How important are league tables when choosing my university?

About our writer

Georgia graduated with a Masters Degree in Renaissance Literature from Girton College, Cambridge, in July 2017

As a relatively recent graduate myself, when I think back to the applications process for university, I remember what a stressful time of year it can be for prospective students. With so much to take into account with regards to your choice of university and course, it can easily feel like an overwhelming process with so many factors to take into account. The location of the university, the facilities available, the academics who work there, the nightlife of the city, the cost of living… and so on, and so on!

One way of simplifying the choice of course and university is to narrow down the breadth of options by using league tables for your particular course at that higher education institution. Whether it’s the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the Guardian league tables or one of the other many rankings systems out there, you are never short of websites placing your university and course in numerical order. But, you might be wondering, how important are these league tables, really, and how seriously should you be taking them as the arbiters of your university choices?

League tables can tell you a lot

First things first, I am not here to knock league tables completely. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, however much experts tell you not to take them as complete gospel – a message which I will heartily endorse during this article – everyone looks at them when they’re applying for university and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

University league tables can certainly be useful tools, as they take into account a wide variety of different factors, including student satisfaction at that institution, entry standards, research quality and the all-important graduate prospects. Of course, you can look at league tables for a particular university, but the more useful rankings are for your particular course at that institution. Important information you can learn from a league table includes knowing that a particular university has improved in their research output for a particular subject, or has plummeted majorly in the student satisfaction ratings; outcomes which are definitely worth looking into further.

What they can tell you (in detail)

Although different league tables can vary in what they prioritise – with the Guardian table relying more heavily on student experience than the Times Higher Education one, for example – all of them will take into account all of the following factors.

  1. Student satisfaction scores

These can be a helpful measure of the day-to-day experience of students at that university, showing how they of how students rate elements of their university experience. However, as should also be taken into account, these scores can become distorted and slanted by that university’s current issues, which are often not related to academic matters. Still, given you want to live at that university, it’s worth finding out how students rank their university experience – even if you take the results with a pinch of salt.

  1. Student to staff ratio

This is also used across all of the league tables, and gives you an idea of how your university of choice might invest in its staffing, with a high student to staff ratio not being a particularly good sign. This will not tell you factors such as how many contact hours (hours of teaching) you will receive per week, however, or who will be teaching you. This is information you can find out by researching your course website.

  1. Graduate prospects

This may seem like the most important factor – after all, who isn’t thinking about their graduate prospects when they apply to university these days? – and it gives you a snapshot view on what graduates from that institution and course go on to do after leaving university. That said, these figures are only a snapshot, as they are collected six months after leaving university (when many graduates are still working out their career options/planning their graduate gap year travelling), so bear this in mind as it may not tell you where graduates begin their long-term careers.

  1.  Entry grades

These can majorly impact subject rankings, but this is definitely not something to obsess over. Plus, in the long run, of course, how well students actually do at university – a factor which is not usually measured in these league tables – is far more important than their A-level grades they achieved beforehand. Students usually achieve more UCAS tariff points than the actual entry requirements needed to gain entry to a course, and in some cases, students are admitted with lower grades than the entry requirements. Make sure you check out UCAS for entry requirements and don’t take them too seriously or worry about them too much.

But they don’t tell you everything…

Although they are useful guides, it is important to say that league tables absolutely do not give you all the information you need to make an informed decision about which universities to apply to. If you deliberately applied only to the top 5 universities for your subject, you could well end up with a fantastic university experience, but (and there is a but), you might not, if you haven’t taken into account factors which are never included in the league tables. These include the number of contact hours on your course, the costs of living, the kind of city in which you will be living, the distance from your hometown, the price of the average takeaway and gym… and so on!

Plus, if you don’t get an offer from the top university for your subject, or even decide to go there, that’s perfectly fine! I received an offer from a higher ranking university for English for my undergraduate degree and intentionally chose my undergraduate university (Birmingham) instead because I loved the city, the whole atmosphere of the city and the people I’d met there on my open days. And, as often happens with league tables, Birmingham now ranks higher for my subject than the other university I rejected!

So, if this article can teach you anything about league tables and university applications, I hope it is this: they are useful tools for when you start looking at potential universities, but should not be used as your only guide. Do not allow yourself to be pressured by the ever-changing and somewhat unreliable league tables when you are picking your university of choice: there are far more important reasons to choose the place where you will be spending the next three or four years of your life. Good luck!

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