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How students are deciding which university is right for them

Daniel Cress | Fulcrum Contributor

Illustration by Mico Mazza

IT SNEAKS UP on you, the choice that will determine the direction of your life for the next two to four years or more. Choosing a school for post-secondary studies is a major decision that comes with its own unique challenges for each individual—criteria that may be critically important to one student could hold little or no influence on another; where to get information on schools and programs, to location and reputation, to the influence of friends and family, are just a few of the things young people need to consider. While individuals will value these factors differently, there are some key aspects that every student has to keep in mind when coming to a final decision on where they are going to spend not only the next phase of their academic careers, but also the next phase of their lives.

Christine Lamothe—liason manager for the University of Ottawa—explained that incoming students can be placed into different categories based on what’s most important to them.

“One of the things Maclean’s magazine did this year in their university rankings was talk to students about what their driving forces are for post-secondary education and grouped them into three different categories,” she said. “The first one is academic comfort, the second—and I’d say this is on a rise right now—is the job market, and the third category that we see a lot is kind of like a humanitarian category.”

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Students who fall into the first category base their decision primarily on the prestige a university has for their particular program. They have a very specific field of study in mind, and are also looking to be close to home or follow in an academic tradition.


The hardest part for me was comparing one school to another, since every institution has its own way of doing things; it was a lot like trying to compare apples and bananas.


For Jennifer Nevin, who will be entering her first year of post-secondary education at Queens University in September, the most important factor in her university decision-making process was whether or not the school offered the specific coursework she was hoping to pursue.

“That’s huge,” she said. “Without the proper program, the school could not offer me a stable education. My choice was influenced by program mainly. Engineering is offered at many schools, but the specificity of discipline I hope to study is offered at Queens.”

The second category of students are looking for an education that puts them in a good spot for a career after graduation.

“People are looking at programs that are very specifically job market driven, things that go directly into a job force,” explained Lamothe. “If you look at programs like nursing, they are very sought after and all of the programs across the province are full.”

Mack Johnson—a graduate of the human resources program at the University of Ottawa—placed himself in this group.

“I was looking for a school that would leave me in a solid position by which to enter into the job market upon graduation,” he said. “A reputable co-operative education program was very important [to me], and to find one that had a 99% placement rate was exceptionally fortunate.”

The third category of students places a greater emphasis on the humanitarian aspect of post-secondary education and the strength of the school community.

“[U of O] was the best option for me on all levels,” said Corina Pinto, a third year student in international development and globalization. “Socially, it was a fun school in a vibrant city, with tons of things to do no matter what time of year. In terms of extracurricular activity, it was home to dozens of clubs, organizations, and sports teams that I could get involved with. Linguistically, it allowed me to study and live in both of Canada’s official languages. And personally, it gave me the opportunity to live away from home for the first time in my life, which helped me grow and mature as a young adult in a new community.”

With so many factors going into students’ decisions about their education, having access to good information about schools is critical.

“The hardest part for me was comparing one school to another, since every institution has its own way of doing things; it was a lot like trying to compare apples and bananas,” said Pinto. “It [can be] overwhelming at times because there are so many schools available, and not only so many programs but so many versions of each program.”

With parents, teachers, friends, and high school guidance counsellors weighing in on a student’s decision, it can be tough for him or her to choose a university without feeling pressured or confused.

Legacy is often thought of as another factor with strong influence on where someone decides to go to school, but it seems to be losing its hold on today’s students. An existing family tradition didn’t stop Pinto from pursuing her post-secondary dreams.

“My parents, aunts, uncle, and even grandfather all went to university for business or engineering, and in some ways it has always been ‘assumed’ that my siblings and I would go as well,” explained Pinto. “I was the first to break the trend and go into social sciences, and surprisingly enough, it was not a difficult trend to break.”


My biggest advice is not being afraid to ask questions.


A school’s location and the scholarships it offers are also strongly considered by prospective students.

“Since I was not interested in accumulating immense debt, I didn’t have the opportunity to just pick anywhere I wanted off of a map,” said Johnson. “I’d probably consider a variety of bursary and scholarship options—I essentially applied for none—as well as creative financing options through OSAP in order to subsidize the possibility of leaving the city. Looking at parents and the government as the only two black and white sources of capital for education is near-sighted; a creative and determined search can yield very personally satisfying results.”

In Lamothe’s experience, touring the campus can be incredibly for students staring down this difficult decision, saying that campus visits “rank right up there in the top three” ways people try to narrow down their options.

“I felt automatically at home while touring Queens, and that was indeed the greatest influence on my decision,” said Nevin.

Making this whole process easier for students is an enormous task. However, that’s what university recruitment and liaison services are striving towards.

“Universities work extremely close together to provide a university information program across the province, so we travel together for 8 weeks every year, going around to high schools to promote the value of post-secondary education,” said Lamothe. “One thing that I think is great about what we do here in the province of Ontario is we tell the truth and we lay it out honestly. I’m so happy to tell students that I have great contacts at other schools. We all pride ourselves in not taking part in a rat race. We want to make a good recommendation because it’s someone’s life we’re influencing.”

With all the options, influences, and pressures, the best advice Lamothe can provide prospective students with is simple yet powerful.

“My biggest advice is not being afraid to ask questions. I think that it’s extremely important that students take the time to ask questions and never feel like any question is too basic. Never ever ever stop asking questions; it’ll keep you from getting disappointed by sitting on info. Ask away.”