Two of the biggest questions you’ll need to answer as you research and apply to universities are What should I study? and Which university should I go to?
I usually recommend tackling the first question… first. Choosing your university program and what you want to study can impact your university choices. In order to choose what to study at university, check out this blog post:
Ultimately, you’ll have to make the decision about which uni is the best for you. Lots of people will have advice. Parents, teachers, and friends will have very good reasons for telling you to go to particular universities. In the end, though, you should do your own research before making a decision!
Your first step towards choosing a university is figuring out which decision criteria are important to you. I’ve outlined several important ones below, but you may have others you will add!
Go through each of your criteria and figure out exactly what your requirements are. You can also rank them – which of these criteria are most important to you, and which are not so important? What other criteria do you need to add to your list?
There are two parts to this: first, make sure your university choice offers the programs you want to study, in terms of the degree and major.
The second part is optional: if you’re not certain about your major, check how easy or difficult it is to change it once you’re at uni. One-third of students change their programs while they’re at uni (CUSC, 2021), so it’s not uncommon to switch your program. If this might be you, it’s helpful to do some research as early as possible to make sure it’s possible.
I worked a lot with students who wanted to change majors when I was an academic advisor, and many of them were devastated to learn that they would have to study for an extra year in order to cover all their courses because they didn’t find out how to change majors until second or third year. Doing some research ahead of time may help you avoid this!
If you want to know which Canadian universities offer your program of choice, you can search on the UniversityStudy.ca programs page.
This is an important one – you’re not going to be able to go to a uni if you don’t meet the admission requirements!
In my first year of uni, I decided that I wanted to switch from SFU to UBC, but I was one grade 12 course short and didn’t have enough university credits to do a transfer. I spent the first summer after I started uni taking the extra grade 12 course, and then decided not to change universities after all. What a waste of time!
If I had done my research in grade 11, I would have known that I needed the additional course and I could have taken it in grade 12. Then I at least would have had the option of applying to UBC. As it was, I could only apply to smaller universities or go to a community college and transfer. These are also good options, but research would have given me more choice in the matter.
Ideally, you should be doing some research in grades 10/11 so you have somewhat of a plan. If you think you want to go to uni, check into a few to see what the requirements are to give yourself some options.
And remember that you also have to meet program admission requirements. Getting into a Bachelor of Arts will probably have very different requirements than a Bachelor of Engineering, no matter which uni you’re looking at.
If you’re having trouble figuring out the requirements for the program or uni you want, reach out to their recruitment or admissions office – they are there to help!
There are three things you want to consider here: where is your uni, where will you live, and what will your commute be like.
In American media, we see a lot of students leaving home to go to university and living in campus housing, so sometimes this is what we think university is “supposed” to be like. In Canada, it’s actually much rarer for students to leave their hometown to go to university, so this is far from the typical experience!
But that’s not to say that you can’t go to a university away from home! If that uni meets your criteria for cost and programs, then by all means… go for it!
There are many valid reasons to go to a university away from home. They may offer a program or experience that’s not available elsewhere. For example, there are many government and politics experiences that will be most readily available to you in Ottawa, so if these are of interest you might consider a uni there. However, you can also take on a work experience for a short-term and travel to Ottawa while attending a uni elsewhere.
Similarly, there are likely programs or program combinations that are only available at particular universities. Some universities also have very highly ranked programs (Waterloo Engineering, right?) that are of interest to you.
You might also be like me: just wanting to go to a big university with a beautiful campus on the Pacific Ocean (UBC). Although I will add that it ended up being cost-prohibitive because I couldn’t live at home and go to UBC, so I didn’t go there.
Where do you plan to live while you’re in uni? Many students want to live on-campus so they can have the total university experience, but as I mentioned above this is actually not the average experience. It can also be too expensive for a lot of students to afford. University residences also can have limited spaces, so if you are considering this option make sure you meet all the deadlines.
Half of graduating students in 2021 were living with their parents or family (CUSC, 2021). (Note: This number might be higher than other years because of the pandemic.) Typically, living in your family home is going to be the most affordable option, but there are also numerous reasons it might not be an option.
Additionally, there can be a huge value to having your family around you while you’re a student. This is something we don’t talk about as much, but they can provide so much support! University is hard, and being surrounded by those you love can be such a great help. Plus, you might have the benefits of mom’s home cooking and laundry services. There’s no shame in that!
