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University open day tips (on a budget)

University open days can sometimes feel daunting, confusing and, not to mention, pricey – so where to begin? With this guide, deciding where to visit will become much easier (and cheaper!).

UCL open day signs

Credit: UCL – Instagram

There's no denying that university open days, whether online or in person, are great. They're perfect opportunities to get a feel for campuses, meet potential future tutors and see the accommodation on offer.

While in-person open days give a better insight into uni life than virtual open days, the major downside of them is that they can be really expensive to attend in person. When you add up the cost of transport and food, they can make a serious dent into your summer budget.

To make things a little easier, we've put together all you need to know about open days – including some all-important info on how to cut down the cost of your open day visits if you do attend in person.

If you haven't already, check out our guide to choosing the right university and degree for you.

FAQs about university open days

These are the key things you need to know about university open days:

  1. What are virtual open days?

    woman on laptop

    Credit: astarot – Shutterstock

    Virtual open days are essentially online experiences designed to emulate a university open day from the comfort of your own home.

    Due to the coronavirus outbreak, you can expect virtual open days to be the most common form of open days at universities this year.

    They will typically involve videos, interactive maps and 360º photos allowing you to explore campuses as if you were really there.

    There might be video interviews with students from each department, online 'day-in-the-life' diaries or webchats where you can chat with current students.

    They're a great way of gaining an in-depth feel for a university and (hopefully!) getting some of your questions answered. While there's no denying that they're not as effective as the real deal, virtual open days are still a great alternative to visiting unis in person.

    Just bear in mind that the university will only show you the good aspects of their course and campus, and will keep any downsides out of the picture.

    We'd recommend using virtual open days to explore a wide range of universities, and based on that, narrow your choices down to a select few that you want to visit in real life, as soon as you're able.

  2. What can you expect at a university open day?

    Edinburgh University open day

    Credit: DiegoMariottini – Shutterstock

    Open day schedules vary from uni to uni, but on the whole, there are some standard things you can expect each time:

    • Talks and lectures about the university and your chosen subject.
    • Tours around campus by current students – this is a great opportunity to ask someone who's experienced life at the uni about everything from the culture there, to the atmosphere, to the student nightlife and more.
    • Visits to halls of residence.

    On top of these, lots of unis put on extra events, stalls and talks, with things like taster classes and student-advice lectures available to see on the day.

    Be sure to get your money's worth and see as much as you have time for – and (it goes without saying) make the most of any freebies while you're there.

  3. Why go to university open days?

    University of Salford Manchester open day

    Credit: University of Salford Press Office – Flickr

    It's no secret that going to university is a big investment – not just financially, but also in terms of time and work.

    When deciding which uni to go to, you'll need to think about where you'd be happy living for the next few years, and which uni name you'd like to write alongside that top grade on your CV.

    Open days are like a 'try-before-you-buy' way of knowing which universities to apply for. You can get a lot of information from prospectuses, online research and virtual open days, but the chance to actually see the campus, chat to students and meet lecturers is hard to beat.

  4. When are university open days?

    Oxford University open day

    Credit: Imran's Photography – Shutterstock

    There's no point in the year when university open days really start or end – they happen all year round, but there are some peak times.

    A lot of them happen over summer when you have more free time and campuses are quieter.

    But you'll also find a lot of open days take place before the UCAS deadline in January, so there'll be a fair amount throughout October, November and December.

    Some will take place after A-level results day, but before the start of term (so around late August and early September), for those who go through UCAS Clearing.

    You can use the UCAS calendar to search for open days and book your place.

    Note: This year, many universities are cancelling on-campus open days that had been scheduled for the summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. They're generally getting replaced by virtual open days – visit university websites for more information.

  5. How many open days do universities have?

    University of Chester Riverdale Building

    Credit: chrisdorney – Shutterstock

    There will be at least one open day at each university every year (online or in-person), but often, there'll be several different dates for you to choose from so you'll be spoilt for choice.

