Thinking of Joining an Open Day at a UK University?

By Rachel Wright 2024-06-13 11:19:57

Here’s how to do it right.

It’s ten o’clock on a chilly, April morning in central London, and there is a buzz of anticipation at the London School of Economics, as over 1,000 seventeen year olds – many of whom are accompanied by parents – register their attendance at the open day and get a wild-flower-seeded paper wristband attached by student volunteers. Plans are afoot. My daughter wants to go to a subject talk by a history lecturer, so she makes her way to the auditorium in the bowels of this cavernous, modernist building. It clashes with a talk on admissions, so I am sent there, to pick up any useful tidbits. We will get together in an hour to compare notes over a sandwich at the Marshall Building which holds several information booths and a café. Then it’s onto a subject talk by another lecturer in the afternoon. There are already queues at the free hot drinks stands dotted around the university quarter – a surprisingly small, pedestrianized area, conveniently giving almost instant access to all the key university buildings. It’s unlike Cambridge University, which we visited last year, where university buildings are spread out all over town, and you have to allow half an hour on foot, or more, to get from one building to your next during an open day visit. So here’s my first piece of advice: plan your day.




Getting Started


Most universities have several ways to allow prospective students to get a handle on their university. The first is their online and social media presence. A virtual open day, accessible via the university’s website, allows you to access at your own convenience, videos of presentations recorded during an in-person open day. There is often a virtual ‘campus tour’ - a video in which students show you their university. Prospective students can follow their favourite universities on Instagram, or ‘chat’ online with a current student. Universities may also offer live Q&A sessions, covering course structures, assessments, admission processes, funding and entry requirements. If you aren’t able to get to the UK to actually see a university in person, this can be a very useful fallback plan.

However, if you are lucky enough to be able to get to the UK, then an in-person open day is going to give you lots of valuable impressions that a virtual one can’t. For example, what impression do the current students give you when they communicate to an audience in the lecture theatre? Are they articulate and well-spoken? Is the student body diverse and international (if this is important to you), What sense do you get of how hard-working or driven the students at this university are? (is the library well-occupied?) What emphasis is given to academics versus well-being? One father from Shanghai who visited LSE last year was impressed by how ‘slick’ and ‘well-organised’ the university was.

Of course, a lot of this is subjective (more on that later), but a curated virtual tour won’t reveal many of these gut impressions. Typically, most Russell-group unis (top 24 world-class UK universities) schedule open days twice a year (at LSE, for example, they run in April and July), but if you can’t make either of these and still want to get feet on the ground, then you do have other options. After all, UK universities receive a lot of interest from students internationally and will want to accommodate these prospective applicants. LSE gives weekly campus tours throughout the term and permits drop-in visits to the admissions office Monday to Friday, followed by a self-guided tour. Durham University and Warwick University do the same.






Visiting on Open Days


If you want to hit a few open day events at different universities during a short time frame, then late June or July is your best bet – although this will probably be after the end of their academic year. This year, LSE’s next open day is scheduled for 4 July. University College London has a weekend open day scheduled for 28 and 29 June. To book a place at one of these open days you’ll need to register your interest by email (details are on the university’s website under ‘Open Day’), and then you’ll receive an email alert when booking online becomes available - usually about a month before the open day. Booking is free, but you’ll need to book a ticket for each person attending. Some universities cap the number of companions the student can bring with them. Once you’ve booked your spot (there’s often a time slot provided for you to show up on the day to register your attendance), you’re good to go. Next, you’ll need to see to your travel and accommodation arrangements. UCL offers an option to book accommodation in its halls of residence, but other universities won’t offer this, so book accommodation as far in advance as you can.

Universities release their open day programmes several weeks in advance so you can decide which talks you want to target. Typically, as well as subject and admission talks, there will be presentations on student life, where current students talk about their experience and take questions on topics ranging from student accommodation with costs and different types of living options, to career preparation such as how does the university set you up for getting a job after you graduate, and also study abroad opportunities. Many programmes offer the chance to study abroad in year three of your university course at other universities around the globe, and then students return home for the fourth and final year. At the London School of Economics there is also a parents and carers talk, which can be useful for overseas families. Around 50% of their intake each year are non-UK students, with 22% from Asia and Australia.

So now you’re all prepped and ready to go! Here’s some advice for the big day.





Do research the programme of study you’re interested in before you go (you can get course descriptions on the university’s website or by browsing; that way you’ll know which talks you want to attend when you get there. Time is often tight when trying to fit everything in: typically you’ll want to include a few subject talks, a student life panel talk, and an admissions briefing, at the very least.

Do ask questions – speak to university students around the campus helping out at the open day informally, or ask during presentations. This is your chance to get some answers straight from the horse’s mouth. Good questions to ask include: Which course are you studying? Was it what you expected – why/why not? Which other universities did you apply to? Same courses or different? These last two can be helpful if you don’t know exactly which course you want to do, or which combination of subjects you might be considering. Quite often students will be frank and tell you where they got offers and where they didn’t. You can find out what the ratio of women to men is on the course, how many students in total take it (could be thirty or less, in which case there might be a stronger sense of community), and whether the student entered the university by an alternative route. For example, universities such as SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, London) allow students who underperform their grade predictions to still access their chosen degree after taking a foundation programme for a year).

Do really look around – visit the library, the bar, hang-out spots, the lecture theatres (are they well set up with desks for writing on, do they seem well-resourced or a bit dingy?). Being on the campus during term time will enable you to get an awareness of the pace of life, notice what student body the university attracts, how driven or relaxed people seem and, crucially, will it fit me?





Don’ t

Don’t dismiss a university because your student guide wasn’t very compelling, or a lecturer was a bit dull. It can be easy to jump to conclusions when someone is very charismatic and articulate, or seems uninformed and uninterested in you. One experience isn’t necessarily indicative of the university as a whole – so keep an open mind.

Don’t miss the admissions talk. Gems you can pick up include: applicant vs acceptance rates for individual courses, what not to put in your personal statement (part of your application), what the university is expecting to see in your personal statement, how they review the personal statement (or, in the case of Oxbridge, what kind of things they are looking for in candidates at the interview stage). Usually, the presentation is very targeted, along the lines of “here is what you need to know”.

Don’t be too pushy. Lecturers are generally open to questions – some even share their email addresses after presentations so that students can follow up with them if they have any questions. But I’ve seen a Cambridge lecturer turn down a prospective student who asked if he could send an essay to him for his perusal. So be respectful of their time.




Going to an open day shouldn’t be stressful. Instead, it should generate excitement – a chance to see what’s waiting down the line for you in about 12 months or so. They can be very motivating. I’ve heard more than a few uni students say that getting their A Levels/IB was the hard part – “memorizing all those facts!” – whereas at university, modules are often completed with research-based papers, not exams. It’s a timely reminder that, no matter which university you end up attending (if that’s your goal), things will be better once you’ve graduated school.




Rachel is a writer and English teacher, helping students applying to universities in the US and UK.