“Four things come not back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, the neglected opportunity.” – Arabian Proverb
The Arabian proverb above—if it were written by anyone that has applied for Chevening would have included a fifth element—your Chevening application university choices! You see, the choices you make in your application somewhere between August and October of the year prior to the one you intend to study are unchangeable except for their order (at the interview after being shortlisted if you manage to make it that far). For that very reason, choose them wisely and make it a choice you won’t regret. This can only be achieved by doing your research thoroughly and early on in the process.
Regret is something I have seen in too many of my peers over their choices, especially when they make it to interview. It’s likely because, when they applied it was on a whim with no expectation of the Chevening dream becoming a reality. That changes when they get the email shortlisting them to the interview and start to realize they might be spending a year of their life doing a course that is not quite the right fit for their career goals, a university of a standard below their expectations, or in an environment that will make them miserable. Don’t be that person. (Just as an aside I am absolutely in love with my first choice and wouldn’t trade it for the world but I do regret my second and third choices and if I were sent to them I would be less than pleased as I have offers from other universities I would prefer over them).
This entry is designed for just that, to spare you the misery and stress that comes from choosing the wrong university or course by showing you what to look for in a university or course, where to look for it, and other final considerations.
A. Course content
I have put this above ranking because ultimately I think MOST UK universities are better than any university in the current applicants’ home countries (developing countries) so ‘what’ you will learn may take greater precedence over ‘where’ you learn it. Skills you have gained will take precedence over how good the university is and by this I don’t mean pick a bottom of the league table university just for the sake of it, but don’t go picking Oxbridge because they are the top two spots! Sure, they will give you a lot of prestige but there is no use in that if they fail to equip you with the resources you need for your intended career. I will give you my example…Reading is my top choice to pursue Agricultural Economics because the content is spot on to my requirements (in addition to other aspects of the university) and will equip me with the right skill and knowledge set to complement my commercial production background and help advance a career change from private to NGO agricultural development sector. It is a multi-disciplinary course covering agricultural, management, economics, policy, gender issues and development theory and a less tailored course at a higher name recognition university would be of less benefit to me. Cambridge and Oxford may be best overall but they don’t feature anywhere in agriculture ranking.
Remember you want to study a masters to advance your career (whether in the employ of someone else or through self-employment) so consider the skills required for what you intend to do after graduation. Look at the job descriptions of the jobs you aspire towards…what course title are they looking for and what skills they expect you to have and what tasks role involves. Ask yourself if the course at the university you are choosing will equip you with the qualification name, individual skills, and knowledge that are required for you to successfully compete for and, if selected, execute the tasks of that role.
Consider also the relative difficulty of the content relative to your strengths and weaknesses. Yes, it is good to be challenged and by no means should you shy away from difficulty, but be realistic in your pursuits. Don’t pick a mathematics-intensive course when you are terrible with numbers! If you are a short-memory student or a slow learner don’t pick a course with a huge reading list or an amount of content that you simply won’t be able keep up—otherwise, you’ll suffocate to the point of it being your downfall. Is there a course with the similar or even the same course titles that you’ve taken before or that are perhaps more suited to your academic strengths? But do bear in mind in the UK masters are one year long whereas elsewhere in the world they are 2 or 3 years, your work will be cut out for you even if you pick something you are good at!
Hundreds of courses may be called Public Health, Agricultural economics, or MBA for instance but what core and optional modules make up that course and what research themes are there. Does it fit in with your career plan? If yes, how? Don’t be lazy or careless about this…go into the details of EVERY course that interests you even if they have similar titles.
Where to look:
The university website – go to the course page. Often it will have a list of core and optional modules and sometimes the course titles link and expand to the course details (overall descriptions, topics covered, who teaches it etc). Sometimes universities will have a pdf brochure of course details – read it! See also what research they are doing and if it interests you and also how the courses are delivered? Is it lectures through and through or is there room for group work, seminar attendance, case studies and practical work and which teaching methods are most suited to you, your goals and your personality? Consider this. Finally, the course overview often informs you of the graduate prospects. Has the course led people to do what you want to be doing? And lastly, for MBA applicants, how much does it cost? Because MBAs in the Chevening scheme have a fee cap of £18,000 and anything over that you will be expected to pay for yourself so make sure you have (or will have) the savings to cover the difference by the time you start studying. Otherwise, you’ll have to find a cheaper MBA.
Rankings of universities are reflective of the ‘overall package’, so to speak, offered by the university, including, but not limited to criteria such as teaching quality, academic facilities spend, research quality and intensity, staff to student ratio and student satisfaction. Rankings are also sometimes subject-specific and I personally feel those are more useful than the overall ranking. Some universities may be ranked lower than some of the top universities overall but beats them all when ranking your specific subject e.g. Reading is ranked 27th overall but is ranked 1st in the UK university rankings for Agriculture which is my field of interest. Rankings can also be UK specific or world rankings.
The fortunate thing about rankings is that the work is already done for you and annual lists and publications are made and there are even dedicated websites with handy university comparison tools that show universities you select against one another for the same criteria using graphs and charts which helps you pit one against the other.
