Choosing the Right Path

How to choose the right path for post-secondary education

Secondary Education in Ontario

High School

Education in Canada falls under provincial jurisdiction, which means that each of the 10 Canadian provinces and three territories have their own education regulations and curriculum.

Generally speaking, Ontario’s education system has three stages:

  1. Elementary (sometimes called primary school)
  2. Secondary (also called high school)
  3. Post-secondary (university, college, apprenticeships)

Secondary school (or high school) normally consists of Grades 9 through 12.

During high school, students take courses that prepare them for higher level, post-secondary education. For example, in Ontario, “U” courses prepare students for university studies while “C” courses prepare students for studies in a college of applied arts and technology, commonly referred to as “community colleges”.

Typically, students start taking U or C classes in Grade 11 and into Grade 12. The marks they earn in these courses determine whether or not they will be able to enter a post-secondary institution or program.

Normally, students apply to the university or college of their choice in the fall/winter of Grade 12.

Sample of courses for entry into degree-level programs:

  • ENG4U - English
  • MCV4U - Calculus & Vectors
  • CGW4U - World Issues
  • HHG4U - Human Growth & Development
  • SCH4U - Chemistry
  • BAT4M - Accounting

Sample of courses for entry into diploma, certificate or applied programs:

  • ENG4C - English
  • MCT - Math for College Technology
  • CGU4C - World Geography
  • HHS4M - Individuals & Families
  • PLF4C - Recreation & Fitness Leadership
  • TCJ4C - Construction Technology

Options after completing high school

Students have several options after completing high school:

  • University
  • Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATs or community colleges)
  • Apprenticeship
  • Private Career Colleges

These options differ from each other in the types of programs they offer and the credentials a student will earn upon completion. This is important to know because different career paths may require specific credentials.

Unlike elementary school and high school, students are not required to attend a university, college or apprenticeship program, but in today’s highly-demanding job market, further education or training after high school is common-place.

Universities are institutions that place emphasis not only on teaching, but research as well. Many university professors conduct their own research and publish academic papers in addition to teaching classes.

Students entering universities from high school enrol in a program at the undergraduate level and earn a Bachelor’s degree upon graduation (for example, a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Commerce). A Bachelor’s degree normally requires three to four years of full-time study to complete.

After earning a Bachelor’s degree, students may choose to continue their university education at the graduate level. Graduate studies can involve earning a Master’s degree (for example, a Master of Arts or Master of Science) or a Doctorate (for example, a PhD - Doctor of Philosophy).

You can learn about Ontario universities and their affiliates at On this website, you can search, research and compare programs, scholarships, residences, experiential learning, as well as many other aspects of university life.

Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology (CAATS)
Colleges of applied arts and technology (CAATs) are institutions that focus not only academic learning, but also on skills training. Generally speaking, university programs take more of a theoretical approach to learning while CAAT programs involve more practical, or hands-on, methods. College instructors often have current or recent work experience in the field they teach.

CAATs offer certificate programs (usually one year of study or less), diploma programs (usually two to three years of study), and applied degrees leading to a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Some universities and CAATs offer joint programs where students get both a university degree and a college diploma.

Many universities and CAATs have more than one campus so students can study in different locations. Most have on-campus housing for students who do not live nearby. Some universities and CAATs offer distance education (sometimes called correspondence) so students can earn course credits without leaving home.

You can learn more about all 28 of the Ontario Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology at On this website, you can search, research and compare programs, review career expectations of particular programs and areas of study, as well as apply to Ontario colleges.

An apprenticeship program involves work-based training for students who want a career in a skilled trade. Examples of skilled trades include: auto mechanic, carpenter, chef, electrician, hairstylist, painter, plumber, and welder. With apprenticeships, experienced tradespersons pass their knowledge and skills onto the apprentice.

Apprentices receive formal classroom training to compliment their paid, on-the-job training. Most apprenticeships in Canada run between two and five years, over which time the apprentice must complete a list of certain work-related tasks. The apprentice must then pass a provincial qualification exam to earn a Certificate of Qualification, which is required to work in some skilled trades.

Each province and territory in Canada manages its own apprenticeship programs, however the Canadian federal government established the Interprovincial Standards Red Seal Program to standardize trade certification requirements. This gives skilled trades-people across the country the ability to work in any province or territory.

Private Career Colleges
There are also private career colleges in Canada that offer training geared toward a specific career (also known as vocational training). Private career colleges vary from CAATs in that they are private organizations that are not funded by the government. Private career college classes may be more intensive, more expensive, run over a shorter period of time and may offer smaller class sizes.

The Fifth Option
There is, of course, another choice and that is not to choose any of the first four options.

Many students do not enter college, university or apprenticeship programs right after they graduate from high school. Some work, perhaps in a family business, while others travel. Some go back to high school to take an additional course or two. And, yes, some simply take the year off “to find themselves,” which may be a particularly frustrating choice for parents.

