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  • Writer's pictureAlmeera Eman

How to Pick a Uni Program (Or Not)

Attention high schoolers navigating post-secondary choices! Are you overwhelmed with the decisions of choosing a post-secondary pathway that will be right for you? 

Look no further, because this episode is jam-packed with valuable advice from Michelle, as she busts popular myths, provides insightful guidance, a deeper look into the post-secondary pathways, and key resources to support you during this pivotal time. 

Most importantly, there is no wrong path - just steps toward a fulfilling education and life. Reach out to CanGap for personalized guidance and crafting your future journey!

Topics Discussed

  1. Decisions aren't permanent: Remember, post-secondary choices can and should evolve with you over time.

  2. Exploration over perfection: We advocate for exploring various pathways rather than stressing about finding the "perfect" one (especially right out of high school!) 

  3. Assessing YOUR life at Post-Secondary: Michelle discusses the many aspects of post-secondary, and prompts listeners to envisions their life at post-secondary. 

  4. No wrong path: Emphasising that all forms of education have value, Michelle encourages personalised journeys without the pressure of a "right" choice.

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Connect With The Canadian Gap Year Association


Michelle Dittmer - 00:00

With university and college applications just around the corner, I wanted to give some last-minute advice or early advice if you're in your grade 11 year perhaps or you're not applying this year.

But times are changing and I have a few things that I think you should think about in terms of how education is changing and how you can take care of your mental health in the process. So let's dive in! 

Michelle Dittmer - 01:15

Hey there and welcome to the Gap Year Podcast! My name is Michelle Dittmer and I am your host and Gap Year expert.

Today we are talking about picking a post-secondary program and school and for most students this is the first major adulting decision that young people need to make and that can feel extremely stressful, extremely overwhelming for both parents and students.

So I want to give you a couple pieces of advice from somebody who deals with these decisions on a daily basis.

Michelle Dittmer - 01:58

I'm going to give you my first piece right away with no context because I think it's really important. No decision that you are making is a life sentence. In our lives, we have to make decisions that we think are best given the information that we have available to us at that time and that may not be the best decision for you a year from now but in this moment that is the best decision for you with the information you have access to right now.

But even five minutes from now you're going to grow, you're going to learn, you're going to find new pieces of information and you're going to change your mind. This is 100% natural. This is normal. This is common. You don't need to stick with anything for life, okay? You can start going in one direction and then pick another one.

Nothing is a life sentence, I want to say that again. Nothing is a life sentence and I'm saying this because I want to remove some of that pressure, some of that self-inflicted pressure that you are not going to ruin your life with decision that you are making about your post-secondary program. That is 100% guaranteed, you are not going to ruin your life and I think it's really important that we keep that in perspective because when we are overstressed and overstimulated and just thinking too much about a decision, it can really weigh on our mental health and it can also lead us to maybe not thinking so clearly about what that right decision might

be for us. So I want to remove that pressure. Nothing is a life sentence and you are allowed to change your mind.

And that's something that I can back up with statistics. So every year 65,000 students transfer programs or schools and they're transferring for all sorts of reasons. So they're transferring because they've had a change in career goals. It's fine to have those. They're changing because the program or the school is no longer a good fit for either personal or financial reasons. Life happens and it's okay to change. Maybe they're changing to get access to a program or a school that they didn't initially have the grades to get into. So they got some grades, they got their grades up at a different school and then they're going to transfer in. And the last reason for transferring or the last most popular reason is to combine different degrees and diplomas to increase your chances of career success. Now these statistics come from OnTransfer which is an incredible resource if you don't know about it already. It shows you all of the ways that you can transfer credits from one institution to another. It's an invaluable resource if you maybe are one of those situations where you couldn't get into a program because of your grades, figure out how you can transfer in after your first year in post-secondary.

Use this resource, it is incredible. Those stats came from OnTransfer, which is specific to Ontario. But all the other provinces have something similar. So there's Transfer Alberta or BC Transfer Guide.

