How to Get into University
Are you a…
- High school diploma student?
- Mature student?
- Young student ready for university at age 16 or 17?
- University student wanting to transfer to another university?
- Homeschooler, home educated student, or alternatively educated student?
- International diploma student?
- Advanced Placement student?
Anyone can get into university in Canada!
That doesn’t mean everyone can get into every program at every school…
…But it does mean that every student who believes they deserve a shot at a university degree can enter Canada’s post-secondary education system, at any age, with or without a high school diploma.
Most people don’t think about the variety of ways to enter university because they never had to. If you went to university, chances are you went to a public, separate or private high school, got a high school diploma, and applied to university with your graduating class. Some of you may have taken a year or two off between high school and university to work or travel. A few of you spent multiple years outside of the classroom before undertaking a university education. And a lot of you never went to university at all. Most of you, though, had no reason to discover the different paths you could have taken to university because it was assumed that you would finish high school and go on to university.
But what if you don’t want to follow a traditional path?
- What if you never finished high school but know you could do well at university now that you’re more mature and know what you want?
- What if you are working grade levels ahead of your age and high school is just holding you back?
- What if you find a great school or program that doesn’t offer a high school diploma?
- What if you are a student athlete or performer and have trouble fitting traditional high school into your schedule?
- What if you have a unique opportunity to travel, volunteer, intern, or work and decide that this experience will enrich your education more than going to high school?
- What if you were homeschooled as a child and want to continue with a self-directed education through your high school years?
- What if you live in a remote area and the closest school is too far away to be practical?
Below are several different ways you can apply to university in Canada, some traditional and some not so traditional. Everyone can be accommodated in the Canadian university system, regardless of age and academic background. Even if you’re in high school right now, you may find a path to university below that appeals to you more than finishing your high school diploma. All students need to know that although a provincial high school diploma can lead to university admission, it is by no means the only way to get into university. It’s not even the simplest way!
So if you’re wondering how to get into university in Canada, take a look at all the valid kinds of applicants that can apply to Canadian university:
- HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA STUDENT
- MATURE STUDENT
- OPEN UNIVERSITY AUTOMATIC ENTRY STUDENT
- UNIVERSITY TRANSFER STUDENT
- HOME SCHOOLER, HOME EDUCATED OR ALTERNATIVELY EDUCATED STUDENT
- INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMA STUDENT
- ADVANCED PLACEMENT STUDENT
HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA STUDENT
In Canada, the most common way to get into university is by earning a provincially accredited high school diploma as a teenager. If you have a high school diploma, then university admission is based on the specific courses you took in your senior year of high school (pre-requisites), your grades and, for some competitive programs, a supplementary application that may include items such as a resume, personal statement, or reference letters. High school diplomas can be earned through courses taken at public schools, private schools, distance education, night schools, adult education centres and summer schools.
Most students will choose to go to a public or private high school for four years and earn enough credits (and complete any other diploma requirements such as community service hours, standardized testing) to graduate with a high school diploma from the province. In the province of Quebec, students will complete high school a year earlier than the rest of the country (Gr. 11 instead of Gr. 12) and study for two years at a CEGEP prior to attending a Quebec university.
Students who take time off from high school or fail to complete all the diploma requirements, may find that going back and finishing the diploma requirements as an older student is inconvenient. Night schools or adult education centres may not offer the wide selection of courses that a traditional day school offers, and any standardized tests required for a diploma will be administered during the school day, and only once per school year. For this reason, older students are generally not required to go back and complete a high school diploma before applying to university. Instead, they will usually apply as mature students.
All post-secondary institutions, both colleges and universities, define a mature student as one who has reached a certain age (typically 19, but sometimes 21), been out of school for a certain amount of time (usually 1 – 2 years) and does not possess the academic credentials/pre-requisites expected of recent high school graduates. Usually, this means the student has not earned a government-accredited high school diploma. Sometimes, a mature student will have a diploma, but just not the specific high school courses expected for admission to their desired program. For example, a high school graduate without senior level courses in mathematics and physics would not normally be considered to have the appropriate admission requirements for an engineering program at a Canadian university.
Mature students may be admitted on the basis of life and work experience, regardless of their past academic performance. Some institutions will require the applicant to demonstrate a level of academic readiness for a university program. Others admit mature students on a trial basis, or only to certain programs within the university. At institutions with such policies, most mature student applicants will be allowed to progress to full degree status, or transfer to a more selective/desirable program of study upon successful completion of a pre-determined number of university courses.
