university of glasgow tour

If you’re a parent to a teenager, check out our top tips for university visits.

This half term, my teen and I took a mini road trip to visit four Northern universities – the University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh, Durham University and Leeds University.

Spending time looking at universities has been incredibly helpful. It may be that Flea goes on to apply to these universities – it may not. But either way it was lots of fun, a great way to spend quality time together, AND it gave Flea a real insight into what she likes (and isn’t so keen on) when it comes to a university campus.

visiting glasgow university

Glasgow University

As an added bonus, we kicked off our road trip at my own old university, Glasgow. It was so lovely to share some of my fun uni stories with my teen, and see what a gorgeous place I got to study at. From there, we headed to Edinburgh, then down to Durham University, and lastly Leeds.

After a long week traipsing around campuses, here are six of our top tips for university visits.

university of leeds campus tour

Flea at Leeds University

Go on university visits early!

Most university open days kick off in the Spring/Summer term when kids are in Year 12 (lower sixth), running into the autumn term of Year 13. At this stage, I think, I was hoping to inspire and motivate Flea far more than I wanted her to seriously make decisions about which university she wants to attend.

After our experience, I think one of my top tips for university visits is to make them in the autumn term of Year 12. Although kids haven’t started seriously researching universities at this point, it’s a fantastic way to motivate them to be dedicated to their studies. What better way to motivate Flea to work hard at her A-Levels than showing her where she could be in two years’ time, the sort of city she could live in, and the kind of university she should be attending?

Edinburgh university library

Edinburgh University library

Don’t just rely on official open days

Lots of open days happening right now are “virtual”, which means watching a few uninspired video tours of key buildings, or a video narrated by awkward student types. Some open days that DO happen run at weekends, when the campus is pretty quiet and there are no classes. Great for social distancing, not so great for knowing what a college or uni really feels like.

tips for university visits and open days

Flea at Durham

I think these events are great for talking to university staff and checking out facilities in detail, but for getting an overall impression of a campus and the “vibes” (as the kids say) my second top tips for university visits is to just show up on a random weekday, and have a good nosy around.

Most of our university visits were informal, which gave us a chance to see the university “in action” and get a realistic view of what the campus would be like if Flea was to study there. Obviously we were SUPER careful and did Covid tests throughout our road trip, and wore masks inside all buildings.

University of Glasgow tour

Brel Beer Garden, in Glasgow’s West End

Check out the Student restaurants and Bars

Our road trip meant we spent 24-48 hours in each university city. That’s plenty of time to check out student lunch spots, visit the local pub and get a feel for the student social scene. My next recommendation for uni visits is to eat and drink like the students do!

In Glasgow, we ate brunch at the ridiculously cool Hillhead Book Club, and then had dinner in the prettiest little beer garden in Ashton Gardens, while in Leeds we tucked into Thai Street Food. In Durham we checked out pubs, and in Edinburgh we ate at the University Library Cafe, then had sushi for dinner.

what to see on university visits

Ashton Lane, Glasgow

For Flea it was a chance to get a small idea of what student life might look like in each city, and how many options would be available to her.

So while it might be tempting to eat at a nice restaurant or get an Uber Eats after walking 25,000 steps, get out and about in the student neighbourhood.


Sneak into places

We did actually manage to get onto an official tour of Edinburgh University and it was great to get an overview of the location. But the tour didn’t actually go inside any buildings.

tips for university visits

Flea in the James McCune Smith Building, Glasgow

I don’t know about Flea, but I was really keen to see what the student union looked like, how big the library was, and what the lecture theatres and student cafes looked like.

My next, not entirely recommended tip for uni open days is to sneak in places you really want to see. It’s so much easier than you might imagine.

What we found was that at most of the unis we visited, you can walk into many of the buildings. And also, lots of universities now have lovely “hub” buildings with open spaces and comfortable seating where you can charge up your phone, get free WiFi and get a little work done – very handy. In Glasgow there’s the brand new and VERY shiny James McCure Smith building, in Edinburgh it’s Potterow, while Leeds has several little student hub buildings around the campus.

top tips for university visits edinburgh

The Student Union at Edinburgh

We did mingle with a crowd of students heading into a chemistry lecture at Leeds, but Flea was too law-abiding to stay for the actual lecture – we just gawped at the set-up. We also checked out the libraries at all the universities we visited, and had a really good look around the union at Leeds.

Don’t forget to have fun

Flea found our trip really useful. She was most impressed by Leeds and Edinburgh, and the trip convinced her (I think) that Durham isn’t quite enough of a city to have the buzz she’s after. So on that level it’s been really helpful.

While that’s great because I wanted to motivate Flea to work hard at school, I also wanted to enjoy this time we had together.

Flea is 16, and in another year she’ll be applying to university and then she’ll be off. So having a road trip like this, just the two of us, was an amazing opportunity to make some memories.

Alongside visiting the labs and the hubs and libraries, we invented silly road trip games and catchphrases. We had lie-ins and went to the movies and had far too many frozen cocktails with our fish tacos in Glasgow. I took a million pictures even though Flea complained about every one, and I’m not even a bit sorry.

Get the Merch

My last tip for open days is to have souvenirs from your university open days is to invest in a bit of university merchandise.

In our case, we bought a shirt or sweater at each of the four universities we visited. Of course, Flea might never go to the university of Leeds but my cunning plan is that if she’s feeling demoralised when writing her next essay on Othello, she can put on her sweater and remember how much she loved being on the Leeds Campus and how great the facilities were and how much she really, really wants to go to a great university.

It doesn’t have to be a sweater – of course. Your merch of choice might be a coffee cup or a pen or something else – but I like the idea of Flea having a tangible thing she can use regularly, just to remind her of the places we went and the things we saw.