Thinking Ahead when Choosing Your University

Since the dawn of the new era of tuition fees, I have found myself increasingly wheeled out by my university to speak at open days. Employability has been a buzzword in higher education for the last few years, so it is perhaps not surprising that in attempts to persuade prospective students to apply for their courses, admissions tutors and marketing officers have been bringing in placement staff like myself to be on hand to provide detailed answers to questions about sandwich placements.

It is a pretty easy sales pitch to be honest. Even if the young people attending open days are not totally clued up about searching for value for their £9k/yr, their parents or older siblings who are there with them invariably are. Questions about placements, graduate outcomes and career support soon feel like the Spanish Inquisition, but unlike a used car salesman trying to flog a clapped-out motor, I know that I am selling quality goods.

For students who are currently applying to university, or thinking about doing so, here are some facts that I hope will sway you towards a course that includes a sandwich year option.


Work Experience is Key

It goes without saying that I am an advocate of placements and internships. I understand the value of work experience, how it helps to develop students into young professionals and aids them in securing graduate level employment upon leaving university. However, as I pay my bills through promoting placements, I have on occasions been accused of over-selling the case for my own personal gain. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but faced with this line of questioning I refer to this little paragraph from the High Fliers Graduate Market report published in January 2012.

More than half of recruiters warn that graduates who have had no previous work experience at all are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer for their organisations’ graduate programmes.

Little or no chance of securing a place on a graduate programme with no previous work experience. Pretty convincing stuff if you ask me.

Open up the Door to Graduate Opportunities

While the previous quote from High Fliers provides good reason for undertaking work experience, how about some evidence to show that a placement will help to secure a place on a graduate programme? Well, step forward Ernst & Young, one of the ‘Big Four’ from the professional services industry. A staggering 84% of their 2011 summer intern intake went on to accept graduate jobs with the firm. It goes without saying that if a company like this is recruiting students that have already worked for it on a large scale, inevitably it means that there will be fewer graduate opportunities available for students who have not already got their foot in the door. Repeat this across industry and the value of work experience becomes clear.

Unleash Your Earning Potential

A common explanation I hear from students on my courses for not wanting to take a placement year is because it will cost them money. Now there is some truth in this. If you are on a sandwich course at university, there is usually a placement year tuition fee to be paid, and so at open days prospective students may want to ask questions about how much this is, or if there are bursaries available to cover the cost. However, what also needs to be considered is the financial benefit that a sandwich placement brings. I’m not just talking long term earning potential. I’m talking about the placement year itself. Most 12 month placements will be paid. I won’t pretend that this is always the case because certain industries will not pay and regrettably minimum wage legislation does not apply to sandwich placements. However, in the fields of Business, Finance, IT, Engineering and Science, placements usually are paid. Take a typical placement salary of £15k, knock off some deductions for tax and national insurance, travel, accommodation and even then with taking the placement year tuition fee into account, you’ll be in the black.

More to the point, your earning does not stop there. In publishing the details from the 2011 Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, Brunel University calculated that their graduates who had undertaken a placement year, on average earned nearly £5k more than those who had not. Even if you begrudge of paying a tuition fee to your university for doing a placement, the argument that a placement costs you money can easily be challenged with five thousand good reasons.

Enough with the Placement Talk! What Else Should I Look for?

Fair enough, I’ve made my case about placements and will move on. Other things to ask about at open days from a career perspective are the availability of part-time jobs, employability awards, access to career guidance, skills workshops, employer presentations and graduate destinations. These probably aren’t at the forefront of your mind when making a UCAS application, but are worth thinking about and asking questions when the opportunity presents itself. Your ‘dream course’ may offer you everything you want from an academic perspective, but there is value in checking out what the university offers in terms of support services. Once you get to university a range of opportunities should become available to the strategic fresher but even at the early stages of applying, it doesn’t hurt to find out exactly what your chosen university can do to help you achieve your aspirations.

Look Beyond the Lip Gloss

If I can offer one final bit of advice when it comes to applying to university, it would be to look beyond the information you can find in a prospectus, or from a university’s official website. Marketing material will always present  a university in the best possible light, rather than warts and all. There is no false advertising involved, but don’t take everything you read literally. In particular, don’t be swayed by broad statements regarding the companies where students work their placement year. For example, if you read something along the lines of “our students undertake placements with employers such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and HSBC”, don’t presume that all students will do so. That sentence would be factual if one student has worked at each company at some point in time; it is not a guarantee that if you get a place on that course you will magically secure a placement with a big name company.

Good luck to you with your university applications. Maybe I’ll see you at an open day in the future.

Image Credit: The Complete University Guide

About the author


ThePlacementOfficer works at a well known British University, helping students to gain valuable work experience through sandwich placements. TPO is author of the 'Tales from the Placement Office' blog and tweets from @placementblog.