7 ways to get into university without a high school diploma

(Not an Ontario homeschooler? You can still find out how to get into university without a high school diploma in Canada)

Without a high school diploma, homeschoolers can apply and gain admission to university in Ontario: (see all the official policies here)

1. as a mature student (generally requires waiting until age 21). See sample definition of mature student from York University.

2. with the presentation of standardized test scores (general achievement tests such as the SAT or ACT; subject-specific tests such as SAT Subject Tests, Advanced Placement exams) but not the GED. The GED is designed to provide evidence of an education generally equivalent to that of a high school education, and is commonly accepted in the work force in lieu of a high school diploma. But, it is not accepted by Ontario universities as a suitable academic assessment for the nature of university-level studies and unfortunately carries with it the stigma of being a “high school drop out.”

3. with a year of university courses received from an open university (with an open entrance policy) such as Athabasca UniversityThompson Rivers University Open Learning (formerly BC Open University) or the University of Guelph.  These universities do not require a high school diploma as a prerequisite for enrolling in courses. After the equivalent of a year’s worth of courses from one of these institutions, a student is considered to be a “university transfer” student (see sample definition of transfer student from York University), and may transfer to a conventional university on the basis of the university marks as opposed to high school marks.

4. as a transfer applicant from a junior college. (Note: Ontario does not have junior colleges, but some provinces do.) These colleges may be easier to get into as a home schooler, and then prior high school completion (or lack thereof) is often unimportant to the university. Another note: although there are some programs in Ontario that allow transfer from a community college into a university, initial admission to the community college may be just as difficult if not more difficult as direct admission to the university. Our community college system is further behind our university system in terms of home schooling policies, so some home schoolers have much more difficulty getting into community colleges than they do getting into universities! While this is a viable method in other provinces, or when switching to Ontario from another province, it is not a popular Ontario strategy.

5. with a portfolio including home made transcripts, samples of work etc. This portfolio should, if possible, include standardized tests, letters/evaluated work from tutors or other outside sources as universities don’t always take transcripts from mom and dad! But even if you don’t have any “official” work to show them, there is currently one university in Ontario who administers their own testing/interview for homeschoolers and does not require proof of an academic background.

6. with the “Top Six” (unique to Ontario). Some Ontario universities will allow students to present just their senior year (i.e. six grade 12 credits, chosen according to program-specific prerequisites, through an accredited school, including virtual and correspondence schools) without requiring the entire 30 credits of the full diploma. (Note: students do not receive a high school diploma, but do qualify for university admission.)

7. with a little smooth talking! Who knows what can happen if you just walk in with a good attitude and ask? Making connections in admissions departments or with professors can open doors.

Still worried about getting in to university without a high school diploma? These final thoughts should put the issue in perspective:

  • University admissions are generally governed by policy, not law. Everyone has a story of a friend of a friend of a friend who knew of a 10/11/12-year-old taking classes at a university. Do you think this wunderkind had a high school diploma? Rules can and will be broken if the university sees you as a desirable addition to their school. Instead of stressing to conform to traditional university admission requirements, students may very well be better off spending that time and energy making themselves stand out and showcasing what they have to offer the university.
  • It’s never too late to go to university. Anyone who sat through university classes with “mature students” (i.e. older students who had actually read the lecture material and were interested in discussing said material in class) knew, even if only in the back of their minds, that these adults were really getting something out of the university experience. What’s wrong with waiting to head off to university until you know what you really want to get out of it? Admission requirements are generally much more open for adults than students directly out of high school.
  • Learning is more important than schooling. You don’t need to “(waste) $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” If you’re not concerned about traditional high school as a vehicle of socialization, then why would you suddenly care about the socialization at the university level? Intellectual peers can be easily found through online communities (both social and academic) and can enrich a self-directed program of study. (See The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business for an example of a self-directed MBA program.)

Note: Not all methods listed above are accepted by every institution, and policies do change. Please consult each individual university for the most recent, official word!

For info on how homeschoolers can get into college or university without a high school diploma in . . .

  • British Columbia (BC, Canada) – Chris Corrigan, an unschooling parent, was at one time compiling a similar list of options specific to BC. One option Chris mentions is writing the BC provincial examination without completing the whole diploma. This is not an option for Ontario since we don’t have provincial exams, but mirrors the sentiments of the “Top Six” option. (Note: page is no longer on Chris’ website.  I’ve linked to a page from “The Way Back Machine” to so you can see what used to be there.)
  • Alberta (AB, Canada) – Education Unlimited hosts this list of Alberta post-secondary institutions
  • . . . other provinces will be added as resources are found!
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Acronyms To Know

[Editor’s note, Feb. 2017: Technically, these are not all acronyms because they’re not all pronounced as words. Some are a kind of abbreviation called initialisms, pronounced one initial at a time. However, we’ve kept the original title in case anyone was linking to this post from elsewhere or using the word “acronym” in a similar way when doing a web search. We’ve added information about what each abbreviation stands for.]

SAT — www.collegeboard.com

Stands for: originally, Scholastic Ability Test, then SAT I (to distinguish from the Scholastic Achievement Test or SAT II), now just SAT, pronounced as separate letters (S.A.T. — not the word “sat”).

What it is: a standardized achievement test covering mathematics, reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing, and grammar skills.

How it works: one single test offered several times per year at local high schools/testing centres. Anyone can register online for this test.

ACT — www.act.org

Stands for: originally from the American College Testing Program, but now just known as ACT.

What it is: a standardized achievement test covering mathematics, science, social science, reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing and grammar.

How it works: one single test offered several times per year at local testing centres. Anyone can register online for this test.

AP — www.collegeboard.com

Stands for: Advanced Placement

What it is: a series of subject-specific examinations (approximately 20 different ones) that measure specific content knowledge at the senior high school or first year university level

How it works: students must sign up for and write this test at a participating high school. Contact local public/private schools for permission to join. Schools are not required to allow you to write.