Maybe you also help your family at home: contributing to bills, looking after parents, grandparents, or siblings, supporting with housework. You may prefer to continue living with your family so you can support them.
Many students don’t have the option of living with their family. If living in university residence is not an option for you, you may also decide to get your own off-campus housing, either by yourself or with roommates.
No matter which of these you pick, you’ll want to consider the costs and benefits in your decision.
Not everyone would include this, but I actually think this is really important. How long will your commute be, and what will it look like?
In my first semester of uni, I took an 8:30am course, and because the express bus on my route didn’t start running until 9am, I had to leave home at 6:30am on those days. It was a first-year humanaties course in a large lecture hall, and I would often fall asleep in the back! My commute was very long, and very early, and it was not a good learning experience.
As students, your time is precious. Spending two hours on a commute several times a week adds up to a lot of time! Maybe it’s possible for you to study on your commute, but for most this is not a possibility. I was always holding a pole so I wouldn’t fall over with one hand, and using the other hand to carry the things that didn’t fit in my backpack (usually gym clothes or a packed lunch). I couldn’t also hold notes or a textbook.
There’s also an energy cost to commuting: I was already exhausted after my two-hour commute for those 8:30am classes, and I still had a full day of studying ahead of me.
And don’t forget, if you are going to a university further away and you have to bus/train/fly home on breaks, this is a cost consideration as well.
You may not have a lot of options around your commute, but this is definitely something to be aware of while you’re doing your planning!
This is the big one, and it really overlaps with a lot of the other decision criteria I’ve listed here.
You will need to figure out the cost of your tuition plus additional fees at your uni (there are always additional fees!).
Most universities have their tuition amounts listed on their websites, to make this a little easier. Some of them even have handy calculators for you! Make sure you check whether the student fees are included in these amounts or not, and if there are differential tuition amounts. For example, at most universities, tuition for arts and social science programs will be cheaper than engineering programs, so different programs and courses can have different costs.
Some universities charge tuition per-semester or per-year, and some charge per-credit. What this means is that at some unis, you’ll pay a full-time rate for the semester or year, regardless of how many courses you take (although there will be course minimums in order to maintain full-time status). At other unis, you’ll just pay for the number of courses (or course credits) you enroll in.
Not sure what “credits” are? Check out the glossary for this and other university terminology:
Don’t forget to also think about other costs: food, transit pass/car, rent or housing fees, textbooks, etc.
Food costs vary a lot. When I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, I was shocked because the groceries were much cheaper in Toronto (I don’t know why!), so I saved money there. You can also save a lot of money by batch-cooking meals and freezing them, not eating out, and taking advantage of student deals (both unis I’ve attended have offered a $5 lunch once a week).
If you live in residences, you may either have access to a kitchen or it could come with a meal plan for a dining hall – check the costs and options with these.
Many, but not all, urban universities include a universal transit pass (U-Pass) in their fees. Basically, all students must pay for the pass, which makes it much cheaper. Sometimes there are exemptions – for example, if you live outside the transit service area, you may be able to apply for an exemption and get a refund. But you can’t just get a refund if you have a car and prefer to drive. If this is not included in your tuition, you may need to budget in a transit pass.
You may also have to pay residence fees or rent for an apartment, or you may need to contribute to the costs in your family home. Regardless of what you have to pay for, make sure you include this in your cost predictions.
Many universities list an approximate textbook cost on their tuition calculators. If the university you’re looking at does not include this, have a look at a uni that does. Keep in mind that there are often cheaper textbook options: buying used, getting from the library, or electronic options.
Here’s an example from UBC. This is the domestic student tuition for some of their undergrad programs for the 2022-23 academic year. You can see that it is assessed per-credit, but they calculate the total for you if you do 30 credits (one year full-time). For an Arts program, it’s $5,729.10 for the year.
But this doesn’t include the fees. There’s a link from the tuition page to the student fees elsewhere, and you have to link to two pages. It’s quite complicaqted. Here is one set of student fees. Undergrads will pay the amounts in the second column, but it looks like there are ways to opt out (if you’re a UBC student, make sure you check the website, there are so many notes about all these fees!).
And then there are these student fees as well. Now’s the time to get out your calculator!
