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Advice on finding the right fit

Globe and Mail Update

Should you attend a big or small school? Do you live at home or in residence? Is four applications too few or too many?

Picking the right university is a daunting task for most high school students, one that involves a few sleepless nights and hours spent in your high school's guidance office.

To help answer a few questions along the way, we asked three guidance counsellors to share their insights: Cathy Pearce of Seycove Secondary Community School in Deep Cove, B.C., Ted Blackbourn of Turner Fenton Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., and Nevin Jackson of Cobequid Educational Centre in Truro, N.S.

What's more important: the university or the program? Should a university's ranking play a role?

Cathy Pearce: I will always advise students that finding the program that suits them best is the ultimate goal whether this is at the top or the bottom of the current days ranking. If the student enrolls in a program that is good for them, they will probably do well personally and contribute to the campus as well.

Ted Blackbourn: An appropriate postsecondary choice cannot be made on the basis of rankings. If a university is to be a "good fit" with a student, many factors need to be considered — factors that will vary from one student to another.

Nevin Jackson: The integrity and track record of the program is more important than the ranking of the university.

Should parents and students try to meet people involved in program during the application process? Will that enhance chances of getting into a limited enrolment program?

CP: I always strongly encourage students to visit the various campuses that they are considering, to get a feel for the place. Some campuses just feel better than others and, of course, this varies from individual to individual. If they have a chance to speak to people in the program, that is a bonus. They will get a better idea about what it is they are going to be studying and a variety of other information so that the transition can be made more smoothly. If students are chosen to the program based solely on grade-point average, then visiting people ahead of time will not have an impact on getting in. If admission is based on a variety of other factors or on efforts to find the most suited candidates to the program, then meeting the people involved can be helpful. Students can find out what they are looking for in the application, how they like the application to be presented and what kind of experiences and qualities they are looking for.

TB: We encourage students and parents to visit universities during the application process. These visits provide opportunities to speak with instructors and students and to explore the campus. It is important for students to feel comfortable in a university setting. However, I do not believe that the purpose of a campus visit is to try to influence the admissions committee.

NJ: Some postsecondary institutions are becoming more interested in the student's background beyond their academic abilities and meeting school officials in person can be helpful to both the student and the admissions officers.

How important is physical environment? Does an enclosed campus provide a better experience?

CP: In a nutshell, students will create the quality of the university experience they have by what they put in to it. If a student chooses to go to the 'best' university in the land, enclosed or not, and chooses only to go to class, study and write exams, with little effort or interest to exchange with others on campus, their university experience will be pretty bleak.

TB: The visit should be about finding a "good fit" between student and university. It is impossible to say that one particular physical environment provides a "better" experience than another. The needs of the student will determine whether or not a university setting is an effective learning environment.

NJ: The physical environment is important and is much more important to some students who have a need to be comfortable with their surroundings.

How do you help students choose between a big or small campus? Any criteria?

CP: The only criteria really is what is best for each individual student and their own set of needs, interests and expectations.

TB: Spending some time on a university campus, and in the city or town in which the school is located, will help the student to make such a choice. This also relates to the student's vision of his or her future — does that vision include living in a large urban setting, or in a smaller town?

NJ: Our students get an opportunity to meet representatives from various institutions several times a year either through our Post-Secondary Days event, individual visits from university representatives or through campus visits. It is important for students to visit the campuses they are interested in and actually spend the night if possible.

How many is too many applications to send? Should you aim to narrow it down to 3 or 4?

CP: It is not a game. Students are encouraged to spend their time on thoughtful research and communication with specific campuses as opposed to spending their time completing as many applications as they can.

TB: In many cases, students who apply to a long list of universities create a problem for themselves. If they receive acceptances from all or most of their choices, they find it difficult to narrow the list down to one school. We encourage students to do enough research before completing the application to determine three or four "realistic" choices.

NJ: The number of applications a student should send out depends on many factors such as: whether they are a very high-ranking academic student looking for a major scholarship, whether they are a student who will be close to the cut-off average for admission, whether they are a very capable student-athlete looking for scholarship opportunities either in Canada or in the U.S., or whether the student is applying to a program that has very limited enrolment and thus can be difficult to gain entry.

How easy is it to transfer from one university to another?

CP: This is one situation that is probably different in British Columbia than in Ontario. We have an excellent college system all across our province that includes a university transfer program. Students may start their university years at the college and then transfer to their 2nd or 3rd year of university. This is a great opportunity for many students who do not want to attend the larger, more expensive institutions.

TB: Each university has specific transfer policies that they publish. Each situation is reviewed in light of minimum admission requirements to the school, programs taken, grades achieved and the requirements of the program to which the student wishes to transfer. It is my understanding that the process can become more difficult after second or third year.

NJ: Transferring is very dependent on a student's marks in his or her program. We encourage students to do their homework ahead of time on this issue to avoid any difficulties in the future. Some universities work very well with others when it comes to transferring. However it would be helpful if institutions were more consistent.

Should you be including other things with your application?

CP: If admission to the program is only based on marks, then there is no need to include anything else. We have started to see, over the past few years, that schools and some faculties are now looking at other factors for some students. Campuses have been suffering somewhat because the clientele has been so grades focused that they haven't contributed to the life of the campus. In order to bring about some sort of change, a variety of different strategies are being implemented. Simon Fraser University has their diverse qualifications entry for students whose averages are below the required average but can demonstrate their active involvement in other activities (i.e. sport, music, drama, student government, volunteering, etc).

TB: The initial application asks only for the student's university and program choices. There is only limited space to provide additional information. Most universities then provide prospective students with a supplemental application form which asks for information related to the student's experiences outside of the classroom: extra-curricular involvement, volunteer experience, employment experience, etc.

NJ: Résumés, cover letters and reference letters have proven helpful in the past, especially if there are personal issues, which have impacted on a student's academic performance.

What do you tell students who want to go to university, but just don't know what to take?

CP: If the question is in regards to students who really want to go to school, not students whose parents want them to go to school, then I usually talk about what going to school is about — getting an education. I usually explain how fortunate we are to have access to these institutions and the educational opportunities they provide. All too often we just take this for granted. Over the past few years, the emphasis has been so job and career focused that students and parents see school as a waste of time if it is not directed towards something specific career-job wise. It is often this notion that frustrates the student who wants to go to school but doesn't know what to study because they don't know what they want to do in the future. If I can convince them that it is not important that they don't know yet what they want to do, it frees them to just look at the present and what they like the most right now.

TB: A student who cannot identify at least an area of interest related to postsecondary study may not be ready to make the transition to university. Although a general arts program provides students with a gateway to a variety of other programs, we would not encourage a student to enter into such a program without being able to identify at least a field of study in which they show some interest and some aptitude.

NJ: If students are not sure what to take or whether they are ready for postsecondary studies I would encourage them to work closely with their family for it is a very personal decision that must be decided with a great deal of parental-family involvement.

Is where you go for an undergrad program important as far as getting into a good graduate program?

CP: If students choose the program and school that is the best for them they have a better chance at enjoying their experience more, doing well and being interested in continuing their studies at the graduate level. If they do well and can provide the graduate school a résumé and transcript of success then the location of the undergrad school is not significant. If students have a particular graduate school in mind, however, it is always a good idea to do some research to see if the school has any prerequisites including previous schools.

Ted Blackbourn: A student who successfully completes an undergraduate program at any Canadian university will have an excellent chance of being admitted into any number of graduate programs.

Nevin Jackson: It is more important to feel comfortable in the academic environment and to do well in the program.

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