So if you type in the name of your province and then credit transfer, you're likely going to find the organization that's responsible for communicating all the details on how to transfer between institutions and between programs. Now, the other thing that I want to say to lighten your stress level a little bit Is that all Canadian institutions provide a quality education and I think that we often get caught up in reputation like hey Queens has a really good reputation, U of T has a really good reputation and reputation does not equal quality of education. I think that's really important.

In Canada, we are very, very lucky. We have pretty strict regulations on what it takes to be in an accredited institution at the post-secondary level. No matter where you go, you are going to get a good education. So I want you to just lighten up a little bit, give yourself a little bit of a break, and take a breath. It is going to be okay.

Michelle Dittmer - 06:45

The next urgent piece that I want to share with you from keeping so that you don't get so stressed out too much is that you don't need to have your whole life planned out to make this decision. You don't need to know what career you want to get into, you don't need to know what the job market is going to look like four years from now.

All you are doing at this point is taking the next step. You're not taking the last step, you are taking the first step. We definitely want to be picking a step that is leading us forward and a step that's leading us in a direction that makes sense for us, but it's just that. It's just the next step.

It's very similar to the idea of having a one true love. That is also not entirely true.

You're not picking your one true loved career. The perfect pathway does not exist.

And again here's some data for you that it's projected that people are going to have between three and five careers, not jobs, careers in their lifetime and that's going to be upwards of 15 different jobs.

Okay, so even if you are headed in one direction, that does not mean that you're not going to change directions multiple times during your careers. So we don't know what that future is going to look like. So starting training right now for something that perhaps might not exist four or five years from now.

It might not lead you in the way that you thought or you might discover something about yourself or a different career that might be more interesting to you.

All you can do at this stage is pick a direction that makes sense for you and that is going to be good enough for now. We're not planning the last step, we are only planning the first step. No education is wasted. You are going to learn something about the world, about yourself, develop a new skill, something is going to happen that is going to move you forward. You just need to make that first step.

Now I took a course a year ago about the link between mental health and career development for youth and the biggest mistake was that young people were looking too far into the future. They were looking to make that last decision rather than the first one. So for the sake of your mental health I want you to look at this as just taking the next step not the final step.

Michelle Dittmer - 09:50

My next piece of advice is when you are looking at getting advice from other people is to check in with who and where you're getting your information on the options before you.

Not everyone is informed or equally informed on all of the different pathways that exist out there and every single person is bringing their particular personal biases to these conversations and to the information that they are sharing with you. So for example, teachers can be very informed on college versus university versus apprenticeship versus gap year.

But the vast, vast majority of them only went through a university pathway and they're going to be naturally influenced by their lived experience and it's not a strike against them, it's not a call I'm not calling them out on anything. I'm just saying that is the approach that they are coming to the conversation just as I'm bringing my bias towards gap years because of my experience and seeing the benefits that young people are getting out of it.

So everybody that you are talking to has a personal bias. I want you to think of a couple things when you are evaluating if you should take somebody's advice or somebody's information at face value. So I want you to think about what type of education did that person receive, and in what field? Is it relevant to what the information that you are seeking at all or are they just bringing their uninformed information or their lived experience as their only source of information? Ask if they actually or assess yourself is do they actually know about other pathways and do they have current information about the all of the different pathways because I think that's really important things are changing the role of private career colleges versus college versus university versus apprenticeship versus entering into the workforce it's looking very different and I think you also need to look at how long ago were they in higher education, things have changed. The internet may have not existed when they were in school. The ways that we can learn now is vastly different.

Colleges especially are very different than what they used to be. The trades are so in demand and so well paid and you can even get paid to go to school for that.

So looking at how current is people's knowledge of the different sectors can also help you figure out if that information that they're providing or the advice they're providing is accurate and relevant.

