University Open Days are all about the thrill of visiting somewhere new and experiencing it first hand. Only a few weeks ago the idea of making a choice on a university course based on what you experienced online was very far-fetched. How could a stage-managed presentation replace the feeling of walking around a campus, listening to a sample lecture or tutorial and talking to the person who is going to supervise your PhD?

However, in these unusual times we have all got used to communicating through virtual means and interacting through a screen.  Maybe those of us who have led online lives remotely through Xbox and PS and latterly Fortnite were ahead of the game all along!

Universities have moved all their events online for the foreseeable future, whether for Undergraduate, Postgraduate, MBA or PhD, so with everyone feeling much more confident about Zoom calls and webinars then it’s no longer a big deal to log in and interact with the admissions teams and programme tutors over a wireless connection.

For most International applicants, a version of this technique has been the norm, with visiting recruitment fairs in major cities being the exception.

So what actually happens in a Virtual Open Day?

Registration and sign up is the first thing, and Masters Compare features a number of university open events where you can express a preference for a university that you have your eye on. Its also a great opportunity to embrace a much wider choice of university providers than you would have considered before.

Universities tend to compete on accessibility, and many in the same region run competing events on the same day. This is often a source of frustration for the applicant who is attempting to navigate from one campus to another. It is time consuming and expensive.

Virtual Open Days do away with this at a stroke, and for the first time there is genuine choice on offer for students to experience several campuses at different locations.

Preparing to take part

Often overlooked by students who register to take part in a virtual event is the need to be prepared to participate. It’s not like you are watching a movie on Netflix – you need to be able to see and hear everything that you will be experiencing, preferably on a device with a keyboard so that you can interact.

A headset is a good investment if you can, because for any session that is happening in real time its important that you can hear what is being said without background noise and you can also mute your microphone.

Access to a steady broadband signal is an obvious need, and if you are sharing a household with five other users this can get tricky. Perhaps request the sofa and table near the router on this occasion!

Thinking about the questions you might need answered and taking notes are just as important in a virtual setup as they would be face to face – you won’t have time to ask long and complicated questions related to specific timetabling or module content. These are best asked at another occasion or via email to a relevant expert.

Schedule of events

The schedule of activities depends on the duration of the event and the range of courses that are openly recruiting candidates. Recent students that have experienced a conventional open day when they were looking at undergraduate level will be used to this format.

A typical virtual open day schedule often looks something like this: –

  • Welcome presentation – discover more about postgraduate study in our welcome presentation. You will learn more about the variety of courses and study options on offer, how to apply and more about our beautiful campus
  • Subject webinars – take part in live Q&A sessions with our postgraduate programme directors and have your questions answered
  • Postgraduate research Q&A webinar – interact with staff from the Doctoral College and current PhD researchers to find out more about what’s involved with a PhD, how to apply and the research community
  • Student panel – find out more about student life during this live webinar with our current students
  • Accommodation, finance and careers Q&A webinar – ask your questions to our friendly panel and discover more about these student services
  • On-demand subject presentations – find out more about your subject area by watching our short presentations at any time during the event.
  • This example is from a university offering a full day session that includes a substantial number of Postgraduate Taught and Research courses.

This example is from a university offering a full day session that includes a substantial number of Postgraduate Taught and Research courses.

One size fits all

Not every university will be running such a comprehensive event as the example above. For a business school there may be a specialist portfolio of perhaps ten masters courses, however they may also cover different topics for their their MBA and Executive MBA courses, as these are designed for an audience that may have graduated some years ago.

The experience of resuming study at university will be different to those who are just graduating, so details about employability or campus social life in the Student Union won’t be as relevant.

What are the points to look out for?

Be prepared to interact with the event – ask questions via the Q&A sessions and also via Live Chat – there is likely to be a chat button popping up in view for most of the time you are participating in the event. These are great for quick questions that save time and avoid the risk of clicking away from your screen trying to find the answer yourself.

Ask relevant questions – making decisions about a University has never been such a wide-open choice. Candidates at one end of a country can contemplate studying at the other end. You may have never seriously considered a business school in Scotland or university in London, but now the option is there for the taking.

Because of the restriction on movement many universities are temporarily adapting their courses to be taught online, particularly for the first semester. Distance learning with perhaps only part of the course taught on campus is not new, but the current situation has encouraged universities to expand this option. Studying 100% online could be ideal for some potential students, but it does not suit everyone, so it will be important to find out if any of the courses you are considering includes this feature in their design.

If you are going to be relocating, then you will have to play close attention to where you will live and how you will need to balance your studies with living in that area. Accommodation will play a big part in the decision-making process, and you need to be satisfied that what you are seeing meets your needs. Some of us learned the hard way with Airbnb!

Communication is critically important. Those universities that follow up with you actively – both once you have registered and after you have attended – are likely to offer you the best support in terms of adapting to study and supporting your emotional needs during the duration of the course.

The lock down has taught us all to pay more attention to each other’s welfare, and universities have a big part to play in ensuring their students are fully supported in the years to come.

Whatever decisions you make about masters study and research you will benefit greatly from participating in virtual open days.