It’s one of the biggest questions a student has to answer in their senior years of high school: Where do I go after this? Choosing a college or university isn’t just a matter of selecting an institution; it’s a time for reflection too. As you say goodbye to high school, you reflect on what you want for your future and what you value in an education. You do not have to know what you want to be when you grow up, but it’s smart to set yourself up for success – whatever that success may look like.
In the spirit of support, we at OES are devoting this blog article to choosing a college or university. January is right around the corner, marking the last half-year before grade 12 students toss up their (virtual) graduation caps. The new year is also a critical time in university applications: the OUAC deadline for completed applications is January 13th, having recently opened in late October/November. Similarly, OCAS’ “Equal Consideration Date” is coming up on February 1st.
As you enjoy a much-needed holiday from schoolwork this December, carve out some time to think about post-secondary education. We would first like to refer you to our article on OUAC and OCAS applications, in which you will find concrete information on applying to colleges and universities in Ontario. Next, check out our article on university vs. college to determine which type of post-secondary education works best for you.
Finally, we invite you to read our guide below. In it, we list key considerations to make when choosing a university program or college program, followed by an (admittedly incomplete) list of popular universities and colleges in Ontario.
You’re almost at the high school finish line! Let us help you secure a spot at a post-secondary institution that fits your ambitions, personality and needs.
What to Consider When Choosing a College or University
Some students know exactly where they want to be after high school – they want to go where their friends are going or where their parents went. But those students are usually in the minority. Most young people we speak to don’t really know which university or college they want to attend. And that’s okay.
In this section, let’s cycle through a few considerations. Think of these as “idea sparks” to help you narrow down your longlist of schools into a neat personal shortlist.
Your Preferred Program
Where post-secondary schools are concerned, academics should be your primary priority. You want to attend a school that offers programs aligned with your interests.
Let’s say you really want to pursue journalism – to write for a prominent Canadian newspaper or radio program. In that case, you would research which schools offer journalism programs (BJourn or Bachelor of Journalism degrees). Moreover, you want to research the best journalism programs in Canada. Your research should lead you to a shortlist of schools.
You can follow the same procedure for any interest. Research particular science, fine arts and humanities programs, etc., to determine which schools square up with your ambitions and interests. If you are concerned that your grade averages do not match the program of your choice, consider upgrading high school courses online through an accredited online high school like OES.
Customs, Values and Reputation
Next, consider the university or college “culture.” Culture is a grab-bag term that describes the customs, values and reputation of a school.
Ask yourself, do you want a school that values diversity and activism? A school steeped in old traditions and rituals? A school famous for its scenic campus? A school with a reputation for athletic excellence? A school notorious for its party atmosphere? (That last one probably shouldn’t be a serious consideration).
As much as you want a post-secondary institution to be a good academic fit, you also want it to be a good cultural fit. After all, you’ll be spending (at least) two to four years there. Take some time to determine what you value in a school culture.
Location, Location, Location
A popular criterium for many incoming university or college students is location. Some students feel drawn to the bright lights of a big city, while others feel that a serene setting is more conducive to academic focus. There’s no right answer here!
Whatever location you choose, ensure that the proximity and situation of the school fit your lifestyle. Ideally, you want a campus with amenities in the vicinity (as most do) or one connected to amenities via transit lines.
Ask yourself: Where do you want to live? College or university represents the first foray away from the family home for many students, so choose wisely!
The Campus “Vibe”
There’s something to be said for a beautiful campus. If able, tour a few campuses before making your final decision. Colleges and universities offer campus tours to prospective students (which can either be in-person or virtual these days), in which you can evaluate the surroundings, take in the scenery and even sample some food at the cafeteria!
Cost of Tuition and Living
Understandably, financing plays a significant role in many students’ post-secondary choice. Not only will tuition cost money, but so will accommodation, food, entertainment and textbooks.
If you haven’t already, consider tallying your likely “income” for university or college. This includes saved money, family contributions, scholarships and bursaries, lines of credit or loans, and any income from an ongoing part-time job.
Once you have a rough idea of what you can afford, compare that figure against your longlist of schools. Remember: the cost of living is often higher in large cities, so be sure to factor that into your deliberations.
Food and Fitness
It might come as a surprise, but cafeteria food should be more than just a passing consideration.
Most students spend their entire lives eating home-cooked meals around the dinner table. Then, suddenly, at post-secondary school, the campus cafeteria and quad food court fill that role. Tasty, healthy food can be a significant part of your overall university experience, so we recommend doing some light research into campus offerings. For reference, this Huffington Post article lists the 10 Canadian universities with the best food.
Likewise, consider the fitness amenities on-campus: Do they have a good gym, a well-kept track, and other extracurricular exercise opportunities?
