When researching and picking a university, it’s not rankings or location that are the key drivers - word of mouth is the most important factor for prospective students who are on a gap year
Word of mouth and the experiences of their friends who are already studying are the most important factors for picking a university for prospective students who are currently on a gap year.
During the height of the UK’s winter lockdown, Fundamental L&D ran three focus groups to gauge overall sentiment, the impact of Covid on their future plans and their overall satisfaction with the choices they have made. We interviewed a group of Year 12s, a group of first-year university students, and a group of individuals doing a gap year.
All of the individuals who took a gap year were happy with the choice they made. Having heard stories from friends who went straight to university about the difficulties of starting their university experience during Covid, the gap-year individuals hope that their first year will be better.
Most of them indicated that they are heavily relying on the experiences of their friends who were in their first year at university. One of them said she believes that, because the 2020/21 year was so bad and universities received a lot of criticism, the situation for first-year students will be better this year.
The majority said they had already decided that they would be taking a gap year before the pandemic hit, mostly with the plan of working for a while and then go travelling. They said they felt supported in taking a gap year and already have a rough idea of what they would like to do after university.
The pandemic has affected pupils’ school results although the individuals in our gap-year focus group made it clear that some young people have been worse affected than others. One said: “If I’d sat some of my exams, I could’ve done better. But some of my friends had their university places taken away from them, so I don’t have it that bad.”
Similarly, the level of support received by their school and teachers during the pandemic has been perceived differently by every individual as well. While some said they received enough help, others said their school did not provide adequate support and their teachers were not helpful at all.
When asked about their strongest driving factor for picking a university, the experiences of their friends and family were the most important. The location of a university was also mentioned and one participant wanted to study in the U.S. to completely get out of her comfort zone.
When researching universities, the prospective students also rely heavily on experiences from current students. One of our participants used an online forum, where she could enter the courses she was interested in, after which she was linked to a student at the university she has recently applied for. Some participants received big PowerPoint presentations from colleges and universities but they did not considered them to be very helpful.
The findings from our focus group once again highlight the importance of word of mouth in prospective students’ decision-making process. It is therefore vital for universities to ensure that their current students are fully supported and provided with the means to have a successful and positive time at university.