Deanna Jarvis, the 19-year-old first-year student on our cover, says she knows the University of Guelph is the right place for her. She’s just not sure why. Maybe it’s the gold and red leaves that litter the campus in the fall. She could never live in a concrete jungle, she says. Perhaps it’s that Guelph offers a rare major (adult development, families and wellbeing) that will teach her how to help people. “I just like to listen to friends and help them,” she says. Or maybe it’s that Guelph is a big enough school to keep famous playwrights like Judith Thompson on staff. Jarvis, a parttime actor, is a huge Thompson fan. Whatever the reason, Guelph just seems to fit.
Parents, students, university presidents and even education marketers are trying to nail down exactly what makes a school fit. Traditionally, school size and city size were the shorthand for determining where a particular student should go. Big schools offer more cultural opportunities; tiny schools offer more personal interaction, or so the theory goes. Those rules still apply, but sociologist James Côté, of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., has found another predictor for what he calls the “goodness of fit.” His research found students do best when their inner motivations match what the environment has to offer.
Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University, agrees that students should look inward to determine the best school for them. “For some students it will be a small, intimate, collegial environment,” says Traves. “For other students, their personalities will be sufficiently expansive and their strength of purpose and needs will be such that going to a small environment will be too much like an extension of high school.”
Côté would agree, but says university officials are not the only people to ask. “You’ll have to do the digging yourself,” he says. Some “universities don’t want to alienate prospective students who aren’t the right fit,” he explains. “Because they’re funded by tuition and the number of bums in seats.”
Assuming they’re not going to university because of parental pressure, most students have one of three motivations, according to Côté: the “personal and intellectual” motivation, the “career and materialism” motivation, or the “humanitarian” motivation.
For the student whose goal is to develop personally and intellectually, a small liberalarts oriented school is best, he says. “A good liberal arts education really requires smaller class sizes, so you can have seminars and contact with faculty,” he explains. “You’ll also be required to do more public speaking and writing. A large school simply can’t do this.” St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., and Quest University in Squamish, B.C., are examples of schools where students seeking personal and intellectual growth will find it, he says.
Large, reputable schools like McGill and the University of Toronto fit students who are personally and intellectually motivated, says Côté, but be sure “you’re outgoing or able to work on your own.” Students who choose the school primarily for its reputation, says Côté, need to remember that “they may never see any of the profs that make those schools famous.”
The second type of student, the “careeristmaterialist,” is someone who wants a degree mainly for the job and prestige. “The careeristmaterialist might fit at schools that are vocationally oriented,” says Côté. “We’re going that direction at Western,” he says, giving the example of the increasing popularity of degrees like the bachelor of management and organizational studies over the traditional broad B.A.
The third (and more rare) motivation to study is altruism. Côté offers King’s University College (a Western affiliate) as a good fit for the “humanitarianism-motivated” student, because of its social justice focus.
Ken Steele, an education marketing expert, agrees with Côté that universities themselves are unlikely to help you determine fit. Most universities are still trying to be “everything to everyone,” he says. However, he has seen a few encouraging examples of schools that are marketing with “goodness of fit” in mind. “Acadia [in Wolfville, N.S.] actually says it’s not for everyone,” explains Steele. “They want students to know they’re coming to a small town and that’s going to be a shock for some of them.”
William Barker, president of the University of King’s College in Halifax (an even smaller school than Acadia), suggests visiting as many schools as possible, sitting in on lectures, and staying overnight with a friend.
That’s advice Côté wants parents to hear. He says more parents should encourage their offspring to explore far and wide; too often they encourage offspring to choose the closest school to home in order to save money. “You may save a lot financially in the short run, but you will have lost in the long run,” he says. If a person fails at university because it’s the wrong fit, they risk losing millions of dollars in lifetime earnings, he explains—and it’s not a cheap investment. “If parents were forking out this kind of money in the stock market or real estate, they’d look at it much more carefully,” says Côté.