    The exact number of open days per uni varies massively, so have a look online for the dates of open days at the places you're interested in.

    If you can't make any of the open days at a university you really want to see, don't worry. There are other options, like visiting uni campuses outside of open days if they are open. Have a look at our advice on 'non-open days' for more info.

  6. How do you register for open days?

    Jim Carrey Bruce Almighty typing fast

    Credit: Universal Pictures

    Registering is super straightforward.

    As well as using the UCAS calendar, one of the easiest ways to do it is to head to a university's website, find their section about open days and follow their instructions to book.

    The site will likely direct you to an online form to fill out. And, once that's done, all you need to do is wait to hear from the university about the schedule for the day, arrange your transport and you're all set. It's as easy as that.

  7. What should you wear to university open days?

    Joey wearing Chandler's clothes Friends

    Credit: Warner Bros

    At open days, there's no real dress code so don't stress too much about what to wear.

    The most important thing is that you feel comfortable – but just bear in mind that some of the people you meet on the day might end up interviewing you, so it's best to keep it pretty uncontroversial...

    Sometimes your university interviews might coincide with open days. If this is the case, dress smart (without spending a fortune). To help, we've got some handy tips on dressing smartly on a budget.

  8. What questions should you ask at university open days?

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    Credit: New Line Cinema

    Whether you're in a lecture or talking to a tutor one-to-one, never be afraid to ask questions. There's bound to be plenty that you want to know about the course and university you're looking around, and open days are the perfect opportunities to get those questions answered.

    As an idea of some particularly handy questions, we'd suggest asking these things at open days:

Location plays a big part in deciding where to go for university – find out more about the local areas around your uni choices by checking out our city guides.

6 top tips for saving money on university open days

Here are the best ways to save money on attending open days at universities:

  1. Organise cheap travel in advance

    Peter Kay's Car Share

    Credit: BBC

    The main expense you're going to face is probably the cost of travel. Depending on how far afield you're looking, you might have to fork out on train tickets (or even plane tickets!), which can get seriously expensive.

    Our main tip here is to book your travel to universities as early as possible – if you leave it until the week before, prices will be sky-high.

    Also, make sure you invest in a 16-25 Railcard – this will give you a third off train tickets, and is an investment you're likely to pay off when you're at university. While delays are super annoying, if you don't get to your destination on time you could be owed a refund, saving you money on your fare.

    That being said, try to avoid trains and planes where possible, as these are the most expensive modes of transport.

    Coach travel is massively cheaper, or organising a big car share with your friends and their parents would save you a tonne of cash.

  2. Ask your school for support

    Bad Education TV show

    Credit: BBC

    If there's an open day you're keen to go to, but you're struggling to afford the cost of transport, see if your school or college can offer any support.

    If there are a number of students wanting to visit the same university, they might organise free coach travel for you all – who doesn't love a good old-fashioned school trip?

    But, even if you can't find a large group of mates who want to come along, if you can effectively pitch to your school why you're so keen to attend this open day and how it could benefit your future, there's a chance they might have some funding available for you to use.

    At the end of the day, your school wants you to be successful in your university application (it makes them look good too!), so there's a chance they might be able to help. If you never ask, you'll never know.

  3. Visit multiple universities in one day

    the Hobbit adventure meme

    Credit: Warner Bros

    This might not always work if open days don't match up, but if you can visit a couple of universities on the same day, you'll save a heap of time and money.

    Even if there are two universities close to each other, but their open days are on different dates, you'll likely still be able to look around them both (see info about non-open days below).

    You won't get the same access as you would on an official open day, but you'll still be able to have a wander around campus, get a feel for the area and potentially visit some of the facilities open to the public.

    If you decide that this could be the winning university, then you can arrange to come back for a future open day or check out their virtual open day – don't forget that most universities will have multiple open days throughout the year.

