So what *actually* matters to students when choosing a university for 2023?

students working on a laptop

Published 28 November 2022

The January application deadline looms. There are less than two months to go, but there are plenty of decisions still to be made. 

We can expect thousands of applicants to be hovering over the ‘submit’ button on their application – many may still be unsure on their final five universities. 

How many exactly is impossible to say, but Ucas data from the last non-pandemic cycle (2019) shows there were more than 155,000 applications submitted between Christmas and the January deadline.

So it’s a great time to reach applicants…but what are they looking for? The usual selling points will always connect: employability stats, league tables, placement opportunities and so on. But we can add to the mix more timely elements such as money management and student support services.

What are these students looking for?

Students are likely to be researching a few key areas before making their decision. In October 2022, we surveyed entry prospective undergraduates for 2023 and 2024 as part of our Navigating Changing Options research. 780 replied to the question: ‘Which of the following are important to you when choosing universities to apply to?’

The leading answers were course content (70%), student satisfaction (64%) and uni atmosphere (63%). Among the other areas indicated as important included accommodation offered (56%), graduate employability (53%) and a low cost of living (48%).

NCO poll results

What do students want universities to tell them?

771 entry prospective undergraduates (2023 and 2024) replied to the question: ‘What information do you want from universities now?’

The leading answers were: course information (70%), details of interviews (67%) and accommodation information (64%). With many still to complete their application, 61% would value universities providing application or personal statement guidance.

When are students applying?

As the Ucas data from 2019 shows, many applications are made in the final few weeks before the deadline. In mid-October this year, we ran a snap poll on The Student Room as a temperature check of where students were with their applications. At that point, 9% of 155 respondents said they had already sent off their application for the January deadline. 

These comments from our applications and Ucas forum suggest why some students haven’t applied yet:

How do I pick unis to apply for? I’m stuck on which ones to choose at the moment, is there a method that could help me decide or any research I should be doing?”

“I’m struggling to shorten my list of 10 possible options, and it’s stressing me out because I want my application sent off as soon as my predicted grades have been finalised.”

“I’ve done my Ucas choices and written my personal statement for sport science as it is something I really enjoy. The closer I get to sending off my application, the more I think I’ve made a mistake and would enjoy criminology a lot more. Now I don’t know what to do!”

Perhaps fewer will apply overall. Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant revealed there were fewer applicants for the October deadline this year. And – despite growth in the 18-year-old population, the number of applicants in that category dropped 3%. However, she was clear that while that was a dip from the highs of the ‘pandemic years’, there’s a continuing rise in applicants overall.

While it’s too early to say whether January’s applicant numbers will follow a similar trend, perhaps we should be focusing more heavily on the why of applying – not simply where – to connect with this student audience. And remember: it’s not too late to talk to them!

female student in library

Year 12 cohort are planning their futures

It’s also worth noting that year 12s have already started assessing their options. A poll of our Student Room community shows that 24% have already started their university application and a further 23% are focused on getting the predicted grades they need. 

This suggests that year 12s are serious about planning for their futures; now could be a pivotal time for universities to make positive early impressions. This next cohort could already be shortlisting potential courses and universities, and making early contact could influence these decisions.

Key takeaways:

  • Students are focused on picking the right course as well as student satisfaction, uni atmosphere and a nice place to live – include these areas in your communications
  • Graduate employability is important to more than half of respondents (53%), so show students your industry links and provide alumni testimonials 
  • Course content, student satisfaction and uni atmosphere are all key influences on university choice. Get these factors across with an official rep account on The Student Room
  • Year 12s are already assessing their options. The benefit of making early contact and positive impressions now to influence their final decisions should not be underestimated

What next? Contact your account manager at The Student Room. They can advise the best ways to get information to your target audience in the weeks leading up to the application deadline – whether that’s sponsored content, email, online engagement or a wide range of other effective solutions.

Our data is from Navigating Changing Options, Wave 9, October 2022. For reference, here’s some additional research from Ucas on the dip in early deadline applicants and our report on how undergraduates are feeling about the cost of living.