Exploring Ontario’s Top Colleges and Universities
Before we delve into specific institutions, let’s quickly recap our list of considerations, this time rephrased as questions to ask yourself:
- Academics: Does your school of choice have programs that align with your interests?
- Culture: Do the school’s values, reputation, and ethos speak to you on a human level?
- Location: Where do you want to live?
- Vibe: Is the campus of your choice aesthetically pleasing?
- Financing: Can you afford to study and live at the school of your choice?
- Amenities: Do the on-campus amenities, like food and fitness options, inspire confidence?
Keep these questions in mind as you peruse the list of popular colleges and universities below. Remember, too: this is not an exhaustive list. It’s merely a cross-section of post-secondary schools here in Ontario, intended to familiarize you with some options. For complete lists, visit this Ontario Colleges page and this Ontario universities page.
University of Toronto
A recurring favourite on lists of the top universities in Ontario, UofT is a prized university offering a diverse array of programs. Situated in downtown Toronto, the campus – and its surrounding area – is bustling and buzzing. However, you can still find quiet spots on the large campus to read and study.
Programs at UofT tend to be competitive, so skim through our article on writing university and college application essays before submitting!
Toronto is also home to York University, which sits just north of the dense downtown core. According to their website, York is best known for its “cross-disciplinary programming, innovative course design and experiential education opportunities.” In MacLean’s assessment of the university, they highlight its world-class law, business and fine arts programs.
University of Waterloo
Further afield from Toronto – a roughly two-hour drive – you will find the sunny, green campus of the University of Waterloo. Located in Kitchener, a mid-sized city of about 230,000, the University of Waterloo offers a pleasant middle-ground between big-city excitement and small-town charm. In the recently released 2022 rankings, Waterloo ranked first in Canada for innovation and third for “best overall” university (with top spot going to UofT).
Nestled right next to the Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, you will find McMaster University. Its engineering programs rank among the best in the world: civil engineering, computer science and engineering, metallurgical engineering, etc. And its science programs and research are similarly recognized for their excellence.
One of Ontario’s oldest universities, Queen’s is situated in the beautiful city of Kingston. The university wears its age well, with stunning stone buildings, galleries and student lodgings. It is well-known for its medical programs and business programs, and, in 2020, Queen’s placed fifth in Canada for graduate employability rankings.
University of Ottawa
The country’s capital is home to the prestigious University of Ottawa, the largest bilingual university in the world. The University of Ottawa is renowned for its health and medicine programs, French programs, and its focus on social justice. But the school offers far more than those subjects: 450 programs, to be specific, ranging from science to fine arts. Notably, its robust co-op program enjoys a 96% placement rate.
To ensure a spot at a University of Ottawa program – or any of the universities mentioned above – make sure you have the right prerequisites. Check their website for more information. If you are missing a prerequisite, explore OES’s selection of high school courses to complete your required courses before the next deadline.
We pivot now to colleges. First on our list is Toronto’s Humber College, which boasts two campuses orbiting the downtown core. The college offers several unique, niche programs, like fashion management, film and media production, paralegal studies, interior design, journalism and creative advertising. Most programs feature a built-in co-op or field placement element, making the college a formidable choice for students whose eyes are on the job market.
The main campus of Algonquin College is located in Ottawa; however, the school also has campuses in Pembroke and Perth in Eastern Ontario. In each location, you’ll find impressive modern architecture in lush surroundings. They offer relatively few bachelor’s degree programs, but their impressive roster of college certificate programs more than makes up for it. If you have a clear idea of what job you want after post-secondary school, chances are you’ll find a program suited to your ambitions here.
Notably, Algonquin is also listed as the least expensive college for international students.
In London, Ontario, you can find Fanshawe College. (The city is also home to Western University, which could have easily made this list). Fanshawe is up-front about its focus on “real-world career training,” offering over 200 post-secondary certificate, degree and graduate programs. With a campus of over 40,000 students, it’s also one of the larger colleges, playing host to several interest clubs, social groups and networking opportunities. Their popular programs include Early Childhood Education, Computer Programming and Accounting.
The first (and only) entry on our list from Northern Ontario is Timmins’ wonderful Northern College. If you can withstand particularly frigid winters, Northern College has a lot to offer. The sprawling, multi-campus school stretches out through the scenic Northern wilderness. They offer several degrees catered to various interests (though not as many as the colleges above, it seems). And they seem particularly welcoming of international students.
Remember, the colleges and universities listed above represent only a cross-section of available post-secondary schools in Ontario. And we haven’t even touched on schools in other provinces!
With any luck, our exploration of key considerations and popular schools has got you thinking about your education after OES. Keep an eye on those January/February deadlines, and best of luck getting into your dream school!