For a lot of teens, wrapping up high school is both an exciting and scary time. Amidst all the ceremonies and tearful goodbyes, there a number of unknowns and big questions tethering us to reality.
If you’re entering your upper years of high school, you might be wondering where you’re going to go, what you’re going to study, and of course, what a degree or diploma means for your career and your future. The process of choosing schools, applying and waiting to get in can be stressful and confusing, not gonna lie- but it isn’t unmanageable if you’re willing to put in the time and consideration now. If you think that post-secondary will be in your future, take into account these considerations:
- Consider Location
Going to school can be a lot like buying real estate: location location location. Do you want a large school that feels like its’ own community, or a smaller liberal arts college? Do you want to be in a location perfect for jump starting your career- like Palo Alto or Washington D.C.? Are you dying to live in a big city, or want to keep it close to home?
Ultimately, a lot of factors go into choosing a school- affordability, class size, program, even prestige- but it’s important not to forget about location as well. After all, you’re likely going to be living there for three to four years, and many students choose to pursue graduate studies or settle down and start a career in the place they got their undergrad. Where you live will play a big role in the next few years of your life. Also consider distance- you might feel totally ready to get out of your little town and meet a new group of friends, but don’t ignore the fact that students from all backgrounds experience homesickness or struggle to adjust- even if you’re super pumped to move on or you’re headed to your dream school, don’t assume that it won’t happen to you. It might be a smart idea to not go so far that you can’t visit home, and if you are travelling far, consider whether it’s a good idea to go somewhere where you have friends or relatives close to you- and you should be prepared for any major cultural adjustments, like learning the basics of a new language if your school is in a different country.
- University vs. College vs. Trade School
One of the biggest dilemmas students face is the choice of what type of post-secondary is right for them. A lot of students feel the pressure to go to university, but it’s not for everyone- and community college and vocational training can lead to fulfilling, exciting and high-paying jobs. University takes a more academic approach to learning- be prepared to attend lectures and seminars, and learn through reading, writing and analysis. Certain jobs and programs are only available through university, and most graduate and professional programs, like teacher’s college or medical school, require university education. Other graduates may not receive a degree that directly leads to a career, but offers connections and skills that can help them pursue their field- like business or fine arts degrees.
College, on the other hand, often takes on a more hands-on approach to learning- and often, each program is designed with a specific position in mind rather than simply learning about a particular field. Through community college, you can learn about everything from nursing to office administration to computer sciences to journalism. Certain colleges also offer degree programs or programs in collaboration with universities where you can earn both a diploma and degree for an extra edge.
Apprenticeship or vocational training often focuses on one trade- like carpentry or plumbing. If you enjoy physical labour, want to be your own boss and enjoy working with your hands, an apprenticeship might be right for you. After all, jobs in the trades are often high-paying, flexible and in demand. An added bonus: not only do you not have to stress over student loans, but you actually get paid to complete your apprenticeship.
Don’t write off any form of education simply because you have been raised to believe one is more “valid” than the other. Of course, some people couldn’t imagine working in the trades, and others would never want to sit in a crowded lecture. Some people might daydream about law school, others might be bound for the police academy. It’s all good- but it’s important to consider all your options and what fits best with your life.
- Make Your Safety School Count
We all don’t want to even think about what would happen if we got a rejection letter- but the sad reality is that schools are more competitive than ever, and with a constantly growing list of academic criteria, getting into your dream school may be harder than you think.
First and foremost, it’s important to be realistic about your application. If you’ve hardly gotten above a C in math, don’t reasonably expect your Calculus mark will boost your average, and if English has never been a stellar subject for you, be ready if you don’t do too well in that section of your SATs. Think about what grades you can actually manage while staying healthy and sane- and find schools that are within reach. Sure, you can always try to earn brownie points with a fantastic college essay, or hope that a doctor’s note could erase a couple of lackluster marks, but understand that you are not guaranteed a spot in your school of choice.