What you choose to prioritize when looking at rankings is really your choice and no one else’s. Are you looking to be in academia or research for a living? Then you might want to focus on the research quality, intensity, facilities and even the overall ranking (because let’s face it, researchers and academics can be a snobby bunch—this is one position where rankings will likely matter). Are you a shy person who might find it easier to learn in a smaller class and/or on a smaller campus (by population) where you would be more comfortable and confident? Then consider lower staff to student ratio and vice versa for the opposite. Are you terrified of not doing well? Check the percentage of graduate completion. A high incompletion rate may be an indication that the programs are either super difficult, poorly taught or something is driving people to leave before they can complete their degree.
As a caveat on rankings, remember that higher ranked usually means harder to get into, so analyze yourself and determine if you can realistically get into a university. Are you trying to get into the country’s number one school where the average entry standard is all First class honors degrees and everyone is genius level but you have a lower second class degree or just a pass? Then your chances are slim. And if you are looking to get into a university for geniuses but don’t have the grades, does your experience compensate? Have you done amazing things in life and work that may make them overlook this? If yes then by all means apply, if not then go for a lower ranked one you can get into and aim for a first class degree by not making the mistakes you did (a little too much partying, laziness?) as an undergrad that led to your poor (now unchangeable) grades in the first place. Use that to apply for a second masters or even PhD somewhere down the line at an elite university if you are that keen.
Also, even if your grades are on point and your experience reasonable, admissions at the best schools are very competitive and it boils down to the economic problem of scarcity and choice. There are limited places on the course and good as you may be, another applicant may simply be better. Of course, that does not mean that you suck so I recommend having two ‘better’ university choices and one not as highly ranked (just in case) as the rest that can be your ‘safety school’ that you are very likely to get in. Believe me, nothing will be worse than getting a scholarship then being rejected by all 3 choices and so the scholarship is given to a reserve candidate (trust me, it’s been known to happen)
Where to look:
The following websites are handy and I particularly recommend the first one as it has a great comparison tool and does a summary page for each university highlighting the strengths, academic and otherwise, facilities and even talk about the location (geographic) of the university, transport and security of self and belongings on the campus and in the town:
You will find just about anything and everything about universities in this one. To compare universities use the site’s search function to input the name of one of the universities you are interested in and click the university link (usually the first one to appear on the search results list). The university page will open and at the bottom you will see an orange ball that says ‘compare’. Open it, unselect the universities that don’t interest you and replace them with the ones that do. Press enter and voila…comparison graphs appear! It can be quite useful in comparing. You can also see the various league tables here: by subject, region etc.
Check how your chosen universities compare to the rest of the world here with the handy function of being able to filter by location so you look at just how the UK universities rank on a world spectrum, rather than scrolling endlessly through universities in countries that don’t interest you. You can also check world ranking by subject rather than overall.
An alternative site to get world rankings by subject or overall
I personally love the StudentCrowd website because it is one for students, by students. It sugarcoats nothing and isn’t trying to market itself like the university’s main website does. Here students report on their satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 5 stars and you will get honest opinions from the people doing the studying
C. Accommodation, Facilities, Extracurricular Activities and Location
Some international communities like Nigerian and Chinese communities as well as some others tend to be widely represented on campuses and even tend to have societies dedicated to them so, upon landing, you will immediately feel at home. But other countries, like my own, Mozambique (maybe because of the language or because we are so far behind the rest of the world academically) are not so fortunate and in many cases you may be the only, possibly even the first, or one of very few students on campus from your country.
Choosing your university is not just choosing a source of a diploma that will prove to be a career stepping stone, it is also the place you will call home for a year which will feel like a decade if the place sucks and you hate it and to add insult to injury you are your country’s own island with no company on campus so yes by all means look at your course and the rankings but consider your life outside the classroom.
Are you from a quiet, one horse town where the one horse is dead (like my current home, Mafambisse) or a big and buzzing capital city? Given a choice which would you prefer? Are you the outgoing type who relishes living with many people and constant social interaction or the quieter, more antisocial sort who could do without human interaction for months provided there is internet or books? Do you like to travel or stay put? Do you prefer endless countryside or concrete jungles or a mix of both?
Consider these in choosing your university. Will you want to be in London (not forgetting the higher cost of living), just outside it or further away? And do you want that further away to be a village, town or city and how remote are you comfortable with it being? Do you see yourself attending only the compulsory welcome and farewell Chevening events and staying put on campus the rest of the year because you mean business and are not there for fun or do you see yourself attending as many Chevening events as possible (all over UK) and taking weekend trips to visit the friends you will make of fellow applicants and scholars who don’t go to your school or even just domestic tourism outside of that (visiting that museum, castle, heritage site, festival, concert, botanical garden you heard about and are excited to see for yourself)? If you plan for the latter you must pick a place that is well-connected to the rest of UK, usually by rail or road, with frequent busses and trains to get you around. Are you absolutely obsessed with art, history, music, soccer or nightlife? Then check out whether the location of your university has your interests or if a nearby town does and if not, is it easy to get to those places from where you will be?
