How to help your teen choose the right university
If your teen’s heart is set on going to university after sixth form, then choosing the right university will be one of the most important decisions in shaping their future and you’ll want to help them every step of the way. The “right” university means the right university for them. It will be different from teen to teen – even within the same family.
Get familiar with different university types, the factors every student should consider when thinking of where to apply and differentiate between what you want and what they want by reading on. If you’re teen’s not sure what they want to do after sixth form, you’ll find The Parents’ Guide to Post 18 Options useful – it’s a snapshot summary of everything they could do when they leave school – click here to take a look.
Isn't the right university the best university?
Let’s start with the crux of the matter – not all universities are created equal. Some have been established much longer than others and may have a better reputation, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are best for your teen. Older universities tend to offer more traditional degrees which may not include up-to-the minute courses reflective of developments in technology and business approaches that new universities offer. That doesn’t mean old universities are bad, many of them are tremendous, but universities are different and it’s important to consider the pros and cons when your teen’s thinking about where they will be happiest and most successful.
What's in a name?
You may hear different names for universities, and it really boils down to when the universities were created. Don’t let different names or categories intimidate or confuse you:
Ancient universities – established before 1600 (i.e. St Andrews, Aberdeen and Dublin)
Red brick universities – established in 1800s, usually in cities – and typically built of red brick (i.e. Brimingham, Liverpool, Nottingham)
Plate glass universities – established in 1960s – and typically built in glass and steel (i.e. East Anglia, Kent and York)
New universities – established after 1992 (i.e. Brighton, Lincoln and Sheffield).
The Russell Group universities are 24 universities from the above groups with an excellent reputation for research, teaching and industry links. They are considered the top universities in the country, receive about two-thirds of all university research funds, and there’s kudos attached to getting a degree from a Russell Group uni. However, their entry requirements are high and other universities might offer more appropriate opportunities, so try not to be biased.
League tables are published annually by the Complete University Guide, The Guardian and The Times/Sunday Times. They cover a range of factors including student satisfaction, entry standards, facilities and academic services amongst others and focus on full-time student experience (not part-time). They can provide an indicator of how good a university is but don’t forget that well established universities know how to perform well in league tables through years of experience.
Less well known, but useful in assessing a university’s standard of delivering a particular course, is their rating for Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (“TEF”). Ratings (gold, silver or bronze) are decided by an independent expert panel including students, academics and employer representatives. Participation is voluntary, so not all universities will have TEF ratings. A revised TEF scheme is under development and results won't be available until 2023, meanwhile universities have been advised not to advertise their ratings, as many are out of date, but you can always look at how well they performed in the past.
Like secondary schools, universities can vary enormously in size and the advantages and drawbacks should be considered depending upon what will suit your teen best.
Large universities offer a much wider subject choice, alongside greater social opportunities with an astonishing array of clubs that encourage learning wonderful new hobbies that could last a lifetime. Smaller universities cannot compete with this (especially specialist establishments); however, they may offer a greater sense of community and belonging. What kind of environment would suit your teen best?
Campus or city
The great advantage of campus universities is that everything is in one place – lectures, accommodation, clubs, laundries, shops etc. They are usually situated just outside or on the borders of larger towns – “a town within a town”. The impression can be that they are safer, offer less distractions and provide a stronger sense of community because, in the main, students tend to stay campus based.
City universities offer the same facilities, but they are split up across the town so travelling from one place to another is part and parcel of the package – and could cover some distance. This provides a closer experience to life in the workplace for most people and it gives students a chance to become fully immersed in the city itself. Whilst approved accommodation may be offered in the first year or two, later in their degree students are often required to find their own accommodation independently.
Proximity to home
Flying the nest is more appealing to some than others! This is an important consideration. Attending university is, for most students, the first time they’ve lived away from home. For some, this is exciting and appealing, for others it’s traumatic and challenging. Of course, there are practical implications too. If the university is close to home, it may be possible to avoid accommodation costs, although continuing to live in the family home can dilute the university experience in many ways.
Is it important that your teen can easily pop home at weekends or will they adjust favourably to only returning during holiday periods? This might dictate which universities they consider, depending on how far they are from home.
Rural or city based
Another consideration is whether your teen prefers town or country living. A university’s location could drive many of the social activities they offer, so if your teen is happiest immersed in the countryside and loves trekking, mountain-climbing and cross-country, they could feel short-changed by being plunged into an urban setting and vice-versa. Don’t consider it trivial to focus on pastimes when choosing the right university, happiness is a primary driver for success, and a university’s environment can contribute hugely.
University open days
Most universities offer an “open day” for prospective students, including lectures and talks. During Covid, open days were restricted to virtual events, and these proved successful, so most universities now offer both. Websites, literature and videos can all give an excellent sense of a university, but nothing beats a personal visit. Your teen will have a chance to meet staff and students, who can answer their questions, and get a first-hand feel for whether the university is right for them.
Where possible, do join your teen on open-day visits to give them support and guidance (it can be daunting visiting a new place, much more so when you think it could hold the key to your future happiness) but give them some time alone if they need it.
Choosing the right course
Minimise your involvement here – and do not look up courses for your teen! No matter how good your intentions, inevitably you will start to swerve towards courses that appeal to you. Your teen must take the initiative when deciding what to study. Where you can help is in checking whether the courses your teen’s expressed an interest in suits their learning style. For example, courses made up of lectures and seminars are ideal for those that enjoy classroom learning but not suitable for practical learners that prefer doing rather than listening.
Do they have plans after university?
Try to find out about the university and its industry links. Strong ties with industry often indicate excellent internship and placement opportunities which is very attractive for post degree employment prospects, especially important if you do not have these links within your own families and contacts.
The tough challenge with getting involved in your teen’s choices is putting aside your preferences as a parent and supporting your teen in the choices that are right for them – particularly if they are polar opposites to your own. Don’t forget, it’s natural to feel protective but university provides a good opportunity for your teen to fly the nest in a protected environment.
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We always love to hear from you, so do let us know if there are any subjects you’d like us to chat to you about. Stay safe and keep happy, Vanessa and Darius - firstname.lastname@example.org
Is your child planning on going to university this year?
For more information on the university application process and how you can help them choose the right university, check out The Parents’ Guide to University
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