Going to college? The best advice for new students

Here’s a crash course in choosing from 10,000 college programs, staying on top of your work, finding financial support, getting help when you need it—and having fun and making friends
Illustration by Sam Island
Illustration by Sam Island

You’re thinking about going to college—what do you need to know? For one thing, most Canadian colleges accept students on a rolling basis, so you can start at any time of year. Learning tends to be hands-on, while programs are shorter—and cheaper, and often more intense—than those offered by universities. They offer a wide range of services, from career counselling to mental health support to fitness facilities, and each has its own sense of school spirit on campus (yes, even during COVID). And no matter where you live, you are likely no further than an hour’s drive from one of them. There are more than 135 colleges in Canada, and locations range from the busiest cities to some of the country’s smallest communities.

Many college students have no idea what to expect when they arrive on campus for their first day of school. So we polled administrators, as well as current and former students, for their best advice.

How to choose which program to take

Colleges in Canada are best known for their training programs for the skilled trades, like tool and die making or plumbing, but Denise Amyot, president and CEO of Colleges and Institutes Canada, points out that there are 10,000 different programs at colleges and institutes across Canada. “There’s enough for all tastes and all passions,” she says.

Of course, the sheer number of options makes it challenging to choose the right course—and according to Lornie Hughes, the registrar and executive director of student experience at Prince Edward Island’s Holland College, the best way to do that is to visit the campus. “This has become less of a norm than it was a decade ago,” he says. “But physically visiting the campus [is helpful because] the instructors are welcoming and will allow people to walk through their classrooms,” so students get a sense of what the program focuses on and whether it will meet their needs.

Hughes says understanding an industry’s job prospects and what employment actually looks like for grads can also help students make a decision. One good source for labour market information: your provincial government. In Ontario, the government tracks and publishes graduation and employment rates for different college programs, as well as what types of jobs students landed after graduating and how much income they typically made.

Hughes cautions against letting anyone—whether friends, family or pop culture—have too much influence over what you decide to study or train in. He points to a 2015 spike in applications to Holland College’s Culinary Institute of Canada—around the same time, he says, that the reality TV show Cake Boss was really popular. “Everybody wants to be a pastry chef, because that’s what they saw on TV,” he says. “But when students actually got there, they decided it wasn’t really what they wanted to do. It was, ‘This isn’t what I thought it was.’ ”

Choosing the right program is particularly important for international students, for whom “it is hard to do a course change,” says Vignesh Viswanathan, a 2018 grad of Confederation College’s dental care and administration program. (Study permits are usually valid for the period of the program you initially enrolled in, so if the new program is longer, you will likely need to apply for an extension.) Viswanathan recommends researching programs thoroughly, including by reading course descriptions on the college’s website and talking to current students. Prospective students should definitely not rely solely on other people’s opinions, though. “Never blindly trust what another person says with regards to choosing a course,” he says. “Everyone has a different situation.”

Colleges are also increasingly collaborating with universities, so students no longer have to feel like they’re “forced into one bucket or the other,” Hughes says. “That’s a significant change over the last decade.” He points to more user-friendly transfer credits as one way students can experience both types of institutions, as well as programs that are actually partnerships between colleges and universities.

Preparing for the pace

College students need to understand that they’ll likely be operating on a shorter timeline than their university peers. Many college courses are two or three years (post-graduate certificates range from eight months to a year, while degree-granting programs run three to four years). That means the curriculum is fast-paced, and because colleges accept students on a rolling basis, students’ schedules might not align with those of their friends. For example, many students start their schooling in January, and summer semesters are common.

That’s one reason why your first semester at college might be surprisingly intense. “Most semesters are only 13 weeks long,” Hughes says. “In a two-year program, that may seem like a significant amount of time, and graduation may seem a long way away, but it’s only really four semesters and it can go by fairly quickly.”

Mackenzie Murphy, an Airdrie, Alta., native who is pursuing an advanced diploma in public relations at Ontario’s Humber College, agrees. “I went into it thinking, man, three years! I’ll be 22 when I graduate—I’m going to be an adult then. And that’s really not the case. My first year went by so fast!”

Part of the reason semesters tend to go quickly is that college programs are very hands-on. “In addition to theoretical learning, students broaden their academic experience through extensive industry partnerships, work-integrated learning, and clinical and field placements,” says Andrew Leopold, director of communications at Humber College. There are also applied research projects, which are a real opportunity for students to help solve real-life problems. At Humber, for example, “students worked with GlobalMedic to fight food insecurity [in Toronto] while earning placement hours.” (The company, a global aid agency, was founded by Rahul Singh, who graduated from the college’s paramedic program in 1993.)

