Not only is it a long process, it is also an increasingly complex one. The decision to give university status to all polytechnics in England and Wales as well as similar institutions in Scotland has almost doubled the number of universities and has brought into the system a range of vocational and combined subjects unheard of in the days when university meant academic subjects unsullied by association with the world of work. Study methods are also changing: sandwich courses, independent study programmes and modular degrees are now commonplace.
Then comes the reduction in the value of student grants. Students are poorer, and for those who can't rely on substantial parental contributions, money has to be a significant consideration in choosing a university. Is accommodation cheap? Can they get sponsorship? If they want to go home often is the journey cheap and easy? These can all be vital questions. No less important are decisions about the type of setting in which they want to study. Is it to be a city or campus university? Can it cater for their interests and leisure activities?
It's a lot of data to juggle with. But the good news is that more materials are being developed to help and the technology is at hand. Resources include books, questionnaires, videos and, more often, computer programs. CD-Roms, in particular, are proving useful in presenting mountains of complex information in entertaining ways, for students don't just want facts and statistics; they want the feel and look of a place. This can now be delivered.
An increasingly-popular medium for helping students choose universities and courses is CD-Rom, and this year three new discs have been published: two to help with choosing a university, one with choosing a course.
For sheer candour and humour, Push CD takes some beating. Drawn from the book, The Push Guide to Which University, it is irreverent, often rude, with jazzy music and wacky commentary and, being a student's perspective, it includes such crucial information as the number of pubs and the price of a beer.
It has a serious purpose, however. Users custom-build their university from over 180 choices including campus or city, three terms or two, modern or traditional, more men or women. Accommodation availability, cost and what kind of person a university attracts ("employers find Cambridge students more down to earth than those from Oxford who must surely then be utter space cadets") are all considered. Also included are "virtual tours", photo compilations on universities put together by independent teams, and advice on making your application, grants and loans.
Which University on CD-Rom? from Hobsons contains similar information on all degree-awarding institutions, but its presentation is fairly dull in comparison. A major marketing point is that it features sophisticated and fairly long multimedia presentations from a growing number of universities 17 at present (facts and statistics only are given on other universities). Universities pay for their contribution, so you are getting a university's view of itself.
Which University? also allows students to request printed information electronically from the universities, and will shortly have a link to ECCTIS, of which more below. Very useful is the facility to do a radial search you want to be within cheap and easy travelling distance of your gran in Bradford? It will tell you which universities come within the distance.
The most recent CD-Rom (published last month) is StudyLink UK, which provides information on both courses and universities. Initiated by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the UK and the Standing Conference of Principals, it is essentially a CD-Rom version of the UCAS Guide and contains the 30,000 or so UCAS listings.
It also has multimedia presentations from those universities who are willing to pay, at present 62. But information on those that don't fork up is rather skimpy and students may find it frustratingly skeletal.
Before choosing a course or university, the first task for any student is to get to grips with the system, the issues and the timetable. The completely updated version of MAP (a new edition for A-level, BTEC, GNVQ and Access students) is a photocopiable pack which will hold a student's hand through the labyrinthine process of selecting and applying to a university.
The next task is to locate courses and here the best-known resource is ECCTIS 2000, a Department for Education database on CD-Rom, which gives access to nearly 100,000 course opportunities at over 900 UK universities and colleges of higher and further education. It assumes you know which kind of course you want to follow, and includes information on course content, modular schemes and entry requirements.
Available on subscription (three up-dates a year), it is now found in over two-thirds of UK secondary schools and most further education colleges, as well as many public libraries and careers offices. A much more user-friendly version, called ECCTIS+, has recently been launched to run on Microsoft Windows.
An optional add-on to ECCTIS is a program called Discourse, which suggests degrees on the basis of a computerised "questionnaire" on students' interests, job preferences and examination results. Although the format is old-fashioned (a redesigned Windows version comes out this month) and some of the choices appear bizarre (would you prefer to "organise and run a camp or analyse perfumes to improve their quality"), the list it produced for my daughter, aged 18, was bang on target.
Also available on the ECCTIS CD-Rom as an optional extra is the Potter Guide to Higher Education. A description of universities and their locations, this is the text of the book of the same name from Dalebank Books. Although plodding in style, it contains useful information and students seem to enjoy being able to dip into data on universities as they use ECCTIS.
