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Whilst this is the time of the year when students are jetting off to the UK to begin their time at university, it is also the beginning of the time when prospective students will be thinking about their options. Although the term does not begin until late September, the application process begins well in advance, sometimes up to a year earlier. Therefore, you should begin your research at an early stage in order to avoid mistakes and disappointment later on.
Students will often have a better idea of the subject they want to pursue at degree level than the institution at which they want to do so. It is difficult to gauge the quality of a university sitting in a different country and with all overseas representatives singing songs of praise about their institution. Leaving aside household names such as Oxford or Cambridge, how do we determine where we should be applying?
Whilst word of mouth recommendation from friends or family is a useful starting point, you should aim to give a structure to your research. This can be done by taking a look at the Times Good University Guide online. This is a very useful tool, for it allows you to view the rankings by subject category. For example, how many of you knew that University of Birmingham is 7th in their latest ranking for Economics?
By inputting your own subject, you may be in a better position to short-list your chosen institutions and not rely simply on their reputation in India which may not be entirely accurate. In addition, you could look at the various scores associated to the 3 parameters in the ranking system: Research Quality, Entry Standards and Graduate Prospects. This will guide students who often have different priorities.
For example, someone looking for cutting edge research in History may choose King's College London [Images] (ranked 3rd). However, another student looking to maximise her/his post-graduation employability might instead choose London School of Economics which has a lower subject ranking but a higher score on graduate prospects.
In summary, students can clear a lot of misconceptions by using this guide as a starting point for their research. Other similar rankings exist, notably the one published by The Guardian and it may be useful to compare various rankings to further streamline your approach.
Almost all universities have comprehensive Web sites containing detailed information on the structure of the courses on offer. It is extremely important to review this information before making a decision about whether or not you want to study at the institution. You should choose a course that is not only challenging and rewarding, but also tailored to your needs. If you are looking to specialise in Indian political history, there is no point in studying a course that does not have a module on the subject.
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Some universities will even provide details of the assessment system. I found this a particularly useful bit of information, for it allowed me to understand the requirements of the course. Personally I prefer being assessed through coursework and term papers rather than exams and therefore I was able to choose a course that allowed considerable flexibility to the students in determining the method of assessment. It may seem a trivial point at this stage, but when it comes to the grind of the exams, it makes a lot of difference whether you are in or out of your comfort zone.
You may also want to check out the faculty members at the universities. If you are a research student and want to specialise in a particular field, you should make sure that the relevant expertise exists in the department so that you may be allocated a suitable mentor.
This is perhaps the crucial part of the process for most Indian applicants. As a general rule 100 per cent scholarships are rarely available from the universities themselves, although some external scholarships are available via the British Council and other external organisations. There are some exceptions to this rule, notably Oxford and Cambridge which offer some full scholarships, although competition is fierce. The important point to note is that you should think about the various funding options available at the various institutions you are considering, for it may be a deciding factor in the end.
Most universities offer part scholarships to international students, with some having dedicated funds for Indian applicants. Normally these are in the range of � 2,000-5,000 which can make a significant difference to the costs that you should expect to incur. Larger and more established universities have more resources, but many universities have a plethora of schemes that encourage international students to apply.
The cost of your course also varies from one university to another. Partly this reflects local prices: a course at an institution based in London can cost you nearly � 2,000-3,000 more than some other areas. Oxford and Cambridge have a college-based system which means that colleges charge a fee on top of the tuition fee charged by the university. In other words, factor in the costs when conducting research about choosing the universities you are going to apply to.
You should be aware of where your chosen universities are located, for this can affect your costs as well as your lifestyle. For example, if you decide to study somewhere close to Lancaster your costs are going to be significantly low on a day-to-day basis than if you live in London. However, you may have to fork out a larger sum of money each time you want to get to the nearest international airport with flights to India, or travel to London.
In addition, you should consider whether you want a campus life or a city life. Should you want a haphazard campus with lots of inner city travel along with living in a bristling metropolis, London is the place to be for you. However, if you prefer idyllic settings whilst your juggle algorithms in your head, perhaps a walk by the Cam river is in order?
Choosing a university is the single most important decision that you have to make in the entire application process. Therefore, you should conduct your research thoroughly, keeping in mind all the factors that are important to you and considering your future career interests and prospects when making a final decision.
Use the rankings to understand how each institution fares in your subject (and also overall), but don't make them the one-stop shop. I would suggest using the ranking as a short-listing tool in the first instance. Thereafter you should look at each institution's Web site, trying to understand the course structure, future career prospects, links to potential employers, research and other support facilities and funding options.
Finally, I would round off my research by looking at the peripheral factors such as location, social life and extra-curricular facilities. These can be contributors to an enjoyable time at university. Remember, the world doesn't stop at Oxford, Cambridge or London. Reputations are important, but they are not the only determining factor in making a sound choice about where to study in the UK.
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