University Open Days: How they Work and How to Make the Most of Them
One of the things you’ll need to do in the run-up to your university application is visit some universities on official open days.
Many students get nervous about open days, imagining them to be some sort of informal interview process, but this is not the case if you haven’t yet submitted your application. In this article, we guide you through the logistics of university open days and give you some tips on what kind of things you need to look out for and what questions you need to ask, so that you can make the most of the short time you have available to assess the university’s suitability for you.
Why go on an open day?
It may seem quite a lot of effort to go to a university open day – let alone several – but it really is a good idea and it can be extremely helpful in narrowing down your choice of universities to apply to. It’s better to take the time to visit now than to apply ‘blind’, when your first experience of the university may be too late, and you may find that it’s not right for you after all. Those glossy prospectuses and websites only tell you so much about a place; you need to visit it in person in order to get a feel for its atmosphere, and to find out what the facilities are really like (those professional photographs can hide a multitude of sins). What’s more, the open day is a chance for you to meet the admissions tutors who will be assessing your application, and you can pick up some valuable tips about what they’re looking for in a successful candidate.
Booking a place
You will almost certainly need to book a place in order to attend a university open day. Once you’ve had a good look through the prospectus and decided that this is definitely a university you’re interested in, go onto their website to find details of the next open day (they are usually held at regular intervals throughout the year). There will probably be a booking form for you to fill in with some basic details of what course you’re interested in (some individual university departments may also organise their own open days, specifically for those interested in their courses). If you don’t get back any booking confirmation, it’s fine to email the admissions department to ask whether or not you can go, but it’s best not to go unless you have a confirmed place.
Alone, or with someone?
You’ll probably get more out of the open day experience if you attend with someone else, as they may notice things that you haven’t, and they’ll be able to offer a second opinion. It’s common for prospective students to go on open days accompanied by a parent, but if this isn’t possible (or you don’t want your parents to go with you), there’s almost certainly someone at your school who’s interested in the same university, so why not club together with them?
An open day isn’t an interview, and doesn’t require the rigid formality of one, but you will nevertheless be meeting admissions tutors, who may well remember you when they come to read your personal statement after you’ve applied. It’s a good idea, therefore, to opt for a ‘smart casual’ look, with nothing scruffy like a hoodie or trainers. Dark jeans with a shirt and smart pullover would suffice, for example.
Think about your travel arrangements well in advance to avoid last-minute stress. If you’re travelling by train, book an earlier one than the one you think you’ll need, in case there are unforeseen delays, and allow plenty of time to get from the station to the university campus. Book your train tickets early for cheaper tickets, and print off instructions or a map of how to get from the train station to the campus (many cities have dedicated bus services that do routes from the station or town centre up to campus, so find out which bus number it is if it’s going to be a long walk otherwise). Some universities may even organise an open day shuttle service, so make sure you’re aware of where to wait if you’ve been told there is one. If you’re travelling by car with your parents, set off in plenty of time in case you get stuck in traffic, and look up car parking in advance so that you don’t end up driving around trying to find somewhere to park.
When to arrive
It’s fine to arrive a bit early, but if you’re very early, perhaps try to find a coffee shop in town for a spot of breakfast before going to the university campus. It’s better to arrive too early than too late, and it’s polite to be punctual.
What happens on an open day?
Open days typically have a structured timetable of events that will occupy you for most of the day. There are likely to be talks and presentations from admissions tutors and accommodation officers, covering things like what life is like at that university, the application process and career prospects. There will be tour of the campus, both academic and social facilities, as well as opportunities to chat to academic staff and ask questions. Lunch is sometimes provided.
What to look at
There’s a lot to take in on a university open day, as a university campus will be a novel environment for you. You’ll almost certainly be given a tour as part of the open day, which is a good opportunity to see what the university and its facilities are really like. Here are the main things you should play close attention to, as these are the things that will affect your experience of attending this university.
Your department and course-specific facilities
You’ll naturally be interested in seeing the department that handles the course you’re interested in applying for, and since this is somewhere you’d be spending a lot of time if you came to this university, it’s definitely worth asking to see it if you’re not offered this option. Take a look round the department building and ask to see what facilities they have available for your course; for example, if you’re applying for a science course, you’ll probably want to see what the labs are like.
