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Picking the right university

For students and families looking at taking the life-changing step of studying abroad, one of the biggest questions is often something along the lines of, simply: “How do I choose which school to go to?”
Unless the student or an acquaintance has actually had the opportunity to visit any of the schools in question, it’s certainly a difficult one to answer!

To get you started off on the right foot, however, here are a few points to take into consideration when making this all-important decision.

According to Canadian University Application Centre (CUAC) student counselor Hiba Fazl, who works in Islamabad, Pakistan, some of the most important factors students should take into account include the following: quality of program/reputation of the university, tuition costs, living scenarios, industry-linkages, and any local relatives or friends the student might have living near the school(s).

But although Fazl lists reputation as one of the biggest factors, she urges students not to get too caught up in “the name game”.

Don’t fall for ‘big names’

“In our region,” Fazl explains, “name recognition is definitely one of the most common problems. Because Pakistanis mostly dwell in major cities (overseas), they often only know the names of the universities around them, such as McGill, York, Waterloo, University of Toronto (U of T), and University of British Columbia (UBC), to name a few. They think the rest of the universities do not stand anywhere. But this isn’t true.”

Although Fazl says it’s hard to get students to think beyond these ‘big names’, she helps them by describing how higher education in Canada is all publicly funded, and structured similarly.

“I try and explain what the Canadian government website emphasizes, in terms of the closeness in quality of tuition across all Canadian universities.”

Instead of concentrating on the ‘name’, she says there are far more important things to consider – such as the cost of tuition (including whether any scholarships are available for international applicants), your own academic background (do you have the grades required?), and also the type of ‘daily life’ offered by each university.

Consider the housing options

Where – and how – you live plays a big role in how happy you are at your new school. And, consequently, how well you perform in your studies.

Universities in Canada offer a wide range of on-campus housing options – from shared dorm rooms, to single rooms, apartment-style complexes, and even family housing (for those students travelling to Canada with a spouse and/or children). So if you’re considering living in university housing (which might be a good idea, especially for your first year, while you’re still settling in), you want to look carefully at the different options available – as well as the ‘packages’ in which they come.

“If you wish to stay in university housing, check the Residence Office website closely,” urges CUAC’s Director of Client Services, Lisa Roosen-Runge. “Each university has different room and meal options, different application procedures and a different contract. Once you agree to the eight-month contract, it is not easily broken, so make sure you want what is being offered beforehand.”

But beyond the Residence Office pages, Lisa says it’s important for potential students to look closely throughout the web-sites of the universities they’re considering.

Read the information carefully

Especially important, she says, are the pages related to the specific program(s) you’re interested in.

“Do read the information for your prospective department/faculty carefully. Here you will see what current students are involved in, what types of courses are available (including co-op, internships or exchanges), what kinds of research the professors are involved in, and generally have a better sense of your intended program as a result.”

And finally, consider location

Besides the obvious questions you should ask yourself, such as, “Do I have any relatives in Canada that I would like to live near?” or “Would I prefer to live in a big city versus a smaller one?”. Students – particularly those hoping to work in Canada post-graduation – should consider the ‘industry-related’ location of their university choices as well.

For example, students hoping to study biology and potentially interested in marine issues would do well to place themselves in the right environment for this type of study/work – such as Victoria, BC, on Vancouver Island, home to the University of Victoria. Whereas for someone who wants to study automotive engineering and place themselves well to work in the field afterward, it might be best to look into applying to the University of Windsor – located literally minutes from the US border city of Detroit, Michigan. Between the two cities, you’re looking at one of the biggest automotive industry locations in North America.

The good news is that, in Canada, whichever school you choose is going to be a strong choice.

With high academic standards, low tuition rates, and friendly campus environments from coast to coast, it’s basically impossible to choose a “wrong” university.

So now the question is just this – which school is the “most right” for my own interests and aspirations?

Happy picking!

• Arwen Kidd currently serves as Communications Director for the Canadian University Application Centre and its parent organization, Higher-Edge. A Canadian university graduate herself, Arwen has spent most of the past five years working and travelling overseas. Among her credits are various documentary film and photojournalism projects in Eastern Europe, Australia and West Africa. Arwen is currently based in Liberia.

Posted: Mar 31, 2011

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