How to Use University Websites and Prospectuses to Make an Informed Choice of University
If their websites and prospectuses are anything to go by, every single university in this country is the perfect place for you, will give you stunning career prospects and will guarantee you an ecstatically happy university experience.
They’re probably ‘best in the country’ or ‘in the top 10’ for various things too, and they’re all exceptionally friendly. Professional photos of students laughing or smiling in strategically attractive parts of campus, coupled with quotes from those students saying what an amazing time they’ve had there, lull you into believing that this university must be some sort of academic and social paradise. But all university promotional material is like that! This presents you with two problems: firstly, that it seems impossible to differentiate them to a great enough extent that you can select just half a dozen for your UCAS form; and secondly, they’re definitely not all going to be right for you. But how do you read between the lines and figure out which would suit you? We’ll start off with some guidance on what information is worth looking for, and then we’ll provide you with a useful glossary to help you decode what’s meant by various terms you might encounter on a university website or in a prospectus.
What information should you be looking for?
Most universities have a main website which acts as a central hub, and then ‘satellite’ websites for each department or faculty. For collegiate universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, you’ll probably find that each college has its own prospectus and website as well. This can make it difficult to know where to start and confusing to find your way around. We suggest starting with the main website and/or the prospectus while you narrow down your course choice, and then when you’ve got a better idea of what area you’d like to aim for, look in more detail at the department website, where you should find more detailed information about course content, entrance requirements and application procedures, facilities and staff. If you’re interested in a collegiate university, you can then start perusing the prospectuses and/or websites of some of the colleges that offer your course.
The following are the main areas you should focus on first, as these provide the key differentiating factors between the huge number of universities you have to choose from.
Naturally, one of the first things you’re probably going to want to look for is information about what courses are on offer. Broadly speaking, you’ll be interested in things like how the courses are structured, the flexibility they offer, how they are taught and how they are assessed. It’s a good idea to find an A-Z list of all the undergraduate courses, so that you can get an overview of what’s available; you might not have considered some of the related courses, but you might find that they’re even better suited to you than your original choice. It may be easier to find a comprehensive list of all undergraduate courses on the website than it is in the prospectus; although the prospectus may have an A-Z list of courses and should contain some more detailed course information about the main ones, they don’t always go into detail about some of the more niche variants of the main courses because there may not be room. For example, you might find information about the main English course in the prospectus, but little if any on joint honours courses that include English. For the full list with handy links direct to more information, head to the website.
Entrance requirements and procedures
Entry requirements, and details of application procedures such as interviews, vary from course to course, so you’ll need to look on individual course pages for details of exact requirements for your course. The website is the best place to look for this information, as prospectuses are limited on space and may only provide rough entry requirements or typical offers for broad subject areas rather than specific courses.
Universities now set their own tuition fees, up to £9,000 a year (more for international students), and the website and prospectus should give you details of exactly how much that particular university charges. The website and/or prospectus should also give you details of estimated living costs (which vary from one city to another), as well as bursaries and grants that may be available for students from lower income families.
Accommodation is one of the biggest factors affecting your experience of university, so as you read about it in the prospectus and on the website, have in mind the following questions:
- How much does it cost?
- How far is it from the university?
- How many years is it provided for?
- Are halls of residence catered or not, or can you choose one or the other?
- Will your room have an en suite?
- Will you have to share a room?
- What facilities and communal areas are provided?
You can usually find out more information about specific halls of residence on the university’s website; the prospectus often only provides a broader overview.
Academic and social facilities
Both the website and prospectus will be keen to offer you information about the impressive range of academic and social facilities the university has available, so don’t automatically be impressed – make them work a bit harder to impress you! For example, all universities have a library, but whether or not it’s one whose surroundings will inspire you to study is another matter. A photograph speaks a thousand words, although the professional photography hides all manner of sins, and they may have picked the only attractive corner of the library to include in the promotional material. Nevertheless, the information you can pick up at this stage will help you find out whether there are any universities that particularly stand out for you.
If you like what you’ve read so far, you’ll want to visit the university in question. There will be general university open days, and some departments may also run their own subject-specific open days. There should be information about dates for open days, along with a booking form, on the website.
