Hello everyone, I know it’s been a while since I last posted so in this article I’ll be explaining how I decided which universities to apply to and detailing some of the progress I’ve made so far (which is what has been occupying me for these past few weeks). This post should be helpful for anyone in Year 11 or 12 who may be starting to think further ahead and will involve my take on university league tables, why I decided to apply to the universities I did and how my application’s are currently going.

First things first, you have to know what subject you’d like to study. This is fairly obvious, but if you haven’t decided then it’ll be difficult to choose what universities you’d like to apply to as some will specialise in particular subjects. I studied Geography, History, French and Philosophy for the first year of my A Levels, then I dropped Philosophy to focus on the other 3 (only 3 subjects are required for university application). Geography has always been my favourite and best subject throughout secondary school (in part due to it’s relation to kayaking) – followed closely by History and then French – so I knew that I wanted to study Geography at university. A good way to decide is to ask – what are my best subjects? – followed by – do I enjoy these? The issue for me is that I still wanted to continue with French given the amount of work I’ve put in, and History still held a certain appeal. To solve this dilemma I could have chosen to do a joint degree, or a minor in one of the other 2 subjects but this brings me onto my next point…

If you like more than one subject or you can’t decide exactly which one you’d like to focus on then the Scottish flexible degree structure may interest you. Scottish degrees are 4 years long (not the usual 3), but for the first two years you study 3 subjects, for the second 2/3 and then for the final 2 years you either narrow it down to 1 subject or you can still do a joint degree or major and minor. The subject(s) you choose for your final 2 years does not have to be the subject you applied for and the 2 additional subjects could be completely different to your A Level choices (though some have prerequisites). For example, I decided to apply for Geography, but if I’m accepted into my firm choice I will be able to select another 2 subjects (hopefully French alongside either History or Archeology). While some may find 4 years of study a bit daunting, it’s a chance to escape from adult responsibilities and the fees in Scotland are capped, meaning that the final year is technically free and the whole course will cost the same as a 3 year English course.

OK, so you know what subject(s) you’d like to study but where do you begin looking for universities? Well there are two deciding factors here – how far away from home you’re comfortable travelling and whether you do any extracurricular activities that might require particular facilities. I myself was not interested in leaving the UK – the idea of moving to another country (especially given COVID) was never something I saw myself doing – however I did want to leave London; I thought it would be nice to have a change, to go and explore somewhere else with a bit more independence – this meant that I immediately crossed off any London universities and started looking elsewhere. The second factor for me was my kayaking. I wanted somewhere relatively nearby (within 2/3 hours by public transport) where I could go kayaking year-round. Given that natural rivers are dependent on rain and often lack features where I could do freestyle, the solution was artificial whitewater centres, of which there are only a handful in the UK. This made my task quite a lot easier as my selection of universities was based on drawing a 3 hour public transport ring around the National Watersports Centre (Nottingham), Cardiff International White Water, Tees Barrage International White Water Centre and Pinkston Watersports (Glasgow).

Having decided on which universities fit my criteria, I now needed to whittle down my list of 11 (which included: Bristol, Bath, Nottingham, Nottingham Trent, Loughborough, Cardiff, Sterling, Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and St Andrews) to just 5 – this is where a combination of league tables, forums and open days came in handy. League tables should not be used to decide exactly which university to go to, however they provide a useful ballpark ranking of the institutions you’re considering. A university’s rank varies depending on the league table as well as whether you select an overall ranking or a ranking for your specific subject, this is why it is important check at least 2 league tables and both the former and latter categories (I would recommend https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/league-tables/rankings and https://www.theguardian.com/education/ng-interactive/2020/sep/05/the-best-uk-universities-2021-league-table). Another useful way to evaluate universities is via open days, they provide insight into the curriculum/overall experience that rankings do not and provide the opportunity to ask specific questions. Seeing as Sterling, Glasgow, Dundee, Edinburgh and St Andrews all use the flexible degree course that I favoured, I started looking at these first. I was looking for most/all of my universities to be in the UK top 30 so the first one to be rid of was Stirling which ranks around 45. Next was Edinburgh due to (very) low student satisfaction and a boring open day. I ended up liking St Andrews, Glasgow and Dundee for a variety of reasons and thought that they provided a good spread of grades with St Andrews’ standard offer being AAA, Glasgow’s AAB and Dundee’s ABB so they all remained on the list. Moving onto Bristol, Bath, Loughborough, Cardiff, Nottingham and Nottingham Trent I immediately got rid of the latter 2 because I neither liked the course content nor the look of them in general. I had no reason to complain about any of the remaining 4, but both Bristol and Loughborough stood out to me and so Cardiff and Bath were crossed off the list. This left me with 5 universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Dundee, Bristol and Loughborough) and after some checking on student forums, those are the ones that I applied to through UCAS.

I received 4 of my 5 replies within the first month-and-a-half and then my final university (St Andrews) waited 5 months before rejecting my application, which was incredibly frustrating seeing as they made me wait months for a response despite applying early. I note that this is not unusual – especially of Scottish universities – and many of my friends have also had to wait a similar amount of time for St Andrews and Edinburgh. Anyway, the decision was made and that left me with Glasgow, Dundee, Bristol and Loughborough. One of my friends visited Loughborough and after some more research into it I decided that it wasn’t for me and neither was Bristol due to some less than complimentary reviews on multiple student forums. This left Glasgow as a clear first choice given that it ranks in the top 80 universities in the world, in the top 20 UK universities (no matter the league table) and 5th for Geography in the UK, Glasgow also has the most opportunity for kayaking being in a prime location to take advantage of Scottish rivers while Pinkston Watersports is only a 30 minute journey from campus; this was good because Glasgow reduced their offer from the usual AAB to ABB which has removed some stress from the exam period and meant that Dundee’s offer was a perfect fallback as my insurance choice. Upon confirming Glasgow and Dundee as my firm and insurance I have since applied for student accommodation for Glasgow (something to be done as soon as possible as most are first-come-first-served) and for a student loan. Hopefully my exams will go well and I’ll get my first choice, wish me luck!

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