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5 considerations for making firm and insurance uni choices

When offers come in from universities, the standard thing to do is to make a firm choice - the university and course you really want to attend, knowing you can achieve the A level grades they demand - and an insurance choice, where the university is asking for less-good results, in case things don't work out as well as expected.
But there are other things to consider. Here are a few that students should think through before they commit to those choices.

1. Can you afford to live there?

What is the cost of living like at your preferred university? London is one of the most expensive places on the planet to live, for instance. Will you need to supplement your income with part-time work, and will that disrupt your studies? What's the local economy like there, and are you confident that you can even get a part-time job? Obviously, you don't want to pass up a place at a really prestigious university even if it's going to cost you more to study there, but it's important to consider whether the status of the course is such that your future career is likely to make a greater up-front expense worth it.

Look for scholarships, bursaries and other financial assistance before you dismiss a particular place as too expensive.

2. You've had an unconditional offer. Should you take it?

An unconditional offer could mean you've impressed the university so much that they already know they want you. It could also reflect their need to fill places, bearing in mind that applications from UK students were down 5% by this January's UCAS deadline, and down 7% from EU students to UK unis.

Often, the university giving you an unconditional offer will stipulate that you must make them your firm choice. If that university isn't really what you had your sights set on, Which? University has the following advice: "Think back to how you felt about the course before that offer was on the table - would you be considering it if the spot wasn't guaranteed?"

If you can make that unconditional offer your insurance choice, then you're laughing. If not, then don't just be flattered into something you don't want to do.

3. Your universities have all come back with similar offers

Which? University says that, according to UCAS, "42% of applicants hold an insurance choice with conditions which are harder or equal to the conditions for their first choice." It's best to make sure you really do have a backup, an offer that's lower, as your insurance. But if your offers are very similar or equal then it's important to try to make one a backup, or at least put them in order of preference. One of your university choices may have a history of accepting students who miss their offer target, and could serve as your insurance. You should also check whether anything has changed (or will change) about the profile of the course you want to study following your application, making it more or less favourable to you. If it is changing, might it be worth seeing if the university would let you switch to a different course? It's worth asking them.

And consider the cultures of the institutions you're choosing between: would one suit you more than another?

4. Could you stretch yourself?

UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook, when she spoke at the UEA's Teachers and Advisers Conference last year, told the audience that, because universities are crying out for students, "your applicants can afford to be a bit bolder in their choices. The market has gone over to the demand side rather than the supply side.” She made the suggestion (stressing heavily that it was something to consider only on a case-by-case basis) that some applicants could afford to turn their firm choice into their insurance and then pick a stretch target - an ambitious offer from somewhere more selective or prestigious - as their first choice.

Clearly, teachers and advisers need to take great care in giving guidance like this, but where the pupil is surpassing expectations or showing determination and would respond well to being challenged, it could be a realistic option.

5.If you change your mind, it's not the end of the world

By accepting offers, you're entering into a contract of sorts. You are agreeing to go to your firm choice if you get the grades, and your insurance if you meet their requirements but are rejected by your firm choice. Universities can insist that you do what you've agreed to do. That said, universities don't want to enrol students who won't be happy there.

For instance, if you are facing going to your insurance choice but really don't want to, they may release you (so you effectively have no offers) and you can go into Clearing. Or if you have made your firm and insurance choices but want to swap them later, or after results come in, you can talk to those universities and if it's possible (don't assume the insurance choice will admit you in such a case, though - make that call).

There's good advice about your options, and the procedures, if you change your mind at TheStudentRoom.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Wed, 1 Mar 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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