CLEP — www.collegeboard.com

Stands for: College Level Examination Program

What it is: a series of subject specific examinations intended to provide first year college (US) credits.

How it works: any student can write at any testing centre; however, the only testing centre in Canada is in BC and the closest one to Ontario is in Buffalo.

GED — www.gedcanada.net and ged.ilc.org

Stands for: General Educational Development

What it is: a series of examinations in various subjects intended to provide a high school diploma equivalency.

How it works: exams are held by the Ministry of Education over a weekend (Friday night and Saturday).

NOTE: most universities do not consider this equivalency for admission purposes. It is usually accepted by employers who require proof of high school graduation. [Editor’s note: Be aware that some employers look on a GED unfavourably. See the article High school diplomas vs. GEDs: Do employers care? on CareerBuilder.com.]

AMDEC – www.amdec.ca

Stands for: Avon Maitland District e-Learning Centre

What it is: The Avon-Maitland District Public School Board’s Centre for Distance Education offering accredited Ontario high school courses for credit.

How it works: AMDEC courses are very similar to regular courses, only lessons are available online (on websites) and work is submitted by email or fax. Students are required to complete a minimum number of work units per course per month. Assignments, tests and exams are all usually required. Group projects may be required.

NOTE: These courses count as any regular high school credit courses. They are not “equivalent” to high school courses, they ARE the courses!

ILC — www.ilc.org

Stands for: The Independent Learning Centre.

What it is:  the Ontario Ministry of Education’s official correspondence school. The ILC offers accredited Ontario high school courses for credit.

How it works: ILC courses are independent paper and pencil based correspondence courses where pre-printed lesson books are mailed (no direct teaching) and material is completed at the student’s own pace. Homework is submitted as it is completed (by mail or email) and may be marked by a different teacher each time. A supervised final exam is written at the end.

NOTE: These courses count as any regular high school credit courses. They are not “equivalent” to high school courses, they ARE the courses!

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A Plan for High School for Ontario Homeschoolers

QUESTION: If my admission will be based on only 12U credit courses or standardized tests written in my last year of home schooling, then how do I structure the earlier high school years?

Plan backwards: Determine when you will need final grades and scores and make a reasonable timetable of study working backwards. Generally, 1-2 years is a good length of time to study for a high-stakes standardized test. Subject tests (SAT II or AP) will require at least a full year’s worth of study to prepare for the test, but also may require 1 – 3 years of prerequisite study of earlier topics leading up to the tested material.

Choose a curriculum method:
You may find it easy to pick one series of textbooks and generally follow it up through the high school grades to ensure that you are following a comprehensive curriculum. You may prefer to design your own “skills/knowledge” based curriculum where you research the specific skills and topics required (e.g. Quadratic Functions, Trigonometric Ratios) to achieve your goals and then simply use a variety of texts or internet resources to research and study each particular topic.

Be disciplined: Don’t put off studying simply because the test is so far away. These tests may only be one day events, but they are intended to measure years’ worth of preparation.

Read: Read anything you can get your hands on, and read critically. Read not only to understand the content of the text, but also how the writing style itself conveys meaning. Make every text an opportunity to discuss how an author gets his meaning across to the reader. Don’t just study literature; read newspaper and journal articles, textbooks and other non-fiction works.

Write: Writing may not feel like a natural activity, but strong writing skills are essential to success in most university programs. Encourage any kind of writing such as journals, letters to the editor (or mom and dad!), stories and book or film reviews. At all times, stress clarity of thought and expression. Remember that writing is an attempt to communicate and successful writing is writing that gets its point across well!

QUESTION: How early do I have to start planning?

The answer will depend on whether you choose to include standardized tests, 12U credits and/or a portfolio in your university application.

High School Diploma: start taking credit courses in “Grade 9″
Standardized Tests: follow a challenging English/Math program through “Grades 9 and 10″ and begin test prep in fall Gr. 11
12U credit courses: follow a challenging English/Math program through “Grades 9 and 10″ and begin with one or two (easier) 12U credit courses in fall of Grade 11
Portfolio: document activities starting in “Grade 9″ and start producing samples of admission-level work in “Grade 11″

General Admissions Timelines
“Grades 9 and 10″

  • Decide on your admissions strategy (Standardized Tests, 12U credit courses (“Top Six”), Portfolio/Transcripts, Mature student entry)
  • Research admission policies at your schools of interest (Do they have a homeschool policy already in place? Is there a homeschool contact person in university?)
  • Contact universities to confirm policies and establish relationship
  • Personal thinking/planning about future (Am I a “science” person? A “history” person? Do I have a specific profession in mind? Do I want to attend university right after high school?)
  • Begin formal documentation for portfolios/transcripts
  • Consult Ministry of Education course descriptions for lists of curriculum topics by grade
  • Collect samples of work, externally-evaluated if possible)
  • Keep exhaustive list of activities and use edu-speak to translate into courses
  • Start regular, academic writing (Argumentative/persuasive writing, report writing, grammar and style, research and documentation, organization and structure)
  • Analysis of texts and literature (fiction and non-fiction) including reading for meaning and content; understanding tone, perspective, and bias; use of figurative language; themes and character development in works of fiction
  • Regular diet of algebra including basic arithmetic and order of operations; integers, fractions, decimals; solving equations; rate, ratio, percent and proportion; linear and quadratic functions; linear and quadratic equations and systems of equations; analytic geometry; polynomials and factoring

