There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new challenges. Among these is a complete upheaval of the education system. In years gone by the university application process had been largely predictable. I had taken this for granted during my time. You applied via UCAS with your GCSE grades, wrote a personal statement, sat any admissions tests, took interviews if necessary and received offers or rejections based upon them. Then you sat your A-Level exams and hoped you got the grades needed to meet your offer requirements on results day. I’m not saying the process wasn’t stressful or hard work, and I certainly did my fair share of complaining, but compared to the situation now I realise we had it easy. With A-Level and GCSE exams cancelled for this year too, sixth form students have to contend with the stress of uncertainty alongside the anxiety that comes with university applications. That cannot be easy.
Something else which has changed is that universities are no longer running open days, for obvious reasons. At least in my school, we were constantly reminded of how visiting universities is of paramount importance to know whether or not we want to apply there. This is a luxury which no longer exists. In fact, I actually ended up doing a talk to the current year 13s at my old school to tell them about my experience studying in London as a surrogate for them attending open days. If anybody is stressed about applying to universities you’ve never visited, I’m going to try and reassure you. Because, for what it’s worth, I didn’t go to Imperial’s open day before I made my application. Despite that, I couldn’t be happier to be an Imperial student.
Of course, I see the merit of open days. You get to see the city where you might end up living and get a feel for the university. All I’m saying is that I don’t think they’re the be all and end all. The majority of the information which you need before applying to university- the course structure, accommodation information, fees, transport information- is all readily accessible online.
Universities also tend to be reputed for different subject areas. For example, Imperial is one of the best STEM universities in the world. It’s unlikely you’d pass up the opportunity of studying there because you didn’t like the colour scheme of the campus. Another useful aspect of open days was the opportunity to speak to current students to gain a real-life insight into studying at that institution. Yet again, technology fills this void. Most universities (Imperial included) make use of platforms such as Unibuddy to give you the opportunity to chat to students to make use of their insights. If you speak to your teachers at school, most of them will also be able to connect you to an alumnus who attends the university you’re thinking of applying to.
Yes, the one thing technology won’t be able to do for you is give you a feel of the ‘vibes’ of a university. Imperial tries to overcome this by having virtual tours to give you a taste of what it feels like to be on campus. I’d also argue that it’s quite difficult to accurately judge the ‘vibes’ of a university based on a few hours visiting it, no matter how skilled you may be. Open days will always be somewhat artificial as universities try to put on a good show (no, we don’t really get free pens and refreshments handed to us from a marquee everyday) which makes it difficult to make any meaningful judgement of what a normal day feels like. That’s something you’ll only know for sure when you start studying there.
Some people will say I just got lucky and not going to Imperial’s open day before firming their offer was a risky move. Perhaps. It was also my choice, one which hasn’t been afforded to today’s prospective students. The truth is, going to an open day will not guarantee that you will love a university and not going to one doesn’t make you clueless. Do your research, speak to current students and don’t let the absence of open days stress you out too much. Every university can offer you amazing opportunities which you wouldn’t get elsewhere. You will meet amazing people and have uniquely enriching experiences wherever you go. As for the vibes, they’re mostly just what you make them to be.