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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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: 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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Is March Break the best time to visit prospective universities?

It’s March Break for high schools in Ontario and all the Ontario universities know it!

There are several tours and activities planned for secondary students taking advantage of the time off to visit their university choices.   During March Break you can be sure there will be plenty of representation from academic departments, the student union, clubs and services to answer your questions and sell their school.

But the March Break experience isn’t always the most accurate representation of daily life at university.

The circus of March Break activities may give you the impression that the campus is busier and more crowded than it really is. This misrepresentation is just as much a problem if you want to chill out on a mellow campus as it is if you’re hoping to find party central.

Professors, staff and students who might normally be available for a private chat find themselves swamped with hundreds of students being shuttled around from building to building for prepared presentations.

Some of the current university students may enjoy the distraction and be friendly to the throngs of high school students, but remember that the university year is shorter than the high school year.  That means these students are that much closer to their final exams than you are. You may be invading their personal space just when they are trying to buckle down, catch up after their reading week vacation, and finish off their coursework.

When you visit a university campus during your March Break, you’ll know that the university is ready for you.  There should be lots of information to take home and most buildings and facilities will be open for touring.  It’s a great time to see as much of the university as you can.

But if you really want to get a feel for what your experience there will be like, consider booking a campus tour when you can really see the university as it is most of the year.

October is often a great time to see the campus after frosh have settled down and most students are well into their classes but not scrambling to finish a semester. If you’re considering a school in a city that can be cold and snowy in the winter, early February will often allow you to see the campus in its harshest conditions.  That’s the time when you want to evaluate the distance between your residence building and your classes!

It’s not too late to get a campus tour at many Ontario universities this week, so if you don’t have any plans, consider getting in on the excitement! But remember that it is just that – excitement. For a calmer view of the university, consider also trying to get a tour later this month. Then you can follow up on your interests from the March Break tour and get a little more quality time at the university.

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