“Grade 11″ – credit courses or personalized study program for standardized tests

  • Attend university fairs (usually in the fall)
  • Visit university campuses – when students are there!
  • Language Development
    • Continue regular writing and revising – style and sentence variety
    • Work on improving, enriching vocabulary – consider studying some elements of Latin, Greek
    • Read challenging texts, including those which are open to interpretation
    • Studies in current events/world issues
    • Elementary Logic, especially logical reasoning and fallacies for the purposes of evaluating arguments, identifying faulty reasoning
    • Traditional Grammar Study for clear, concise communication
  • Mathematics Development
    • Humanities students: Continue studies from Grades 9 and 10, working towards proficiency in these skills, and/or SAT preparation
    • Business students: this should be a pre-calculus year with an added emphasis on statistics and probability-if possible, write AP Statistics exam this May-(or with the intention of pursuing this next year)
    • Social Science students: studies from Grades 9 and 10, working towards proficiency in these skills, and/or SAT preparation with an emphasis on statistics and probability (or with the intention of pursuing this next year)
    • Science students: this should be a pre-calculus year (physics students should also consider this a pre-linear algebra year)
    • Math/Computer science students: this should be a pre-calculus and pre-linear algebra year. Completion of the equivalent of 11U Mathematics (Ontario) or Algebra 2 (U.S.) should be the goal.
  • Standardized Test Preparation (if applicable)
    • Start prep for SAT (and any AP exams) in the fall
    • Write SAT (May or June)
    • Write AP exams (May)
  • Credit course route
    • Take one or two 12U courses in first semester (easy ones!)
    • Take one or two 12U courses in second semester
  • Research universities – Method A: By School
    • Close to home vs. far away?
    • Finances and Scholarships?
    • Size of campus/classes?
    • Size of city/town?
  • Research universities – Method B: By Program
    • Where is the program available?
    • Co-op or internship possibilities?
    • Specialization or general?

“Grade 12″

  • Visit OUAC website in the fall
  • Contact OUAC in September re: applying as a home schooled student to receive appropriate login information or paper applications
  • download copy of INFO (available late Sept/October) for specific program requirements and application information
  • Language Development
    • Read and respond to challenging, classical texts – explore the universal themes of classic works and the elements of language used by the author to communicate his or her message
    • Use academic journals (instead of newspapers) to explore current issues
  • Choose some subjects to be studied “from the textbook” and develop the skill of learning independently from a textbook (perhaps choose a text you may be using next year in university – e.g. intro to psychology)
  • Look for opportunities to present your learning to others – form a study group or join a community organization and volunteer to present
  • Attend local seminars held by museums or local colleges/universities
  • Join or form a book club with deadlines for reading and discussion dates
  • Mathematics Development
    • Humanities students: No further mathematics is required beyond studies from Grades 9 and 10, and/or SAT preparation.
    • Business students: study calculus (formally or informally) this year with an added emphasis on statistics and probability if not previously studied. Plan to write SAT II Mathematics and/or AP Calculus in the spring, and AP Statistics, if not previously written.
    • Social Science students: Plan to write AP Statistics in May.
    • Science students: study calculus (formally or informally) and possibly linear algebra. Write SAT II Math and/or AP Calculus in the spring
    • Math/Computer science students: study calculus and linear algebra (formally or informally) with the intention of writing SAT II Mathematics and/or AP Calculus in the spring
  • Standardized Test Prep
    • Revisit prep for SAT in the fall
    • Start AP and/or SAT II preparation in the fall
    • Rewrite SAT (before December)
    • Write AP exams (May)
    • Write SAT II subject exams (Spring)
  • Credit courses
    • Take two or three 12U courses in first semester (ideally, have 6 done!)
    • Take one or two 12U courses in second semester, if desired/necessary
  • Other options
    • Volunteer placements
    • Internships, job shadowing
    • Online university/college courses
    • Competitions (e.g. music, academic)
    • Special camps/activities hosted by universities or community groups
    • Offer tutoring and/or mentoring to younger students
    • Outside certification courses (e.g. cooking, technology, athletics, public speaking, technical writing, swiming) in areas of interest and/or teaching classes in these areas
    • Specialized research project
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High School Credit Courses for Ontario Homeschoolers

Many families choose to include accredited Ontario high school courses into their high school home school program. These are courses that are taught in a classroom, online or by correspondence by an accredited Ontario school (or school board) including courses from the ILC (Independent Learning Centre).

Although it is possible to get into university without any high school courses, some universities do offer academic merit scholarships on the basis of 12U grades alone. Some universities have stated that they prefer students to submit 12U marks for university admission because it simplifies the process of comparing home schoolers to the traditional pool of applicants.

With many Ontario universities accepting the “Top Six” for university entrance, you do not have to take all 30 credits required by the provincial high school diploma (OSSD) to gain admission to an Ontario university. In many cases, simply taking six 12U courses is acceptable. However, if you want to enter the credit system and jump right into Grade 12, then it is your responsibility to plan a reasonable program of study a few years in advance so that you’ll be ready for these senior level courses.

Also read Sarah’s article Virtual High Schooling: Is it right for me? to gain added insight into these courses for home schoolers.

Schools offering 12U credits to home schoolers:

Independent Learning Centre – Ontario Credits by Correspondance
TDSB Virtual School (Toronto)
Virtual High School Homepage
Virtual Learning Centre
Canada e-School
Bishop Strachan e-Academy

[links updated 2017-05-10]

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Grade 12 Math Resources for Western Canada (BC, AB, MB)

There are a ton of places to get free math resources on the internet. But sometimes, you want Canadian material that follows your own curriculum.

If you’re studying high school math in western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba – sorry, I don’t think he’s gotten around to making a page for Saskatchewan yet!), then you’ll want to check out the following websites for a complete curriculum, online textbook that you can download and print and practice exams that follow your provincial senior math guidelines:

  • BC – Principles of Mathematics 12 – [link removed – no longer valid]*
  • AB – Pure Math 30 – [link removed – no longer valid]*
  • MB – Pre-Calculus Math 40S – [link removed – no longer valid]*

Even if you’re studying math in another province, these resources will no doubt be helpful as extra practice or a curriculum supplement.

