The choice of a college can make a crucial difference to students' future lives, but how do you point them in the right direction? Corinne Julius offers your starter for 10.
Career advisers, tutors and heads of sixth form preparing their students to think about higher education - in the private sector often before students sit GCSEs - are awash with information on open days, good university guides and prospectuses.
By now they will have put on careers talks, got their students to complete Morrisby or Centigrade aptitude tests to help them define their interests, given talks on university applications, had in external speakers, including university admissions tutors, held parents' evenings and stuffed the careers room full of prospectuses and information on almost any career under the sun.
And yet the most difficult part is still to come. There are 30,000 courses on the UCAS system and 1,500-plus subjects, but how do you fit the student peg to the right university hole?
"The key is to get students to think about who they are and what they want," says Stella Barnes, careers guidance counsellor at Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington. "They tend to compare themselves to others, rather than think through their own needs. I get them to look at themselves, the kind of person they are - whether they are outgoing or shy, mad about nightlife or seeking the quiet life.
"I try to make them understand they don't have to go to the university that ranks highest for research or teaching, they should choose the university that's best for them. And that can mean playing devil's advocate in pushing students to really think about themselves, their personalities and aspirations."
This June Ms Barnes will set her 430 higher education applicants a personal research project to be completed over the summer, in which students assess themselves and find eight institutions to match their needs.
Phil Talbot, senior tutor at the private St Albans School and a spokesman for the National Association of Careers Guidance Teachers, likens choosing a university to buying a car. "You get all the brochures and test drive three or four. Sadly, students often do far less personal research than they would if they were buying a car. But they are going to have to live somewhere for three years as a result of their decision."
Chris Smyth, a pupil at City of London School now sitting his A-levels, wasn't sure whether to read history or philosophy. But his starting point in choosing a university was to take a long hard look at himself. Brought up in inner-London, he wanted a more pleasant environment where he could get to make friends easily. Much of his preliminary research was carried out on the Internet.
Phil Talbot believes the Internet is indispensable for all careers advisers. "You just can't afford not to have the most up-to-date information. It's the key to giving good careers advice. But many maintained schools have limited access to the Net." Camden School for Girls in London has one machine, but careers co-ordinator Judy Levitt believes the school can keep abreast using careers fairs and a variety of handbooks.
One of the most informative, popular and accessible handbooks is The Push Guide to Which University, which its editor, Sophie Dennis, claims is written in teen magazine prose. Now on CD-Rom, it has a wealth of more general information, including clubs, the price of beer and the atmosphere of 696 colleges. Sophie Dennis says students must visit some universities, preferably armed with a list of pertinent questions (See box). But that does not necessarily mean going to official open days, when only the best is on view - unofficial days offer a more realistic picture.
Although Chris Smyth was only officially allowed to go to two open days, he says they helped him get a feel of the places. "I didn't know what a university was like, and there were so many kinds. I set out to see a campus, a civic and a collegiate institution. I went alone in the holidays and just wandered around, then I came back and checked through my criteria. Although I liked the idea of a campus, the reality was an industrial estate in a field, and the civic universities were too big. I felt happiest in the collegiate context."
But even in collegiate universities, there's a choice to be made. Alistair Duncan, who left Harrow School last year for Wadham College, Oxford University, stresses the need to fit in with the college ethos. "The alternative prospectus gives a fairly accurate portrayal - Wadham for free-thinking radicals and Christ Church for black tie and rowing." Most unions produce alternative guides available on open days.
Another feature of open days is that prospective students can put their questions to students already there. This can be particularly important to pupils in maintained schools, which are less likely than independent schools to have a network of "old boys" to call on to come into school or meet in situ. Phil Talbot is connected by e-mail to former pupils, but few maintained schools have that luxury.
Emma Jarvis, formerly at Camden School for Girls but now at Bristol, regrets that her school didn't have that network. She has offered to return to school, but has yet to be invited back. She feels that the private sector offers their students more back-up and preparation. She received far less relevant or practical advice when she applied to Oxford than Alistair Duncan did at Harrow. "Although I was predicted four As, I was told to apply only if I thought I could get the grades. It didn't sound very supportive. Nor did they give me the interview training that was available in the private sector." Emma had to rely on her own sources, and for many young people that means parents.
Phil Talbot concentrates time and effort on informing parents, largely because they are the most influential source of advice to their children. But he says their guidance is often based on their own, dated and very different experience. He also encourages his students to take a jaundiced view of any information presented in videos, prospectuses, fairs and open days.
"I encourage cynicism," says Phil Talbot. "Every prospectus claims a society for every taste - or the option of starting your own. They all praise the merits of the nightlife and have pictures of wheelchair ramps, immaculate student kitchens and the politically correct ethnic balance. Students have to appreciate that the universities are making a pitch for them, so they must choose the right place for themselves. They can do that only if they've been given the right help and advice - and that means we, their tutors, have to keep on our toes."
PLAN OF ACTION - Key steps for teachers to set for students
Year 12 AUTUMN TERM
* Arrange work experience (for February half term)
* Take a Centigrade or Morrisby test
* Decide who am I and what do I want?
* Consider a gap year
* Consider possible coursestype of university (consult coursefinderECCTIS)
* Consult prospectuses
* Get information from Internet
* Get dates for open days
* Go to advice sessions, school careers adviser
* Parents' open evenings (including admissions tutors)
* Contact former pupils
* Find out how to fill in UCAS form
* Construct action plans
* Try to visit universities to get a feel of the places.
* University fairs
* Attend open days
* Teachers prepare references and predictions
* Finalise subject
* Shortlist options
* Start UCAS section 10
YEAR 13 AUTUMN TERM
* Consult re your decisions
* Finalise choices
* Attach reference and predictions
* Send form to Oxbridge by October 15, UCAS by December 15
* Deadline Dec 15
THE RIGHT PEG IN THE RIGHT HOLE. Key questions for students to ask.
* Home or away?
* Size of local area affects social life and temporary job opportunities
TYPE OF UNIVERSITY
* Green fields or city lights, intimateanonymous, towngown?
* Is it what you want?
* The right subjects - combinations?
* Lectures, seminars, tutorial. How many in a group and how often?
* How difficult to get to see a member of staff?
* Assessment - modules or exams?
* Coursework - projects, overseas opportunities?
* Libraries - computerIT facilities, labs, supervision?
* Availability in hall?
* Close to the university?
* How expensive?
* Catering - self-catering?
* Cooking - food storage, facilities?
* Size and standard of rooms?
* Single-sex floors?
* Accommodation in the holidays?
* Is the hall a community?
* Help in finding accommodation - negotiating contracts, dealing with problems?
* Night life - clubs, good bars, pubs, cost?
* Fromto home ease and cost?
* Around universityto town?
* Late night transport, cost of taxis?
* Car parking?
* Societies that cater for your interests?
* Sports - teams, facilities?
* Union services - discount travel, shop, insurance?
* Availability of health counselling services?
* Special needs adviser?
* Employment rate ofgraduates?
* Summer - seasonal job opportunities?