Five tips to help you find the best undergraduate course for you

Applying to university can be a daunting prospect but there are some steps to take that can ease the process and ensure you have all the information you need to find the best-fit undergraduate chemistry course for you.

Set out your priorities

First, it’s worth thinking about what you are looking for in a university and what you’d like your course to cover.

‘At GCSE and A-level it’s the same across the board; every school will be teaching the same thing, [but] it’s not the same case at university,’ explains Amie Richardson, Greater Manchester higher projects coordinator at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.

‘Every chemistry course is going to be very different – there are straight chemistry courses but there are also a broad range of different courses that have elements of chemistry, some of them might even have an integrated Masters,’ she adds.

A cartoon of a hand holding a magnifying glass to a chemical flask that reveals icons like a microscope, finances, support, institutional reputation

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There’s a lot to think about when deciding which undergraduate chemistry course is the best one for you

Tamara Alhilfi, admissions tutor for chemistry at University College London (UCL), UK, says it is important to play to your strengths.

‘Depending on what your aspirations are, we have some “Chemistry with…” courses … if you’ve got a further maths A-level, or you’re thinking about a career in management, that’s something to have a look for,’ she says.

It is also worth thinking about whether you would enjoy the opportunity to do a year in industry or a year abroad as part of your degree as this will help narrow your search.

Also consider the sort of place you would like to live – do you like the idea of living in a big city or prefer the concept of a smaller campus university? Would you like to commute or stay in university accommodation? If the latter there are a variety of options, from catered to self-catered, shared bathrooms to ensuites, so it’s important to decide what you would prefer.

Finally, consider what kind of support you might need while at university. For example, if you have a disability or mental health condition the availability of support services may be a crucial part of your decision.

Do your research

Once you know what features appeal to you in a university, it’s time to do some research. There are many websites to help you with this.

UCAS is number one – they have tonnes of resources,’ says Richardson. ‘You’ll probably use that when you apply to university – every course that’s on offer is going to be there,’ she adds. UCAS also have a range of subject guides, including one for chemistry.

League tables such as those provided by the Complete University Guide will show you the top universities according to course. However, rankings are only part of the picture.

‘Yes, this university is in the top five for chemistry, but is it the university that you want to go to?’ says Richardson. ‘Does it meet those requirements in terms of campus versus city, what course specifically or the social elements that you want – I would always [factor in] personal preferences as well as the reputation.’

It’s important to make sure that you’re in the best facility

University websites and prospectus will also give you an idea of the modules taught in the chemistry course.

‘You can identify what you’re actually interested in and make sure that you will be taught that,’ says Richardson.

These resources may also give you an idea of the laboratory and facilities on offer; an important factor when considering a practical course like chemistry.

‘Something that has become more obvious to me now I’m [doing a PhD] is the way undergraduate chemistry labs are equipped, and the kind of experiments that they do,’ says Sarah Coppock, an organic chemistry PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK.

‘You would think it would be more standardised, but the difference is massive – it’s important to make sure that you’re in the best facility.’

You should also look at what else the university has to offer, such as societies or trips that you might get involved with to meet people outside of your course.

Attend open days

Alhilfi says her number one recommendation is for prospective students to visit university open days to get a sense of what it might be like to live and study there.

‘Could you envisage yourself spending time there?’ she says.

Open days provide opportunities to see the facilities on offer and ask questions about the course and life in the local area. Some universities offer financial support for individuals to attend open days or provide shuttle transport from local train stations.

‘I went to Keele and that’s a small campus-based university, and that was the kind of environment that was better for me,’ says Coppock. ‘It is important to get a feel for it because everybody’s very different and wants different things out of it; I’m not big into going out so I didn’t need to be in a city whereas other people want that.’

She also recommends visiting the accommodation; sometimes it can look quite different to the photos in the university prospectives.

Accommodation can ‘make or break a lot of people’s experiences,’ says Coppock.

Seek the views of current or former students

The most valuable opinions of a university will be from those with first-hand experience of studying there.

‘Talk to students – they’re the most important people to talk to because they’re going to give an honest opinion of what it’s like,’ says Richardson. ‘What do they get up to? What are they enjoying most about the course? What modules are they doing? What modules would they recommend? What are the academics like?’

If you can’t speak to students in person, for example, at an open day, The Student Room and Unibuddy can help you connect with students doing chemistry at the universities you are interested in.

The National Student Survey also reports feedback from students about whether they were happy with the teaching and what the university offered them.

Know all your options

It’s important to be aware of all the potential options for you before you settle on a university course. For example, if you might not achieve the grades required by your preferred university, a foundation course may be a good route.

Coppock found out about the option to do a foundation course while attending an open day at Keele University. Before that, ‘I had not really been told anything other than “this uni wants these grades, you need to get them, if you don’t, you’re not going to uni”,’ she says.

Some universities, including UCL, provide contextual offers for students who have attended state schools and who have been in care, are a carer, or live in an area of deprivation.

‘We realised that if you’ve been to a private school, you might get three A*s no problem [but] if you’ve been to a state school where your chemistry teacher is the PE teacher who’s not really a chemist, even at your top potential, the very best grades you get might be an A, B and C,’ explains Alhilfi. For students who meet certain eligibility criteria, ‘we take that into account and we allow that safety net,’ she continues.

Richardson also says it’s important to understand the clearing process – where students who are yet to get a place at university can apply for places that haven’t yet been filled, outside of the normal application window. She adds that many local colleges offer one-year access courses to help you get any additional credits you might need to get onto your chosen university course.

Some universities provide contextual offers

On the other end of the spectrum are degree apprenticeships, where students can work while completing their degree.

‘They can vary in terms of length – from two years to seven years,’ says Richardson. ‘The benefit being you’re going to get a wage at the same time, you don’t have to pay for student finance because it’s covered by your employer, and you’re going to get that industry experience straightaway as well.’

However: ‘They are really competitive and it doesn’t work the same way as UCAS … they just pop up whenever it’s put on by the employer,’ she adds. ‘I always advise with degree apprenticeships [that] you probably do want to know what sort of career you want to go into.’

With thanks to the following universities for supporting this article:

Lancaster University

Studying chemistry at Lancaster University provides undergraduate students with a research-led and practical hands-on experience of the subject. With a low student: staff ratio, our students learn with the support and guidance of academics in a friendly and welcoming environment.

University of Leeds

The University of Leeds

Modern chemists help to solve global challenges like medicine and healthcare, climate change and sustainability. Our RSC-accredited chemistry and medicinal chemistry degrees will give you a firm foundation in the subject, with opportunities to undertake a variety of optional modules. Learn more at one of our Open Days.

Manchester Metropolitan University

Manchester Met is home to one of the UK’s largest and most diverse student communities. Rated Gold standard under the Teaching Excellence Framework, we’re committed to providing an outstanding student experience that gets you career, life, and future ready.

University of Plymouth

Chemistry with the University of Plymouth

We are a world-renowned centre for the analyses of chemicals in the environment. Taught by world-class researchers, you’ll gain problem solving, communication and hands-on practical laboratory skills to equip you for a successful career.

University of Stratclyde

The University of Strathclyde was named Scottish University of the Year 2024 at the inaugural Daily Mail University Guide and Daily Mail University Awards, and we are ranked no 1 for Forensic Science in the UK (Complete University Guide Subject Tables 2025).