Michelle Dittmer - 12:53 

Now if you know what you want to study it can be pretty easy or a little bit easier to just to make the decision about where you want to go and what program you what you want to get into. So my recommendation is if you know kind of the area that you want to study in I want you to look at all of the schools that offer that program And then you can weigh the schools against each other.

And you notice I didn't say the programs. It's more in my opinion about is this school the right fit for you? Does this school have the supports that you need, the environment that you need in order to be successful? It's not about reputation. If you can't make it through, My primary tip is for you to get on campus. Each school has a very unique culture, has a very unique campus, and you're gonna have to be there for a good chunk of your life for the next four years. So you want to make sure that it is a good fit for you. I want you to look at the class sizes. Is that how you want how you learn best or is that a way that you can learn? Just because it has a great reputation if you were in a class of 1500 students are you going to be able to learn?

The next thing I want you to think about when it comes to choosing the school is the geography. Now are you looking at living at home or are you looking at living on campus? I want you to really think about a couple of things. I want you to think about budget and the budget is initially looks more expensive when you are looking at renting or staying on in residence on campus.

So make sure you are looking at a budget to make sure you know how it's going to actually pan out, factor in bus fare or gas and insurance for a car and parking What is that going to look like? But also on top of budget if you are going to be commuting, what is that commute going to look like? How many hours a day on a bus are you going to be spending? Are you able to study on the bus? Can you use that time for another purpose? For me, I get extremely carsick so that wouldn't be just time that I could spend doing nothing but looking out the window at the highway. So think about what does that commute look like for you? I want you to think about what kind of college or university experience do you want to have? How do you want your day to look? Do you want to spend the time commuting? How early in the morning would you have to leave home? If social life is important to you, would you actually stay on campus to participate in an extracurricular or go to a party with your friends or would you be inclined to go home? Are you able to make good use of your time during classes?

If you're going to have a three-hour break, are you going to be able to get your homework done? What does that look like? If you're thinking about going away, think about how far away you should be and what is comfortable for you. How confident are you being away from home? What happens if there was an emergency? Are you going to get homesick? There's lots of things to think about when you're thinking about that commute or living on campus which then dictates how far away you need to be.

Michelle Dittmer - 17:11

If you don't know what you want study, Totally fine, you still have options. Remember it's all about just taking the next step. So obviously a gap year is an option and we'll talk about that in a second, but if you want to go to school that is fine too. What you want to be looking for is a general first year program or an introductory first year program and this is for a couple reasons. Number one is going to give you exposure to a variety of subjects. So for myself I was really interested in the sciences but I didn't know which direction I wanted to go in so I took a general first year and got exposure to the physics and the maths and the science and the biologies and the chemistries but I also had the flexibility to take some anthropology classes a psychology class and so you get exposure to things and you're essentially exploring for another year before you have to specialise. There's no reason why you need to be hyper specialized in your first year of your undergraduate program. You have lots of time to explore and experiment and to be quite honest coming out of high school you don't have enough knowledge and enough experience and enough exposure to be able to pick something that is hyper specialized.

Get out there, take that general year, get exposure, try some other things. The other benefit of this is that you are likely going to get more generic credits and what that means is if you decide to switch directions, switch schools, switch programs, most of those credits are likely to be able to be transferred. If you were in brain cell microbiology and you decided you wanted to get into kinesiology, maybe those credits aren't going to transfer, but if you took an anthropology course, an intro to bio course, a psychology course, those are courses that are likely going to be useful In other programs so you're not wasting your time if you decide you want to go in another direction. You can always specialize later so look for those generic or general programs and that is a good use of your time. 

