And they’re off…

In case I didn’t already know, which of course I did, the influx of requests for assistance in my inbox certainly reminds me that the university application season is well underway. Many years ago, when I was applying, the process was pretty straightforward. Most of my peers looked at the traditional in province options – Western, Queen’s, and U of T. Some ventured east to Dalhousie and others west to UBC. Still others, though very few, looked to the US or the UK. That was about it.

In terms of planning, I recall lunchtime meetings with university representatives and sessions with our school guidance counsellor or visits to the guidance office to look through viewbooks. As I attended a collegiate, there was little talk or promotion of Community Colleges, GAP years, or the like. And, as only the second person in my family heading to university, there was scant formal knowledge of the process or prospects within the family. I was encouraged to vaguely “look into it”, talk to my guidance counsellor and that was the extent of it.

Times have certainly changed. This year, even more so.

First off, the options for students within Ontario are plentiful. Not that they weren’t “back in the day”, but the diversity of programs is breathtaking… and confusing. Though the aforementioned Big Three are still very popular, so too are previously lesser-known or less frequently considered options. And it’s not that schools like Laurier, Guelph, and McMaster to name just a few haven’t always been strong options and the school of choice for many, it’s just that like anything else with age and experience and incredible niche programs they have become go-to destinations for so many more than when I was a prospective undergrad.

As well, when Ontario’s colleges were authorized to award baccalaureate degrees in 2000, the playing field opened up even further. This new direction afforded the opportunity to earn a baccalaureate degree for students interested in the types of programs that colleges offer. The move also improved college-to-university transfer as well as enabling unique joint programs between colleges and universities which culminated in a BA with both academic and more hands-on “real world” experience. What these changes also brought about was the hitherto rarely seen movement from university to college. More and more students were earning an undergraduate degree and heading back to class at their local college for more specific and practical training. Though many still went the more traditional route and earned a Master’s degree times were certainly changing But again, the plethora of options created opportunity and confusion. Choice is a great thing, but too much choice can be daunting for the uninitiated.

Of course, I have only spoken about changes in Ontario, whereas the opportunities across Canada have also broadened. Similarly, more and more students are looking to the US, the UK, Europe, and elsewhere. This is especially true for the student interested in medical and law careers and contemplating the direct entry route so popular outside of Canada. Though an option, students must be aware of the extra time and effort necessary to repatriate their degree in order to practice in Canada. But those who have done it certainly have found the extra or at least different effort well worth it.

The other aspect of the process that has changed is when students start really considering all their options. Perhaps it is a factor of all the choice, but the process really does start as early as Grade 9 and even sooner for students keen to get into very selective programs or to earn scholarships south of the border. Of course, there has always been career and academic guidance provided in middle school and junior high school, but things have really ratcheted up in the past 20 or so years. Though it can in some ways be too late to start when it comes to certain options, it is never too early to start considering the many paths available on the post-secondary journey.

The current pandemic is also throwing a spanner in the works. Teachers, guidance counsellors, and parents are just as invested in helping students, as are post-secondary institutions who are excited to see their application pools overflowing. The problem is that in-person availability is making it a more challenging process. Students are not as able to get quick, thorough answers from those who would normally be visiting schools and inviting students to campus. It’s not an impossible process, but it is certainly putting more of the onus on parents and students this time around. A different approach is definitely in order.

That is why I am sure I am receiving more than the usual numbers of emails requesting assistance. Of course, that’s a good thing for me, but it is also a good sign that families are adjusting. Students and parents are casting a wider net and doing everything that they can to gain insight and answers to their questions. I have long been a proponent of students asking everyone they can for their input. This means, friends, family, teachers, coaches, tutors… truly everyone. It also means going online and contacting alumni groups and graduates through social media.

Most importantly, students really need to do their research and their homework. Specifically, they need to narrow their choices down before getting into the minutiae of the application process. This is especially true when considering whether to stay local, national or to go international. There’s no sense in spending time looking at direct entry medical schools in the UK or Ivy League colleges in the US if they are not a realistic option. But once the parameters are set and students have a good idea of their preferred programs and schools, they similarly need to zero in on the questions they are asking in order to get the best answers. Let’s not forget that those who are being contacted are also dealing with new personal and professional pandemic challenges and value their time more than ever. Bright, articulate, and knowledgeable inquiries will increase the likelihood of prompt, thorough responses. Like so many things in like, it’s all in the planning. It may be a different application cycle but the fundamentals remain the same. Preparation is truly the path to success.




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