Where to look:
- Wikipedia pages for the town, city or village where you will be studying. It lets you know about the place’s history, transport systems, culture and entertainment and any points of interest to visit
- https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/ on each university’s summary page talks about the place’s highlights and points of interest and transport or how easy it is to get around
If you want to work backwards, here is a list the top 8 UK student cities then you can see what universities are there and if they have courses relevant to you
to know what current and former students think about the location
Extra-curricular and social activities
So when you are not in class or studying or gallivanting about the town that pleases you—the one that you selected using criteria discussed above—and you are not in your room (discussed below), what will you be up to? You will be up to extra-curricular activities or social events of course; the latter often a consequence of the first. Sports, clubs, and student union events will undoubtedly determine the ‘fun’ side of your university life, not to mention your health and fitness and whether you will learn something new outside of the classroom.
All universities have extra-curricular activities—some more than others—and a student union. Again, some are better organized than others and these should be weighed in selecting a university. Are you a party animal? Look for the university that has multiple night clubs, pubs and bars or one night club but perhaps frequent and varied events or a town with vibrant nightlife. Are you a fitness/sport fanatic or just curious to try fancy- looking sports (lacrosse, snow sports and polo anyone?) that you would never have the opportunity to try in *insert your country name here* (Mozambique)? Check what sports are available at the university and how serious (or not) they are, whether they provide training, and if amateurs can join (usually they can). Also check exercise facilities like if there is a gym or running trails on campus. It is a great opportunity to make friends. Do you like to volunteer? Are there any university clubs or international voluntary organizations represented at the university you could join? It could be a new club or one you are already a part of back home e.g. AIESEC, Rotary, ENACTUS, Lions, Model United Nations, Amnesty International etc. Or maybe you are looking to improve or gain some useful life or professional skills? Check for societies that will provide you the relevant skills, perhaps a debate and public speaking society, a society relevant to your field of study or a new hobby you could take up.
Where to look:
- The university website. There is usually a student union page that details what sports and societies there are. You might need to set a day aside for each university for this because believe me there are hundreds of societies in most universities and you will be surprised to learn about them all. Like I had no idea Caving and Korfball were sports or that Quidditch has escaped the page to become a real thing and now I see myself mounting a broom after class if I make it to Reading lol.
Accommodation and facilities
The town, the activities on campus all matter to a great degree but the four walls you will call your little home away from home and lay your head to rest, matter the most.
First off I will say right off the bat, if you are applying for Chevening, you have worked a while and so likely have a home all to yourself and maybe your family so living out of a university hall room will likely be uncomfortable by comparison so keep that in mind. If you are that bothered you can always rent off campus but that comes with distance from campus and being out of the social loop as well as managing bills you wouldn’t need to in halls of residence.
See what accommodation options are available on campus and what suits your tastes….are there shared flats, apartments, townhouses or single corridor-style rooms in a building? How recently were they built or refurbished and in what condition are they? Are they catered or will you need to cook? Are bathrooms shared or not? How far are the halls from campus? What services and facilities do the halls come with? Do you get wifi, cleaning, and laundry service or must you do your own?
Are there restaurants, cafeterias and other eateries on campus? What is served? Is it good quality and does it meet your dietary requirements (Halaal, vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free etc.) and are there institutions of faith on campus or in the surrounding town for you to practice your faith if it is important to you? And what about other campus facilities like supermarkets, hair salons (your hair isn’t going to do itself just because you are a Chevener) and others?
Where to look:
- The university website. There is usually an accommodation page
- And for a more unbiased perspective visit :
and search for your university’s halls and see what the people who’ve lived there think
Lastly consider the aftermath of your graduation. How active and beneficial is the alumni association and are there any notable alumni? Your alumni association can be a powerful networking tool to advance your career and business ventures by meeting professionals (possibly very successful ones) through your alma mater. Choose a place with an alumni association you would want to be a part of and a resource of a lifetime long after you leave the UK.
Where to look:
- University website
D. The you factor
My parting advice on selecting your universities is that choices are personal. You will be doing the course. You will be spending a year there. Your career will be made or broken based on the choice. The misery or the joy that will come from the choice will be yours to bear.
Consult, if you must. Get a second opinion but never feel pressured; not by the ranking or reputation of a place or by the fact that it seems the more popular choice for people from your country or for past Cheveners or by whatever else.
Remember Cheveners are leaders and only dead fish go with the flow; leaders swim against the current. Don’t be afraid to go where few or none have gone before. Who knows your success may be what puts that university on the map or sets a trend for people wanting to go there? Maybe you will be the first alumni of a lesser-known university to win a Nobel Prize, become a head of state, an award-winning author or whatever marker of success in your field. Wouldn’t that be more rewarding than being one out of the hundreds that have already done so as elite school alumni, just another statistic?
In a later post we will discuss details of applying to universities but until then do your research and happy university-selecting to you!
Let us know in the comments section what universities and courses you are interested in. Who knows, you might meet a future classmate this way?
*Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and its partner organizations.