Less ambitious is CHEC-2, a computer program with information on 2,200 courses linked to 450 institutions. Students can search by A-levels, broad interests or career intentions and it will generate standard letters to universities for more information.
Computers may be the buzz word, but two organisations are offering a paper-based service which relies on pupils filling in long questionnaires on their interests.
Cambridge Occupational Analysts and The Morrisby Organisation offer a range of psychometric tests, measuring the ability, quality or interest level of a student, and other services to schools and individuals. COA's Centigrade pack draws on the UCAS database, while Morrisby has its own, which includes an additional 300 courses not in the UCAS scheme.
Both provide impressively-bulky packages, suggesting courses at specific universities and action plans based on the students' choices, but there are differences of emphasis, so prospective buyers should get a specimen report before purchase.
Having narrowed down their choice, students will still want to send off for the printed prospectuses from the universities with course details. Visits are advisable, but also available from most universities are free videos that give a good idea of the types of university which exist. What they also offer is an insight into how a university wishes to be seen. Birmingham, for example, presents itself as a university which industrial employers respect as much as Oxbridge. Goldsmiths' video puts the emphasis on its music, art and multi-culturalism. Exeter is caring.
So far there has been little material on the clearing system, that point at which the centralised, well-ordered UCAS system gives way to the jungle. Several newspapers now publish vacancies and lists are available via ECCTIS. In July, Kogan and Page published the first book offering practical advice, A Guide to the Clearing System (see panel). For some this year it will still be useful. This time next year many will need it.
CD-ROMS AND COMPUTER PROGRAMS
Which University? on CD-Rom. PC version only. Annual subscription Pounds 58. Hobsons Publishing, Bateman Street, Cambridge CB2 1LZ. Tel: 01223 354551. Based on book of the same title.
Push-CD. PC version only. Pounds 50; Pounds 125 for network version. McGraw Hill, Shoppenhangers Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire Sl6 2QL. Tel: 01628 23432. Based on book The Push Guide to Which University.
Studylink.PCMacAcorn versions, Pounds 24.99. Howard MultiMedia, 2a Lupus House, 11-13 Macklin Street, London WC2B 5NH. Tel: 0171 404 8330 ECCTIS. Single machine subscription for PCMacAcorn Pounds 215. Network versions also available. ECCTIS 2000, Fulton House, Jessop Avenue, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 3SH. Tel: 01242 225914 Potter Guide. PC version only Pounds 36 + VAT from ECCTIS Discourse. PC version only. Annual subscription Pounds 70 as part of ECCTIS. Pounds 85 on its own, in which case it is available from ISCO (address under Books) CHEC 2. For IBM compatibles or Archimedes. Single machine annual subscription Pounds 55; sitenetwork Pounds 75. Careersoft, 31 Harrison Road, Halifax, West Yorkshire, HX1 2AU. Tel: 01422 330450 QUESTIONNAIRE SERVICES
Cambridge Occupational Analysts, Sparham, Norwich NR9 5AQ. Tel: 01362 688722. Pounds 9.50 per student The Morrisby Organisation, 83 High Street, Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. Tel: 01442 68645. Pounds 9.85 per student PUBLICATIONS
MAP. CRACHobsons. Pounds 49.95 plus VAT. Biblios, Star Road, Partridge Green, West Sussex RH13 8LD. Tel: 01223 354551 The UCAS Handbook. Essential reading for all applicants. Free from UCAS, PO Box 67, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 3SA to all students who apply to UCAS. Tel: 01242 227788
University and College Entrance The Official Guide (UCAS).
Pounds 12. Sheed and Ward, 14 Coopers Row, London EC3N 2BH. Tel: 0171 702 9799
A Guide to the Clearing System. Pounds 4.99 paperback. Kogan Page, 120 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JN. Tel: 0171 278 0433
Other publications can be obtained from ISCO (Independent Schools Careers Organisation), 12a Princess Way, Camberley, Surrey, GU15 3SP. Tel: 01276 21188; UCAS and CRACHobsons. Also from the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, 336 Brixton Road, London SW9 7AA. Tel: 0171 274 0565 A review of these and several other books on choosing courses and universities appeared on last week's TES Books pages