When it comes to academic success, Murphy stresses the importance of staying organized. “I personally use bullet journalling,” she says. “I utilize whiteboard calendars to write my to-do lists or keep track of things. Staying organized gave me a lot of time to realize what I needed to prioritize.”

Joseph Cicerone recently completed a post-graduate certificate in publishing at Centennial College in Toronto, and from his perspective, good time management is a student’s best tool. “It affects your entire performance, both in and outside class—especially for students working part-time jobs or doing extracurricular volunteering,” he says. “Doing some research and finding what sort of method—calendars, study groups, project management software—works for you is a fantastic way to get things started on the right track.”

Jecema Hewitt Vasil, another recent Centennial grad, agrees. Her number one academic tip is to join a study group. “[That’s] one of the main things that helped me throughout my time in school,” she says. “If there’s a day where you’re not going to be at school for whatever reason, or if you wake up and you’re really not feeling well, having people who you can rely on to get notes or even just an overview of what happened that day in class is super helpful.”

Leopold says staying engaged is critical to student success: “Take notes, participate in class and build a rapport with the professor, and attend office hours, whether virtual or in-person,” he says. “If students ever need clarification on an assignment or an upcoming test, the first person they should reach out to is their professor.”

Leopold also says it’s a good idea for students to keep checking their term and cumulative GPAs, “to keep an eye on their academic progress—and to ensure they are taking [the courses they need].” He recommends students make full use of all the resources available to them, especially if they are among those who had individualized learning plans in high school. “Some may choose not to pursue accessibility and learning supports due to stigma,” he says. But colleges offer “health services, counselling services, accessible learning services and much more. Whatever questions or concerns a student may have, there is someone who has the knowledge and who will be able to provide support.” Better yet, these services are free.

Leopold doesn’t think students should get too hung up on grades. “New students may have the misconception that to be successful, you must get straight As,” he says. “Success looks different for each student. They can gain transferable skills by accessing professional development and career services workshops to help them transition out of post-secondary and into their chosen careers.”

Hughes, from P.E.I.’s Holland College, encourages students to seek help early if they’re struggling. “Students would always seem to recognize they were having a downward trend in either academics or socially by the middle of the semester,” he says. Schools know that “students need a level of comfort to learn,” Hughes says. “And they want students in a safe space. So share any concerns you have with your teachers.”

Money worries

There are usually several options for students to access financial aid for college programs, from scholarships, awards and bursaries to payment plans that allow you to chip away at your tuition over the course of the semester or year. As with academic concerns, it’s important to reach out to the financial aid office early if you’re struggling. “Changing the number of courses taken can also impact students’ OSAP [Ontario’s provincial student loan program], as well as their eligibility for financial aid,” Leopold says.

When it comes to spending, Andrew Haire, a recent grad from the human resource management program at Newfoundland and Labrador’s College of the North Atlantic, has one word: don’t. “My biggest piece of advice for new students: save! Look for good deals, be cautious how you spend your money and use your head. College is expensive enough with tuition costs, textbooks and living expenses; don’t take advantage of your own bank account.”

In fact, Camila Ruiz Tacha, a recent grad from Humber’s bachelor of child and youth care program, recommends not buying textbooks until after classes start—if at all. “I did not use half of the textbooks that were listed as required,” she says. “The best thing to do is try to reach out to program alum and ask them if the textbooks are necessary.” If you do need a textbook, she recommends sharing it with a friend to reduce costs.

As for making money, it’s very common for students to balance school and part-time work, even if it doesn’t always feel balanced. “Sometimes it seems like [you are] juggling more than your peers,” Centennial grad Cicerone says. “But there are a ton of students who work part-time jobs while studying. I did!” If you’re struggling with your workload, he recommends asking your employers and your professors for help: “Keeping them in the loop is the first step to making sure you don’t fall behind with either commitment.”

Monica Khosla, a recent grad from Humber’s business administration advanced diploma program, says students should get creative when it comes to scoring extra cash. “I wish someone had told me to keep an eye out for opportunities where you can participate in research projects to make an extra bit of cash. Lots of graduate students are running experiments that require subjects, and in return for your time, they often reward you with cash or a gift card.” Look for opportunities to answer surveys or participate in interviews or focus groups.

And don’t forget about scholarships. “Apply to any and every scholarship possible,” says Tacha. “Colleges always have scholarships and bursaries available for students, and people often think it’s impossible to win them because everyone is applying. However, many times scholarships are left unclaimed.”

Student services

Colleges offer all sorts of supports for students, from academic (peer tutoring, math and writing centres, and program-specific supports) to those geared toward well-being (accessibility services, counselling, on-campus health clinics and gyms) to financial aid.