* [These links have all been replaced with a single website:
Mathematics 30-1: Explained – www.math30.ca
focused on Math 30-1 for Alberta but it also includes links to government math resources for the other Western provinces]

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Is it worth going to university?

This post was written on my personal blog a few years ago, inspired by the fact that I had just paid off my student loans. ($463/month for 10 years — you can do the math.) For a degree in English Language and Literature? Even I’ll admit that’s pretty steep. Fortunately, I’m one of the rare few who actually used the knowledge obtained from my degree every single day, mostly because tutors work 7 days/week and never get holidays.

Although I had good reason to, I never cursed my expensive arts degree as a waste. Everything I learned, both in and out of class, helped to make me an educated, informed tutor. My university education also provided me with the academic credibility so that parents would entrust their child’s educational needs to me.

But, it wasn’t my degree that made me the kind of tutor that I was. And, it certainly wasn’t my degree that gave me the skills, experience or confidence to open and run my own tutoring business for five years. The lack of a degree in math didn’t prevent me from being one of Toronto’s top math tutors. The lack of a teaching certificate didn’t prevent me from creating, running and teaching at a private high school.

So did I really need that degree? Do you?

Articles with headlines such as “The University Degrees that may add nothing to lifetime’s salary” are easy to find. Personally, I made the choice (more than once, actually) to refuse an offer of admission to a graduate program because I realized that it would get in the way of my career, not advance it. And especially once you make the jump to being an entrepreneur, you realize you’ll likely never have to write a resume again. So, to whom would I show off that lovely M.A., anyway?

Even the notion of “needing credentials” isn’t as firm as we might think it is. I made a very good name and life for myself in the field of education despite not being a certified teacher. No, I didn’t teach in a public school. But, I was in my field, using my talents. And, I never spent a single day as a substitute taking any work I could get, nor stressing out over whether or not I made the TDSB “eligible to hire” list.

Oh, but to be a doctor, you say? Granted; but to work in health care? A multitude of options exist, many of which may get you into the profession immediately working and give you a better work-life balance in the long run. To be a lawyer? Yes; but to be an “advocate” in the English sense of the word: sticking up for the underrepresented? Opportunities abound!

No one taught me how to be a tutor, although I did learn from a lot of people. It was very much a self-directed education that involved reading, reflection, collaborating, teaching, counseling and writing. My own experience supports the notion that if we have a goal, we instinctively know what we need to learn to achieve it. Even if we find ourselves at the very beginning, and the only thing we know is, “I need someone to tell me how to get started!” — the point is, we know that much and that’s something.

That’s why I like the idea of the Personal MBA. (Tagline: Mastering Business Through Self-Education)

“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.” – Will Hunting (played by Matt Damon), Good Will Hunting

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a time and a place for being explicitly taught. I just don’t buy the idea that, even when it comes to university or professional degrees, schools have a monopoly on knowledge and are the gate-keepers to professional success. I’m living proof that the “uncertified” do exist and do succeed, even in traditional and traditionally-certified fields.

For an interesting read, try The True Value of a College Degree where Shaun Boyd writes,

“Following graduation, I submitted my resume, application, and cover letter to over 100 employers over the course of two months. I interviewed for nearly a dozen positions — but wasn’t offered a single job. Where did I end up working? For the organization I interned at — doing a job I could’ve been doing without my coveted degree.

My friends were in the same boat. They earned their degrees but ended up working jobs they could’ve been working right out of high school. One works as a food runner at a restaurant. Another deals cards at a casino. Yet another works as a laborer for his father’s masonry business. In every case, it was a simple matter of dollars and cents: Starting salaries in their specialized fields offered less than what they made at their previous jobs.”

I’m not suggesting that you blindly reject the idea of university entirely, nor would I personally have followed that advice 15 years ago. And while I’m not professionally-credentialed, I do have an undergraduate degree which does open some doors for me. But, before you blindly accept the idea that you should go, read what others have had to say on the topic. I’m sure you’ll find it’s not necessarily as black-and-white an issue as many people believe.

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6 ways to turn your interests into extra-curricular activities for your university application

Business Week recently shared advice from university admission officers: depth means more than breadth when it comes to extra curricular activities.

Schools are becoming more familiar and less impressed with “resume padding” in the university application. Susan Chan, the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, comments in a September 2006 article:

“We are not necessarily impressed by students who list a high number of different activities,” Chan said. “We are much more impressed with students who have accomplished something significant in an activity or two that they obviously know and love.”

Passion and dedication are hard to fake, and admissions committees know this. They also know that not every interest has a local club you can join, or a volunteer position you can easily obtain.

This is good news if your child’s most noteworthy characteristics are a subscription to Popular Science, several late charges from the public library’s video documentary section and an RSS reader full of industry blogs. But, how do you apply to university with a reading list instead of an activity list?

6 ways to turn your interests into extra-curricular activities for your university application

(and how to do it so that it actually benefits you and doesn’t just pad your resume)

1. Creativity Counts – create something

I can remember having an intense class discussion in high school arguing whether or not one needed to actually create something to be considered creative. (It is right in the word itself, after all!)

Whenever I think I have a particularly “creative” idea, I always use the memory of that discussion to remind myself that if my creative thoughts don’t actually produce anything, what have I really done?

Joe also helps me remember this by often repeating the line from Amadeus, “It’s of no use to anybody in your head, Mozart.”

It’s one thing to have a passion for a particular topic, but it’s what you have created from your passion that can be more easily showcased on a university application, and can direct your passion into a worthwhile endeavour.