  4. Plan your day effectively

    people at an underground train station

    Credit: Chris Sampson - Flickr

    Universities are huge and there will likely be loads of different talks and sessions available for you to attend.

    To avoid wasting your time (especially if you're attending a couple of open days in one day), plan a timetable which will help you see all the most important aspects.

    Download a map of the campus, a map of the city or town, and a schedule of the open day itself to work out your best course of action.

    There can be a lot to cram into one day, so make sure you arrive early and combine things where possible. For example, if you have to walk to the halls of residence, pick a route that takes you through the city centre so you get a feel for the area en route.

  5. Get university freebies

    ross from friends in a hotel

    Credit: Warner Bros

    Universities use open days to win you over and, to butter you up, they might offer you a few freebies.

    There'll likely be the usual goody bags and free pens, but keep an eye out for food and drinks vouchers – you might get yourself a free drink or discounted meal in one of the cafes on campus, which will save you a decent amount of cash.

    There might even be competitions you can take part in or stalls handing out free nibbles. Soak up the atmosphere on campus and make the most of all the perks!

    Hungry for freebies now? We know of plenty of free stuff that's up for grabs.

  6. Avoid buying food at open days by meal planning

    Man vs food eating

    Credit: Travel Channel

    If you don't manage to bag yourself free or discounted food on campus, taking your own will be much cheaper.

    Attending a university open day can be a seriously long day – you might have to prepare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you eat out for all three meals, costs will start to seriously rise.

    Plan your meals in advance and pack a picnic. It's also worth bringing lots of snacks for the car/train/coach to keep you going. As some food inspiration, why not try making some of these cheap but fancy sandwiches?

Already getting excited about your first week of uni? Here are our top tips for surviving freshers' week.

Alternatives to university open days

Not sure if open days are for you (or worth the cost)? As well as virtual open days, there are more great ways to see universities before you apply:

Attend university taster days

Students in a lecture hall with notes

Credit: Matej Kastelic – Shutterstock

Open days can give you a great feel for the university – but to really know if the degree's right for you, taster days are ideal.

On taster days, you essentially get to live as a uni student for the day, spending time on campus, sitting in on example lectures and meeting staff.

Taster days are also a good way of getting to know other A Level/Scottish Highers students planning to study the same subject – you can use the opportunity to find out things like which unis they're looking at and how they're getting on.

And who knows, you may even end up on the same course as someone from a taster day. When you start making friends at university, the familiar face will be very welcome.

How to find university taster days

As they're not quite as common as open days, it can be a bit more tricky to find taster days to attend. But, if you're interested in a taster day to find out more about your chosen course rather than specific universities, it doesn't matter so much where you go.

If you see a taster day advertised at a uni you're not considering, it's still worth giving it a go. You'll still get a great insight into the degree and, who knows, you might even discover a dream university that you'd never before considered.

University of London has a huge selection of taster days at some of the top unis in London. And, you can also try to find taster events near you. If you can't find anything on these sites, it's also worth chatting to teachers at school for advice on how to find taster days which are suited to you.

Visit universities outside of open days

UCL campus

Credit: Neil Turner - Flickr

We asked members of our Student Deals, Freebies & Competitions group on Facebook about their experiences of going to uni open days – the majority agreed it's a good idea to visit some universities before applying. But, interestingly, some considered 'non-open days' to be the best options.

A non-open day is when you visit a university on a day outside of official open days. You might think you wouldn't be able to see much of the campus on days like this, but you'll often find staff are super helpful and happy for you to have a look around.

Although you might not be able to get quite as much info as you would at an official open day, there are a few benefits to non-open days:

  • You can go at a time that best suits you, so you don't have to miss any classes for mid-week open days
  • You'll see what the university's really like on a day-to-day basis
  • Trains will probably be quieter outside of open days, so you could save some good money.

Once you've chosen your dream university, it's time to apply for funding! Avoid the stress by reading our complete guide to Student Finance.


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