How to make the most of uni open days

The university Open Day season has arrived, and students are welcomed on to campus. Careers expert Helen Green gives practical tips and advice for you and your teenager to make the most of Open Days 2023. Plus links to more info.

This year universities are opening their doors more fully and welcoming students back to campus, whilst still offering some virtual open day experiences.

Having provided advice to prospective students at more university Open Days than I care to remember, here are a few tips aimed primarily at local secondary students looking to study undergraduate courses in Victoria. They might help you and your teenager embrace open days and compare courses.

Be informed. Research prospective study courses and be ready

My usual advice to students and parents is to limit the number of Open Days you attend in any year, to avoid feeling overwhelmed.

This year, universities are very keen to see students back on campus, immersed in the university experience though most will still offer on demand videos of presentations and virtual tours. If you can attend in person – do. It is best to register online first so you and/or your child are kept informed of last-minute room changes and can register for specific information sessions that may have limited seating.

When choosing which Open Days to attend do keep in mind the breadth of courses offered, your child’s preferences, proximity of the campus to transport, fees, suitability, size and so on. Find out if the courses your child is considering are taught in person on campus or largely online. Many courses are offering a hybrid teaching mode. This is important as most first year students I see are keen to go to campus and learn face to face, yet course attendance details are sometimes ambiguous.

Together with your teenager (ideally!), make a list of the faculties/schools you would like to visit and jot down some questions you would like answered.

University open day schedules and apps are very helpful. Diarise the dates and check if you need to register for sessions, particularly interactive Q&A panels with course directors and current/former students and webinars/sample lectures.  Pay attention to the timing of campus tours and presentations from faculty leaders, current students and alumni and careers staff.

Bring your teenager into the picture

Encourage your child (if appropriate) to take some ownership and chat directly to staff and current students. It is about their future, not yours. Online chats may suit some students, whilst others might be happier asking in person. My children opted for the virtual forum to avoid me embarrassing them in front of others!

If you have a burning question, you can simply ask online, even from a different device, and many universities are offering specific information sessions for parents. Remember, you can always follow up with questions directly to the university after Open Days.

Be mindful of changes and opportunities

Every year, changes happen in the sector. New courses will be introduced (some with increased government subsidies) and some courses will be phased out or rebranded. New facilities will open, new scholarships may be introduced and sometimes the entrance criteria changes, including subject prerequisites. Do not assume the course you looked at two years ago, has the same format, fees etc. The latter is particularly important for Year 12 students with the popularity of early entry and special entry schemes for some degrees where an ATAR is of less importance.

Developments can equate to opportunity for prospective students. I have seen more than a few students who wished they had revisited a campus/course they had dismissed a few years earlier. Students who have deferred in 2023 may benefit from reinvestigating their course options.

Remove the pressure

Many secondary school students are understandably overwhelmed by the career choices available. The thought of ‘choosing’ their future career at 15 or 16 is confronting and in many respects, unnecessary. As parents or guardians, we should remember that this generation of adolescents can expect to have several careers throughout their working lives, with some adopting work arrangements we’d have not thought possible and many embarking on careers not invented yet, especially in the STEM fields. Work will be increasingly interdisciplinary.

We need to reassure young people that it is perfectly fine, often advantageous, to have multiple interests and skills and not ‘know’ their occupational choice. There are many benefits to taking a broad-based undergraduate degree in an area of general interest and keeping options open for work or further study. This way, your child can explore their interests as they progress, with the help of work integrated learning and the many other opportunities at universities.  With the increasing popularity of double degrees and professional graduate degrees, opportunities abound for students to develop their interests and skills whilst studying and/or working or volunteering.

Whilst it is prudent to be aware of occupations where there are skill shortages, and sectors/skill combinations earmarked for future growth, though this is only part of the equation. In my experience, the students who have been happiest at university and stayed the course are those studying what they are genuinely curious about. Yes, the rapid progression of artificial intelligence will impact the way we live and work in many ways though I am cautiously optimistic opportunities will be created too. That’s another discussion.