It can be quite difficult to figure out how much all your fees will be, so make sure you’re reading carefully. Some universities will combine all this information so it’s easy for you to access. Even UBC provides a simpler way to calculate all your fees on their recruitment website: How to plan first-year costs. Try googling your university name and “tuition calculator” to see if they provide an easier layout than what’s above.
UBC’s recruitment site actually gives you this calculator and a guide to what you should include. Don’t just search for the tuition amounts, search for a calculator or more detailed information.
Scholarships & Funding
There are many ways to pay for university. Of course you can apply for scholarships and student loans. In Canada, student loans are provided by your home province (the one where you lived before you started university if you are going to uni in another province). There are usually also bursaries available from the province, and the application is the same.
The universities you apply to will also consider you for their awards and scholarships. This is typically where students could get “full-ride” or other high-dollar-amount scholarships. If you get admitted to multiple universities, you may see more funding from one or the other – this may be an important consideration when you are making your decisions.
Your university will also offer scholarships that you can apply for (that you may not be automatically considered for) so make sure you review their financial aid website and reach out with any questions.
There are also “external” scholarships – which are from external sources (not from you university or the provincial funding organization). These could be from businesses, from your high school or school district, unions, charitable organizations… the list goes on. For more help researching and finding these external scholarship opportunities, check out the blog post below. It provides a list of where to potentially find scholarships and suggestions for how to research them, and also links to a free scholarship tracker that’s pre-populated with 75+ scholarships for Canadian students!
University & Class Size
When we think of Canadian universities, we usually think of the big ones: the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto. You probably are also familiar with some of the other ones in your own province. Big universities can be great, but so can small universities! Don’t overlook them.
For example, the University of Toronto has a lecture hall that holds nearly 2000 students. What do you think it’s like to be in a class of nearly 2000 students? The size and anonymity might be a relief, because it’s unlikely you’ll be called on in a group that large. But it also makes it really difficult to put up your hand and ask a question, and it makes it difficult to get to know your classmates or professors.
Now think about what it might be like to take a class with only 25 other students. Sure, you might face the stress of being called on in class, but it would be much less scary to speak in front of 24 classmates than in front of 1999! And it would be much easier to raise your hand and ask for clarification during the class. Plus, your professor might even remember your name!
Of course your class sizes will vary not only depending on your university but also depending on your program and major. I took classes as large as about 200 students, and as small as about 12 students when I did my undergrad. I went to a medium-sized university that had larger classes, but my department was tiny. Once I was in 3rd & 4th year and just taking courses for my major, most of my classes were 10-20 students and we got to know all the professors.
Think about what is going to help you learn best and do some research on how courses are run at your potential universities. Some students do much better with smaller classes and a bit more 1:1 time from your instructors, so if that’s something you want make sure you seek it out!
Are you ready to go to a university where you don’t know anyone? Or do you need the support of a friend who is going the same place as you?
I wouldn’t recommend that you pick a uni just because your friend is going there! However, this might be one of your considerations. Although you will meet lots of new people and probably make new friends at uni, it can be scary to go somewhere you don’t have any supports. If that’s overwhelming for you, you may consider going somewhere that you will already have some connections.
There are several different university rankings, but here I’m going to focus on Maclean’s and the QS University Rankings.
With any ranking, you want to look at how it’s determined. Are they measuring things that are relevant or important for you? There are some rankings that are based on research productivity and research funding – but these are usually much less relevant when you’re choosing an undergraduate program. No matter which rankings you choose to look at, make sure to check out their criteria.
Maclean’s magazine (which, for reference if you’re not Canadian, is kind of like Time magazine in the US) puts out an annual university ranking. You can purchase it as a special edition of their magazine, and they also publish it onlinein their Education Hub. The Education Hub also houses a variety of other resources and articles that are likely to be helpful for students, as well as profiles of universities across the country.
There isn’t one specific Maclean’s ranking for you to look at. They publish several different categories. The important thing that you should be checking is how they determine each ranking. For example, they rank the best “comprehensive” universities – but what does that mean? Is it relevant for you? You can also look at the universities on a particular list – if they are all ones that are of interest to you, then you will probably want to investigate further.
Typically, when folks are talking about university rankings, this is the main one they’re referring to. While you can definitely check it out, it’s much less relevant for undergrads because it focuses on research outputs and funding.
If you’re going to use this ranking, make sure you read about their methodology so you can see what they are measuring and think about how it might be relevant for you.
CUSC (2021). 2021 CUSC Graduating Student Survey.