How to Choose the Right University: A Quick Guide

Unsure which university to apply to? Follow this guide to help you.

Reviewed by Hayley Ramsey

Person trying to figure out how to choose the right university

Deciding which university is right for you is perhaps one of the biggest decisions you will have to make as a young adult.

While a lucky few may have known their dream school since childhood, others need to determine which university would be the right fit based on a range of factors. In my case, the decision-making process included long pros-and-cons lists, endless hours of research and long discussions on the merits of each institution. While I was happy with my final choice, in the end, it did take some time to reach a decision.

So, if you are currently finding yourself in a similar situation, trying to pick the university that could potentially become your alma mater, we’re here to help. Our guide will walk you through a series of questions you should ask yourself, as well as some useful tips that will allow you to pick the right university for you.

Things to consider

There are several factors you need to take into account before you decide on which university to attend. From the campus location to the teaching format to the university facilities, these are elements that, combined together, will formulate your university experience.

So, before you make your final decision, it’s wise to create a checklist based on these factors and determine which university meets the majority of your expectations and needs.

If you need some help to determine what these needs are, make sure to answer the following questions below:

University type

Do you want to be in a city or campus university?

The location and layout of a university can play an integral role in your day-to-day experience as a student.

A city university is usually integrated within a city or town, and its buildings are often spread out from each other. Meanwhile, campus universities tend to be located outside of cities and towns with university buildings being in walking distance of each other.

The former can offer a more vibrant nightlife, better transportation links, job opportunities and a multicultural experience, as you will be part of the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city. The latter, on the other hand, will have a stronger sense of community, improved safety and all the amenities you could need on campus grounds.

Both uni types have their merits, but you should consider which of the two seems more appealing to you and the lifestyle you want to have once you get there.

How big is the university?

The number of students attending the university could range from less than 5,000 to over 15,000. Smaller universities usually have closer-knit communities and a more selective course catalog, while bigger colleges may offer a diverse range of majors, bigger facilities and larger classes.

What is the ratio of students to staff?

The student-to-staff ratio at a university can have a major impact on the quality of teaching; it can tell you a lot about professors’ workload and their availability to you during your course. The fewer students there are per teacher, the more guidance and support you are likely to receive from them.


How far away from home do you want to be?

Consider the distance between the university’s campus and your home. If you tend to get homesick easily, or need to be close to your family, then you’ll need to take the university’s location into account. Meanwhile, even if you are open to moving to a different state, country or continent, you should still take into account the traveling that will be involved every time you want to visit home.

Is the university’s campus easily accessible?

If you plan on traveling or having friends and family visit you during your studies, take the time to review the available routes, transportation links and travel options available to you. For instance, if you are moving to a different country for your studies, consider if there are direct flights available and the commute time from the airport to the campus, as well as the number of connections and changes you’ll need to make to get there. 


What is the university's world ranking?

The university’s ranking can help you understand more about the university’s global standing and prestige. That said, the university’s ranking should not be a dominant factor when making your choice.

What is the subject or department’s world ranking?

The ranking of your chosen faculty or subject is even more important than the university's overall world ranking. For instance, while your university might be in the top 10 universities in the world, the department or subject you are interested in could only rank in the 50 or 100 worldwide. My advice is to prioritize subject ranking above overall ranking, as this is a clearer indicator of the experience and quality of education you will receive.

How much have its rankings fluctuated in the past five years?

A university whose ranking has been fluctuating considerably, or that has been steadily declining over the last five years, could both be red flags, as this could indicate potential issues in teaching quality, facilities, student satisfaction and so on.


Do you want to live at home or on campus?

If you plan on studying in your hometown or at a nearby university, then you’ll need to decide if you want to live at home and commute to your classes every day or live on campus. The former option will certainly help you save up, but the latter will give you a more immersive experience as a student.

What accommodation options are available?

Take a look at the available accommodation options for students. Some universities will have residence halls as well as other uni-run housing options, while others may work with third-party companies. You’ll usually have the option to opt for catered or non-catered plans.

Other important things to keep in mind include the location and distance of the accommodation from the campus and its affordability.

Cost of living

What are the estimated monthly costs for a student?

Being aware of the average costs you’ll have each month will allow you to forecast your financial needs and create a budget in advance. Most university websites have a dedicated page that breaks down the average cost of living for students.

Is the university in an expensive area?

A university located in California or New York will most probably translate to a much higher cost of living than a university in Michigan or Georgia.

University library

How many libraries and study spaces are there available?

Library seats can be scarce during exam seasons, especially if there is a limited number of study spaces, so it’s wise to look into how many are available for students and find out what your options will be.

How extensive are the library resources?

University libraries aren't just great study spots. Indeed, university library services and resources can play a crucial role in your studies, especially if you are pursuing a research-focused degree. Make sure to do your due diligence on the volumes and collections that will be available to you and see what other students had to say about the university library service.


Is there a student union?

Not only are student unions the perfect place to connect with your peers on campus, but they also actively work to represent your interests as a student by addressing issues such as diversity, inclusion, accessibility and education. A university with a strong and active student union is always a green flag.

