Youth Canada

Where Should I Go for University?

19-03-2009 by Joshua Liu

Where Should I Go for University?

A lot of students have asked me why I chose to go to York University to study undergraduate biology. I get this question a lot, and the reason for this is quite obvious – a lot of people have the impression that York University’s reputation in science and engineering is not as strong as other universities, and so they wonder why I would go there, especially since I’m interested in applying to medical schools.

However, making a decision on where to go for university is much more complicated than that. There are numerous factors to consider, and we must be critical of the information we acquire when considering those factors.

I can’t tell where you should go for university, because everyone is different and only you can make the “right” decision for yourself. But what I can do is go through many of the questions I thought about while going through the decision making process myself, and how my answers to those questions eventually led me to York University.

Hopefully, going through my thought process will help provide some perspective and insight into some important things to consider when making your own selection.

Should I Even Go to University?

A lot of students are deciding on university programs before they even consider whether university is right for them in the first place. Whether or not to attend university itself should be the first and biggest question you ask, but it’s amazing that most students don’t even realize it. It seems as if it’s taught as a fact that it is in your best interest to pursue a university degree or other post-secondary education regardless of your actual circumstances.

However, this issue is much more complicated than what we’re usually told. Suffice to say, I don’t believe university makes sense for everyone, and certainly not at the same point in everyone’s lives. Sometimes students end up in the “wrong” programs because they just didn’t have enough time or experience to really think the decision through.

I know students who realized university at the time wasn’t right for them, left school to pursue other opportunities available, and through these experiences, realized what they truly wanted to study in university. It just took a little bit of life experience and maturity to realize what they really wanted to pursue.

Today, students are often taught this mentality that they should all go to university, and that they should know by the time they graduate high school what program they want to go into, and subsequently, what careers they should pursue. Sure it helps if you have this all planned out, but to think that all high school students should know themselves so well that they are able to select a lifelong career right after high school is a bit ridiculous.

You should be going to university for a real reason. Every major decision you make in life should be supported by strong reasons – that is, your crucial decisions should make sense to you.

You shouldn’t be going to university because your parents want you to, or because all your friends are. If you’re going to spend a significant amount of money and time on something like a university education, shouldn’t you be sure this is exactly what you want to do? That it makes sense for you at this moment in your life? That you’ll be able to approach it somewhat seriously?

I have met students who didn’t know what university programs they wanted to pursue, but didn’t want to be the odd one out with their friends or disappoint their family. So they started a university program that “sounded right”, and mid-way or post-graduation, realized they didn’t have any real interest in that field. But that’s time and money wasted, and often there is no choice but to just go with it. There just might not be enough time or money to reflect or start over - I don’t think that students should ever have to be in that situation.

For me, it was pretty simple - I was interested in medicine. And to apply to medical school, I need to be in an undergraduate university program, so the choice to attend university was a no brainer for me. I’m fortunate that I had an interest that required a university education, so I didn’t have to spend as much time thinking or reflecting on whether to even go. But not everyone is at the same points in their lives, and not everyone is ready to make the same decisions at the same time.

I have a friend who is pretty darn smart, but his grades don’t reflect that. He procrastinates his work and studying, and sometimes if he’s procrastinated too much, he just gives up and doesn’t complete his tasks. The problem is that he has no set goals or vision for what he wants to do after his degree or for a career, so he sees no reason to take his education seriously.

Conversely, I know that my GPA matters when I apply to medical school, so I take my courses much more seriously. If I didn’t feel like my marks mattered or I had no plan for why I was doing my degree, I could definitely see myself slacking off completely in school.

You need to ask yourself why you want to go to university, if it makes sense for you to do it, and subsequently, if it makes sense for you to do it right now.

Which Universities Have the Program I Want?

If you know what types of programs you want to pursue, it makes sense to apply to universities that actually have the programs you want. Sure, it’s possible that you might think other factors are more important than program (e.g. your friends/loved ones are going to certain universities, so you want to go with them, etc.), but that’s your choice. Personally, if you’re going to spend three to four years and a decent chunk of change, I think you should be learning things and getting a degree in something you actually want.

I decided to pursue some sort of life sciences program at university so that it would be easy for me to complete all of my medical school prerequisites. I applied to biology programs at most of my university choices, neuroscience at the University of Toronto, and health sciences at McMaster University.

Does It Matter Which University I Attend?

It really amazes me sometimes how much we listen to rumours and random people instead of going to the actual source for our information. Then again, I do it too – I read the newspaper, even though they are by no means the experts on any real world situation. It’s often easier to ask nearby sources - I mean, if your parents tell you something, you believe it, right?

At the same time, you need to realize that the only place you’re going to get completely accurate information from is the original source. If you’re interested in your school’s policy on a certain issue, and need to be 100% sure about it, you’re best off consulting your school’s actual documents instead of asking your principal or teacher.

When it comes to making crucial life decisions, you want to be as close to 100% sure as possible about your information. If you have a question about a certain university’s admissions guidelines, don’t ask you teacher - go to that university’s admissions webpage. Because seriously, who do you think would have the most accurate and up to date information? Sometimes I find it strange when students ask me questions about scholarship application policies, when it’s much safer to email the scholarship organization itself – I don’t work there, so it’s very possible that I could be wrong about some things.

