Which UK university is best for you?

People study abroad for many reasons - to see new places, to experience a different culture, and maybe most importantly, to get access to student life and educational opportunities not available at home. If you want to study at a UK university, you’ll not only have access to some truly innovative teaching and research - you’ll also be joining one of the most multicultural student bodies in the world.

Within the UK, there’s a huge range of universities and courses to choose from. So, how do you choose between over 160 institutions, and thousands of courses? Research finds that half of students who drop out of university early do so because they chose the wrong course, so it’s important to be completely happy with your choice.

So, let’s have a look at what you need to consider before you make your university application, so that you can make the right choice.

Choose your subject

The first step in the process of choosing a university is deciding what you want to study. Your UCAS personal statement will be sent to all your university choices, so it should be relevant to all the courses you apply for. This means that all of your course choices must be the same or in a similar field.

Think about the school subjects you’re good at, but also think about what you could spend the next three or even four years studying.

Is there a subject that you want to continue and deepen your knowledge in? Or do you want to study something completely new?

Do you want to study a subject like law or medicine that relates to a specific job? Or perhaps you want to take a course like history that can be used in a wide range of careers? Think carefully about these questions, and the rest of the process will become a lot easier.

Do as many events and online taster sessions, and sign up for as many free online courses as you can. Futurelearn has a great range of taster courses from universities all over the world. This can really help you decide where your interests lie.  Above all, keep notes on what interests you, and what doesn’t.

If you think you want a broader degree, then you’ve always got the option of doing a joint honours degree. This means you combine two different courses. Many joint honours courses combine a language with another subject, giving you the possibility to use your learning around the world, or even do a study placement in another country.

Consider the competition

When thinking about what course you could do, it’s important to consider the competition. Some courses have many more applicants than places, but there are also hundreds of ‘hidden’ courses which get far fewer applicants. For example, the University of Oxford gets 16.9 applicants per place on its Economics course, but it’s closer to 3 applicants per Classics place. Classics covers a range of areas like politics, history, linguistics, social sciences and more, and really challenges your intellect.

Economics might be competitive, but Classics might be just as valuable. There are thousands of ‘hidden’ courses, which, just because they’re not famous, don’t attract as many applicants. Check out the full range of courses on the UCAS Explore site, and the Uni Guide, and do it with an open mind.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list of courses, it’s time to think about where to study.

Think about location and compare universities in the UK

The UK might be a small country, but it’s incredibly diverse. There are large, international cities like London or Glasgow, smaller towns and cities like Cardiff, Belfast or Nottingham, rural universities like Lancaster, coastal towns like St. Andrews or historic cities like York, Oxford or Cambridge.

So, when you’re deciding on a UK university, you need to first ask yourself: what’s important to you? Would you prefer to live in a busy city or in the quiet countryside? Are you going to be doing a lot of exploring or will you stay near campus? These factors will make a difference to your decision.

You’ll also need to think carefully about costs. Different parts of the UK have different costs of living, depending on things like rent, transport, and the cost of entertainment. Check out property websites to see what rents are like, to get an idea of how expensive life will be.

For more information, check out our article on the cost of living in the UK.

Finally, the type of university itself is important. Some universities have campuses where the whole of university life takes place, like the University of York. Others are more spread out, such as the University of Manchester, which has buildings all over the city. Each has its own atmosphere and you should think about which you prefer.

Look at the rankings: How to choose a university in the UK

Find out how your preferred universities rank in the league tables. Rankings of the top universities in the UK don’t just measure teaching quality. They show data on student satisfaction, post-graduation employment rates, and staff to student ratios.

The best universities in the UK and courses with higher rankings will be more competitive to gain entry to. You can apply for up to five courses on your UCAS form, so it’s a good idea to choose a range of courses and universities. Include an ambitious choice which you may or may not get the grades for, and safe choices that you know will accept you.

You can check the Guardian university rankings, or the Times Higher Education rankings to see which universities are the most highly rated.

That being said, student life in the UK is about balance. You need to consider both rankings and what’s right for you. It’s no use going to a top ranking UK university in a location you hate, studying things that don’t interest you, and where the culture on campus doesn’t appeal to you.

Sometimes it might be better to move down the rankings if you know that the university will really help you to shine.

Remember, the reason that there are so many different kinds of university is because everyone is unique. If you’re applying to somewhere that you know really matches your values and interests, you’ll be much more likely to make a success of your university career.

Research the teaching style

It’s a good idea to look at the style of teaching and assessment at your chosen university. Some courses focus more on final exams, some on coursework, and some on projects, dissertations and independent research.

See whether your university’s exams are open book or closed book. If they’re closed you have to remember a lot more, but if they’re open you will probably have to give more detailed answers in your exams.

If you can attend open days and chat to other students and potential professors, do so. But if you can’t, remember that each university course website will tell you about the course content and how it is assessed. You need to make a choice based on what type of assessment will suit you best.

Some courses are taught in large lectures and seminars, and others, such as many Oxbridge colleges, will teach you in small groups or one-to-one with a tutor. The teaching style that works best for you will be decisive in your choice.

Consider your hobbies

Every university has its own culture and social life based around the student unions and societies. University life is about more than studying, for local and international students alike.  

You will have a more balanced student experience if you make time for your hobbies. Look on the university website to learn about student societies and clubs, and see which activities are available to you. But don’t worry if you don’t see anything that appeals - you can always be proactive and start your own society.

Do you have a sport that you love to do? If you do, and you’re really good at it, you might even be eligible for a scholarship. There are all sorts of funding and awards available, so even if you think you won’t get anything it’s a good idea to check.

Read about sports scholarships at UK universities.  

Make sure you fulfil the English language requirements

You’ll need to pass a test of English for your UK student visa requirements. You can take any Secure English Language Test (SELT) that’s been approved by the Home Office, the UK government department responsible for immigration.

PTE Academic can be used for UK student visas for degree level courses, and to access 99% of universities in the country. The test takes two hours, covers reading, speaking, listening and writing and is entirely done on a computer. Results usually come back within 48 hours, making it convenient and reliable.

Choosing a UK university requires a lot of thought. Luckily, choosing an English test to get the visa is easy.