Now that you have decided what subject area interests you the most, it's time to start thinking about where you want to study. There is a lot of information out there; some good, some misleading, all useful in aiding your decision. It is a jungle out there, especially when searching the net, but have no fear! This article will ensure that you are searching for the right sources, locating the Universities most suited to you and asking the right questions when you visit.
Note: This article assumes you have selected your area of study (see previous article: http://tinyurl.com/cgz778r) and are now trying to decide which University is the best one for that course. It also looks at the best way to approach the Open Days, in an attempt to get the best information so you are able to make a sound, and informed, choice.
Making the right choice
The best way to start refining your list is to look for the League Table section on The Guardian website (http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/table/2012/may/21/university-league-table-2013), which includes statistics such as teaching scores, staff to student ratio and career prospects. Separate tables based on the desired course subject area can also be found; IT for Games Programming/Development, Art & Design for Games Art/Graphics/Design. My personal recommendation is to look to the column which details the average number of UCAS points that a University requires, and form your choices around these matching them against your own predicted scores.
Note: There is no need to strictly bind your choices to these scores. They are there as a way for Universities to sift through the initial applications that might not be suitable. They help to measure the capabilities of a potential student as each subject grade is worth a certain amount of these points. The higher the grade is, the more capable that prospective student. I state that these are initial scores, you might have less points but don’t let that stop you applying, there is an interview process in which you can ‘sell’ yourself with a body of work, which might well make up and show your capabilities better than numbers can.
Don't go by Ratings alone
These newspaper ratings are not the be all and end all. Universities publish free guides yearly that provide brief descriptions of a University's facilities, departments, courses and achievements. Called a Prospectus, they are one of the best ways to pin-point information, without feeling swamped down by searching through numerous internet links. You can usually pick these up during college events; University representatives set up stalls to field your questions and even give out free merchandise. If you cannot attend one of these, you can send off for them directly.
Once you have made a list (I would recommend about 6-9 depending on how many you can physically visit) talk to a tutor at college and ask for their advice. They can assist in narrowing this list down into choices that match your potential. Your potential points don’t necessarily need to match, if you think you have a top-notch portfolio to show off, then select a couple of higher requirement choices. As always, double check with your tutors to make sure you don’t sell yourself short.
This would also be a good time to ask about the kind of time investment that your course requires. I was on a programming course myself and found that if you want to get the best out of your learning, you would need to read up and practice concepts in your own time, a lot of your own time. I also had the privilege of working alongside students from the Arts course and found that their assignments were very work-intensive; for example, 3D modeling would have numerous back-and-forth peer reviews until they were at a level of acceptability to be submitted. You have to be sure that you will be able to put in above and beyond the hours required, if you want to succeed.
The next step is to book your selection of Open Days. These are times at which Universities open their doors to prospective candidates, to give them a chance to discover what University life is about, meet new people, and learn about your possible course. It is usually possible to book these through your application manager or your college. If these options are not available, or you are applying outside of college, the best thing to do is to contact the Universities by phone.
Preparing for your Visits
Now that you’ve booked your Open Days, you need to prepare to get the most out of them. If you haven’t already been offered or received one, request a schedule of events. This will tell you what time to get there for certain events; lectures, taster sessions, Q+A’s and, most importantly, your Interview (if yours is on the same day).
Note: A University will usually tie interviews to the Open Day in an attempt to cut down your need to travel there more than once. They hold more than one Open Day over the year, but Interviews happen in the 6 months before the academic year ends. There are exceptions to this, but it is usually if you have completed college education and/or have taken a gap year before applying. I will be covering the topic of Interviews in the next article.
You can use this to best time the things you want to see, where you will go, and what you want to do. Your aim is to take away as much information as possible so planning for face-to-face time with course leaders/tutors is essential. Even if you are only able to talk to them for 5 minutes each; that should be enough if you’re asking the right questions!
Something that I have yet to mention is where you will be living during your first year. I am highlighting it here as it is something that needs to be considered. It is just as important to research and set requirements for accommodation, as well as the area you’re moving too, as you do for your course. The first year of University can make or break new students and, if you are not comfortable with your living space, your work will suffer for it. This is true of the reverse as if you’re not completely satisfied with your course, you won’t enjoy the social side as much. It’s a delicate balance to strike and one I am not going to talk too much about; it could require just as many words as this article!
As the Open Day draws closer you need to think about what kind of information you want to take away. It is difficult being a prospective student as the only real sources you have are your college tutors, UCAS and/or people you know who may already be in the higher education system. This is where I step in; to take away some of the pressure and give you the highest priority questions you need to ask in order to gain information to sink your teeth into.