Unless a mature student is very close to completing all requirements for a high school diploma, it generally does not make sense for this student to go back into the high school system. Each Canadian province has a Ministry of Education that prescribes not only the content of high school courses but also the methods of pedagogy and evaluation used to teach and assign grades for the courses. For example, a high school math course may require the use of graphing calculators, group work and creative projects while teaching senior level mathematics topics. A mature student may not have access to this technology, may not have the flexible schedule to work on a group project and may simply not want to write math journals or create artistic math projects if his or her goal is simply to learn enough math to prepare for university-level studies. Mature students may be more ready to “get down to business” than their counterparts in a traditional high school setting, and our university admissions system recognizes this.
OPEN UNIVERSITY AUTOMATIC ENTRY STUDENT
While most Canadian universities expect applicants to possess a high school diploma, others have “open” admission policies: the door is “open” to any student wishing to enroll. Neither diplomas nor age are a factor. Mature students are welcome to apply, but also younger students than the normal age for high school graduation. Some high school students may find themselves ready for university-level studies at an earlier age than that assumed by the Canadian high school system.
Open universities allow students to take recognized, accredited university courses regardless of their past or current educational situation. Open universities believe that it is the student’s responsibility to decide when s/he is ready for university, whether that be at age 16, 25 or 67. Open universities do not restrict access to post-secondary education, giving all students the opportunity to prove their academic abilities, regardless of their current age or past experiences.
Some open universities operate on the traditional university semester system, but others operate on a rolling admissions schedule where it is possible to begin a class as early as the first of the next month after registering.
Open universities provide a decent range of degree programs, although not as diverse a selection as traditional universities. Almost all classes will be conducted as distance education classes (via correspondence or online learning). Some students choose to complete their entire degree at an open university. Other students use open universities to test the waters and figure out whether they are academically ready for university. Still other students use open universities as an open door into the traditional university system and become a university transfer student.
UNIVERSITY TRANSFER STUDENT
Once a student has completed the equivalent of one year’s study at any university, including an open university, they are considered to be a Canadian university student who no longer has to apply for admission to the university system, even if they decide they want to change schools. Instead they simply apply to transfer between universities. University transfer requests are not guaranteed, but generally are not unreasonably withheld for students with a record of success in their first university.
University transfer requests will be evaluated based on the student’s university transcripts and space available in the requested program at the new institution. Some university programs are highly selective and competitive, and places may be limited. Other programs may be rigidly structured so that even transfer students may have to go back and start at the beginning of the new program. Students may or may not receive transfer credit for the university courses on their transcript when they arrive at the new institution. But, students find that even when they can’t receive credit for past work, retaking a course at the new school often results in higher grades or better understanding, both of which are helpful in their new program of study.
Since it is relatively easy to transfer between most universities, students can be more flexible about which university they choose for their first year of studies. Knowing that they can transfer after an initial year if they so choose means that no decision has to be final and they can focus on one year at a time. Many will choose a university close to home to reduce living expenses. Some will choose an open university to remove the stress or difficult of applying to university as a high school student, which can be especially complicated for those who are home schooled or alternatively educated and do not earn the typical, government-accredited high school diploma.
HOME SCHOOLER, HOME EDUCATED OR ALTERNATIVELY EDUCATED STUDENT
Many forms of education in Canada do not lead to a provincially-accredited high school diploma. In the past, this has been problematic for alternatively-educated students wanting to apply to university. Universities now recognize homeschoolers (also known as home schoolers, homelearners, or home-educated students) as a separate category of student seeking admission. According to Canadian universities, homeschoolers represent a broad category of students encompassing any applicant without a government-issued high school diploma. This categorization refers to students whose families have chosen not to make use of the provincial school system (public, private and religious) and have assumed the primary responsibility for their children’s education at home, no matter what form that education may take. These families will usually choose their own curriculum materials and design their own learning experiences, with varying degrees of structure and formality. This may even be done with other students from a homeschool network, and/or in conjunction with the involvement of outside tutors, instructors, mentors and extra-curricular organizations. This category also includes students who earn non-accredited diplomas from alternative, commercial, foreign, distance or religious organizations.
Alternatively-educated students are permitted to apply to university even without a government high school diploma. Each individual university is free to set its own admission policies for homeschoolers. These policies may be flexible and accommodating or they may prescribe the exact conditions to be met in order to qualify for university admission. Some universities only accept homeschoolers on a case-by-case basis, performing an individual student evaluation for each separate applicant. Other universities offer homeschoolers a choice of credentials they can present in lieu of a diploma. Open universities, of course, are also open to homeschoolers.
Homeschoolers are commonly admitted based on a variety of academic evidence: portfolios of written work, resumes, personal statements, standardized test scores (SAT, ACT, AP), accredited and non-accredited grades for coursework, letters of reference, transcripts (official or home-created), lists of textbooks used and admission interviews. Each university handles homeschool admissions differently, so applicants are encouraged to make contact with the university two or three years before applying in order to understand and prepare for specific admission requirements.
