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As a college professor, and mom of post-secondary aged kids,  I encounter many high-school students struggling to navigate the post secondary system...

High-school Guidance Counselors are stretched pretty thin, and trying to find information on one's own can be very overwhelming.

Steve Carell's character in The Office asked to have things explained to him ‘like I’m an eight-year-old’.  I find stating the obvious and starting from scratch can be pretty obvious for some, but very beneficial for others. There are exceptions to the rules, but here is a general overview.
  • Post-secondary 
    •  ‘After high-school’ - referring to college or university
  • Undergraduate
    • A student coming into college or university with no previous post-secondary education. i.e. right from high school
  • Credential
    • What you have been awarded after completing your studies
      • College Credentials
        • Diploma (2-3 years) /Degree (4 years) /Certificate (1 year)
      • University Credentials
        • Degree (4 + years)/Masters (additional 1-2 years) /PhD (additional 5-7 years)
  • Registrar 
    • The ‘Guidance Counselor’ at the College / University. The nucleus - your friend - the ones who get 'bums in seats'.
  • Prerequisite
    • The courses required to qualify for a post-secondary program. i.e. high-school physics is a prerequisite for the game design program at Humber college
  • How to apply
    • Ontario Colleges
      • The website you visit to apply for a college program
      • Pay a fee and apply at up to 5 different colleges ( or up to 3 programs at the same college)
    • Ontario Universities
      • The website to apply for a university program
      • Pay a fee and apply at up to 3 different universities
  • OSAP (Ontario Student Assistance Program)
    • Government student loans for education you need to pay back
  • Scholarships
    • Private or sponsored student grants and bursaries for education you do not have to pay back
College and University - what’s the difference?
"You go to university to get an education; you go to college to get a job"  say colleges everywhere.
University offers:
  • Continuing education in a specific area of study - and the student would specialize (declare a ‘major’) in an area of that study.
  • University - for the most part - is more theory (studying about the area) than applied (practicing and applying the knowledge in the area).
  • Students leave with a Degree (aka Bachelors) and can pursue additional education - like a Masters or a Doctorate/PhD.

College offers:

  • Continuing education that is mostly laser focused on a specific vocation.
  • College - for the most part - is more about practicing and applying knowledge - rather than reading about it.
    • Example: You might go to University to study Criminology. You attend college to study and practice Policing.
What is right for the student?
  • University considerations
    • The student:
      • Thrives in an academic setting.
      • Enjoys learning and studying.
      • Likes challenges and is a critical thinker.
      • Competent with self-directed tasks.
      • No rush to get out in the working world right away.
  • College considerations
    • The student:
      • Thrives in a practical setting
      • Enjoys learning that is more 'doing' and 'applying'.
      • Has a specific career or occupation interest.
      • Wants a less expensive education
      • Would like to complete post-secondary sooner than later.
What if the student wants to go to post-secondary, but has no idea what to study?
  • Reflect:
    • What subjects in school do you enjoy?
    • What activities or hobbies are you interested in?
    • What doesn’t feel like work to you?
    • What areas do you get great feedback in?
    • What do you find yourself reading or following?
    • What comes naturally to you?

There are credentials offered for every single one of those things you thought of. Google it!


  • Typology testing
    • Offers help in identifying what career you may thrive in.
    • Example:  HumanMetrics 
  • Job Statistics
  • Talk it over
    • ... with a  Guidance Counselor / teacher / coach / parent / guardian / someone who is currently practicing the career you are interested in.
  • Take a Degree with an undeclared major in University
    • General studies to get you introduced to options (reach out to the Universities for specific options they offer)
  • Take a 1-year foundational program in College
    • Many colleges offer a 1 year certificate program -that offers foundational studies in a specific area like media, technology, trades etc.
Good to know
  • You can start in one course, or institution - and transfer to another.
  • Some of those completed courses may be used as transfer credits to another program. (I.e. - English 1 at Brock in semester one could get you exempt for English 1 at Waterloo if you’re switching programs). Talk to specific institutions about their offerings.
  • If accepted at a university and college - and you are not ready to start the next year (Covid, finances, life) - you can ask to ‘defer’ your acceptance to the following year (also known as intake)
  • If you decide to take a year or two off before pursuing post-secondary, or decide to go back to school after a several years, you can apply as a ‘mature-student’.  Specific colleges and universities have their own policies, and may require you to take a placement test to make sure you are at college or university writing skills.
  • Make sure the University or College 'feels' right. Sounds silly - but some will resonate better with you than others. Trust that feeling.
Wrapping it up with a case study...
Once we narrowed down her potential interests and where she wanted to study (see above) - these next steps were suggested to a friend's daughter.  This is a model/guideline that can be altered and applied for your circumstance.
1. Contact the REGISTRAR in relation to the programs you are interested in. For example...
2. Look online for the following information specific to those choices...
  • navigating the choices
  • prerequisites
  • date to apply by
  • date of response
3. Potential conversation outline after looking online. I am a....
  • Grade 12 student, looking for additional guidance
  • Interested in (xxxx) program(s) - wondering if you can help me?
  • Not sure exactly what I want to do - can I defer a 'declared major' to 2nd year?
  • What do you suggest I take to ensure I am prepared for that major?
  • Are there specific dates I need to be aware of?
  • Any other information I should know?
  • Then apply!
  • And remember - you don't have to marry (accept) the first one that accepts you - wait until the deadline to accept approaches - before you commit to the University. Just make sure you are aware of all the dates (acceptance, deposit, residence acceptance, etc.)
I hope this helps! Good luck.