On Campus

Found the right university? You sure?

Why those back-up schools may be worth a second look


In high school I couldn’t wait to get out of my little northern Ontario town (pop. 10,500) where the main preoccupation for most residents was the size of their snowmobile and tractor engines. I dreamed of a more intellectual milieu where I could debate politics over gin and dance to live music.

I knew university was my only hope and I worked hard toward that goal. I studied late, joined student council, volunteered. I even enrolled in a seventh Grade 12 course to ensure my ‘top six’ course average would be over 90 per cent.

By the time I applied to schools in January 2003, I’d worn out my copy of the Maclean’s Guide to Canadian Universities, having spent years agonizing over the options. I wanted to strike out on my own, eliminating Toronto since my dad was there and Ottawa since my sister was there. Nipissing and Laurentian were close to home—too close. I settled on McGill, with Western as my back-up. Since my Ontario application allowed me to pick three, I ticked off Wilfrid Laurier and Guelph too.

By then I was convinced I would go to McGill. That seventh course had served its purpose and pushed my top six course average over 90 per cent. I made it clear to my guidance counsellor, an old dude who wore green rubber boots to work each day, that he needed to wait until my mark in that seventh course came in before sending my transcripts. That was all that could go wrong.

Naturally, counsellor rubber boots messed up. When I got my rejection letter from McGill, it stated I hadn’t met their mid-80s cutoff. I wasn’t happy about the mix-up, but I was content with Western.

Around that time, a friend who was a year older than me and enrolled in year one at Guelph, found out I was planning to go to Western. She wasn’t impressed. She said if I visited to Guelph, stayed in residence with her and toured the campus, she was sure I’d be convinced of its superiority.

I wasn’t so sure. After all, Guelph had a reputation as a school for rural people, the type I was trying to escape from. Then again, the idea of touring universities seemed like a very good excuse for a road trip, so I packed three friends into my Chevy Cavalier and went down over Easter weekend.

First, we did Western. The campus was bigger than I’d anticipated and the residences were older and noisier than I’d hoped. London’s downtown was a let-down too. Next up was Laurier, which reminded me too much of high school (it was much smaller back then). I scratched it off my list.

Then came Guelph. I went bar-hopping (this was back before they swiped ID cards) and found a diverse music scene, not the country music bars I’d pictured. I toured the apartment-style residences and found them to be civilized. The population was sufficiently diverse. A walk around the serene arboretum was, ironically, a pleasant reminder of home. The lecture halls were new. Most important, the scale of the city and campus—not too small, not too big—felt just right.

Guelph, where I almost didn’t apply, and likely wouldn’t have seriously considered attending were it not for a weirdo guidance counsellor, moved from fourth to first on my list. I spent the better part of five intellectually stimulating years there. Ten years later, I don’t regret my choice. In fact, I only regret not taking those campus tours sooner. To students who think they’ve found the perfect university, I have some advice. Why not go tour those back-up schools? You know, just in case.

Josh Dehaas is editor of Maclean’s On Campus. Follow @JoshDehaas and @maconcampus.