Of course, not everyone can afford to fly around the country to research each school. That’s why Maclean’s asked successful students from four schools exactly what makes their university the right fit for them. Their answers prove just how important it is for future students to ask themselves who they are and why they want a degree. Why? Just ask Côté. “If you don’t develop goals of what you want to get out of university, you potentially squander the most transformative experience of your life.”
With Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze
Big School, big city: University of Toronto
Emily Kellogg is in her last year of a book and media arts and philosophy double degree. She’s from Pebble Beach, Calif.
Why did you choose U of T?
“I’m one of those people who always dreamt of living in New York,” says Kellogg, explaining that she enjoys the fact that eastern cities have four seasons, unlike California. “I chose
U of T because I wanted to be at a big school in a major city in the East and I couldn’t afford to go to NYU.”
Was it the right choice?
“I knew I’d made the right decision at my first Nuit Blanche,” says the arts editor of U of T’s student newspaper, the Varsity. “Seeing art everywhere and having the city vibrating at 4 a.m. was so exciting.” Kellogg also loves being able to walk to literary, music and art events right after class. “I can walk to Queen Street and go art-gallery hopping or I can go to the Horseshoe and see an amazing band for $8. Plus, all the big bands come here. I really enjoyed the Arcade Fire concert on the island this summer.”
What are the drawbacks of a big school?
“When you’re in a class of 500 people, professors don’t care. They don’t have time to care. Unless you’re a keener and go to office hours, you’re probably not even going to meet your professors. A lot of my friends from first year dropped out.”
Was it hard to meet people?
“U of T is separated into groups. If you’re an arts student you might never meet any engineers, or vice versa. The scenes are based on your program and are very set.” But, “despite how big U of T can be, you don’t seem to meet anyone who isn’t already friends with two of your friends on Facebook.”
What about course variety?
“Last year I took “Special Topics in Translation Theory,” which looks at what’s lost in changing something from, say, Russian to English. I don’t know if I’d find that course at a smaller school.”
Describe the atmosphere.
“I feel like here, I live my life first and then I’m also taking classes. At another school, it’s like, when you’re in school, you’re in school. You’re in the university bubble.”
Has it helped you plan your career?
“You’re meeting people who are actually doing the things you want to do,” says Kellogg, noting that some of her writerly friends have already seen their work in national publications. “I want to go on to publishing and I can do it here with the connections I’ve made while at U of T. I don’t have to move.”
Big school, small city: University of Saskatchewan
Ishmael Napoleon Daro is a fourth-year political science student. Originally from Afghanistan, he grew up in Saskatoon
Why did you choose Saskatchewan?
“Basically, geography. I have a safety net with family around and friends.”
What’s campus like?
“The U of S is one of the better-looking campuses we have in Canada,” says Daro. “The buildings all have a stone finish that gives them the same sort of look. Even when they build a new building, they’ll still have the stonework done to make the whole campus look consistent. It’s beautiful.”
How are the people?
“It’s mostly local people. You do get a lot of Albertans from Calgary, Edmonton or some of the smaller towns, but it does feel like a very Saskatchewan university.” However, he doesn’t mind being surrounded by prairie folk. “I don’t imagine that people in other cities are so freakish or terribly interesting that I’m missing out.”
How’s the music scene in Saskatoon?
“Pretty vibrant, considering the size of the city. We do get to see a lot of great bands,” says the indie radio DJ. “But occasionally, I see a band’s concert schedule and they’ll have a date in Winnipeg and a date in Calgary. That’s frustrating.”
Is there a university bubble?
“Once you’re on campus, you might eat on campus, go to the gym on campus, plus your classes, and the groups you’re involved with, are on campus,” says Daro. He can’t always
escape his fellow students at home either. “I live on Broadway, which is still very much a student-dominated neighbourhood. So I go from school to home and even if I go to a restaurant, it’s all students. It leads to feeling isolated from the larger city.”
How is course selection?
