Essential Tips to Make the Most of University Visits

tips for university visitsTips for University Visits:

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

What are university visits?

In theory you can visit a university any time. But most UK universities will hold special open days when prospective students can tour the campus, find out about potential courses, and get a look at things like the union, sports facilities and even accommodation options. They are open to students of any age, but you’ll get most out of it by visiting 1 or 2 years ahead, so while you’re in Year 11 or Year 12. You’ll be making uni applications early in Year 13 if you’re applying for certain courses or universities, but by January of your final year if not.

Some universities will ask you to book places ahead of time at an open day but don’t worry if you forget – it just means you aren’t guaranteed a spot at particular talks.  First – these talks generally repeat info you can find on the website. And second – loads of people don’t turn up and it’s unlikely you’ll be turned away from a session. But if you are, you can still walk around the campus and visit various departments and facilities.

When are university open days?

Officially, university open days tend to start when students finish uni for the summer, in June and July. Some unis will also hold open days in September and October, for students who can’t attend summer events.

It’s worth visiting uni websites and joining mailing lists to get notification about open days. You may need to register for talks or the day itself, so booking is a good idea, if not essential.

Later in the year students will often be invited to an “offer holder day”. This is a chance to visit a university where you’ve been offered a place. It’s a good idea to go, especially if you haven’t visited before. You might meet future course-mates and it’s a good chance to remind yourself of what you do and don’t like.

That said, you can visit a university any time. Open days are fantastic, of course. But one of my best tips for university visits is to go on another day. Visiting a university on a regular week gives you the chance to see some of the campus while all the students are there. It’s ideal for getting a “feel” for a city and the campus.

Tips for uni visits – go during Autumn term

During October half term of Year 12, 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 our top tips for university visits, and some top tips for university visits.

university of leeds campus tour
Flea at Leeds University

Top Tips for University Visits

Go on university visits early!

Number one on my list of top tips for university visits is this: Having attended university open days and done our own independent visits to universities in November, I whole heartedly recommend visiting early. 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 most 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

Ready for number two of my top tips for university visits? Don’t rely on the open day.

There are two reasons why official open days might not work for you.

First, lots of open days are still “virtual”, which means watching a few uninspired video tours of key buildings, or a video narrated by awkward student types.

Second, official open days tend to happen in a fairly short period of time in June/July – meaning you could well end up with a clash. For example, we found the Manchester, Sheffield and York open days were on the same day, while the Bristol and Durham open days also clashed.

Official open days are great for talking to university staff and checking out facilities in detail, but it’s possible to just show up to a university. Download the virtual tour app, email your chosen college or department to see if anyone is around for a chat. Or just walk 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. As this was not long after lockdown ended, we were SUPER careful. We 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

Top Tip for university visits: check out the Student restaurants and Bars

University visits are a perfect chance to look at libraries and lecture theatres. But honestly, it’s just as important to check out the city. On our visits, we try to stay overnight if we can. 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 top 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

I’m not sure whether this is a “good” top tip for university visits, but we definitely loved doing it. 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. Stupid Covid restrictions.

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.

The next of my not entirely officially endorsed tips for university visits and open days? Sneak in places you really want to see. It’s so much easier than you might imagine.

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 university visits and open days 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

The last of my top tips for university visits 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 on our uni days.

Do you have any great tips for university visits? 

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