Whatever the situation, today’s students have a number of reasons to postpone furthering their education, choosing to enter only when they feel ready. This is not uncommon and can in fact be beneficial in the end. If they aren’t ready, then chances are, it will be difficult for them to do well and succeed.

Professional Programs

A professional program is a program of advanced learning that leads to an occupation — such as doctor, lawyer, pharmacist — governed by a mandatory regulatory body. Practicing members of the profession must complete a licensing exam before they can actively practice and must keep their credentials current, through additional education mandated by the regulatory body.  

There are some professional programs that students can enter directly from high school, but there are many where some university undergraduate preparation is necessary. In some cases, there are multiple choices of pathways a student can pursue. It is also important to know that not all of these programs are available at all universities and that competition for entry is intense. Research and consider many different programs as alternatives to your first choices.

Some examples of professional programs include:

Program Undergraduate Entry Available Entry After Some Undergraduate Work
Architecture Yes Yes
Chiropractic Medicine   Yes
Dentistry   Yes
Education Yes Yes
Engineering Yes  
Law   Yes
Massage Therapy Yes Yes
Medicine   Yes
Midwifery Yes  
Nursing Yes Yes
Occupational Therapy   Yes
Optometry   Yes
Pharmacy   Yes
Physiotherapy   Yes
Speech Language Pathology/Audiology   Yes
Social Work Yes Yes
Veterinary Medicine   Yes

Many of these particular areas of study also require standardized aptitude tests for admissions in addition to stringent academic requirements. Check the admission requirements carefully for each school you are preparing to apply to.  Some of these tests include:

  • DAT – Dental Admissions Test
  • GMAT – Graduate Management Admission Test
  • GRE – Graduate Record Exam
  • LSAT – Law Schools Admissions Test
  • MCAT – Medical College Admissions Test
  • OAT – Optometry Admissions Test
  • PCAT – Pharmacy College Admissions Test

It is important to carefully explore the requirements of professional programs early ­— even before applying to an undergraduate program — to ensure that you will meet the admission requirements.  Remember — program requirements vary by institution, and can change each year.

Graduate Programs
Graduate studies programs (i.e. Master of Arts, PHd, Master of Business Administration) require students to first obtain and undegraduate bachelor’s degree before they can be admitted. Aside from the professional programs already listed above, there are endless possibilities for post-graduate work as well.  Universities in Canada and throughout the world offer Masters and Doctorate degrees among other available types of post-graduate credentials.  Many students may not even realize that they wish to pursue this level of education until they near the end of their undergraduate work or even much later in life while already involved in their careers.  Each person’s pathway will be different.

Which path is the right path?

In deciding whether to choose a university, college or apprenticeship program, students should ask themselves some basic questions:

  • What kinds of things do I see myself doing in the future?
  • What do I enjoy studying?
  • What am I good at?
  • Am I best suited for a theoretical/research intensive program, or is a combination of practical training and theory more suitable?

It is common for many high school students not to know exactly what they want to do after they graduate, and many more change their minds once they have enrolled in a post-secondary program.

It is also common, for a variety of personal, social and cultural reasons, for parents to set certain professional goals for their children. However, these goals can sometimes conflict with the academic strengths (or interests) of their son or daughter.

Research has shown that students who choose to study in a subject area that they enjoy and excel at, do very well. Not surprisingly, those who enrol in a program for which they are not well-suited, do not do well. In other words, a student who does very well in creative writing and loves English, for example, probably should not pursue a degree in the Life Sciences. Similarly, if a student is gifted in the fine and visual arts, he or she should study these and not repeat high school Calculus courses several times in an attempt to get into a Commerce program.

One of the key goals to pursuing a higher education is, quite simply, to succeed. The rewards that result from a highly-successful degree or training program experience are tremendous. Conversely, the impact of poor grades and/or an incomplete program upon a student can be quite profound.

Flexibility, patience, understanding and support of your son or daughter while they undergo their postsecondary education or training program is extremely important to their success.

College or University? There’s a choice.
There are many areas of study that are available through both the college and university systems, and each provides its own unique preparation for careers in areas such as medicine, architecture, accounting, dentistry, engineering and nursing. Entry into these programs depends upon a number of factors, including the student’s area of interest, his or her academic ability, the number of years that can be devoted to a program and financial resources.
Some examples of these types of programs include:

Area of study Examples of College Diplomas/Certificates Examples of University Degrees
Accounting Various Diplomas/Advanced
Diplomas in Accounting
Bachelor of Commerce (BCom)
Architecture/Landscape Design Architectural Technician
Architectural Technology
Bachelor of Arts in Architecture (BAAR, BA)
Masters of Architecture (MArch)
Masters of Architectural Science (MAsc)
Business Administration Various Diplomas or Applied Degrees Bachelor of Arts/Science (BA, BSc)
Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
Early Childhood Education Early Childhood Education
Child and Youth Worker
Graduate Certificates
Bachelor of Applied Science (BASc)
Bachelor of Arts (BA)
Engineering Various Diplomas or Applied Degrees Bachelor of Engineering (BEng)
Bachelor of Applied Science (BApSc)
Dentistry Dental Hygienist
Dental Assistant
Dental Technician
Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS)
Marketing Various Diplomas or Applied Degrees Bachelor of Commerce (BCom)
Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA)
Occupational Therapy Occupational Therapy
Master of Science Occupational
Therapy (MScOT)
Pharmacy Pharmacy Technician Bachelor of Pharmacy (BscPhm)
Physical Therapy Physical Therapy Assistant Master of Science Physical
Therapy (MScPT)
Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Technician
Veterinary Assistant
Animal Care Certificate
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM)

Tips on Choosing the Right College or University

Once a student decides which program to take, the next step is to determine which school to apply to. There are many choices, and there are a lot of reasons to choose one school over another. Some of those factors include:

  • Size
  • Location
  • Reputation
  • Program Availability
  • Academic Requirements & Preparation
  • Cost
  • Family goals, values & obligations
  • Instinct

Students and their parents are encouraged to identify two, three or even four potential colleges or universities and, where possible, visit each campus. Colleges and universities often hold open houses throughout the year, particularly in the fall and over March Break. Additionally, campus tours are generally available year round.

Universities and colleges also send representatives to Ontario high schools (usually during the fall), and hold large fairs in Toronto (usually in September).

Colleges and universities come in all sizes, from small, more intimate campuses with 2,000 or fewer students, to large, research-intensive schools in big cities with a student population of 50,000. There are advantages to each. A smaller college may seem to have a more closely-knit student body, while a larger university will be able to offer a greater variety of programs, resources and facilities.

College and university students fall into three broad categories:

  • students who live on-campus in a residence;
  • those who commute from the family home; and
  • those who live on their own or with roommates in off-campus housing.

Each situation has advantages and challenges. Living away from the family home tends to encourage a greater sense of independence and personal responsibility, while staying in the family home is usually less expensive, but may not be as conducive to studying.

Ask yourselves these questions:

  • Is your son or daughter ready to live away from home?
  • Is he or she up to the challenge of a daily commute of an hour or more -- each way?
  • Will he or she benefit most from living in a supportive, on-campus environment that provides easy access to academic and recreational facilities?
  • If he or she lives at home, is there easy and consistent access to public transit, a car, or other method of daily travel?
  • For a student who stays in the family home, is there adequate space to provide for a quiet study area?

Publicly-funded universities and colleges in Ontario have good reputations for providing excellent educational programs, but some may appear to stand out above others. This is often due to size, facilities, resources and other elements.

Some institutions may have earned a particularly good reputation for its research strength or due to its business school, while others may have a strong reputation for student support systems. Identifying which of these strengths will best suit your son or daughter will help to ensure that they have a successful university experience.

Program Availability
Choosing a program of study is as challenging as choosing the institution itself. It is important for your son or daughter to determine if the types of programs and courses that he/she enjoys — and are good at — are available at the institution your family is considering. While many broad subject areas are available at several institutions, each one will also have programming that is unique. Some programs are only available at a select few institutions.

The application centre websites are good resources for determining which programs are available at each institution. (See Session 2 – How to apply to a post-secondary institution in Ontario.)

Academic Requirements and Preparation
Admission requirements vary widely across institutions and programs. It is important to ensure that your sons or daughters have taken the correct pre-requisite high school courses required for the programs that they want to take. If they haven’t, they are unlikely to be admitted. It is important to research the entry requirements early to ensure your child is enrolled in the right courses to prepare them for admission as well as for future success in a chosen program of study.

With an average university tuition of $5,700 to $12,000 (plus books and incidental costs), cost is, of course, one of the key influences on where a student attends. Many programs at colleges of applied arts and technology tend to be less expensive (and shorter in duration), but not all.

In addition to tuition, the cost of residence or commuting needs to be considered. It all adds up, and it can indeed seem overwhelming. Financial support for a post-secondary education typically comes from a variety of areas: savings, scholarships, bursaries, employment income, student loans. Whatever the sources, cost can often be the overriding factor in choosing a college or university. Financial implications are discussed in more detail elsewhere in this guide.

Family Goals, Values and Obligations
Family expectations, lifestyle and other factors can also play a major role in determining the post-secondary path a child may choose. Your son or daughter may have family obligations — such as caring for younger siblings or an elderly relative — that may influence where and when he or she is able to study.

Have an honest and open discussion to discuss family expectations and make a list of what those things are. Your family situation is unique and this must be taken into consideration when choosing a post-secondary path.

To a certain degree, choosing a college, university or apprenticeship program comes down to instinct. Does it feel right? Once you’ve weighed all of the objective information, you still need to answer a key question: Will my child feel comfortable here?

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