Here are just a few of endless examples:

  • write about your topic
    • outline a new idea you have
    • address a common problem or issue in the area, and research possible solutions
    • compile existing work into a “beginners guide” or teaching material
    • describe your journey from beginner to enthusiast, and how it affected you as a person
  • build something
    • a working model or prototype of an established or experimental idea
    • experiment with function and design
  • establish an organization or charitable foundation related to your area of interest
    • coordinate group projects
    • fundraise
    • distribute a newsletter
    • lobby the government
  • set a travel goal and document it in words, photographs
    • visit every major league baseball park
    • view “original/historical sources” in your area of interest
    • meet/interview major personalities in your area of interest
  • use your area of interest to inspire artistic creations
    • write songs
    • sculpt or paint
    • write screenplays, short films, commercials
  • create and maintain a website
    • demonstrate an ongoing commitment by keeping up with important news in your field
    • start an online discussion board where people from all over can connect
    • create an online photo gallery of pictures you have taken related to your interest
    • research careers in your area, then share this information as a “how to get started in …” guide

2. Flash Forward – think about the future, plans goals

Where are you going with your dreams and ideas? There’s nothing wrong with living in the moment, but the act of devising future plans can go a long way to helping you feel grounded with a purpose … and looks great on the university application!

Of course, plans can change. As my father will tell you any day of his life, “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” But making these plans, evaluating options and becoming aware of the steps necessary to achieve future goals allows you to envision yourself as a real player in the industry, and then gives you a road map for becoming one.

To the universities, this plan can not only demonstrate your intentions to commit to a course of action (such as, say, I don’t know, a university degree!) but also assures them that you have the drive and skills to go beyond your interest (e.g. languages) to research the educational and professional arenas (e.g. the top translation schools in the country, which schools offer exchange programs or internships, which international organizations accept summer volunteers, the top translation firms that specialize in diplomatic work).

3. Social Significance – whom can you help, and what problems can you solve?

If your ideas are of no use to anybody in your head, then spend some time figuring out who could benefit from the thoughts swishing around up there.

In these days of resume padding and going through the motions of altruism, assisting a very specific part of the community in a specific way will catch the attention of college admissions departments. Which applicant will seem more genuine and effective as a volunteer?

  • one who spent a weekend sorting food at the local food bank (with no other indication anywhere in her application that helping the disadvantaged is a cause near and dear to her heart)
  • one (suffering from allergies and/or chemical sensitivity) who created an information pamphlet describing common toxic ingredients in everyday household cleaners, then created “make your own safe cleaning products at home” workshops which she presented at local community groups or in people’s homes.

There is nothing wrong with the first scenario. After all, it is by leaving our comfort zone and experiencing something totally different that gives us a new perspective on life. No doubt the first applicant was moved and forever changed through her volunteer experience.

But, which applicant gives the greater impression that she will contribute to her university, or to society at large (both of which ultimately benefit the university) when a college application is no longer on the line? The second applicant has shown that she can make her own opportunities to contribute to the world around her, and that she sees a real connection between her own life and the lives of others.

The ability to see needs and react to them is also an important skill for an inventor or entrepreneur. Fostering this ability can set you up for a lifetime of independence because you may realize that you don’t need others to give you a job — you can create one yourself by filling a gap in the market place.

4. Technical Tools – what did you need to know in order to know what you now know?

Very few areas of interest exist in a vacuum. Only in school is “math” separate from “history” and both are separate from “language.” (As if the economy and our ability to communicate with each other never caused some pretty big historical events … )

To give weight to your area of interest on your university application, spend some time answering these three questions:

  • What did you have to learn/master to get where you are?
  • Which skills are you currently working on, or which topics do you need to further understand in order to progress in your area of interest?
  • Which skills or which topics are next on your list to learn?

There’s a lot of number crunching in the study of earthquakes, so a budding geologist will at some point need to ensure that his math skills are up to snuff. Radio waves (so I’ve been told by engineering tutors I’ve worked with) are based on the system of complex numbers . . . aka imaginary numbers. That’s right, they only exist in our minds, but yet without them we can’t understand radio waves. A historian could rely on English translations of primary texts, but we all know something gets lost; at some point, foreign language skills are required to analyze historical documents.

Your area of interest will no doubt require you to learn topics and skills in other disciplines. Document these for your university application. Not only will it make you feel good about yourself to realize that you know more math or Latin than you thought, but it will demonstrate to the university admissions department a commitment to excellence in your field of study.

Going through a skills/knowledge analysis will also help you determine how ready you might be for an AP, CLEP or SAT subject test in one of these related areas, giving you useful information as to which tests you might want to take for university entrance.

5. Knowledgeable Networking – have some names to drop

It’s impossible to really get into an area of study and not encounter the same names over and over again. Knowing who’s who in an industry is sometimes essential for knowing what’s what.

It’s easy for anyone to put information on the internet, accurate or not. So, knowing the names of the respected players not only ensures that your information is coming from credible sources, but that you’ve taken the time to really get inside the industry. Really, it’s the people and their contributions that made your area of interest what it is. Without musicians, there would be no music!

Also, if you are mainly self-educated, then questions can arise concerning exactly what you’ve been studying. When a high school student applies to university with a government-accredited diploma, the university has at least a general idea of what material was covered in class. As a homeschooler, you have much more flexibility to pick and choose your own learning resources. Citing key authors or researchers in your area of interest, therefore, can help the university admissions departments feel confident that you’ve done more than memorize a few facts; you’ve done enough study in the area to know the major players and their theories, contributions and positions.

To give more credibility to your self-study, be sure to work the following into your university application:

  • Who have you connected with, studied about in the course of your interest?
  • Who are the big names in your area of interest, and how has their work influenced you?
  • How do you envision contributing to or adding on to their work?

6. University USP – how will the specific university you’re applying to fit into those plans?

In the world of sales and marketing, USP stands for “Unique Selling Proposition.” In other words, it’s what makes a product or service unique.