That being said, I have three tips for you. First: have a safety school. Your applications shouldn’t all be to Ivy Leagues and other top notch institutions- that’s just setting yourself up for months of anxiety and impatience, and possibly no place to go come September. Secondly, choose an actual safety school. If you have an B+ average, and your dream school is looking for an A average, your safety school shouldn’t be one looking for an A- average. It should be a school that you know will you accept you based on the criteria it is looking for- meaning you exceed their minimum criteria. For example: when I was in grade twelve, I applied to university early enough that they considered my grade eleven marks during the first round of acceptances. I had an 84 average in grade eleven, and I had an 86 average in grade twelve. One of the programs I applied to had a cut-off range that was somewhere between 82 and 88 percent, depending on the year. I did end up getting in, but even though my grades for both grade 11 and 12 were within their cut-off range, I shouldn’t have (and didn’t) consider that my safety school. Had I had an 89 average, I would have- because I knew my marks were above what they were asking for, regardless of how competitive that year’s applicant pool was. Finally, choose a school you actually like. Don’t just choose some random state colleges because you’re certain you’ll be heading to your dream school.
Many schools that lack the prestige of top tier, competitive schools often make up for it in a number of ways, from a great campus life, to generous scholarships to special programs that offer co-ops or internships that can give your resume a boost. As with the rest of the schools you apply to, choose somewhere you can see yourself living. It may be a crushing blow to only get into your safety- but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great four years. Also consider whether community college is a good back-up for you if you’re considering university- you might be surprised by the money you save and the ease of your future job hunts.
- Think About Programs
Of course, the school you go to matters. But a lot of students find themselves making a deadly mistake: they enter a general science or arts program without really considering what they want to study, and later find a perfect program that they either have to re-apply for or even transfer to. Think about which programs work best for you before starting university. That doesn’t mean going in with an undecided major isn’t a good choice- just know what fields you would be interested in studying, what first year courses you would have to take, and what marks you would have to get to move forward. Compare and contrast what it takes to get into each program. For example, if you apply to a Bachelor of Arts, you may find it hard or even possible to switch to a Bachelor of Journalism if you decide that’s what you really want.
Think about what each program offers you: are you able to get into it? Are there co-op or internship options that give you real-life experience? Is the program designed for a specific career or grad program? Will you have smaller classes and more hands-on learning?
Overall, think outside just the Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences box. Of course, you can find a ton of great programs and opportunities through those degrees, but don’t limit yourself to it simply because you didn’t do research beforehand. Is engineering your thing? Thinking of entering the medical field- have you thought about going into kinesiology or nutrition? What about journalism or marketing or animation or natural resources management or fashion merchandising or international relations? There are so many options out there for you- don’t just focus on finding the prettiest campus or coolest area, also think about what your about to dedicate the next few years of your life to. Trust me, it matters- and in my experience, how much you enjoy your program is often the biggest determining factor on whether or not you’ll finish your degree.
- Visit Campuses
For some, it may be pricey, but if possible, strongly consider visiting campuses. Get a feel for the place- can you picture yourself here? Is the neighbourhood somewhere you can see yourself living and hanging out with friends? Does it have a beautiful theatre or amazing labs? Would you want to live in the dorms? Does the campus seem to have a sense of community? Is it secluded from the city or town around it? Visiting a campus can answer these questions and more. Taking a tour or visiting an open house can also be one of the most effective ways to get accurate information about the school, as you can talk to students and professors alike about their firsthand experiences.
Something that looked great in the viewbook may feel weird or different in person, or a school you overlooked may seem like a truly great place after you give it a shot. The only way to find out is to live there- and if you’re a high schooler, a campus visit is the closest you can get.
- Know Exactly What You Need To Get In
Memorize the requirements to get into the program. What marks will you need? What high school courses will you need to take? Do you need to take any tests, like the SATs? What scores are they looking for? Will you need to audition, submit a portfolio, do an interview, write an essay? If you don’t choose a major until second year, what university marks will you need to get the major you want?
Know exactly what you need, and when deadlines are. Before you apply. It will save you so much stress in the long run.
