How to Choose the Right University for You: the Ultimate Guide

A group of university graduates posing in full graduation garb

Choosing which university you want to attend is one of the most important decisions of your life so far. However, the overwhelming choice available to you can make the decision a difficult one.

With 116 universities to choose from in the UK alone, to say nothing of overseas universities, you’ll need to be strategic to narrow down this bewildering array into a shortlist of six to apply to, and ultimately decide on a second and first choice. What’s more, with tuition fees now higher than ever before, it’s vital you make the right decision first time about where you spend your money.
But if that’s got you worried, don’t be! Read on to find out how to approach your university application intelligently and methodically so that your university career gets off to a flying start.

Firstly, a bit about you

Before you start looking seriously at which university is right for you, start by taking stock of what you have to offer and what you want from your university career and beyond. It’s important to have a realistic view of yourself, your motivations and what you want to achieve, as this will be something you’ll need to explain in your personal statement and possibly interviews. Consider the following:

Grades – what grades are you predicted to achieve at A level? Your grades will have a direct bearing on which universities you can realistically apply to, so this will be a good starting point in narrowing down your selection.

Image of a businessman in a suit standing by a large window.
Is this where you see yourself in ten years’ time?

What do you want from university? – there are many reasons and motivations for attending university, so ask yourself some serious questions to identify what you want from your university experience. For example, do you want to attend a top university for the prestige? Is university the next step on a defined career path? Or are you mainly only interested in the social side? Your answers to these questions will help you be clear about what sort of university would be right for you.
What do you want from your career? – not everyone knows what they want to do for a living while they’re still at school, and that’s fine – lots of people leave university still having no idea! But if you have your heart set on a particular career, there are likely to be some universities with a better reputation for your field than others. Do a bit of preliminary research to find out what degrees are most respected in the profession you want to enter.
What’s your personality? – think about your personality traits and how they shine through in your approach to your present school or college studies. Are you a scholarly type who’s self-motivated enough to put in a huge amount of work in order to achieve top grades? If so, you might thrive in a highly academic environment such as Oxford or Cambridge. If you’re not so academic, a more laid-back university environment is likely to be better suited to you.

Narrowing down your choice of universities

Now that you’ve jotted down a realistic picture of yourself and your aims and motivations, it’s time to start narrowing down the huge list of universities into a suitable shortlist of six. If you’re aiming high, don’t forget that you can apply to one or other of Oxford or Cambridge, but not both.
If you want to be super organised about this process, make a list of potential universities – or even better, a spreadsheet – and award a point for each of the criteria we discuss below that the university fulfils. Some of the criteria below will be more important to you than others, in which case you could award more points for these. By the end of this process, you’ll have a score for each university, from which you could simply pick the top six as your shortlist. That said, don’t rule out instinct; don’t let the list stop you from attending an open day for a university you suspect might be perfect for you!
Here are the aspects you might want to look at when creating your shortlist.

The course

Image shows a manuscript of the Icelandic Brennu Njáls saga.
If the sight of this delights you, beware that Old Norse is offered in only a handful of universities.

It goes without saying that one of the most important considerations when it comes to choosing the right university is whether or not you like the look of the course or courses they offer for your chosen subject. If you’re planning to study an unusual subject, your choice of universities may already be narrower, because not everywhere may offer it. On the other hand, popular subjects such as English or Mathematics will be offered virtually everywhere. You’ll therefore need to spend some time looking at the university department websites for your subject to get a feeling for how they differ. Have a look at the following:
Research and teaching reputation – how is the department viewed by its peers? It makes a big difference to how you feel about your department – and therefore how motivated you are to do well in it – to know that it is respected by other universities. The virtues of a strong reputation in teaching need hardly be emphasised; it goes without saying that the teaching quality will affect you significantly. Find out how courses are taught (for example, the weighting given to tutorials, classes and lectures), and try to find out what current students think of the teaching they receive (a forum such as The Student Room can be a good place to look for this and get honest answers).
Their approach to teaching your subject – have a read of what the university has to say about your subject and their approach to the teaching of it. Does it strike a chord with you?
The compulsory modules – you won’t have a choice about studying these, so make sure you’re happy with the majority of them!
The choice of specialist subjects – most universities will allow you to specialise to a certain extent, allowing you to tailor your degree to the areas of your subject that you’re most interested in. Read through their prospectus and make sure you’re able to do this, and ensure that the subjects you want to study are covered.
The size of the department – this will give you some indication of its relative importance within the university, as well as showing you what you could be a part of. Some people may prefer to be part of a small department with more of a family feel.
The Faculty – take a look at who the tutors are, and check out their research interests and publications. Some people apply to a particular university purely because they may have the opportunity to study with a particularly inspiring academic.
The facilities – libraries, labs, equipment – the facilities available to you will have a bearing on your experience of the course, so find out a bit about them so that you can use this as another point of comparison.
– How you’ll be examined – some students perform better under the pressure of exams, while others favour coursework. Take a look at the weighting for coursework/theses versus exams; if you’re not an exam person and the course is examined purely on a series of exams taken at the end of your final year, a course that rests more on coursework may be better suited to you.