When you apply to universities, it is really worth your while to understand each school’s USP: what they can distinctly offer you that the other schools can’t. Not only is this essential information with which to make your final decisions, but also universities are understandably impressed (even flattered) when you know specifics about them.

In your university application, specifically mention:

  • Why their specific department is a good fit for you and your interests. Include references to specific faculty with their research interests, facilities (e.g. the most powerful telescope on an Ontario university campus), degree options (e.g. the opportunity to major in criminal forensics in an undergraduate degree)
  • How you see yourself contributing to the social scene. Find out which clubs are already running that would interest you, or suggest organizations you might initiate that don’t already exist. Mention specific annual events that you can see yourself becoming regularly involved in, such as a breast cancer walk or clothing drive.
  • How the stated mission of the university is a good fit. Examine the school’s motto, philosophy and/or mandate. Explain how or why they resonate with you. Has the university recently removed trays from the cafeteria to save water and energy washing them? Are you impressed because the university has a strong student services department demonstrating a commitment to student success? If the university takes a stand on issues that are important to you, mention how you can get behind those initiatives.

This is more than buttering up the university, this is ensuring that you and the university really are a match made in heaven. It’s for your own benefit as much as it is for getting you noticed by the admissions committee.


It’s easy to think that an interest, passion or obsession can’t be leveraged on a university application. But, having a strong interest may just be what gets you noticed and pushes your application into the “accept” pile!

With a little clear, focused thinking, you can turn your interests into a showcase for your skills, talents, and desirability to any post-secondary institution.

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Students can improve by being more like salespeople

There’s a lot of information on this site about how to get into university. But it’s only responsible to also write about tips, tricks and tidbits that will help one prepare academically, mentally, spiritually and psychologically for the demands of university.

If you go looking for advice on how to prepare yourself for university, or how to be successful once you’re there, you’ll find no shortage of advice based on the premises that university is:

  • difficult (or, a favourite phrase that Joe and I have adopted from a sushi take-out menu, “raw and challenging”)
  • unlike anything you’ve experienced before
  • requiring intense concentration, dedication and work ethic

The truth is though, that this isn’t the universal first-year experience. Some kids enter university extremely well-prepared academically with not only adequate study skills but also with a healthy curiosity and a solid knowledge-base. Gifted students and/or home schoolers who have studied particular subjects in depth may even find themselves somewhat disappointed at the general nature of introductory courses. They may similarly find themselves more than a little disenchanted by the interest level of not only their fellow classmates but also of the professors who have been given the “baby” classes. There aren’t many books out there about how to cope when university isn’t challenging enough for you.

It would be erroneous to assume that the problems these students face in high school magically disappear once they cross the threshold of a university campus. For some, they do. For others, there can be a profound disappointment when they realize that university life holds fewer changes from high school than they had expected.

Personally, I can only recall one “challenging” course in my five years at Glendon. For me, challenging meant that I had to sit with a text book for hours on end trying to make sense of it. I can’t recall a course that had too much reading for me to be comfortable with (including a women’s literature course in a 4 week summer session that included novels, plays, poems, essays and short stories), nor did I ever have so many assignments that I found it difficult to manage or meet deadlines.

Fortunately for my academic career, though, I wasn’t generally resentful or disillusioned. I took advantage of the opportunity to get involved socially and politically on campus. I didn’t skip any classes, although I easily could have gotten away with it academically, until my last year when I was extremely involved in extra-curricular activities. Even though my 100 person first year Intro to Psychology course had dwindled to more like 40 people during lectures, I continued to attend faithfully. I continued to attend even though:

  • I did the lecture’s reading and made study notes before the lecture
  • the lectures were overviews straight from the textbook
  • the notes I had already made could have been the lecture

When people asked why, I told them that I liked the subject and I thought the repetition would be good for the learning process. It didn’t bother me that I had read it all before. In fact, it meant that instead of scrambling to take notes during the lecture, I could simply add annotations to the notes I already had and leave most of my brain free for listening. We like hearing the same stories over and over again, watching the same movies, listening to the same songs… I happened at the time to be fascinated by introductory psychology and I didn’t think this was any different. Besides, there might be something I’d miss if I didn’t go. There rarely was, but occasionally there were some gems to be had, like my professor slapping himself silly on the back of the head until he “saw stars” to demonstrate where the occipital lobe is, and how you can see things that aren’t really there when these neurons are adequately stimulated. (He proposed that this could explain “seeing ghosts” for example.) This I remember clearly 15 years later, and it wasn’t in the textbook.

It’s taken a while for this post to establish the link between university students and sales people, but here it finally is: little did I know that my tolerance for repetition in the hopes of finding just one new bit of information was an essential quality of successful salespeople. And as it turns out, being able to selectively tune in and tune out at will is just a handy self-improvement skill to have, whether you’re learning for credit, for professional advancement, or for interest.

Reg Braithwaite wrote about this on his website in response to people (computer programmers specifically) engaging in harsh criticism of each other’s ideas in an online discussion, but the point he makes has far greater implications than simply promoting tolerance. After reading his message, I think you’d be hard pressed not to look at education and training (especially the type that would normally make your eyes glaze over with boredom) in a new light.

The article is called What I’ve Learned From Sales, Part III: How to use a blunt instrument to sharpen your saw and isn’t entirely G-Rated, so I’m going to quote here more than I normally would of someone else’s post. Please don’t follow the link if a four-letter word is going to make you spit your morning coffee at the computer screen. 🙂 The observation and analysis is brilliant, and I hope he doesn’t mind that I share a few paragraphs in their entirety with you here so that I can share the wisdom:

In sales, there is a very high, observable, and measurable correlation between attending sales training seminars and sales volume. One explanation for this is that the kind of people who take time off of selling to sharpen their own saw are the kind of people to be top salespeople.

