How to choose a university program

Seven questions to ask when deciding where to apply

Choosing a university program can be a daunting task. A big challenge is not knowing what to look for and how to properly distinguish between them.

Factors to consider when choosing a university program

What interests you?

Your interests are one of the biggest factors when considering a university program. Studying subjects that interest you makes university life a lot easier and definitely more enjoyable. While knowing your interests can make it easier when selecting courses, many times it’s not as easy to pinpoint what you want to study.

To help, some universities have programs that combine multiple interests such as Arts and Science or Waterloo's Environment and Business and Science and Aviation programs. Deciding on a general area of interest will narrow down your search to those universities that offer your program(s) of interest.

Co-op or an internship is another big factor you should to consider when deciding on a program.

Do you want to graduate with work experience?

Co-op or an internship is another big factor you should consider when deciding on a program. Co-op programs work for some but not for others. People who want to gain work experience, get an ideas of possible careers, and don't mind an additional year generally prefer co-op. The drawback is that it typically takes away your free summers – you're either studying or on co-op at any given time.

Some students prefer their summers off, or are thinking of graduate programs or medical school and want to finish their degree faster. Such students generally look into programs without co-op. So, your desire to do a co-op/internship program (or not) will help you further narrow down your choices.

In addition to that, different universities do co-op/internships differently. The University of Waterloo generally has a 4-month cycle where students are on co-op for one term and back to school studying for another and the cycle continues. Other universities have summer work placements, 12-month internships, or other formats of work experience. Again, your preferences can help to further narrow your choices.

Co-op students.

How do you want to learn?

Most universities offer some sort of hands-on learning, which allows you to better understand concepts by seeing them in action. Some students learn better when they get to perform a task themselves.

Hands-on learning can include experiences such as labs, field trips, student teams, study abroad, co-op and internships, studio courses, and more. When researching universities, look for details about what experiential learning opportunities you'd be able to benefit from. This will allow you to filter your list of potential programs based on whether or not they offer a more traditional classroom style of learning.


Get more insight into choosing your university path

 

How strong are your high school grades?

Your grades, and the courses you’ve taken, will impact the number of programs available to you. Certain university programs require you to have grades in the mid-90s, while others admit students with averages in the low 70s.

Based on your current and expected grades, you can check out programs that will work for you. That’s why it's good to research programs in advance, and then work toward achieving the grades needed to be admitted to that program.


 
 

What's the campus vibe?

While studying and grades are a big focus of university life, they’re definitely not the only things. Extracurricular activities such as residence life, sports, clubs, student government, volunteering, etc. will play a huge role in your university experience.

Some students prefer certain sports to be available at their future university; some prefer a school with extensive activity options; and others don’t care as much. So, check out some of the non-academic factors to consider when choosing a university.

And if you can't visit a particular university in person, check out their social media feeds or virtual tours to get an idea of what campus is like.

Students hanging out on campus.

What kind of degree do you want?

Programs with the same name can differ significantly between universities. One factor that can vary is the degree that you will earn when you graduate.

As an example, the University of Waterloo offers a Bachelor of Computer Science (BCS) or Bachelor of Mathematics (BMath) to graduates of the Computer Science program, whereas the University of Toronto offers a Bachelor of Science (BSc) to Computer Science graduates.

The academic focus of degrees with similar names is also likely to change from program to program. For example, the Geomatics program at Waterloo emphasizes analyzing data and automation, while Geomatics Engineering at York University focuses more on engineering concepts and surveys.

Depending on your interests, you can narrow down your search by selecting universities that cover concepts that align with your goals. If you can, check out the required courses for the programs you’re looking into – they'll give you valuable insights into what you'll learn.

If you have a strong preference for a particular degree upon graduation, research which universities offer that degree for your program(s) of interest. But remember, when you graduate, employers are typically more interested in your skills and potential contributions than the name of your degree.

What other factors should you consider when choosing a university?

Cost

Money is a factor for many students, and different university programs have different tuition fees. There are financial aid options that can help, such as government bursaries and loans, scholarships from the university, and co-op programs, which can also help offset the cost.

Your career

This ties back to your interests. Depending on what you want to do after you graduate, you can narrow down your program search accordingly.

Reputation

The reputation of universities and programs might be a factor for some students. If these are factors for you, eliminate those choices that might not suit your needs.

 

How I decided what university program I should take

When it was time to choose a university program, I had no idea what I wanted to study, or where I wanted to go. After attending the Ontario Universities’ Fair, I was finally able to narrow down my list of preferred universities based on experiential learning opportunities, distance from my hometown, admission requirements, and the city.

Hands-on learning and university location were big deciding factors for me. Knowing these priorities helped me narrow down my decision!

Next, I created a list of some of my study interests. This list included a wide variety of passions from law to world issues, and much more in between. Throughout my final year of high school, I was very confident that I wanted to pursue a career in law. However, it wasn’t until a University of Waterloo rep visited my high school that I realized I was really interested in their International Development program. The program not only combined all of my interests, but also included an international experience.

Another factor that helped me narrow down my decision even further was visiting campus and asking questions during campus tours. If you are unsure about a program or institution, I would highly recommend visiting the campus. Touring the campuses allowed me to visualize myself not only studying there, but also living there. It was my campus tour that ultimately helped me decide that I wanted to study International Development at the University of Waterloo.

Eventually, with a little research and many campus visits, I determined the program that was right for me! Follow these tips and tricks to help find a program that’s right for you. Good luck, and happy searching!