This is just the start of their journey and we should be mindful that looking ahead, the skills most sought after will be transferable across sectors and not necessarily occupation focused. Employability skills highly sought after include communication skills and teamwork (most important!), problem solving, critical thinking, digital literacy, adaptability, resilience, and self-management.

Related article: Don't know what you want to be? Relax and consider a broad approach to study

What about the campus experience?

If you can visit universities in person, that’s ideal as it will give your teenager some feel for a campus and university life in general, not simply what courses are currently available. Investigate the clubs and societies, camps, sport facilities and so on. Remember, students do not have to select their course preferences on Open Day and learning what they do not like and rather like, will help narrow the search. Ideally, when appropriate to do so, visit the universities or plan to attend later.

Open days arguably put the hard work of studying at school into perspective for many secondary school students, especially Year 12 students.

Ask questions

Engage with current students online, alumni, course directors and faculty staff. Why not ask them what they do/do not enjoy about the course, their future career/study plans, what they enjoy about life on campus and what they have found beneficial/challenging. Keep in mind it has been a rough few years for most university students with online study being a less than ideal experience of university life. . Universities have and will continue to work hard to give students the best experience possible.

As a parent, I would also be interested in knowing what support is offered to students by way of academic study support, counselling, health and disability support, careers assistance, library resources, student employment, security on campus, accommodation options (if relevant).

Uncover the important details

  • What are the current course entry requirements, prerequisite subjects, fees, contact hours and the like? Are Commonwealth supported places available?
  • What subjects/majors and streams are offered within degrees your child is contemplating?
  • Is the course offered on multiple campuses?
  • Is early entry available for the course (if this is a priority for your child)?
  • What are the typical career outcomes for the program(s) and what flexibility is there to change specialisations within the course, change study load from full time to part time?
  • Is graduate employment data available for the course? Is demand for the occupation likely to be steady and/or increase or decline? Where are the likely future opportunities?
  • Does the degree include work-integrated learning – placements, internship programs, mentoring? This really adds value.
  • Is the course accredited with relevant industry bodies or in the process of being? The websites of professional industry bodies are also a great career resource.
  • How does the course compare with like universities interstate or abroad (if relevant to your search)?
  • What are the alternate study pathways for entry into the course? This might include TAFE, competing some university single subjects and so on.
  • What options exist for double degrees, transfers between similar courses, professional graduate study options?

Remember ATARs are indicative only and subject to change

The ranking is often based on supply and demand and not necessarily how academically challenging the course is (with some notable exceptions).

Your child’s estimated ATAR range should not form the basis of their career exploration. Indeed, I am increasingly hearing of students as young as 14  using online ‘ATAR calculators’ to predict their ‘ranking’ and then limiting themselves to looking at occupations/courses within this range at specific universities.

Quite apart from being problematic on many fronts, students frequently misunderstand how the ATAR is calculated and scaled, the impact of bonuses and special consideration etc. They may also be denying themselves the opportunity to explore a more diverse range of career interests. It is important to choose a course for the right reason.

Certainly, be realistic when assessing courses, particularly subject prerequisites, though do remind your child that their ATAR does not define them and alternate pathways to their preferred career(s) are often possible, so encourage them to think broadly initially.

Ultimately, university study is only part of the picture. The TAFE sector, for instance, provides students with options from vocational training through to more academic offerings.  In Victoria, some TAFE courses are free. There are also designated pathways to university study in many study fields through Certificate and Diploma courses. Some universities offer vocational courses on campus.

When Open Days are over, your child might need to revisit their VCE subject choices, secondary school study path or tertiary course preferences in consultation with their teachers and ideally a career professional.

About Helen Green

Helen is a qualified careers practitioner, writer, and professional member of the Career Development Association of Australia. She has over two decades’ experience working in senior education and career program management roles, particularly within the tertiary sector where she has assisted many students. She now runs her own careers consulting practice in the south-east suburbs of Melbourne, Career Confident where she helps many secondary and tertiary students and adults. She has two children at university.

This post is an updated version of her previous popular articles on the subject.

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