Homeschool university admissions can seem complicated compared to traditional high school applications because Canadian universities generally make offers of admission based on provincial high school grades alone — the one evaluation that homeschoolers generally cannot provide to the university. Further complicating matters is the fact that the primary mandate of the university admissions department is not simply to establish satisfactory academic achievement. There may simply not be enough positions for all qualified applicants. Rather, the university’s goal is to fill open positions with applicants presenting the highest grades.
This has led universities to increasingly accept homeschooled students who present a typical senior year of provincially-accredited high school courses, whether or not they have actually earned the complete diploma. This way, universities can more easily compare the alternatively-educated applicant against traditional applicants. Several Ontario universities in particular have indicated that this is the preferred method for applying to university as a homeschooler. This allows students to choose their own curriculum and method of study throughout their high school years up until their senior year at which point they complete courses from a provincially-accredited school (public, private, separate or distance).
INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMA STUDENT / IB
Any student possessing a government-accredited high school diploma from their home country may apply for admission to a Canadian University. Canadian universities also admit students with internationally-recognized credentials. Many schools around the world, including select schools in Canada, choose to offer internationally-recognized diplomas such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma either in addition to or instead of the government diploma. Note that unlike programs such as the Advanced Placement (AP) examination program, individual students may not apply to this program as independent students; this program must be offered by an official IB school and is only available to its registered, full-time students.
Canadian universities will also accept these international diplomas in lieu of government-issued high school diplomas. High achievement on the IB Diploma can even translate to university credits, reducing the number of credits needed to complete a university diploma.
Most Canadian universities will have similar requirements, namely at least three HL passes out of six passed subjects; a minimum number of diploma points (typically 28); faculty-specific prerequisites; and proof of language proficiency in the main language of the university (English or French).
This information can be found in the Admissions section of a university website, sometimes found under “Future Students” or “Prospective Students.” Occasionally, you may need to find the admissions requirements for “International Students” to find the IB Diploma admission requirements, since this is an international program of study. But rest assured, many local and Canadian students are applying to Canadian universities after having earned the IB Diploma in addition to or instead of their provincial high school diploma. You will not be considered an international student for admission purposes, nor will you be considered an international student for tuition purposes.
Additionally, most university websites will also inform you of their transfer credit policies for high scores in HL courses. This may be found in the same place as the AP transfer credit policies, so if you have trouble finding one, look for the other.
See York University for an example of admissions requirements for IB students.
ADVANCED PLACEMENT STUDENT
Students can earn university credits, sometimes enough to qualify for admission directly into second year at a Canadian university, through college-level examinations such as the Advanced Placement (AP) program and the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). The AP and CLEP examinations do not issue university credits themselves. Rather, they provide standardized test scores in university-level examinations that a Canadian university may choose to recognize as equivalent to achievement in a course at its institution. Some universities cap the number of credits they will issue through prior examination, and some universities will only allow a student to bypass introductory courses, not receive credit for them.
Several Canadian high schools offer AP prep classes as part of their curriculum, although it is not necessary to take any classes before writing an AP or CLEP exam. Prep books are available at local bookstores and libraries for independent preparation and many websites and private programs devoted to test preparation. CLEP exams may be written at a few select testing centres in Canada, but depending on where in the country you live, it may actually be more convenient to find a US test centre. Although AP exams are only held at provincially-accredited high schools, it is common practice to allow outside students (from other schools or homeschooled) to pay the registration fee and write the exam at any high school. For practical reasons, not all Canadian high schools allow outside students to write exams held at their schools. (For example, an all-girls’ school may not want their female students to write these high stakes exams with boys around, since that would be a considerable disruption from their normal school environment!) But, many schools will do their best to accommodate requests in order to promote the AP program’s spirit of accessibility and inclusion.
Most AP students will apply to university as high school diploma students, having earned a provincial diploma while taking AP examinations but will also be eligible for advanced standing or credit upon admission. But, not every AP student will have chosen to complete a high school diploma. While some universities treat these advanced placement students as university transfer students (students with prior post-secondary education) because of their educational background, others do not (since technically no university credits have been earned through examination alone). Students may therefore ultimately end up applying to university as a homeschooler, mature student or open university student if they have no high school diploma.
On this website we have a list of AP policies for Ontario universities by school. We hope to eventually provide similar lists of AP transfer credit policies for universities in other provinces.
Typically, a university’s website will indicate a list of their own credit courses that can be earned through transfer credit with a successful AP exam score. Depending on the school, you may need to earn a 4 or even a 5 on the AP exam to receive transfer credit from the university. Most but not all Canadian universities have a maximum number of credits that can be earned through AP examinations. Most schools allow at least 2 or 3 full-year courses of transfer credit, but some schools do not put a limit on the number of courses that can be earned.