Location and distance from home

Image shows a train pulling in to a station,
If you want to visit home a lot, make sure the journey isn’t too arduous.

We now turn to the pastoral side of university life. First of all, think carefully about how far you want to be from home and your family. If you’re a sensitive soul who’s prone to home sickness, you might be better off selecting a university that’s within easy reach of your parents. If you can’t get away quick enough, perhaps a university further afield might suit you (though you might find you miss the comforts of home more than you expect!). If you’re especially adventurous, you might even decide that you want to study some or all of your degree abroad. Some universities offer a year spent on an exchange with an overseas university, so if the thought of spending a while living abroad appeals to you, look out for universities that offer this.
Investigate transport links – you may want to visit home if things get too much during term time, so a good train link can prove to be a real lifeline. What’s more, your parents will be having to ferry you to and from university at the beginning and end of each term, so it would make their lives a bit easier if it’s relatively easy to get to!
Universities are generally located in cities, but these have a distinctive feel and offer different university experiences. For instance, if nightlife is important to you, a city with a thriving nightlife scene, such as Leeds, might be perfect for you; if you consider yourself a country person, a relatively sleepy university town such as Cambridge, with its easy access to beautiful countryside, would probably be better suited.

Old, new, collegiate?

Image shows Balliol College, Oxford.
Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world.

If you dream of dreaming spires and ancient scholarly architecture, an older university would be more your sort of thing. You may enjoy the collegiate structure of Oxford, Cambridge or Durham, universities that thrive on tradition and offer an almost Hogwarts-esque university experience. The collegiate structure of these universities offers you the chance to be part of a smaller community within a larger one, affording you the opportunity to study and socialise both within your own college and with the wider university. More modern universities offer a totally different experience that may be better suited to some students, with a very different vibe and perhaps more of a feeling of being part of a progressive and up-to-date community. Think about what sort of environment you’d be most comfortable in.


You may prefer the relative anonymity of being part of a big year group, or you may want to be part of a tighter-knit family that comes with being in a small year group in which everyone knows each other. Figures for current numbers of students will give you a sense of how large or small a university is and can be used as a point of comparison.

Cost of living, tuition fees and grants

The cost of living may not be something you’ve thought about before, but it’s something you’ll notice very quickly when you move to university and start having to fend for yourself! The cost of living varies across the country, with the most expensive areas being London and Oxford, and costs generally becoming cheaper the further north you go. London costs are often offset by increased access to funding, while Oxford is known for having almost London costs without the financial compensation (though many Oxford colleges offer generous grants).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but some universities have more money than others, and that may have a direct impact on the availability of grants to help you with costs associated with buying books, undertaking field work or foreign travel as part of your course, or even day-to-day living expenses.
Tuition fees vary from university to university, and sometimes even from course to course within the same university, depending on the nature of the course. Fees also vary across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. You’ll have student finance to cover your tuition costs, but if you’re worried about the level of debt you’ll come out with, it’s worth comparing tuition fees as part of your university selection process.


Will you choose to live at home and commute, or would you rather be independent? Most universities will offer accommodation for your first year, after which you’re expected to club together with your friends to find a house to share. Some universities, however, offer accommodation for your second or third years as well, including many Oxbridge colleges. Accommodation should be a key consideration, because if you’re unhappy with where you’re living, this can have an impact on your academic performance and general well-being. You should have the chance to see university accommodation if you attend an open day.

The fun stuff

Image of a woman dressed as an elf from the Lord of the Rings.
Larger universities will normally have a greater variety of clubs and societies.

Pretty much every university will have an assortment of sports teams, musical groups and various other societies catering for a wide range of interests. If you have a particularly niche interest, however, you may find that not everywhere has a society representing it. All other things being equal, you might find that the presence of a Tolkien Society or Dr Who Fan Club sways your decision in favour of that university!

The final shortlist

When you’ve got yourself a shortlist, it’s time to whittle it down still further by attending open days. These give you the opportunity to get a feel for the atmosphere of a university, as well as practical aspects such as how easy it is to get to from home, what the accommodation and facilities are like and what the city itself is like. You should also have the chance to meet and grill some of the current students, and even some of the tutors who may end up teaching you if you decide to go there. Open days typically involve a meet and greet, a tour of the university by current students and some talks and question and answer sessions. Go prepared with a list of questions you may have about any aspect of life at that university, and feel free to take a parent along with you so that you have a second opinion if you need it.
After you’ve been to a few open days, a final read of university prospectuses should help you hone in on the six you’ll put down on your UCAS form.

After you’ve got some offers

With a bit of luck, you’ll come out of the application process with a few offers to choose from. Let’s suppose you’re very lucky, and get offers from all six of your choices. How do you decide which ones to put down as your required first and second choice? Having been through the careful selection process to narrow your choice down to the final six, all your choices should be viable options for you. At this point it’s really down to gut instinct. Where did you feel most at home when you attended open days or interviews? Which offered the best all-round experience, and where do you feel you’d be happiest?
Only you can make this momentous decision, but if you’ve followed this guide you should be in a strong position to make the final choice, and you’re on track for a rewarding few years at your chosen university.

Image credits: banner; businessman; Old Norse; train; Oxford; elf.