What they won’t tell you at open day: an alternative guide to college life

There’s more to consider when choosing a college than the course and the student life

Friendly setting?: you’ll spend three or four years of your life at college, so get a true sense of the atmosphere when you visit. Photograph: E+/Getty

* This article was first published in 2015

Isn’t this campus beautifully manicured? Look at our wonderful and extensive library. Haven’t we got the best and most exciting student clubs and societies in the land? And wait until you hear about our superwonderful courses.

These are the kinds of messages that colleges will bombard students with over the next six months, as thousands attend open days all over Ireland. It’s understandable that they want to put their best foot forward, but how can a discerning student see behind the facade and get a feel for what their prospective third-level institution is really like?

How can you make the most of your time? And beyond the basic course content and the student clubs and societies, what sort of questions should you really be asking?

Be prepared
One of the most important pieces of advice is to read the schedule, according to John McGinnity, admissions officer at Maynooth University, in Co Kildare. "Some students arrive and lose an hour because they haven't really considered what they're here for. Print off the schedule, take a pen, and mark the talks, tours and lab facilities you want to see. Especially for 6th years, time is precious, so don't waste any of it."
Students can be taken aback by the scale of the average university campus, which can be up to 30 times the size of their school. "The talks could be spread across six buildings, so do your research in advance and figure out what is where, at what time and on what floor," McGinnity says.

Students should also work out how to get to the campus in the first place. Many schools will organise a bus to take them to various colleges, but that school bus won't be there when you start college. Almost all third-levels do have decent transport links, but, whether you'll be living at home or away, it makes sense to figure out the average length of your daily commute. It may not, for instance, make much sense to travel in from the north of the capital and take a connecting bus out to University Collge Dublin if there's a similar course at Dublin City University that's easier to get to.

Talk to regular students
Colleges will have no shortage of happy students on hand to tell you all about why their student experience is the most special in Ireland. These students aren't being disingenuous, but they are the ones who are most engaged with, and enthusiastic about, their college.
For a more cynical overview, consider calling into the student newspaper – their editors and writers will have a good idea of the college's weak points.


Matthew Mulligan is editor of the award-winning Trinity News. "During open day, students are often finishing assignments or manning the stands. Go and get a coffee and seek them out. Ask questions about what you need to know."

Open days are often at the weekend, or outside term time, so it can be challenging to get a feel for what the college is like on a normal day, according to Fergal Scully, a guidance counsellor working at both Rathmines College and the Bray Institute of Further Education.

"This is the place where you might be spending the next three or four years of your life, so you need to get a true sense of what the atmosphere is really like. If regular students aren't around, the students' union officer or college newspaper editors might be, and they may have a different point of view to those leading the tours. The open day is a starting point; if you do like what you see, and can manage it, it may be worth a return visit on an ordinary college day."

Social life
During open days you'll hear a lot about the vibrant student life. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the right third-level for you. Mulligan advises prospective students to keep an eye on the club and society notice boards.
"You'll get a sense of what societies and clubs are active and what extracurricular life is really like. If all the posters are recent, you'll know there is a lot going on. If, on the other hand, it's in term time and the posters are all three or four weeks old, it may be a sign that the social life is a little slower."

Bear in mind that some colleges, such as UCD, always have posters removed by cleaning services on a Saturday.

If the idea of getting involved in the students' union, the drama society or the rugby club is a big draw, make sure you'll have enough time to do so. A lot of students might want to get involved in a debating society to hone their public speaking, or in a college newspaper to develop skills in journalism or communications, but bear in mind that some courses have a heavy workload of exams and assignments, along with a full day of lectures and tutorials, leaving little time for extracurricular passions. Check out how much work is involved in your course.

University rankings aren't an adequate guide to a course's academic credentials. Before you go to check out a particular course, explore the website. Speak, if you can, to current students or recent graduates, either in person or via Twitter, boards.ie, Reddit or comments on Irish Times education articles.

