We asked current students - many of whom were the first in their family to attend university or college - for a listing of words and information that they wished they had known before they started. Here are their suggestions:
In many ways, a university is really like a collection of “fields of study” or subjects, which are grouped together based on some sort of common interest– for example, many universities will have a Faculty of Arts and Science, a School of Medicine, or a Faculty of Applied Science. Within these faculties, there may be different programs or departments, as in the case of a faculty like the Faculty of Arts and Science, which may include departments like History or Chemistry, or programs like Medieval Studies or Life Sciences. Usually, students applying from high school will apply to the faculty or school, not to the department. This allows you to be a bit more flexible because you don’t necessarily have to know exactly what you want to study when you are applying. To make this a little clearer:
Universities offer both graduate and undergraduate programs. Essentially, undergraduate programs are those programs that usually lead to a “Bachelor’s” degree and are usually the programs that students will study right after high school – for example, Nursing, Engineering, Arts and Science (e.g. English, Development Studies, Physics). Graduate programs are degrees – Master’s or Ph.D programs – which students can go on to after they have completed their first degree. Some programs, like Law or Medicine, also require that you study in an undergraduate program for at least a few years before you can apply.
This is usually the first degree that you will study after high school, for example, a Bachelor of Kinesiology or a Bachelor of Music. Sometimes you will also see the term “Baccalaureate degree”, which is, in many cases, used interchangeably with “Bachelor’s degree.” Sometimes you will see abbreviations like “BA” (Bachelor of Arts) or “BEng” (Bachelor of Engineering).
You will often see this attached to a Bachelor’s degree, as in the case of a “Bachelor of Arts Honours.” An Honours degree is essentially a four year degree, often with more specific or intensive courses in your fourth year. Most degrees that you will study now are four year Honours degrees (when you apply, you may automatically be enrolled in an Honours degree program), though you may find that some universities offer a three year degree, which may be called a general degree. You can often change from one to the other later, so don’t hesitate to ask your university about the difference and how to change.
Each course that you study at university has a specific credit weighting, which is based on the amount of time that you will spend in that course; for example, at Queen’s, a full-credit (or 1.0) course will last an entire school year, from September to April. A half-credit (or 0.5) course will last a semester. You will likely need a certain number of total credits to graduate, for example 19 or 20 credits. You will take a specific total number of credits each year – at Queen’s, 5.0 credits – so each year you may take some 1.0 credits, as well as some 0.5 credits so that the total amount at the end of the year equals a specific amount. This will vary a little from university to university, so don’t hesitate to ask a university representative (it’s not a silly question).
When you are studying at university, you will not just be studying in your program. Almost all programs will allow you to take some “electives” each year, which are courses that are from outside of your specific program. For example, if you are studying Commerce, you can still take a course in Biology, even though Biology is not your specific program. Sometimes there are rules about which courses you can take as an elective, such as if you can take courses from another faculty or whether you have to stay within your faculty. You will usually choose electives at the same time that you are choosing your courses for first year. When you’re choosing courses for first year, sometimes your university or faculty will want you to take specific courses (e.g. Everyone at University X must take a writing course or everyone in Engineering Faculty X must take Chemistry, Physics, Math, and Computing in first year), but sometimes you will design your entire first year based on your own interests.
All of these refer to the number of courses that are from a particular department. If you “major” in a particular department, that means that the majority of your courses are from that specific department (e.g. a major in French). Medials are sometimes called a double-major and that means that the majority of your courses are from two specific areas (e.g. a medial in French and Spanish). A minor is usually – though not always – done with a major and it simply means that aside from your major, you’ve taken several courses from another area (e.g. the majority of your courses are in French, but you’ve also taken several courses in Japanese). A specialization usually refers to a program that borrows courses from several different departments, such as a program like Canadian Studies, in which you might take courses from Economics, History, and Politics – it means that you are essentially taking courses that all have a similar theme (e.g. Canada). A good question to ask is how/when you need to choose a major/minor/medial/specialization.
These are simply the different formats in which you may take classes. A seminar usually involves a small group of students and a professor; you will generally prepare readings for the class and during the class, you will discuss them as a group. Labs generally take place in the Sciences, but also in Music, Drama, Film, and Fine Art. In labs, you are usually “doing” something, like an experiment or a project. Lectures are probably what you think of when you think of university – usually the professor stands at the front of the room and talks about a specific topic. Sometimes these will be large (e.g. 100 or even 500+ students!), but they can also be very small (e.g. 30 students). Even within large classes, students are broken into smaller groups, often called tutorials, where you can speak to professors and teaching assistants in small groups, go over assignments and material, and prepare for exams.