By now you’re asking, “What are these questions and which should I ask first?” Read on to find out!
How long has the course been going for? As courses relating to Games are relatively young, they are all in a process of ‘finding themselves’; what works and what doesn’t, the modules they include, their assessment criteria and pass rates. A longer period of time is a good indicator that the course is better over these teething problems.
Who do they cater for - Beginners, Intermediates or Experts? As the question suggests, is the course this University provides one that gets you to focus on the basics for a lengthy period of time, or picks-up straight from where you left college and gets into its stride quickly.
What are the main labs like where You and Your course will be working? If you have not already been shown, ask to see what Labs/Studios/Theatres you will be working in and the kind of equipment they provide. For example, if you are looking towards a programming course, will you be working in dedicated Games labs, or are these resources shared with other courses, such as Software Engineering or Digital Media. Labs or Studios dedicated solely to your course/subject area won’t become overcrowded near the time of hand-ins.
What are the course pass rates? What is the percentage of students that complete the course, the dropout rate after first and second year, how many of these leave with a grade 2:1 or higher and, have any been successful at breaking into the Industry.
Do they have any work placement schemes? Find out if the course accommodates a placement year; effectively extending your time at University by slotting in between second and third, but offers a wealth of benefits. Does the University have any links to companies that make it easier to find these placements? This leads to my next two questions.
Links to major games companies? If the course has links then this might mean they’ve been able to tailor their modules to meeting the needs required by the real world, which will help you in getting the most for your money and time.
Regular guest lectures? If the University has links, then do representatives of these companies come in to teach additional lectures? This enables you to learn material that the tutors might otherwise not have the time/experience to teach.
Any of their tutor’s ex-industry? If any of the teaching staff have worked in professional studios before, their experience might help you hone and refine your skills/portfolios to help you successfully complete your course and take the right steps afterwards.
Final Year Projects. Ask what sort of Final Year work you will be required to do, how long is your Dissertation/Final Major Project? Will you be able to pick any subject area, or are you limited to things you did on the course? Are you able to see examples of work from students of previous years to gain an idea of how much you should do?
Passion! From the course lead. This is more of an observation than a question to be asked. Pay careful attention to the person you talk to, especially if you are speaking to the course leader. If they give off the impression that they are passionate about teaching and what the course can offer you, as opposed to just answering your questions with ‘fact-sheet’ responses, then this can be just as important as some of the previous answers. You want tutors that are going to take the course to its limits and fight for your need for resources as well as changes to be made, if and where necessary.
Finally... There isn’t a particular order to this list, and a lot of the time, one answer can actually overlap with others if the person you speak to goes into enough detail. As long as you are able to come away with a checklist of notes indicating they have all been answered, then you have made a successful and informative visit.
In this second article, we learned the processes for refining your list of choices and how to go about getting the most from your Open Day(s). These are only some of the things that you can do, but they are extremely important. You should speak to your current tutors in order to get more ideas to make an informed selection. They might be able to point you in the direction of extra resources and information that I have not been able to provide here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. In my next article, I will talk about what to expect when you are invited for an Interview. How you should prepare, what you should take along, information you need to gain and the impression you need to make; you need to make yourself stand apart!
Before completing my Bachelors in Computer Game Development, I went through two Universities, each playing host to a very different course. Even though these courses had similar names, they differed greatly in structure and content and this is where I started to realise that this incredibly interesting subject could be taught in an infinite number of ways.
My journey took me to my first University and at this time, admittedly, I went mainly with the social aspect as my drive. Don’t mistake me, I wanted a degree, but it took a back-seat for a small amount of time. It wasn’t until part way through this first year that I realised, I need to start again. I wasn’t even doing badly at my studies; every module was at an average pass rate of 50-80% and heck, in one of my assignments I scored 99/100. It’s just that I didn’t understand fully what I was doing. Maybe I wasn’t ready, or maybe it made me into the person I graduated as. So, I reaffirmed my wanting to do a degree in the first place, that I want to be a part of this thriving industry, to get back that feeling of excitement of when I used to imagine making games when I was younger.
At my second University, I made sure I did everything I could to be as involved as possible. I volunteered to be course representative. I attended numerous meetings with Course/Department heads to; raise issues and concerns from my peers, provide input on how the course could be changed (at this time it was only in its infancy, and there was a bit of fragmentation between units) and work closely with tutors to ensure that students were getting the most out of the course. I graduated with a First Class Honours overall and was one of the top of my class.