Big? Small? Specialized? For those considering the kind of campus they would like to attend, here are some qualities to consider, based on the experience of students who attended different types of schools.
The little school
Danielle Biss, Mount Allison University Class of 2014
Danielle Biss spent her first year studying at the University of Toronto. The school made sense for her – she could live with family and a scholarship covered tuition. But something didn't feel right.
"I enjoyed my courses, but I didn't feel a sense of community, or a feeling of home," she says. "For some people, it's totally their thing. But I didn't feel part of something."
In high school, she'd toured schools in the Maritimes, and remembered loving Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. She decided she'd give that school a shot for her second year.
"It's where I was meant to be," says Ms. Biss, who graduated from MtA earlier this year with a psychology degree.
Ms. Biss got the sense of community she was looking for. Sackville is a small town – about 5,500 people – and MtA is a campus of 2,600 students. For many students, it's far away from home, but small schools like MtA inherently offer a sense of community for their students; it's easy to feel part of something.
The small school is home to many Maritimers, but it's a destination for students far and wide, too. "It was an adjustment being so far from home, and not being able to go home for the weekend," Ms. Biss says. "But being in a small community, knowing everybody, made it homey."
Small schools lend themselves to small class sizes, and Ms. Biss found herself getting to know each of her professors. "One benefit of small schools is access to profs," she says. "You never feel like you have to leave their office. At U of T, you have to line up."
It was easy for Ms. Biss to get involved on campus. She became president of her residence, and helped out at the Meighen Centre, the school's space for students with learning disabilities. Because the school is so undergrad-focused, upper-year students get access to jobs normally reserved for grad students, which allowed Ms. Biss to become a teaching assistant in an advanced statistics course and gain valuable experience.
Ms. Biss now works in member relations for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in Ottawa. Canada's capital is great, she says, but MtA is still in her heart. When she got her degree this spring from Chancellor Peter Mansbridge, she says, "I was shaking his hand, and thought, 'I don't know how I'm going to leave this place."
The medium school
Allison Williams, Queen's University Class of 2009
Many students from northwestern Ontario tend to gravitate toward the geographically obvious when picking universities, says Allison Williams, usually Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, or the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. But when an English teacher extolled the virtues of Queen's University to the Emo, Ont., native, she was sold.
The community spirit, the alumni network and the beauty of Kingston all called her name; Ms. Williams was convinced Queen's was where she would go. The school, which plays host to 22,000 students, became her home for four years. For someone attuned to a smaller community, it was a logical next step.
"A medium-sized university is just right for your undergrad," says Ms. Williams, who now studies law at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. "You get a lot of the benefits of larger schools – all of the sports teams, more class offerings than a smaller institution – but you also get the benefit of being part of a smaller, more intimate community."
Having since taken a master's degree in Toronto, Ms. Williams says she felt the most connected to her school at Queen's. Being located in Kingston, with many students living on or near campus, helps Queen's avoid a "commuter-school feel," she says. It's a community in and of itself.
The networks people build at the school tend to last well beyond graduation, too. "We have really active alumni branches," she says. "The alumni community there is something that's kind of envied."
Ms. Williams, who majored at Queen's in political science with a minor in gender studies, says the mid-sized school gave her more access to professors than she would have had at a megaschool in an urban centre. The quality of teaching, too, was great: "They attract a lot of wonderful professors who have a passion for teaching, as well as research."
The big school
Travis O'Farrell, McGill University Class of 2010
After commuting into Toronto from suburban Unionville, Ont., for high school, Travis O'Farrell swore he wouldn't let himself be stuck on transit for his whole university career. Still, he was drawn to the glow of big cities. So when he was picking which school he'd attend to study engineering, he decided on McGill.
It was the right school for him. Montreal still lives up to the legend of cheap rent – cheaper, at least, than Toronto, but with the same big-city amenities. He could live steps away from class, but still have access to all the culture and nightlife Montreal offered.
"It's a great balance of professional development and personal growth," Mr. O'Farrell says. "It's demanding, but there's still lots of time to have fun."
Some people worry that big-city schools can be impersonal, but Mr. O'Farrell, a Varsity rower and orientation leader, found it easy to fit into the city and campus through extracurriculars at McGill, a campus of 40,000. "It was a great way to meet people," he says.
The school's reputation precedes it – though The Simpsons once backhandedly called McGill the "Harvard of Canada," the joke was built on truth; it's regularly recognized on the world stage, and the Canadian one, too. "All the teachers are passionate," Mr. O'Farrell says. "Even though it's a research-focused school, the teachers really cared about the students. I found class really engaging."
Mr. O'Farrell, now an engineer in Vancouver, finds himself regularly surrounded by colleagues who studied at more obvious engineering focused schools, such as the University of Waterloo. Being from McGill, he says, got him a strong education from a less obvious school in his field. "It makes me stand out."
And a big-city school comes with big-city networks. Mr. O'Farrell moved to Vancouver earlier this year, and the first people he reached out to were McGill alumni. He found a built-in network of connections. "They're always willing to help," he says, and "always eager to meet other McGill folks."
The focused school
Katherine Soucie, Emily Carr University of Art and Design Class of 2009 (and 2013)
It took a little while for Katherine Soucie to wind up at Emily Carr. After studying fashion design in the 1990s, she worked in Toronto as a buyer in the textile industry. She eventually realized she wanted to learn how to dye and print her own fabric, and moved to Vancouver for a diploma at what was then Capilano College.
She stuck around Vancouver, and after running a studio there for five years, didn't anticipate taking another undergrad – but when she discovered that Emily Carr would let her turn her Capilano credits into a degree, she seized the opportunity to do textile research and development there.
Today, Ms. Soucie produces a line of sustainable textiles, buying waste materials and reusing them with a zero-waste approach. Not only did she get a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emily Carr – she also stuck around, earning a Master of Applied Arts degree, too. The Vancouver visual-arts and design school served as a crucial inspiration, incubator and resource for her textile work.
"When you're going to a university that completely encompasses all aspects of art and design, you're in an environment where you never know what might inspire you," she says. "It becomes an environment that encompasses all forms of creativity."
Emily Carr's research department is "massive," Ms. Soucie says, keeping the institution dynamic. It also partners with industry in both art and design, and its faculty regularly receives grants that allow students – including undergrads – to do cutting-edge research in both the art and design worlds, giving them great experience.
By going to the small, focused school of 1,800, Ms. Soucie had access to resources she wouldn't have had otherwise, while being able to independently focus on her textile research. "It allows you to think and question and contemplate, but at the same time it motivates you to develop your voice as an artist in Canada," she says. "You're allowed a certain amount of freedom that not all universities allow you to have."