A Mum of 7's Guide to University Open Days

 Some of you might be thinking university open days are a waste of time. After all you can do virtual tours now, read all about course content and even snoop round the accommodation online. But experience has taught me that nothing really can help your young student make a more informed decision than going to a few open days and feeling the vibe IRL.

Neon OPEN sign: Photo by shark ovski on Unsplash

You might also not realise that preparing to choose universities starts sooner than you think. Almost as soon as they burn their blazers and celebrate those Year 11 qualifications it's time to start at least thinking about education beyond sixth form or college EVEN IF they swear they have no intention of going to uni.

Not that a degree is the best thing for many people but I'm a great believer in Plan A, B and possibly C so ask them to humour you and at least think about including it in their further education journey.

"make plan" spelled with tiles:Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Most universities hold a couple of open days at different times of year so you could go to the autumn or winter days when your child has just joined year 12 or equivalent or the summer ones usually in May, June and July as your child nears the end of that year. You could leave it as late as the winter they are in Year 13 but remember UCAS applications close on January 31 of the year of proposed entry generally. Here's a guide to crucial UCAS dates for potential autumn 2024 uni entrants.

My 18 year old was not interested in uni and planned on finding an apprenticeship which we fully supported. But we booked a couple of open days thinking at least we would get to see some new parts of England and if necessary close the book on that idea armed with actual knowledge and experience rather than possibly flawed ideas.

Well, dear reader he was energised and enthused by one particular university and obviously made an impression at their open day because they actually called him and made an offer several grades below what they advertised on their website if he listed them as his first choice. Long story short he starts there later this year.

This anecdote brings me quite neatly to one of the great reasons to attend open days. 

Making a good first impression

Sometimes the uni will offer trial classes, lectures and meet and greets with the lecturers. Two of my children ended up with offers below the advertised expectation after impressing the admissions staff at open days. Meeting the staff and making a good impression cannot be done online.

Even if your child is shy tell them how important it is to engage with their facial expressions if not with words. Try and chat with the lecturers and encourage your child to show enthusiasm for the course and passion for the subject. One admissions officer offered us his email and told my child to email when they had results even if they didn't meet the entrance criteria and they would see if there was anyway they could help get them in. (They did)

Attend a class

Scouring the course content is all well and good but content can be taught in many different ways. Attend a trial class or lecture if possible and learn about how the modules will be taught and how work is assessed. This is a good opportunity for your child to shine and show their interest in the subject. You might also be able to see other resources including specialist libraries and labs.

Be aware many uni open days will have a schedule which requires you to book into a session but we've found often it's possible to drop in if you haven't booked as long as there is room.


Wander round the campus or check out the general area if it's not a campus university. I'd definitely recommend going an accommodation tour and check out the spaces your young person is likely to use - the library and study spaces, student union, cafes and open spaces.

Talk to the student ambassadors who will probably be carrying signs saying "ask me" or similar about their experience. Initially they may spout the PR line, but chat for a while, ask about which are the best halls are in their opinion and what the student experience is like beyond the actual learning and they usually loosen up and you get a more honest glimpse at what life might be like.

Try and build in time to explore the city/town/local area so your young person can get a feel for the area they will live in for the next few years.

My daughter does not fancy a big modern city and leans towards older settlements with beautiful buildings, art galleries and museums rather than nightclubs and bars. Her sibling wanted to be near the sea and valued wild spaces to explore, while another sibling has chosen a city centre uni with accommodation within stumbling distance of more than 10 Subway sandwich shops.

Delivery person with moped outside Subway store:Photo by Matheus Bardemaker on Unsplash

How to Choose Universities to Visit/Apply To

Discuss what "vibe" your child enjoys and use that as a starting point. Big city conurbation or seaside town? Beautiful architecture with museums and art galleries or skyscrapers with lively bars and clubs? North or south? How far from home do they want to be? How will they get home in the holidays - check transport links and cost of travel. 

If they have a subject in mind and an idea of what their expected grades might be you should definitely check out What Uni? which lists courses by map or list and you can filter by subject and grades. You can also use the fabulous What Uni? website to find university open days.

How many open days should you attend?

I advise at least three. Include preferably at least one campus university (as against a city university) where most if not all of the faculty buildings and often the accommodation is in one area. Examples of this include University of Surrey near Guildford, University of Birmingham and University of York. Here's a comprehensive list of campus universities in the UK. They vary in size from large and rambling to more compact and quieter. 

Some campus unis are just out of town - University of Kent for instance sits above Canterbury with wonderful views across the ancient cathedral and surrounding area. Meanwhile De Montford Uni is slap bang in the middle of Leicester.

Even if you've missed or can't make an open day it's worth taking a day trip or booking a weekend away to explore the area your child might be interested in. 

Russell Group

Lots of people are a bit snobby about the perceived status of universities. Certainly Russell Group Universities are generally considered a good choice but in my opinion it does rather depend on what your youngster wants to study and how. Russell Group's 24 universities are considered world class research intensive universities but don't be discouraged if your child's dream course is not at a RG uni. Better they are happy in the teaching and assessment style and course content and do well at a non-RG uni than obsess over whether future employers might prioritise Russell Group graduates and hate the actual course or location.

Additional Support and DSS

University open days are a great way of getting a feel for the support your SEN, neurodivergent or physically disabled child (or child with any health problem which could impact their uni experience) will be supported. Some even offer pre-visits where students can get into halls a week early and enjoy a program including meals out, games nights, bowling and other activities. (University of Kent was offering this when my now 22 year old was looking.)

Ten pin bowling balls: Photo by Marc Mueller on Unsplash

At Brighton my child was placed in a flat with other young people with varying support needs and they had a visiting support worker along with additional support schemes accessed via DSS (Disabled Student Support). Some of the assistance my child received via DSS was a printer with free ink and paper, free access to the Brain in Hand app supporting her mental health and a smart pen which recorded lecture notes as they wrote them and retrieved them using key words (very clever). They were told other assistance available for their specific needs included access to halls throughout her entire course or free taxis to get to lectures if she lived off site.

So there it is - my guide to uni open days based on my experiences over the past few years. Treat the days as a fun outing with no pressure or obligation especially if your youngster is still not sure uni is the way forward for them. Check your own expectations and remember there are many pathways to a happy and successful life.