I remember sitting at a medical school seminar hosted by one of my university’s student services clubs last year. The seminar involved six first year medical school students talking a bit about certain medical school topics and then doing some Q & A. I remember someone asking one of the medical school students what the previous year’s MCAT cutoffs were for Queen’s Medical School. I distinctly remember that the answer he gave was way off base (since Queen’s had posted their cutoffs for the previous year on their website), but of course, this student had no reason not to believe him – though like I said, I don’t see why someone would ask him a question that they could get the right answer for 100% of the time from the official website. Though it goes to show you that despite good intentions, you’re always best off getting your information from the original source.

A lot of high school (and even some university) students think that Canadian medical schools care about which university you attended for undergraduate studies, and that students from university’s with “worse reputations” are discriminated against in the admissions process. For whatever reason, York University’s science programs are sometimes labeled as having not as strong a reputation as some of the other university science programs in Canada – yet the funny thing is that if you ask a lot of students what this means and what evidence this is based on, they can’t answer. If you’re concerned about the quality of undergraduate science education, I really doubt there is a significant difference between Canadian universities. Of course, there will always be slight differences in types of programs or varieties of courses offered, and you may factor that into your decision.

I always have students asking me why I chose York University since they have heard from friends, parents, and teachers that medical schools “don’t accept applicants from York” or “discriminate against York applicants” or other similar things. Well, I know firsthand this isn’t true because my older brother, Jerome, had several medical school interviews the past couple of years, and is currently attending medical school at the University of Toronto – and yes, he’s a York University graduate. I have also met or know of several York University undergraduate students who got into Canadian medical schools the past few years. Never mind the fact that Canadian medical schools explicitly state on their websites that they essentially accept applicants from all Canadian universities. It really boggles my mind when students choose not to go to York University based on false ideas from individuals not even associated or knowledgeable on the medical school admissions process, instead of asking the actual source itself.

So for me, I didn’t have to worry about which university I ended up choosing, since all of them are acceptable for medical school applications.

Am I saying university reputation doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist? No, I am definitely not saying that, but I’m also not saying that it does. It might be true that certain employers discriminate against students from a certain university or program while showing better treatment to others – I can’t say, and that’s something you’ll have to research on your own. I don’t know the truth to this and the extent of it outside of the medical school admissions process, so I can’t accurately comment on it.
Long story short, you need to figure out whether where you go to university matters in terms of your overall career plan, and adjust your choices accordingly. And when you do research this information, please go to the original source and make sure you’re getting accurate information!

Does the University have Opportunities I’m Interested In?

A university is more than just about the classroom. It is an opportunity to not only grow and develop academically, but also socially, spiritually, personally, etc. I think all of these different types of growth are important to most people, so it’s important to pick a university that satisfies your needs and interests in areas outside academics.

If you’re interested in athletics, does the university have the teams or intramurals you enjoy and excel in? If you’re interested in music, does the university have musical bands or other types of groups you would want to join?

One of the key things that attracted me York University was research opportunity. In high school, I always wanted the chance at hands on laboratory research, but the opportunity never fully materialized – so I looked forward to the experience in university. When I was offered one of York University’s major scholarships, I inquired and was told that I could possibly start a research experience right after high school graduation. Although that could not happen for certain reasons, York University did connect me with a mentor and distinguished researcher for the fall of my first year.

Throughout the year, we would meet once or twice a month just to talk about how my university experience was going. He also let me do a bit of research shadowing during the year, attend a lab meeting, go to some talks, etc. During my summer after first year, he let me volunteer in his lab doing the exact same things other full-time summer research students were doing. In my year, I recall several other first year science students at York University also being connected with mentors, though I am not sure if this program continues today. That being said, I think this is pretty rare, and most professors at any university probably would not go out of their way to help first year students in this manner. I am very fortunate that my mentor is a big supporter of students.

In contrast, when I went to a scholarship interview at another university, I asked the judges if first year students were allowed to get involved with hands on research, and they told me that I probably wouldn’t be allowed to volunteer or work in a lab until after second year. I’m not sure if this is actually true, but at the time, the perceived differences in opportunity for hands on research available swayed my opinion heavily to York University. I liked the fact that student research opportunities were there, and I could get involved right away if I wanted to.

So if there are certain opportunities or activities that are important to you, search out and see which universities support those things.

Do You Like the University Campus?

If you’re going to spend a lot of time or even live there, you’d better make sure you like the university campus. You want to make sure that you’d enjoy the overall environment there. While there are times to take university seriously, there are also times to have fun or even just enjoy the scenery.
Most of the university campuses I’ve been to were pretty nice for the most part. Some just stood out as being a really awesome place to be, while a few seemed a bit gloomy. While I don’t think York University had my favourite campus, I preferred the more modern look it had compared to other more traditional-looking universities.

Does Location Matter?

For some students, the most important thing about university is that it’s far, far away from home. Other students don’t mind living at home if that means being able to save up some money for other things.

For me, there were a few activities in Toronto that were important to me, such as my church choir. Going to York University would allow me to remain involved with that. I also lived on campus for my first two years, so I still sort of had somewhat of an “away from home” experience. I personally don’t like change that much, so to be able to have a bit of change but not too much was a nice balance for me.

Other Factors?

We’re all different, and some of you will probably have different and additional factors to consider when choosing where you go for university. In addition, you will probably value each of these factors differently from everyone else.

There’s no “correct” or “right” combination of factors to consider when choosing your university. I just want you to encourage you to look at this as a serious decision, and use the amount of thought that it deserves. This is a decision that will affect the next three to four years of your life

The preceding article is cross-posted from MedHopeful.com - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.


JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

For more articles like this one, check out Joshua's blog at MedHopeful.com