There are so many post-secondary institutions to choose from in Canada and abroad. How should you weigh your options in order to figure out which school is best for you? We spoke to students, admissions advisers and admissions consultants for tips on how to prepare for the university search and which questions to ask yourself to make that crucial choice.
What do I want?
Start by doing some honest soul-searching, says first-year English student Gabrielle Cole. “Compile a list of the things that are really important to you when choosing a school,” she says. “If you just jump into the websites, it can be really overwhelming—there’s so much information.” She’s happy with her decision to attend McGill University in Montreal, which she chose in part for its strong reputation. The school also offered her the opportunity to leave her home in Richmond Hill, Ont., and to study in a city where she could regularly use the French she learned in elementary school immersion. “I think I did adequate research and weighed all the options,” Cole says.
How do I know if a school has what I want?
Western University’s manager of undergraduate recruitment, Dayana Kibilds, suggests that students use the “PLACE” framework, where P is for passions, L for location, A for academics, C for community and E for experience. Passions: Is the school going to enable you to pursue your hobbies and extracurricular activities? Location: Are you a big city or small town person? Do you prefer self-contained campuses or sprawling city campuses? Academics:Can you switch programs easily? How are the professors and the degree options? Community: Will you receive enough support from professors and peers? And finally, Experience: Does the university have co-op or community volunteering options?
Before she started at Ryerson University, Brianna Varone felt drawn toward the field of public health. When looking at available programs, she discovered many differences between them: some branch off into specializations, while others are heavily co-op based. For Varone, quality was key. And Ryerson was also ideally located in the downtown core, just a 45-minute commute from her home.
Joel Nicholson, founder of the education consultancy Admissions Ally, stresses the importance of doing your due diligence in exploring what universities have to offer. He suggests that students read through program curriculums and course outlines, reach out to current students, and research available extracurriculars at the universities they are interested in. Doing some extra research might lead you to discover that the program you thought you wanted to get into isn’t the one that best suits your needs. “Many students yearn to get into Queen’s commerce or Western’s Ivey H.B.A. AEO [program] because they have the reputation as being the ‘best,’ ” he says. “However, many of my students have ended up choosing schools like Wilfrid Laurier or Waterloo . . . both have a great co-op program and some students realize that’s more important to them than what the ‘top’ programs offer.”
Who can help me decide?
Teo Salgado, founder of VerveSmith education consulting based in Toronto, suggests students take advantage of all the resources they have available to them, including guidance counsellors, friends and family. “Advice is most useful when provided by people who know [students’] goals or who are familiar with their background and interests.” He also recommends that students speak to their parents or guardians about finances, especially when trying to determine whether living away from home will be economically feasible.
Which is better for me: a big or small school?
If you’re someone who thrives in smaller, quieter groups, then a more intimate learning environment is worth considering. According to Kutay Ulkuer, director of admissions at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, “Mount Allisonians” benefit from smaller class sizes and informal class discussions, with just a dozen students around a table. The university is so small, he says, that “you can’t hide from the faculty,” who know each student and tend to notice when they are not in class.
On the other hand, if you’re a person who feeds off the energy of a bustling metropolis, a school in a big city might be best. Before Katie Marsh moved from Vancouver to pursue a degree in philosophy at the University of Toronto, she had heard the school was lonely and the weather in Toronto was awful. “Upon coming here, I realized that didn’t hold true at all for me,” she says. “I absolutely love going on runs or walking around the financial district.”
What if I make the wrong choice?
Salgado notes that students have more control over the admissions process than they think. “It’s not so much about what the universities are looking for, [but] what am I looking for, and does that institution offer what I’m looking for,” he says. “You have a lot of control. You get to choose universities that you think will want somebody like you.”
Public health student Varone says you shouldn’t panic if you don’t get into your top-choice program, or if you realize the program you’re in isn’t for you. You can often make a lateral move within universities from one related program to another. “You don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to do; you’ll figure it out later on,” she says.
Philosophy student Marsh adds that students should avoid putting too much pressure on themselves to make the perfect decision. When it comes to choosing a university, all you can do is make the best choice you can with the information you have. The decision isn’t permanent. “I know that whatever I do, there are pros and cons to every situation,” she says. “Every experience is a learning opportunity.”
This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2021 Canadian Universities Guidebook with the headline, “Choosing a university.” Order a copy of the issue here. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.