Humber grad Khosla says it’s important to become familiar with your student insurance. “Emergencies can arise, and you want to make sure that you know exactly how to use your insurance so that you receive all the coverage you are entitled to as a student.” Typically, insurance covers glasses, dental care, prescription drugs and paramedical expenses like chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists. One key thing to know? Many insurance companies allow coordination of coverage, so if you’re still covered under your parents’ plan, you may be able to submit a claim for out-of-pocket expenses that your student plan doesn’t cover. (So yes, it’s a good idea to get those braces done now.)

Mental health resources have been particularly important for new college students during COVID-19, when many people are experiencing extra stresses. Colleges have worked to adapt these resources for our current situation; at many schools, students can now chat with a counsellor through Zoom.

If students are experiencing mental health challenges, it’s important not to suffer in silence, says Amyot. “Speak up and reach out. There are people who are there to support you.”

Student unions are another useful support system. “They are mostly run by [people who are] students themselves,” Tacha says. “At Humber, for example, students’ insurance is provided through our student union, and we have services such as free menstrual products, a sleep lounge, a games room and a dispute resolution clinic.”

Student life

Of course, college isn’t just about academics or future job prospects—socializing is another important element of your post-secondary experience.

Most (95 per cent!) Canadians live within 50 km of a college campus, so “whether you’re in a rural area, the North or another isolated area, you can go to school,” Amyot says. “And with online learning, you also have access to campus.”

However, proximity to school means many students commute, which can make it difficult to build relationships. Colleges have worked hard to create opportunities for students to socialize. Even when classes have to be moved online due to COVID restrictions, Amyot says it’s still possible to get involved in student life. “If you want to have a good social experience, I would say you have to be involved in student life.”

Reach out to your student union, suggests Khosla. “Aside from advocating for your rights as a student, they host several events throughout the school year, especially in the beginning.”

And yes, you can expect to experience Frosh Week this September, though it may not include as many icebreakers or pub nights as it did in years past. Colleges have found ways to successfully host virtual orientation events, and while they often focus on student services and scheduling, they can still be a good opportunity to meet your fellow students.

Khosla also recommends getting involved with clubs, or even starting your own. Haire, the College of the North Atlantic student, agrees. “I wish I had done more research on campus groups, activities and programs,” he says. “These groups will not take away from your academics, and they will actually help you establish meaningful relationships across campus.”

That remains good advice for this year, when some Canadian students may still be learning online. Whether it’s a film club or a group of entrepreneurially minded business students, there’s a huge value in making connections with your fellow students. Technology has made it possible to hang out almost as if we were physically occupying the same space—that film club can use Netflix Party or Gaze to watch movies at the same time, while business students can host brainstorming sessions via Zoom.

One word of caution: don’t get overwhelmed by everything that’s going on, socially or academically. “I think going into college, it’s important to have a clear sense of what you want to get out of it,” Murphy, the Humber PR student, says. “What is your intention? College isn’t just about going to class and writing notes all the time. You should allow yourself to expand and enjoy the journey.”

Starting college in COVID times

There’s still some uncertainty around what the coming school year will look like, but Amyot believes incoming students needn’t worry about the quality of education they’re about to receive. Colleges have solid experience delivering online education, she says. And, because class sizes are small—between 20 and 30 students in most cases—“there’s attention really being given to the specific individual needs of the students,” she says.

But not all students agree that in-person and online learning is analogous. “I experienced both at-home and in-class schooling because my semester got cut short, and I returned home during COVID [in 2020],” Murphy says. “There were times when it was so hard to wake up to log into class, especially with the time difference [between Alberta and Ontario].”

She does believe technology will help new students feel connected to their schools, though. “I think the internet is such a beautiful tool right now,” she says. COVID-19 disrupted the end of her first year, but she still managed to keep in touch with her classmates thanks to discussion boards and group chats—and they stayed in contact over the summer, too. That’s why she recommends reaching out to classmates. “Feel free to send an awkward little DM and be like, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m in your class.’ I guarantee that they’re wanting that message just as much as you’re wanting that companionship.”

Whether you’re starting school online or in person, Haire advises students not to worry too much before getting there. “Prior to attending College of the North Atlantic, I pictured large classes, unrecognizable faces and difficulty communicating in a meaningful way,” he says. “Looking back, things were completely the opposite, and I have made some lifelong friends. I wish I had not worried as much about the small things.”

This article appears in print in the Maclean’s 2022 Canadian Colleges Guidebook with the headline, “The life collegiate, required reading.” It was originally published in September 2020.