Sydney McQueen's university career started with an unlikely choice while deciding which Canadian postsecondary school to attend.
Ms. McQueen grew up in Georgetown, Ont., a city with a population of about 42,000 west of Toronto, and had her sights set on a university in a big city.
Undecided about the program she wanted to enter, although she knew it would have something to do with science, she planned to apply to only two Ontario schools (London's University of Western Ontario and the University of Guelph), even though the application fee covered three.
"I thought I would pick between those two and didn't really care to put a third option, but my mom suggested Queen's [in Kingston] for fun," Ms. McQueen, now 26, says about her foray into university several years ago.
"But I ended up touring the schools, and the campus at Queen's seemed to be a really good fit," she adds about the city, which is about three times the size of Georgetown, population-wise. "It has a beautiful campus, and the tour guide had so many great things to say. There seemed to be lot of school spirit. I realized … that I wasn't sure I wanted to be that close to home. And Western was more spread out, and I wasn't sure I'd be comfortable."
Choosing the universities to apply to, and then determining which one to attend, may seem vague or complicated for high-school students and others aiming to enter the postsecondary system.
There are preconceived ideas of what's involved, but it's not until you sift through the options and sync them with personal needs and professional goals that the process comes into focus. Ms. McQueen, for instance, eventually decided to pursue a career as a medical doctor and become a surgeon, and is now in the University of Toronto's combined MD/PhD program.
For students coming out of high school, great grades tend to count most in being accepted, but some schools have different application requirements, as do some programs. In the case of Ms. McQueen, who was accepted at all the schools she applied to, Queen's also asked for reference letters and an essay on her goals.
The deadline to apply for fall admissions for undergraduate programs is usually in January, depending on the province and sometimes the school. It's a process that students shouldn't leave until the last minute, says Andrew Arida, associate registrar and director, student recruitment and undergraduate admissions, at the University of British Columbia.
“Usually, in Canada, students are starting to think about [applying] in the fall of their senior year, but students are typically thinking of university in Grade 11,” says Mr. Arida. “There are programs with specific courses for admission that should be taken as early as Grade 11 – in most cases, the prerequisites are for certain courses.”
While grades are key in determining who is accepted, schools are increasingly taking students' profiles into consideration, partly because it is becoming more competitive to enter certain programs – especially popular ones such as business and engineering. Admissions staff aren't just looking for profiles that emphasize whether a student has done volunteer work, has been captain of a sports team or has headed a student union, admissions experts say.
“For high-school students, applying for university typically doesn’t go beyond submitting grades and personal profiles,” says Mr. Arida. "But some schools are beginning to use [supplemental applications such as] video interviews, mostly to ask a question, and then the student applicants have a few minutes to think about it, and then the audio and video are recorded ... you respond quickly to a question, as in a job interview.
"We aren't really looking from the point of view of how many things are on a résumé, but we're looking for experiences students have had ... what they've learned outside the classroom, about themselves and the world around them, including by volunteering, having a part-time job, travelling the world to do development work," he adds.
“We’ve had students with grades in the mid-90s who didn’t get in because their profiles were not strong, but students in the 80s did because their profiles were amazing.”
Robert Astroff, of the Toronto-based admissions consulting firm Astroff Consultants Inc., says competition for getting into universities has heated up so much since he and his wife Dorete Astroff started their business in 2007 that it is not unusual for postsecondary-school planning to start as early as junior school.
"The skills you need to get into university to achieve success are much different now," Mr. Astroff says. "It's always been competitive, but employers are looking for different types of skills now, and the economy is much different. As an example, you don't need to memorize – you need to do critical thinking. [School admissions officials] are looking more for what you can do with that information rather than just getting that information."
And when it comes to choosing a school, it's important to find the right fit for the student, he says "Just because a school has a specific name doesn't mean it will produce the results after university that the student wants."
For Ms. McQueen, she sought Mr. Astroff’s help in 2014 – after finishing Queen’s and while working toward her master’s degree in science at McMaster University in Hamilton – to get guidance in applying for medical school.
"If you're going to try to apply, there are a lot of different pieces and hurdles to jump before you're considered a strong candidate" beyond getting great grades, she says.
Ms. McQueen applied to medical schools at UBC, Dalhousie in Halifax, and Ontario schools, including the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto.
Since enrolling in the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine in 2015, she has completed two years of medical school (which she expects to complete in 2021) and is now working toward her PhD (aiming to finish it in 2023).
For the past three years, Ms. McQueen has also been working part time for Astroff Consultants, helping students improve their critical thinking and communication skills. She says her main tip for handling the interview process is: "You have to put all the preparation into it, but once you have, have fun and enjoy it."
These days , students researching schools tend to turn first to their official websites, says Alex Dorward of Admissions Consulting. But Ottawa-based Mr. Dorward warns: “This should not be the only source, as universities ultimately want to promote their own school and not that of others, so it’s good to get a balance.”
In an e-mail interview, he recommended checking other resources, such as those that give student reviews, and publications that rank schools.
Five tips to help you choose
Here are tips and issues to keep in mind when deciding which schools to apply to and how to make a final pick.
1. Consider the program and its content
Check whether the university has the program you’re interested in, and determine whether it has what you want outside the classroom, says Mr. Arida. For instance, find a school that offers co-operative education (integrating academic studies with work experience).
Or, if you want to participate in international exchange programs, choose a university that has agreements with other countries.
2. Visit the universities before applying
‘‘We encourage students to make campus visits, not during the summer or beginning of the year or during exams, but when the school is fully functional and operating in a normal capacity,’’ says Mr. Astroff.
3. Ask recent alumni about their experiences
"Schools change, so it’s best to get the most recent info from alumni, otherwise you may be getting info from the school’s glory days or before it had blossomed," says Mr. Dorward.
4. Think carefully about how many schools to apply to, and watch deadlines
Mr. Arida says students are increasingly applying to more schools, but that has been known to slow down admission decisions.
“Students have a right, and it’s wise to apply to multiple schools, but don’t go overboard. ... Try to limit the number of applications.”
He suggests choosing a dream school, a second dream school, a backup school and then one local school. The deadline for applying is commonly sometime in January, and to commit to attend one is commonly May 1, but those dates may vary depending on the province, school and program.
5. Consider costs and funding sources
Paying more doesn’t necessarily result in attending a better school, Mr. Arida says. Even applying to university comes with costs, with the fees depending on the province. Consider other costs, such as school fees, whether you have to pay for travel or equipment associated with your program, and accommodations and travel if you are living away from home. Check into funding options such as scholarships, bursaries or government loans (possibly supplemented by financial support from universities that offer it).
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Alex Dorward works at CampusRankings.com. In fact, he works with AdmissionsConsulting.ca. This is the corrected version.