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How might I go about choosing a good university?

The most important thing to remember about choosing a good university is not choosing the best university in terms of reputation, but rather the best university in terms of the engineering education it will provide to you. Of course, reputation is an important part of the equation, but universities come in many different sizes and have a variety of different teaching styles and philosophies, and it is important to choose one that is a good fit to your style of learning.

Different styles to consider are courses which are more hands on, compared to those which conform to the traditional approach of ‘reading for a degree’ which are less structured. There is also diversity between universities offering more vocational training as opposed to more generalist theoretical approaches. Differences are also apparent in terms of class sizes, staff to student ratio, provision and resourcing of laboratories, computing and IT, and libraries, and other student support services such as accommodation or health and wellbeing. Don’t forget the student union!

Campus-based universities offer a more collegiate atmosphere, whereas city centre based institutions can offer the vibrancy of city life, though with higher accommodation costs. Don’t forget the tuition fees are not the only cost – you have to live and feed yourself, and will need to buy books and other materials. City centre universities will be more expensive, but the greater chance of part-time employment may make up for that.

When considering location, think of the distance from your support network of home, family and friends. Moving to a different country offers many opportunities but distance increases difficulty. When considering the reputation of university, remember that it can be very subject specific, especially in engineering. The world centre for mobile communications may be unknown in civil engineering, and vice versa.

Ask the university about job prospects of graduates, and how many get jobs in the field and over what timescales. The prospectus and web site are obvious resources but remember they are written to sell the institution. The student union will be happy to talk to you, and there may be an open day with an opportunity to talk to current students. Some countries, such as the UK have national student surveys that allow graduates to provide feedback on their overall university experience, which can be quite insightful. Additionally, try to find the opportunity to talk to teaching staff in your area of interest. Phone first, but if you find the staff are too busy to talk to you before you sign up, you might want to consider what the situation will be like after they have banked your tuition fee!

When considering potential universities, it is also helpful to look at what both industry and research say about the needs of the future engineering workforce. A report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (2010) indicated that employers look for candidates with solid technological skills as well as interpersonal, communication, and teamwork abilities. A report by the National Academy of Engineering cites strong analytical skills, practical ingenuity, ethics, professionalism, resilience, creativity, flexibility, business and management, leadership, and lifelong learning as skills needed by engineers in 2020 to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

When interviewing potential universities it is helpful to ask how well the engineering curriculum prepares students in these areas. Remember that finding the best university for you may take some legwork including research and site visits. To have time to focus on what is really important to you in a university you may consider looking to see if your university participates in a common application or similar process.