“I always manage to find interesting classes here,” says Daro. “One that stands out for me is the philosophy of sexuality class, which looked at the works of major philosophers through what they think about sex, rather than freedom or democracy,” says Daro. “Here’s an example. Kant talked about categorical imperative. Sexually, he’d say you could never just use someone for their utilitarian value. Every sexual encounter would have to be for pure reasons, rather than for selfish reasons.”
Small school, small city: University of Northern British Columbia, Prince George B.C.
Shelby Petersen is a fourth-year political science student from Prince George, B.C. She edits the school paper.
What’s Prince George like?
“A lot of people coming to UNBC are from smaller towns of, like, 1,000. You get some of that city feeling, but also the community feel.”
Is there stuff to do?
“It’s small, but Prince George has got lots of local venues and independent bands,” says the music fan. “Dan Mangan was here recently. We also have Coldsnap, a winter music festival. I saw Joel Plaskett last year. It was awesome.”
How are your professors?
“Everyone in my program is on a first-name basis with professors. My American politics professor invited us all to join him at the campus pub to watch the American mid-term election results roll in. Plus, you have the same teachers throughout the degree. You get to know them, which is good for reference letters.”
Ever wish you were in a bigger city?
“Only in terms of shopping. We’ve just got a lot of strip malls and they don’t have clothes targeted at younger, hipper students.” Petersen stocks up when she travels. “The last time I went to Edmonton I went straight to H&M and Forever 21.”
What’s housing like off campus?
“On 15th Avenue, there are about 50 apartment buildings. They’re inexpensive but well-kept. I live in a two-bedroom and we pay only pay $720 [$310 each] per month. That’s the going rate here!”
What’s special about small schools?
“The community takes care of each other. There was a really large Halloween party and I thought I couldn’t go because I didn’t get a ticket in time,” says Petersen. “But then a friend asked another friend and I randomly got a ticket from a stranger.”
Small school, small town: St. Francis Xavier, Antigonish N.S.
Sean McEvoy is a first-year business administration student from Quispamsis, N.B. He plans to be a lawyer.
Why did you choose a school in a small town?
“I grew up in a town about the same size as Antigonish,” says McEvoy. “I like the familiarity of knowing where everything is. When I first visited here, I noticed everybody smiles at you. I’ve heard stories about Halifax and the crime rate, but there have never been any major issues with crime in Antigonish, so I feel really safe here.”
What’s the small campus like?
“I can get anywhere in 10 minutes or less. You can walk everywhere. I’ve woken up 10 minutes before class and I still managed to get there in time.”
Is there anything to do after class?
“We’ve got two bars, one on campus and one downtown. We’ve got a lot of clubs and societies within St. FX. There’s also a movie theatre
How do you get home from the bar?
“I’m 18. But there are taxis. The student union also has a service where they’ll pick you up at the bar and they’ll drive you back home or to residence.”
Will you be prepared if you ever have to live in the big city?
“I want to go into law afterwards. Dal [Dalhousie in Halifax] is probably the closest law school. I have a lot of friends who go there, so they can prepare me for what a big city is like.”
How’s the relationship with the locals?
“I didn’t realize how much the town revolves around the school until I got here. At homecoming you see the whole town get decked out in St. FX stuff. The big deal here coming up is X-ring.” X-ring is when the graduates get their St. FX rings and the whole town celebrates, he explains. “Walking around town, you see countdown signs that say, ‘30 days till X-ring’ and stuff like that. The town really supports the school.”
What’s Antigonish like?
“There are just two main streets, but it’s bigger than my hometown,” he says. “My town has just a variety store. Here, there’s a Wal- Mart, a mall, a movie theatre.”
What was your biggest surprise?
“On our first day, our president, Dr. [Sean] Riley, spent time with every student. He came down to me and shook my hand. He wanted to know where I’m from. He wanted to know about my town, what my interests are, what I plan to do with my degree. The dean also got to know my name and made some recommendations for courses and wished me luck on the first day. Then, later in the week, we all had meetings with him in small groups of maybe 10 and he asked everyone, ‘What are you trying to do with your career?’ I feel like I’m an actual person here, not a number.”