- Make Use of University Fairs
At some point in early autumn, most high schools will host a university fair- and if you don’t have one at your school, a quick Google search can likely find one somewhere nearby. Yes, going to a university fair is kind of like listening to a dozen 90-second commercials, except it’s real-life and a lady who keeps shoving viewbooks and flyers into your hands and asking you if you have any questions. But it’s also very helpful for anyone considering university.
First and foremost, you can get free viewbooks, which are full of relevant information, from programs to clubs to admission requirements to deadlines. But you can also ask questions in person to someone who often attended the school themselves. If you don’t know what to ask, here are a few questions that could get you started: what I would I need to get into _____ program? How does on campus living work- what are the room styles and meal plans available? What international study options does this school offer? Are there any online courses or field studies I could do in the summer?
- Make Use of The Internet
If you absolutely can’t make a tour or fair, the Internet is your best bet for answers. University websites can be notoriously hard to navigate, but they often have a tab for “future students” or applicants. Here, you can often find a wide range of information that usually includes a listing of academic programs, admission requirements and deadlines, and cherry-picked statistics to compel you to apply. You can also check out the website for each specific department to see available courses, famous alumni and upcoming events and clubs, and check out a website for the school’s residence association- this can help you clear up any questions you may have regarding living on campus during your first year.
- Don’t Base It On Your Friends, Partner or Parents
This is the hardest one to follow. University is about you. It’s your future, your four years, your hard work, and often, your money. You need to focus on where you want to live, what you want to study, and eventually what you want to do. But the truth is, there is a lot of pressure from the people in your life.
Your parents might be pressuring you to enter a field they deem “valid” and “worthwhile”, or want you to go to a specific school. They may even want to convince you to stay as close to home as possible. Your friends, too, may influence you to stay close to home, even if not on purpose- or you may be tempted to follow them to their schools so you know you won’t be lonely. And, if you find yourself in a relationship, there’s always the question of whether you and your partner should follow each other, try and make long-distance work, or call it quits. All of this is healthy and normal- the people in your life are an important part of who you are, and it makes sense that they are factored into your decision-making. But don’t let this important (and expensive choice!) be based around them.
Think about what your parents want- but don’t let them stop you from a fulfilling, enjoyable career in a field you love because they don’t find it a legitimate career path. If you and your best friend have the exact same dream school, go for it- but don’t choose a school simply to be close to them. Yes, it will be hard leaving them, but you can still keep your close friends (and make a bunch of new ones!) without being at the same school. If anything, it could add a damper on your relationship if you go to the same school. Starting university is so nerve-wracking that it’s easy to want to cling to the familiar- which could mean clinging to your best friend, which could put a strain on the friendship.
As for the partner thing- these conversations are hard. Long-distance is challenging and a bummer, but don’t listen to the people who will tell you it never works out. Every relationship is different and there is no “never”- what makes someone else miserable could actually improve someone else’s love life. Breaking up is never easy, especially if it’s because of school and not because you no longer feel a connection- but making the choice to base your future plans around your high school sweetheart can be more disastrous than long distance, a break, or a full blown break-up. Not only could it lead to you feeling unhappy with every aspect of your life, from your program to your location to your social life, but it can put a serious strain on the relationship. What happens far too often is at least one person becomes unhappy because they compromised rather than went where they truly wanted to go, and that turns into resentment for the other person- and it’s far easier to break things off amicably at a distance than to resent each other close by. So, in short, do want you want to do with your life, and the people that are truly meant to be in it will still be there after the adjustment.
- Consider Your Long Term Goals
For a lot of students, this means consider your career, but let’s be honest, not every 17-year-old knows what they want to do. Some of you will end up in a job you haven’t even heard of yet, and that’s okay.
When choosing a school, consider what you want for your life in the long term. If you know you want to be a nurse or an engineer, that’s awesome. Chase that. But if you don’t, think of the other things you want in life- do you love studying the sciences, or have a passion for languages? Even if a career in the subject you study isn’t in the cards for you, you can often make connections and learn skills that will help you wherever you do end up. Do you want to live in Manhattan, or the California coast, or London or your small town? Think about where you want to be in the next five to ten years- even if your degree doesn’t directly lead you there, it can open up the door. What door would you take to get there?