Ah, open days — a time of excitement, wanting to present oneself in the best light and outshine one’s competitors. But that’s enough about the universities. The open day experience can also be useful to pupils and parents.
“Open days are much more important to universities now,” says Richard Taylor, director of corporate affairs at the University of Leicester. And pupils are checking out veritable laundry lists of universities. “They used to visit two or three. Now it’s six or seven — or more,” says Taylor.
They’ll even visit the same university repeatedly, adds Vicky Annand at Goldsmiths, University of London, like newlyweds choosing their first home.
“Open days have become much more professional”, says Donald McLeod, Head of Marketing at the University of Hertfordshire. “They’ve been deconstructed – we now think about every point of the ‘Experience’ from arriving and parking, through meeting ‘ambassador’ guides, having all staff fully briefed on probable questions, and so on.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Durham organise a post-offer overnight Durham Experience); Exeter do specialised subject days; Cirencester give you a free key ring and good coffee.Sheffield, with a Facebook page for potential students to gel, also does good Experience.
Still, there’s room for improvement, says Stuart Youngs at Purpose, a marketing firm which recently ran a round-table on branding for university leaders. Purpose suggest more differentiation, “unpacking a series of excitements” and doing less talking and more listening. They also recommend that universities decide whether they want to attract more students or better students.
The number of visitors in each family group has ballooned. “Pupils used to come on their own or maybe with a parent. Now it’s two parents, grandparents, siblings, you name it,” says Taylor.
And according to Eileen Penman, at The Good Schools Guide’s University Advice Service, big fee rises mean parents aren’t likely to fade back into the woodwork. Many unis now run parallel Experiences for parents, offering them talks on, say, Unending Sacrifice for your Children while their offspring attend one on Nightlife.
“Most kids came with parents”, says sixth-former Imogen Rolfe. “I found it useful to have mine there to discuss it with.” But sometimes it works the other way around. “My daughter went on her own”, says Charlotte Obolensky. “We actually had a row about it as she wanted me to go. She said all the other parents were going.” Victoria Blunt took the same view with her son: “You have to stand back from it and think ‘this is their decision’.”
10-point plan to making the most of the day
1. Do not forget the postcode for the satnav. This is easy to do and has ruined many open day experiences.
2. Parents or no parents — what to do, what to do? Pupils’ antennae will be sharper if they attend solo, but many find it useful to have another set of eyes (and someone to pay for the petrol. And lunch).
3. Can you stand the area? Open days aren’t just about the course — you can find out everything about the course online — they are about whether you want to live in that place for three years. Try and imagine what it might be like on a wet Tuesday in November.
4. Accommodation. How is it allocated? What happens after your first year? Which halls are known for partying, swots or being “Rah?”
5. Sorry to ask, but can you afford the tuition fees and local cost of living? Scottish students get free tuition in Scotland only. Welsh students can venture away from Wales and still benefit from subsidised fees (is this fair, we ask?) Accommodation costs in London and the South East are much higher than in the North/Midlands.
6. If you’re using open days to shortlist your five Ucas choices, ask yourself: would I really enrol here if I got an offer? Don’t choose a “safety” you would shudder to attend.
7. Have questions ready (most of which you won’t get around to asking and all of which are probably answered on the website — but still). How many taught hours per week? Is the course assessed by modules, coursework, class participation (yes, it often counts) or just exams? Can you take part of your degree abroad through an exchange or Erasmus? Who teaches undergraduates — professors or post-grads?
8. If you haven’t already applied, ask current students in your subject area about strategy. Are there subjects aligned with yours that have fewer applicants? If you want to read English, is it easier to get in on Creative Writing, and then transfer, or vice versa? Ask for the mobile number or Facebook contact of every student you talk to so you can grill them later.
9. Distance from home — for many students, the farther the better, unless they feel the opposite. While we’re on distance, what about unis abroad? Trinity, Dublin, is globally famous and in a fabulous city, and the tuition there is free. Or what about courses taught in English at Maastricht or Groningen?
10. Engage in a bit of pre-event planning. “We find a lot of people missing out on what they want to do or see,” says Emma Stephenson, outreach manager at Exeter University. “It’s important to read all the literature about the day in advance.” With any luck you’ll be so clued up you won’t have to go at all.
Above all, remember you can actually visit universities any time. “I had a Saturday job,” says Rachel Spedding, who runs the Oxbridge Applications consultancy, “and I lived in Liverpool, a long way from some universities I was interested in. My mum worked and didn’t have time in the week. So we used to drive down on Sundays — we could look around, speak to students, porters, even a tutor if contacted beforehand.” Any day can be an Open Day with a little determination and planning.