The other day I met virtually with a new student client. They are preparing for the university application process and their parents felt a little assistance was in order. Not unlike many students this year, my client has felt very much removed from the application process and unable to access a number of the usual sources of assistance such as the school guidance counsellors, on-site university Open Houses, and in-school sessions sponsored by individual universities and consortiums. Now, that’s not to say that none of these resources are available, it’s just that students are finding that they have to work harder to access them on their own. In terms of self-advocacy, that’s not a bad thing, but not all students are quite there yet, so it is proving to be more of a challenge for some to access help.
When we connected on Zoom for our initial session, my client took charge almost immediately. They thanked me for meeting with them and assured me that we wouldn’t need more than an hour or so to just finalize things. This excited me because I really do love working with students and parents who know what they want. It’s not always like that and, in fact, is more difficult to help someone who really has no idea what they are looking for in terms of schools, programs, and the like. When someone has done the research and is self-aware about their needs, it really is a pleasure to help them fine-tune their selections. Of course, that’s not always the case once you start chatting and this instance was one of those.
After assuring me all was well, they proudly referred to their dog-eared copy of the 2021 edition of Maclean’s annual university rankings guide (https://www.macleans.ca/education/university-rankings-2021). Not to concern me with their lack of depth and research, they also showed me last year’s edition which was actually a little less worn. Still suitably impressed, I asked what other sources they had used to come up with their list of potential schools. The answer was stunned silence. Quite proudly, they assured me that they had looked over both issues and had merely combined the average scores for the two years and selected the top 5 schools on the list for their program of choice and called it a day. As far as they were concerned, Maclean’s had done all the research they needed and were more than happy to put their faith in the published results.
Now, while I was pleased to see that at least one millennial had full faith in a 115-year-old Canadian media institution that has seen the work of Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Group of 7 showcased within its pages and the likes of Peter Gzowski and Peter C. Newman as editor-in-chief, I was not fully satisfied that true due diligence had occurred. While the Maclean’s guide has been a staple of the Canadian university selection process since it was first published in 1991, it is by no means the only aid out there. It is certainly the most extensive and Canadian-centric guide available, but it has also been called over-simplified and arbitrary. A number of Canadian universities also show up in publications that include universities from around the world such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities, QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and the U.S. News & World Report Best Global University Ranking. Although they are obviously more helpful if one is looking at programs elsewhere in the world or at least in understanding how some of our schools match up against the best in the world.
Though pleased to see that my client had done some homework, it was clear to me that the guarantee I had received at the outset was that of a very self-assured but under-informed individual. As we chatted further, I congratulated my client on their efforts, but talked about the strengths and limitations of their research. After a while, it became clear that they understood that while such guides are helpful, they are not the be-all and end-all of the process. They are a great tool and another arrow in the university selection process quiver, but by no means should be taken as gospel. At best they are great snapshots of a moment in time and do provide valuable statistical data and anecdotal insights. At their worst, I would agree that they are limited, narrow, and at times whimsical. Perhaps best used as a great starting point, but certainly not the final word.
As our first session wrapped up, I sent my charge off with a little bit of homework all of which we had covered during our otherwise Maclean’s focussed discussion. There are no right answers to the questions. For starters, I always ask “ What do you want to be when you grow up?” If a student knows, that’s great. It doesn’t mean that that is what they will actually end up doing or studying, but if they are really focused on a particular career at this stage of the game, it certainly sends us off in a particular direction. And, if they are on the other end of the spectrum that’s also fine. Again, we head off in a different direction. As Robert Frost said, both paths are just as well travelled. Neither fork being the better one. I then ask students to ponder which courses they have enjoyed during high school and which courses they have done well in. The answers are not always the same. You can enjoy a subject and have zero aptitude for it and conversely, you can do really well in a course, but deplore the material.
Next, I ask them to be brutally honest with themselves and to try to get at the heart of what they want from their post-secondary experience. This is the hard part because so often they have to battle with the conflicting desires of parents, friends, and their own aspirations. But, as I remind kids so often, it is their experience and they must be selfish about their needs and wants. Speaking of which, they need to consider what really matters to them with respect to a university or college. Among the things they must ponder are size, location, reputation, extracurriculars, campus vibe, and any personal concerns. Specifically, not all schools deal well with mental health, issues of sexuality, and differentiated learning. Though great strides have been made in these areas certain schools simply are more accepting and accommodating. At the end of the day, this is where a student will spend at least 4 years and probably more so considering all aspects of the decisions really is important and time well spent. When we signed off I know my client was a little overwhelmed, but I also knew that they were much better prepared for the process than they had been at the start of our chat. Oh, and they were sure to ask me if I had more than a few hours to spend with them.