Nine factors to consider when choosing a university

How to pick a university that feels right to you

So you’re thinking about going to university. With so many programs and universities, how do you pick? Here are nine factors to consider.

Have you thought about what you want your university experience to be? In Canada, we’re lucky to have such a range of options, from small rural universities to large urban campuses – and every experience will be different.

Questions to help you find the university that's right for you

1. Academics

First and foremost, you want to go to a university that has a program you’re interested in. On top of that, you’ll want to consider the different variations of that subject and how it can translate into different programs. Let’s say you’re interested in biology. A university might offer programs in biology, biochemistry, biomedical engineering, biomedical sciences, biostatistics, and life sciences so it’s important to see which program is the best pick for you. Here are some questions to get you started.

  • What subjects are you interested in? What kinds of programs relate to those subjects?
  • What are the admission requirements?
  • Do you want to get work experience (co-op) while you earn your degree?
  • Can the program lead to further education, such as law, business, or a specialized master’s degree?
  • Are you able to conduct research during your studies?
  • Can you study abroad on international exchanges?
  • What services are there to help you succeed?

2. Location

University may be the first time you live away from home. Depending on which university you choose, you may have to move away from family, friends, and maybe even your country.

  • Do you want to live in a bigger and potentially more diverse city or something a bit smaller and more relaxed? 
  • Do you want to live at home while in school?
  • How far from home do you want to be? Is it easy to get home?
  • Do you have friends or know other people who are going to the same university?
  • Taking into consideration the rent, transit costs, food, etc., does the bottom line figure work for you?

3. Campus look and feel

Besides where you live, you’ll spend a great deal of time on your university campus. Outside of lectures, you’ll hang out with friends, study or work on group projects, grab a bite or drink, attend events, use the athletics or recreation facilities, and more. Pick a university you like by narrowing down what you’re looking for.

  • Would you prefer something clustered together with definitive boundaries or a campus spread across a wide area? 
  • Do you want a busy urban campus or more of a park-like setting?
  • Do you picture yourself surrounded by ivy-covered buildings or something modern?
  • Do you want a big school where you discover more opportunities and breadth of courses or something smaller where the professors will have a chance to learn your name?
  • Are the students who go there enthusiastic, proud, or happy? Do they have school spirit? 

4. Where to live 

Whether you’re staying in your hometown or moving across the country, where you live during university is important. Most students choose to live in residence for first year.

  • Do you want to live on campus or share an off-campus apartment with friends? 
  • What services are offered in residence? Are laundry, wifi, cleaning, computer repair, workout rooms, and games available?
  • Do you want a roommate?
  • What does it cost to live on campus vs. off campus?
  • What does a meal plan cost? Do you have to buy one?
  • How easy is it to find an off-campus place to live?
  • Are there grocery stores and laundry facilities nearby?
 

    Students at the salad bar in a University of Waterloo residence.

    5. Food. It’s important!

    If you’re moving away from home, that means so long home-cooked meals and hello pizza! But seriously, you’ll need to consider where and what you’ll eat while at university, including meal plans as well as places to eat on campus. You might also want to consider the more budget-friendly option of cooking your own meals.

    • Do the residence dining halls and cafeterias have flexible hours?
    • How diverse is the menu?
    • How do residences accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies?
    • Does the food look good? Is there a lot of variety and healthy choices?
    • What are current students saying about the food? What are their favourites?
    • How many places are there to grab coffee?
    • What’s the university’s stance about waste? What are they doing to cut down on food waste?

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    6. Finances

    Have you budgeted to cover your costs? Finance is something university students keep in mind a lot more than students in high school. When you’re in university, the costs are higher and you tend to pay a good portion yourself, if not all the costs. In light of that, here are some things to think about.

    • How much is tuition?
    • What portion will you pay and how much will your family contribute?
    • How much scholarship money can you get?
    • What else do you have to pay for, e.g., residence, textbooks, lab coat?
    • How can you access financial aid or bursaries?
    • Are there paid co-op or internships to help pay for school? What can you expect to earn?
    • Can you work part time on campus?

    Students taking a group selfie.

    7. Beyond the classroom

    Outside of being a student, who are you? What defines you? What are you passionate about? Many of your best university memories will happen outside the classroom so find out about the range of extracurriculars.

    • What kinds of events can you attend on campus?
    • What clubs and sports teams are available?
    • What fitness classes are there?
    • Where are the cool places to grab food and hang out with friends?
    • How do you join your university’s student government?
    • Can you volunteer in the local community? 
    • Are there places to celebrate your faith on or around campus?

    Students walking in Uptown Waterloo.

    8. How to get around town

    Student life doesn’t stop on campus. Getting around town for food, shopping, and going out means knowing how to get from point A to point B.

    • How well connected is the university to the rest of the city?
    • Are there lots of stores and restaurants within walking distance?
    • How easy is it use public transit? Are there stops close to campus?
    • Is a transit pass included with your fees?
    • If you’re coming from a distance, how close is an airport? Is it easy to find a shuttle service to campus and what’s the cost?

    9. Career success

    Another important thing to consider is how a university can prepare you for the future. Whether it be continuing your education or entering the workforce, learning how your degree will translate into a career is important.

    • Are there services to help polish your résumé, improve your interview skills, and find job opportunities?
    • If you’re interested in medicine, law, or specialized graduate studies, how can the university help you prepare?
    • What sort of graduate and professional programs does the university offer?
    • Does the university have co-op programs to help you explore career options?

    We hope these questions help you narrow down your prospective university options. University is a big and exciting life decision, so we hope you find a school that lets you succeed in both academics and life experiences.