The other possibility is that there is something abut the seminars themselves that make salespeople better. I have asked salespeople about it, and generally I get a variation on the exact same answer: If I can learn just one thing that improves my sales skills, the seminar will pay for itself.

Think about that. They go to an all day seminar, where they will probably hear twenty, thirty, or forty tips. They will probably sit through tip after tip thinking “Yawn, I knew that, tell me something new.” Or they hear something and think: “That is the worst suggestion I’ve ever heard.” But then, suddenly, they hear something new, and they profit from it.

In sales, you are used to making call after call, facing rejection after rejection, but you keep dialing because”¦ the next one could be a winner. So the kind of person who can keep on dialing after rejection ought to be the kind of person who can sit through a seminar waiting to pounce on one new thing that can improve their income.

He goes on to point out that we non-salespeople often take a different approach to learning, or at the very least, others’ attempts to inform us. Here are some of the things we all do, to varying degrees and from time to time, instead of sticking it out waiting for that one idea that could be earth-shatteringly transformative:

  • Feel annoyed that we are “wasting our time” with things we “already know”
  • Hear one thing we disagree with, and as a result immediately discredit everything that person has to say
  • Attempt to correct or argue with someone else to convince them of the error of their ways
  • Make an overall judgment as to whether what we heard/read/saw as a whole was any good

Braithwaite recommends instead that computer programmers participate in online discussions with this mentality: most of what I hear won’t be new; a good portion of it I’ll completely disagree with; however, if I can find just one small thing that makes me a better programmer, the experience will have been worth it and I personally will profit from it.

I say, what a fantastic approach to learning! Think of what we open ourselves up to if we relax our natural tendencies for categorization and consistency and instead allow ourselves to learn from sources without embracing them in their entirety.

When we stop trying to evaluate our sources of information (books, websites, films, people) as “good” or “bad” we can turn the focus inwards on ourselves, and on how that information can be used for our own learning or self-improvement. This works equally well in a university lecture as it does in a training seminar, info session or online discussion.

This is a healthy attitude for all students, not just those wondering why they should attend a lecture to hear what they already know or those who feel their time is being wasted in class discussions with people stating the obvious. But, I think this idea can give real comfort to those who already feel “different” or “out of place” even in a university classroom. They don’t have to pass judgment on those around them; they simply recognize that good ideas can come at any place, at any time (even from bad ideas). And it’s not contradictory (or an embarrassment) to learn something from someone “not as smart” as they are, nor is it a betrayal of one’s principles to be enlightened by someone with a different religious, philosophical or political affiliation.

Did you know that direct mail campaigns (junk mail, envelopes filled with coupons etc.) are conducted with the knowledge that they have a 1% success rate in converting into purchases? Sales people understand that striking out comes with the territory. Ball players are considered star-caliber if they are successful at the plate a mere 30% of the time. Students, however, are indoctrinated with a much higher standard of success. The sooner they realize that “the real world” is all about the journey towards savouring the occasional sweet success, the easier it will be to relax the need for themselves and for others to conform to their expectations of perfection. And then, they just might learn something in places they never expected!

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The Top Six Average in Ontario

What does the phrase “Top Six” mean for Ontario university admissions?

“Top Six” refers to the six senior (12U and sometimes 12M) Ontario high school courses that are averaged (with equal weighting) to determine your “university admission average” (like a GPA) by Ontario universities.

Which courses/grades are included in the Top Six?

Your Top Six average is calculated based on a combination of required and elective courses and your individual admission average varies from school to school, and even from program to program!

When you apply to an Ontario university, the admissions department will receive a list of your grades for all courses at the 11 and 12 level, but they don’t initially see all of those grades. Your academic transcript is reduced to a single admissions average by a computer calculation that takes into account only six of your Grade 12 courses at the “U” or “M” level.

All university programs require a total of six Grade 12 courses, but they generally don’t dictate exactly which six courses you must have. Typically, an arts program will have only 1 or 2 specific requirements, and the remaining courses can be any 12U courses, as long as there are six in total. Science programs, however, may specifically list four, five or even all six requirements, thereby limiting your ability to “fill up” your six credits with electives.

All the required 12U courses for your program will be automatically included in the Top Six. If your program requires 12U English, for example, then your English grade will be used in your “Top Six” (university admissions average). After all the program’s required courses have been included, then the university will take your highest remaining elective grades until six grades have been included. So, when it comes to required courses, you have no choice but to use those marks. As for electives, they will give you the benefit of the doubt and use the highest grades available to fill out your Top Six. Of course, if you only take six credits, all six will be used. It is only in the event that you take more than six credits that you have the pick of your highest elective marks.

Not all of your courses have to be 12U courses. Most universities will allow you to apply with some number of 12M courses in your top six. But, many schools or programs limit the number of 12M courses that can be used. This usually doesn’t affect many applicants, but if you have taken several 12M courses and are applying to a program with very few required 12U courses, you could be affected by this limit.

Let’s see this in action . . .

Assume a student earns the following marks in the following 12U/M courses:

English 82%
Calculus 79%
History 93%
Art 87%
French 88%
Data Management 81%
Chemistry 92%
Biology 62%

Here’s how his Top Six average would be calculated for different universities/programs:

Life Sciences (Required courses: English, 2 sciences, 1 math)

83% average based on:
English (required)
Chemistry (required as 1 of 2 sciences)
Biology (required as 2 of 2 sciences)
Data Management (required as 1 math — this is the higher mark so this one will be used as the requirement)
History (highest remaining mark after requirements are included)
French (next highest remaining mark after requirements are included)

Business (Required courses: English, Calculus, Data Management, 1 social science)

85.8% average based on:
English (required)
Calculus (required)
Data Management (required)
History (required as a social science)
Chemistry (highest remaining mark after requirements are included)
French (next highest remaining mark after requirements are included)

English (Required courses: English)

87.1% average based on:
English (required)
History (highest remaining mark after requirements are included)
Chemistry (next highest remaining mark after requirements are included)
French (next highest remaining mark after requirements are included)
Art (next highest remaining mark after requirements are included)
Data Management (next highest remaining mark after requirements are included)

As you can see, the courses included in your Top Six will vary from program to program. Therefore, knowing which programs you’re applying to and what pre-requisites are required is key to creating the highest Top Six score possible.