One recent graduate, Chris McCormack, offers this advice: “Your college learning will be coloured by the research interests of your teachers. Look up what they’ve worked on. Also, if you’re looking for a performance-based course, such as music or drama, make sure they offer a balance of theory and practical, with classes by industry professionals; this shows the department and its students connect with the industry.”

Mulligan was a sociology student who transferred from Maynooth University to Trinity only to discover that Maynooth’s course was much more suitable for him. “I was besotted with the idea of Trinity, but I should have dug deeper into the curriculum and book lists.” He advises students to make sure they go on library tours: “They’re the best part of the day.”

Find out what sort of books and journals they have, Scully says. “Do they have a lot of books for the area you want to study? Go and look – and maybe talk to library staff about the facilities on offer.”

The Irish Times regularly publishes guides to various careers and courses, and which colleges are best for what subjects; in the meantime, look through the Irish Times archive, on irishtimes.com (search: "career guide").

The big one, arguably. This year the rental-accommodation crisis bit thousands of students in search of a place to live, and there's little hope that it will be resolved by September 2016. If you have an idea of where you might go to college, and it's not within commuting distance of the family home, it's no harm to start exploring accommodation options early.

What's the accommodation like? What choices do you have? Can you pay a deposit to secure on-campus accommodation even before you've been offered a place through the CAO? And is it refundable? Maynooth University is one institution that offers this.

What is your likelihood of getting a place on campus? UCD recently began reserving the bulk of its campus accommodation for first years and international students, so although you might have a chance of getting it when you begin college, you’ll need to look elsewhere after that.

If you dream of attending Trinity College and looking out of your bedroom window on to Front Square, dream on: a lot of the campus accommodation at TCD is for international students.

These are the sorts of questions you should be considering about your college choice. "If you can get accommodation on campus in your first year it is a huge advantage," says Scully. "If a student has a reasonable certainty of getting their place, they should get their accommodation sorted as soon as possible."

Eating and drinking
Eating on campus can be expensive. Lunches, coffee, snacks and the occasional dinner, if you're staying late in the library to finish an essay, can swallow up a budget. So what are the eating facilities like, and do you have choices?
"After many years of promises, the students' union in Trinity College has finally installed a kitchen with microwaves where people can heat up food they've brought in," says Mulligan.

It’s a good facility for students and can save a lot of money. So, when you’re at an open day, ask what sort of food facilities are there. If there’s no place to heat food, are there affordable places to eat, either on or off campus? Eat in the restaurants. Check out the cheapest option for on-campus coffee (this may, for instance, be in a students’ union-run shop).

If you're attending colleges such as Trinity or UCC, you're not restricted to what's on campus and you've more choice of places to eat. If you're at Maynooth, it's just a stone's throw from the town. Ask students at the stands about their favourite places to eat on a budget, and have a look at some tips on Twitter and student or budget blogs. Remember that, if you're on an out-of-town campus such as UCD or the University of Limerick, your choices are a bit more restricted.

If there's nowhere decent or affordable to eat in the vicinity – and a lack of microwaves – ask yourself whether you'll be happy to bring in a packed lunch for the next three or four years. It's probably not a deal-breaker, but it is worth bearing in mind.

Get off campus
Life on campus can get a bit suffocating. If you're studying at a campus like NUI Galway, Maynooth, CIT or Trinity, you can just leg it into town for socialising or eating. Explore that wider environment.

For places like DCU or UCD, have a proper look around the campus and explore the hidden corners. Is there a green space? Do you have access to a gym? These could be important factors as you go through college.

Proximity to a city, town or village could be important for another reason, Mulligan says. "You may have to work while you're in college, so it might be an idea during open day to have a look around and see where you might throw a CV in." Make sure you could get to the job, whether on foot or by public transport.

Go with your gut
Some people love the size of large colleges like UCD; others feel a bit lost and might prefer somewhere smaller, such as Waterford Institute of Technology or a teacher-training college.
"These are important years," says McGinnity. "You want to spend this time in an environment where you're happy, so don't dismiss your senses when you visit a campus. Is this a place I would like to study? Find a college that has the right blend of social life, atmosphere and course for you. You can't have these years again."