How is the careers service?

Your university’s career service will help you find internships and part-time work during your studies, but also guide you towards finding employment afterwards. It’s vital to take other students’ experiences with the university’s career service into account during your research, as this could indicate the quality of service you can expect to receive.

Do you require special services?

Universities must accommodate all students with special needs. That said, it’s wise to contact the university and ensure that your needs will be met adequately.

Are there any sports facilities?

Most universities have their own sports facilities which students can access through monthly memberships. If you are a fitness enthusiast, make sure to check what is on offer at your prospective university.


What sports teams are available?

If you are a varsity athlete or a sports lover, then this could be an important consideration when making your decision.

What societies and clubs are available?

This is the most effective way to connect with other people and make friends. Take into account the university’s clubs and societies catalog to get an idea of what you can expect.

Course structure and content

What teaching and learning methods are used?

Some courses focus on research, lab work and field trips, while others place great emphasis on independent study, seminars and lectures. The teaching format will greatly depend on the university, faculty and programme.

What’s the size of classes?

Smaller class sizes allow you to engage with and get to know your peers and professors better. Meanwhile, bigger classes give you more anonymity and allow you to stay under the radar.

Does the course offer work experience opportunities?

Some degree programmes will offer work experience opportunities that will allow you to develop professional skills and attain valuable credentials, either through internships, a year in industry or integrated work placements.

What are the main assessment methods?

Assessment methods can include research essays, projects, lab reports, oral presentations, concept maps and exams. These will vary across each module and faculty.

Are there opportunities to study abroad?

Many courses offer study abroad opportunities, which will allow you to develop new skills and establish a network of professional contacts overseas.

Tips on choosing the right university

Now that you’ve asked yourself the above questions, it’s time to start narrowing down your options. The following tips will help you pick the university that’s right for you:

1. Attend an open day

When it comes down to it, open days are the most effective way to make a confident decision about which university you want to attend. You will be able to visit your prospective department, talk to course leaders, explore the campus and get a feel of the city or surrounding area. Overall, open days give you a taste of student life on both a social and academic level.

However, attending an open day in-person may not be possible if you live in a different state or country. This is why many universities now offer virtual open days that allow applicants from around the globe to meet lecturers and find out more about the course, university and city they could be spending the next three to six years in.

2. Take other students’ experiences into account

When I was going through this process, I found that others’ university experiences gave me valuable insight. Indeed, student satisfaction rates, both for the course and overall university, are a key factor you shouldn’t overlook.

While a university may boast a high ranking, the student satisfaction rate could be extremely low, which, in turn, could indicate various issues such as a poor administration, lack of student housing, insufficient academic support or substandard facilities.

Before you settle on your choice, make sure to read online student reviews, look up student satisfaction rates and speak with current students who may be able to offer you greater insight into the life there.

3. Define your non-negotiables

If you are trying to narrow down your options, the easiest way to do it is by defining what your non-negotiables are. These are factors which are important to you, and that your university must offer.

For example, if you are a water polo athlete, your non-negotiable could be for the university to have a varsity water polo team. Similarly, your non-negotiable could be a year in industry integrated within your course, attending a campus university or a short commute from home. If one of your prospective universities does not meet these requirements, then that would be a deal breaker.

By outlining your non-negotiables, you will be able to factor in your individual needs and make a more informed choice.

4. Pay attention to the course

The content and structure of your selected course should be one of your biggest considerations. After all, you will spend the next four or so years pursuing your chosen degree.

Start by reading the general outline of the course. What is the objective? How many hours of classes will you have each week? Who are your professors going to be? Does the course offer work experience opportunities, such as a year in industry, mandatory internships or an optional year abroad?

You should pay even closer attention to the classes, both compulsory and elective. Is there flexibility to pursue your individual academic interests? Are there appealing options in the class catalog?

By doing this, you will be able to get a better idea of how the course is designed and what your studies will look like.

5. Follow your instinct

You should always honor your instincts.

Even if your pros-and-cons list might point towards one school, your heart might be set on another. Whether it’s because there is a higher student satisfaction rate or the course seems far more interesting, certain things will stand out to you when making your choice.

So, after you’re done researching and weighing different factors and looking at rankings and reviews, the final step is to do an introspection and reflect on the choices before you. If you are still unsure, then try visualizing yourself at each university: think about the surrounding city, the campus, the classes you’ll take, and the extracurriculars you’ll sign up for. Which school stands out to you then? Chances are, you will already know where you want to go.

Final thoughts

Choosing the right university is a grueling process but, on a more positive note, this choice will mark the beginning of a new chapter in your life. Regardless of where you end up, be sure to make the most of it, because, like you’ve probably heard a hundred times over, it goes by fast!

My parting advice is to select the university that will meet your needs but also challenges you to grow and step out of your comfort zone so that when the time comes for you to graduate, you will be able to look back and marvel at how far you’ve come.

Are you struggling to decide which university to go to? What are your non-negotiables? Let us know in the comments!


This is an updated version of an article originally published on 3 August 2018.