Other information you’ll probably find on the website and in the prospectus includes:
- Information about the town/city in which the university is located – it’s perhaps not the best place to look for this kind of information, as the university will naturally make out their town or city to be perfect. For a true opinion, try asking on a student forum such as The Student Room.
- One of the buzzwords you’ll probably encounter on the university website or prospectus of today is “sustainability”. Universities like to boast about their environmental credentials, but the reality for you is that, unless you’re someone who worries a great deal about your carbon footprint, you can probably skip this section.
- Number of students – you can compare these for an indication of the relative size of the university. Some people prefer to be part of a smaller, close-knit community in which everyone knows each other, while others may feel stifled by this environment and prefer to be part of a bigger, more anonymous student community.
- Student societies and sports – a comprehensive range of interests and hobbies will be covered by a large number of student societies at all universities, so this isn’t necessarily a useful point of comparison – just a ‘nice to know’.
- IT information – virtually all universities will have good IT facilities in this day and age, so again, it’s not as much of a selling point as they would have you believe.
Glossary of terms
The glossary below explains some of the more confusing terms you may encounter for the first time on a university website or in a prospectus. Many universities have their own unique terminology, but those below are commonly used across all universities. For more university-related terms, see our A-Z guide to university life.
Alumni are those who’ve graduated from this university. University prospectuses and websites commonly include mentions of famous alumni to show you the elite club you could become a member of. They’ll also include case studies from their other successful alumni as a way of showing you how successful you could be if you went to university there. Bear in mind that these are anecdotal – you’ll find them on the websites of even the lowest-ranking universities, so take them with a pinch of salt!
This is a term for the university site and buildings. You’ll want to find out from the prospectus and website what facilities are available on campus, such as shops, bars and other meeting spaces.
This means the number of students who stay on to complete their degree. It’s the opposite to drop-out rate and can tell you about the quality of undergraduates the university takes on, as well as how happy students are with the university.
This is a posh term for “teaching staff”, which can also be a name for a university department (such as the Faculty of Music). You might be interested in finding out more about the teaching staff and their research interests; this information is normally on the website rather than in the prospectus.
Graduate recruitment rate
This statistic tells you what percentage of graduates find jobs within a certain time after they graduate. Ostensibly, it tells you how employable you should theoretically be with a degree from this university, but so much depends on individual circumstances that you can’t rely on this information too much.
These are days on which you can go and visit the university for a tour and talks, and to meet staff. You’ll need to book a place on one rather than just turning up, and you should find details of how to book on the university website.
Research Assessment Exercise
You may see this referred to in sections of websites or prospectuses that deal with the university’s research output, and it’s a measure of the quality of a university’s research, with reference to things like the impact it has on academia, the quality of the research environment and the esteem in which it is held.
The Russell Group is a group of 24 public research universities, which includes Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, LSE and many other leading UK universities. In its own words, this group is “committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.” You can be pretty confident that universities in this group will give you a well-respected degree with good career prospects.
This subjective metric is designed to give you an indication of the average percentage of students who are happy with their university experience. It doesn’t always correlate with the quality of education from a university; some of the universities lower down the league tables have higher rates of student satisfaction than those at the top.
This is simply the number of students per member of academic teaching staff. It’s meant to give you an indication of the amount of teaching resource available per student; the lower the ratio, the better (theoretically) your education. As with any such metrics, though, you can’t draw any conclusions – there are too many variables, and it doesn’t tell you anything about class sizes; but you can use this number as a point of comparison between institutions.
Many universities offer a study abroad programme that allows you to complete part of your course at a partner university abroad, usually for a term or a year. These are a superb opportunity for those keen to experience living abroad, and you don’t usually have to pay any extra tuition fees to do so.
In a few respects universities are much of a muchness: they all have libraries, accommodation, lecture theatres and so on, and they all have a comprehensive array of student societies and support networks. To find out the differences you have to dig a little deeper, and as you peruse the university’s website and prospectus, try to be difficult to impress. That way, only the really outstanding universities will grab your attention. The next step after assessing websites and prospectuses is to attend open days, and that’s when you really see whether the universities live up to their glossy paper representations.