Michelle Dittmer - 19:40

So I get the question a lot that if I don't really know what I want to study is it worth applying? Usually my answer is yes. I think it's important to get the experience of going through the process of applying while you do that with the support of your guidance counselor. You're doing it along in the same cadence as your peers. So I do think it is helpful to go through it even if you don't know, even if you're just kind of pulling something out of the dark and just throwing it on that piece of paper that the cost of doing an application is nominal in the grand scheme of it but that experience of going through it and being part of it can be very helpful for you in the future so that when you are ready you're going to be more familiar with the process and besides, it's a little bit of a confidence boost if you get into programs that you applied to but you don't even want to go. You could be the one turning them down. Applying now doesn't mean you need to accept something. It doesn't mean you need to go to university but what it can do for you is buy you more time to figure out who you are and what you want to do. 

Michelle Dittmer - 21:00

Now what if you know that you're taking a gap year next year? What are you going to do? You have two options here. So option one is just like your peers you're going to apply to your post-secondary program in grade 12 in a couple days and then you're going to wait to hear where you get in. Once you get into a school then you can apply for a deferral. And what is a deferral? That is when you say, oh my goodness, thank you, I would love to come to your school in this program but I'm not ready to come September of 2024. I would like to start September of 2025. Now the schools can say yes or no to this request. You can also check out their deferral policies on their website. Just Google the name of the school and deferral policy and it will probably be the first link that comes up. But a lot of schools will allow you to take one more year. So that you can have your gap year and the bonus to this is that you don't have to apply again. They are holding your spot so you can actually just sit back and relax and enjoy your gap year rather than worrying about the application process all over again. 

Michelle Dittmer - 22:28

Option 2, equally valid. You don't have to apply now. You don't apply in your grade 12 year. You simply apply on your gap time and the process is almost identical, which is why I recommend going through the process anyways, but it's almost identical. You just go through that same process and put in your application but on your gap year instead of in your grade 12 year. By not applying you're going to buy yourself some time but the important thing to realize is that you're going to have to spend some time on your gap year figuring out what you want to do so that next January when it comes around and you have to apply if you've done your gap year right you're going to have an answer to the question what do I want to study but if you do your gap year wrong then you might be in the same spot not knowing which direction you want to study.

So I think it's really important that if you are not applying, if you don't know what you want to study, that you are intentional with putting your plan together in your gap year so that September, October, November, December, you are getting closer to understanding what you might want to study.

Michelle Dittmer - 23:51

Now, the Canadian Gap Year Association and I, we believe so strongly in education, but education in the broader sense, education comes in so, so many forms. So we've got formal education, those are things like school, high school and university and college and apprenticeship, but we've also got informal education like taking a course, participating in a hackathon, taking a class on mosaic building, all of those experiences are true and non-formal education.

So we've got formal, informal and non-formal education that are all the things that happen in life. These are all forms of education and they all have value and I want to underscore that they all have value.

There are so many ways to set yourself up to learn and to get the experience and knowledge that you need to live a very prosperous and fulfilling life. Now I'm going to bring back one of my infamous wisdom quotes and it's going to come at you right now. I want you to listen up because it's still very relevant.

When it comes to most things there is no wrong answer but equally there is no right answer. So stop looking for the right answer. Stop trying to make the one and only best decision that you could possibly make. Make a good decision and that is good enough.

I want you to take that pressure of finding the right decision and making the right decision and make a good decision and that is good enough. If you want to chat through your decisions or your options or have other questions about figuring out what that next step is for you, please feel free to book a call with me. I'm more than happy to share everything I know about the higher education space. I spend days on end at conferences, in conversations with different institutions, with young people and their parents across the country.

So please, if you do have questions, don't hesitate to reach out. We'll put a link in the show notes to how to book that call. Really, really helpful to talk these things through with other people.

Michelle Dittmer - 26:32

Now, while the decision of what to do for post-secondary is a decision about investing your time and your money, which are both very valuable, it is not a life or death decision. I truly believe in you and I believe that you are going to move yourself forward and you are going to make a good decision for you and really truly that should be celebrated and I am so excited to learn more about the decisions you're making and the way that you are moving yourself forward in this

world and if CanGAP can be of any support don't hesitate to reach out.

Now my friend, until next time, keep on adventuring!

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