Lecture theatres and other teaching rooms
Lecture theatres and other teaching rooms will play a big part in your life during your university years, and you’ll almost certainly see some during the open day. Indeed, you’ll probably be given a talk in one of the lecture rooms at some point during the open day, giving you the chance to inspect the general upkeep of the room and assess what facilities it has (for example, does it have state-of-the-art digital whiteboards, or is it still relying on old-fashioned overhead projectors with acetate paper?).
As a diligent, hard-working student, you’ll be spending a fair bit of time in the library during your years at university. When you’re shown the library, you can look out for things like how old the computers are and how much available space there is for students to work in, and you could maybe even take a look at the section of the library devoted to your desired course, just to see how big and well-stocked it is.
Communal social areas
Virtually all university campuses will have a bar, student union and other spaces available for socialising on campus, so take a look at them and see if you can picture yourself relaxing there. Some universities will have other social facilities too, such as a cafe or even shops. If the campus is a bit of a walk from town, on-site shops will make your life a lot more convenient.
As part of your tour, you should be shown some typical student accommodation (if they don’t include this on the tour, ask to see it!). They’ll probably show you the best rooms, but this should nevertheless be a good gauge of whether you think you could live here. Virtually everyone experiences homesickness at some point when they’re at university, and poor accommodation can make it much worse. Look at the rooms and what facilities are provided in them (beds, sinks and desks, for example), and listen to see if you can hear much noise from the surrounding rooms. There’s nothing worse than lying awake all night trying to get to sleep because the walls are so thin that you can hear everything going on in the surrounding rooms.
Another aspect of the accommodation is, of course, the facilities available for preparing and eating meals. If the accommodation is self-catered, make sure you get a look at what the kitchens are like. They won’t be as nice as your kitchen at home – this is student accommodation, after all – but you’ll naturally want a reasonable standard of cooking facilities. If the halls are catered, you may even get to experience what the food is like as part of the open day, as many universities will put on lunch in catered halls.
The campus surroundings are an important part of how you feel about a university campus, and pleasant, well-maintained grounds can make the world of difference. Many universities have lots of greenery and outdoor spaces in which you can sit and relax during the summer months, so make sure you get to see these areas as well as the buildings.
Questions to ask
One of the main purposes of an open day, beyond giving you a basic introduction to the university, is to ask questions to your heart’s content.
Talk to tutors
Don’t be scared of approaching members of the teaching staff and asking them any questions you may have. That’s what they’re there for, and they will almost certainly want to encourage you to apply. You could ask them questions such as:
– What kind of things are you looking for in a successful applicant?
– Is there anything I can be doing to increase my chances of getting a place?
– How is the course assessed?
– To what extent will the course allow me to specialise in a particular subject?
Bear in mind that this isn’t an interview situation and you won’t be judged by what questions you ask. You don’t need to make up extremely intelligent-sounding questions just to impress them; you should simply ask questions for which the answers will prove useful to your application.
A note on formality here: it’s best to address academics by their title, such as Dr or Professor, unless they’ve introduced themselves by their first name or specifically asked you to call them by their first name.
Talk to current students
As well as academics, the other people you should try to talk to on the university open day are current students. They’ll probably be helping out by giving tours and so on, so this can be a good opportunity to ask questions such as:
– Are you happy with the quality of teaching you’re receiving?
– What is your workload like?
– Is there much going on socially?
– What’s the food like?
– Are you happy with your accommodation?
Current students are a good source of ‘insider’ information, so you could also ask them about what kind of things they wrote about on their personal statement, or what kind of things a particular academic might be looking for in an application.
By the end of the day
By the time the open day draws to a close, you should be in a much better position to assess whether or not this is a university you’d be happy to go to. The next step is to attend other open days; having attended one, you’ll be more easily able to compare institutions and sense which ones are better for you. Then, armed with the application tips you’ve picked up on these open days, it’ll be time to start writing your personal statement and maybe even revisiting the university for an interview. At least you’ll know your way around!
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