Your classes will more than likely be taught by full professors, that is, someone who has finished his or her PhD; however, sometimes they will have assistants helping them in class or leading tutorials. These TAs are usually graduate students and they often have office hours – the same as professors – when you can stop by and ask them questions.
These are all examples of standardized tests that some universities require specific students to write. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing (ACT) are usually associated with students studying in the US, so you likely won’t write them unless you are attending high school in the US or if you are going to go to a university in the US. Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) is an example of a test of proficiency in English. There are a couple of different tests, but TOEFL is very common. You may need to write a test of proficiency in English if you have not been attending an English language school or living in an English speaking country. Each institution varies on their policy on this, so again, don’t hesitate to ask us about it.
IB is an abbreviation for the International Baccalaureate program, which is a specific curriculum that some students study in Ontario and around the world. (To put things in perspective, if you are attending high school in Ontario and you are not studying the IB program, you are likely studying the Ontario curriculum.) AP is an abbreviation for the Advanced Placement program, which is a series of exams that students write that involve more detailed study. Sometimes universities will offer “transfer credits” (i.e. universities will give you the equivalent of a first year course) for IB and AP results.
All of the universities in Ontario have a common application centre, which means that you do not send in documents and an application form to each university. Note that this only applies for universities within Ontario – universities in other provinces have a different process. With the OUAC, you can apply to multiple universities and programs on the same form. The OUAC doesn’t make any decisions about your application, but they pass on your information to your respective university choices. Your high school will help you with this, but their website is www.ouac.on.ca. The OUAC also offers an information website for students who are applying: www.electronicinfo.ca.
Some university programs contain co-op or internship elements that integrate academic study and real world experience. Sometimes the co-op period is found at the end of the program. Other times students alternate back and forth between an academic term and a co-op term for a number of years.
Once you’ve graduated from your university, you will become an alumni of that institution (masculine, singular = alumnus; feminine, singular = alumna). Often alumni who live in your area will offer tips and orientation sessions before your school year begins.
Most universities offer some sort of residence for students. Living in residence is often a really good way to meet people and to fully experience university because you’re often living right on campus. Also, if you’re moving away from home, often living in residence is less expensive and easier than trying to find your own place to live. Residences might be dorm style (the rooms are on one side of the hallway and washroom facilities are on the other side or at the end of the hallway, you might have a roommate, though not always), suite style (a couple of rooms might be attached by a common kitchen and/or washroom space), or apartment style (common space, kitchen space – like a mini-apartment). Residences often come set up with telephone and internet, as well as access to upper year students or advisors (sometimes called “dons” or “Resident Advisors” or “RAs”) who can offer support and assistance to make the transition easier. All this having been said, most universities will also offer ways for students who are not living in residence to stay involved and to make sure that they have access to support and advisors. You will often hear schools described as “residential” or “commuter” campuses – the former means that most of the students who attend the school live in residence and might not be from the area; the latter means that many students will drive back and forth to attend school. A good question to ask: what resources exist in your residences? What comes with the room? If I’m not living in residence, what resources exist for off-campus housing and student support?
Some residences come with a meal plan and sometimes there are meal plans for those not living in residence. Meal plans will vary a lot by institution to institution – some are all-you-can-eat; some allow you to buy food from restaurants and fast food restaurants like Pizza Pizza or Tim Horton’s; some have set hours of operation; etc. – so don’t hesitate to ask how the meal plan works. Also, don’t hesitate to let your university know if you have any dietary restrictions!
This is a publication, put out by each individual university, that gives prospective students a sense of what the school has to offer. The viewbook is usually filled with details on the academic programs, extra-curricular activities and the community spirit associated with the particular institution, and serves as a comprehensive overview of the university from an undergraduate perspective.
In addition to your high school grades, universities will often ask you to submit a supplementary essay with your application. The supplementary essay or Personal Statement of Experience will often ask you to elaborate on the information your marks don’t reveal, such as extra-curricular interests and activities, leadership skills, and time management. Depending on the university and program to which you’re applying, you may have to write one or two of these essays, and requirements differ from institution to institution, so speak with your guidance counselor and check the university website to find out more.