To maximize your Top Six:

  • Put your greatest effort into earning high marks in your program’s pre-requisites. These marks will count.  Note that 12U English is a requirement for just about every program at every school. You should assume that this course will factor into your Top Six, even if you will be applying to a science, math or business program.
  • Take more than six 12U courses so that you will have electives to choose from. You may wish to spread these courses out over your Gr. 11 and 12 year, and/or use summer school, night school or distance courses. Consider taking fewer 11U courses, which can’t be used towards your admissions average and take 12U courses instead.
  • Don’t forget that some schools offer credit for extra-curricular involvement (music ensembles, student newspaper) and sometimes these credits are at the 12U level. These courses can not only give you extra electives to choose from (or reduce your class load so that you can focus on fewer classes) but also give you experiences that will benefit you far beyond university admissions.

Remember the above tips are for maximizing your Top Six average (and consequently your chances for university admission), not for maximizing your overall educational experience!  Above all, make reasonable and responsible choices, consider your short-term and long-term goals and play to your interests and strengths when making your course selections.

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The University Application Process in Ontario

updated by Marian Buchanan on 2020-02-23


How do I get an application?

Applications to all public Ontario universities are submitted through a common application centre, OUAC (Ontario University Application Centre). All students submit one online application that will be forwarded to each specific Ontario university you select. Students enrolled in a full-time day high school will apply using form 101. Other students, including homeschoolers who have not returned to school for Grade 12 and homeschoolers earning credits via distance/online education will apply using form 105. These services were developed to facilitate the process of applying to the Ontario universities. They reduce duplication in application processing, and save time and resources for applicants and the universities.

What does it cost?

The OUAC collects a base application fee [$150 as of 2020]. This fee entitles the applicant to select 3 different university/program combinations. These may be programs at 3 separate universities, or 3 different degree programs at the same university, or any combination thereof. Additional selections may be made at the cost of $50 per additional selection. It will be expensive, but in theory you can apply to dozens of schools/programs if you desire. The only overall restriction on your application is that you may apply to no more than three programs at any one university. Individual universities may have their own specific restrictions, which will be outlined on the OUAC website. It has also become common practice for individual universities to impose additional application fees over and above the OUAC fee. Not every school requires an additional fee, but those that do are currently charging fees in the $150 – $200 range. The OUAC website provides a break-down of current application fees according to the type of program (Ontario Law Schools: OLSAS, Ontario Medical Schools: OMSAS, Ontario Rehabilitation Sciences Programs: ORPAS, Ontario Faculties of Education: TEAS), as well as the most recent transcript request fees listed by university.

When to apply?

Most students begin their online applications in October or November of their senior (Gr. 12) year. The application account can be logged into and changed multiple times (including changes to programs and/or schools, adding selections and deleting selections), and the most recent information will be relayed to the universities.

There is no general deadline for the submission of the OUAC application; individual university deadlines vary from institution to institution and sometimes depend on the program the applicant is seeking to enter. Usually deadlines will fall in the January – April range. A list of deadlines is provided on most universities’ pages. Unless otherwise specified, the deadline date listed in the individual university information sections indicates the date by which the application must arrive at the OUAC. Even if the deadline has passed for a program in which you are interested, you may still contact the university’s admission office to find out if the deadline has been extended or if there are still spaces in the program.

Then what?

You should receive correspondence from your chosen universities in the spring. Admission decisions are generally available anywhere between March and June, although students who have been wait listed may not know for sure until after students have accepted offers in June and the university starts moving down the waiting list.

As part of your OUAC application, you will have the opportunity to request information on residence, student loans and other financial aid available to you. This information will come with correspondence from the university if you have requested it. You will be automatically considered for some scholarships, but for others, you will have to research (through eINFO or on the university’s website) and separately apply for others.

There is a final deadline in June by which students must accept a university’s offer. Then, the universities will know whether there are spaces available to offer to students who have been put on a waiting list. You may still attempt to gain admission to an Ontario university after June, although preference will have been given to those who accepted offers of admission and those who had been placed on waiting lists. There is a service available to students in June through the OUAC that lists which Ontario university programs, if any, still have space remaining. Universities are less concerned about the fact that a deadline has passed and more concerned with filling all available spaces, so it is still possible to be accepted by a university right up until the start of the school year.  Beginning in mid June you may call the Ontario Universities’ Admission Information Service at 519 823-1940, ext. ‘0’, or access the web site at: www.ouac.on.ca/101/referral.html. This website will list every university in Ontario that still has space available, with detailed lists of programs that are open.

Insider Tip!

These forms used to be filled out by hand and reviewed by a high school guidance counselor, who could point out silly mistakes on the application. One mistake that students now make is applying to the same degree program at the same university multiple times. For example, a student who desperately wants to be accepted at Guelph may think she is improving her chances by applying to Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology at Guelph. But, these are actually different majors within the same degree program: a B.A. (Bachelor of Arts).

Most Ontario universities ask for this detailed information (choice of major) for planning purposes, but understand that high school seniors may not be in the best position to know exactly which major will best suit them. Universities do not consider these choices of major binding and in fact, most universities do not ask students to formally declare a major until the completion of their first year. It is common for students to take a broad, general first year of studies and learn a bit about the disciplines, departments and professors before narrowing their studies. So, this student wasted two selections (or potentially paid for two extra selections) on her application because the electronic system won’t prevent her from making these additional choices . . . but a guidance counselor would!

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