of choice, it could be that you ought to be considering studying something else.
Of course, that’s not always the case – it’s entirely possible to love a subject so much you can’t put it into words – but working through university preparation activities can help you figure out what your reasons are for your choice of subject. If, when you put them down on paper, you end up with reasons more like “because it’s what everyone in my family has studied” or “because my friends are in that class at school and they make it fun” then perhaps you should reconsider; if it’s “this subject is vital to the career I know is right for me” or “every time I read a book about this subject I get more excited at the thought of studying it”, then you know you’re on the right track.

All photos except that of St Andrews were taken on Oxford Royale Academy courses.