The Leaving Cert is tough and, on top of it all, students have the pressure of choosing a college course. In the midst of the focus on careers, it is easy to forget that college is so much more than essays and exams, and that sports clubs, societies and the student unions are a hugely important part of the third-level experience. Students also need to consider whether the campus is the right fit for them. Do they want to go to a smaller college? Are they happy to be in a city centre campus like Trinity College or would they rather be in an out-of-town bubble like University of Limerick?
Jack Power, editor of the UCD College Tribune, says that clubs and societies, as well as the feel of a campus, should be a factor in choosing a college, and open day is a good opportunity to learn more. "I was initially set on DCU as that was closer to home, but walking around the UCD campus, it felt so much closer to my idea of what a university should be like, and this influenced my decision."
He also noticed that some of the clubs and societies had stalls on open day which offered a flavour of campus life but, he points out, you will only really get a feel for a campus during a regular day of lectures.
“If you have a day off school or if mid-term falls when college is on, it’s a good idea to go back to the college and see all the posters for the debates or students events, or pick up a copy of the college paper, or have a coffee surrounded by the regular students. This can be really useful if you’re weighing up your options between two colleges.”
Colleges have all sorts of weird and wonderful clubs and societies, including the Harry Potter society (UCD and DCU), students for sensible drugs policy (UL), trampolining (Maynooth) and ultimate frisbee (many colleges). Most colleges have youth wings of the major political parties, LGBT societies, debating, chess, drama, soccer, GAA, swimming and religious societies. That’s before considering the college newspapers, which have traditionally been a good training ground for young journalists, designers and business people.
Then there’s the students union, which will be looking for class reps and people to run for positions on the entertainments or welfare teams. In most instances, a Google search (“student societies UL”, for instance) will lead you to the information you want.
Alice O’Connor is a career guidance counsellor at CBC Monkstown, an all-boys school in south Co Dublin. “The boys definitely do consider the social side of college as well as the location when making their choices, and they’re particularly interested in sport,” she says, “but I remind them that an open day is not like a real day in college. I’d encourage them to take the campus tours to get a feel for their environment, as well as to speak to current students about college life.”
O’Connor says that students learn about themselves and grow as people by being involved in college. Some students worry that they will go to a local third-level and be surrounded by familiar faces, but clubs and societies offer a chance to broaden the social circle. “It’s definitely good to branch out and meet like-minded people who are not necessarily part of the class group. It’s great for confidence, self-esteem and personal development – not to mention that it helps students to develop skills like teamwork, organisation and planning which will give them an extra boost in the jobs market.”
These days, most colleges will send speakers out to schools, where they talk about courses and student life and societies. Talks at CBC Monkstown have highlighted the social side of college life. “Open days are great, but they can be big, busy and crowded, so it’s also good to bear in mind that a lot of colleges will take smaller groups of students throughout the year and organise visits for them,” O’Connor says.
“This is worth doing, although with school commitments, it isn’t always easy to find the time. The online material and the college prospectus has improved significantly in recent years to include information on student life, and many students will also head to boards.ie or reddit.com to ask questions of current students about college life.”
When it comes to the seven universities or the bigger institutes of technology, students tend to take for granted that student life will be exciting and vibrant, says O'Connor. "But if they're considering a smaller college, such as the National College of Ireland or the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, they do become more concerned about student life. Here, I'd encourage them to ask those questions at the open day."
Ita McGuigan, senior student liaison officer with the department of student recruitment at DCU, recommends that open day visitors take the time to talk to student ambassadors; DCU alone will have 40 ambassadors delivering campus tours and talks as well as 60 helpers. "Open day visitors should approach the club or society stalls and find out more about what they do. Then, consider following them on Facebook or Twitter so that, when you do go to college, you'll know about the initiatives they're involved in. Clubs and societies are very welcoming and always need new members so they'll be delighted to see you getting involved. It is such a great way to make new friends."
Location, location, location
The vibe of a campus is hugely influenced by its location. Trinity College, DIT and some of the independent fee-paying colleges such as DBS benefit from a location in the heart of Dublin city centre, making them very accessible to students. It also means, of course, that the entire city becomes a student playground.
How you feel about the campus may affect how happy you are there, which is why it's so important to visit before you commit. Maynooth, for instance, is fairly small and intimate with some spectacular buildings; DIT, with its campuses spread across the city, can feel a little disjointed (although they are moving en masse to Grangegorman in Dublin 7, the move won't be complete for a few years yet). Do you want to be in a smaller college, or do you want that element of anonymity?
UCC and NUI Galway are just at the edge of Cork and Galway city, so while they're a short walk into town, students can still cloister themselves in the campus if they wish. Maynooth University is particularly unique in that it the university is at the heart of a vibrant town. UCD, DCU and UL, however, are a bus ride out of town so students generally have to adjust to being on campus for the entire day; as large as UCD is, it can still feel a little claustrophic for some.
"Campus is a bit of a bubble in UCD, whereas DIT and Trinity are a part of town," says Jack Power, editor of the UCD College Tribune. "That can be a positive as it forces students to explore. UCD actually has some unknown corners, such as the hidden orchard or the third lake; there's always something new to find. But whereas student life feeds off the buzz of town in Trinity, it can peter out by 5pm in UCD. This is worth considering when making your choice."