To start your journey as an international student in Canada, you’ll need to find a study program that fits your needs and academic goals. Each year, hundreds of thousands of international students get admission into a variety of study programs in Canadian universities and colleges.
If you’re planning to move to Canada for your undergraduate or graduate studies, you’ll have many options to choose from, based on your areas of interest, career objectives, and budget.
Choosing the right study program can introduce you to new areas of learning, uncover additional professional pathways, and set you up for a successful career. Here are some tips for choosing the right Canadian study program as an international student.
In this article:
- Choosing between university and college
- Understand your interests and career goals
- Identify top institutions in your field of interest
- Review the eligibility criteria for study programs you’re interested in
- Identify the province or city you want to live in
- Make sure the institutions you’ve shortlisted are DLIs
- Evaluate admission and program costs
- Understand future career opportunities after your study program
- Explore extra-curricular programs offered by the institution
- Check if the program fits your lifestyle
As an international student, the difference between university and college may be unclear to you. In many countries, the two terms are used interchangeably, but in Canada, they have different meanings. Both colleges and universities offer post-secondary education programs which students can enrol in after completing high school, but they differ in many ways.
Canadian universities offer undergraduate (or bachelor) and graduate (or master’s or doctoral) programs in academic or professional fields. Once you have completed the program, you’ll be awarded a degree. Undergraduate programs typically require three years of study with a fourth “honours” year, if you want admission into a graduate program. Some undergraduate university programs, like Engineering, may require four years to complete. If you’re looking for admission into specialized professional programs such as Medicine, Law, and Dentistry, you may first need to complete two to four years of undergraduate study with relevant courses to qualify.
Graduate (Master’s) programs are only offered by universities and you’ll require an undergraduate degree, and in some cases, prior work experience, to be eligible. In addition, many universities also offer doctoral or PhD programs across various fields.
Colleges in Canada
Canadian colleges offer programs of study that focus on job market readiness, such as technology, trades, or technical training. Typically, college courses lead to a diploma or certification, although some colleges also offer degree programs in applied areas of study. International students also find college programs useful for skill upgrading, continuing education, and language training. Many newcomers who come to Canada with an undergraduate or graduate degree from their home country find it valuable to add a Canadian certification or diploma to their resume to increase their employability in the Canadian job market. A diploma from a Canadian college may also be useful if you’re planning to switch career paths and move to a new industry or job function.
Unlike universities, college programs are usually one or two years long. There’s a common misconception that colleges are less serious, but in reality, college programs can be as intensive as university courses, given that they are shorter and more technical in nature.
Which is better for you – university or college?
Whether you choose a university or college will depend on your career goals and your current educational credentials, the study programs offered, and what you want to achieve from your education. Here are some things to keep in mind while comparing your options:
- Academic versus technical training: Universities have a more academic approach, with a focus on research, lectures, and assignments. On the other hand, college programs are less theoretical and focus more on applied knowledge and work-related training.
- Program length and cost: University programs are typically longer and more expensive than colleges.
- Program flexibility: Many college courses offer the option of part-time study, while university programs are more likely to be rigorous and immersive. However, you may have fewer course options or elective subjects to choose from in a college.
Before choosing a study program, spend some time thinking about your areas of interest and long-term career goals. This will help you narrow down your options to programs that align with your interest. If you already have a target career in mind, you may also want to go through some job postings in that field to see what education requirements employers are looking for.
If you’re unsure, don’t worry. You may still have room to change your mind later. If you’re applying to an undergraduate program or Bachelor’s in Canada, you generally don’t need to commit to a specialization at the time of admission. Instead, you have the freedom to pick a general subject and then opt for specific courses or electives that interest you as you progress in your studies. Universities may offer more flexibility compared to colleges, and you’ll have a wider range of subjects to choose from.
Once you’ve identified the potential programs you might be interested in, the next step is to make a list of top institutions that offer those study programs in Canada. Canada has many prestigious universities and colleges and no matter what subjects you’re interested in, you’ll find some leading institutions that offer it.
As an international student, it’s important that you don’t discount colleges while looking for options to study in Canada. College programs can help prepare you for the Canadian work environment faster, especially if you’re interested in technical or applied programs.
Check out our article series on the best Canadian universities by subject to find more information on leading universities for: Management and MBA program
Like in many other countries, you’ll need to meet certain qualifying criteria to be eligible for admission to Canadian study programs. Depending on your chosen field of study or institution, you may require a certain score or GPA (grade point average) in your past academic record, proof that you’ve completed specific courses or credits, proof of language proficiency, or prior work experience. You may also need to sit for a qualifying exam and secure a minimum score to be eligible for some courses. For some competitive programs, you may also require a proven track record of extracurricular activities or volunteer work, a letter of intent or statement of purpose, and professional or academic references to support your application.
Once you have a list of study programs you’re interested in, be sure to check the eligibility criteria for international students for the programs at the top universities on your list. This will help you shortlist programs where you’re more likely to qualify for admission.
While the quality of education may be your primary deciding factor, you may also want to shortlist programs or institutions based on the province or city they are in. While many international students choose to move to popular provinces like Ontario and British Columbia for their education, you may find the cost of living (and even program costs) to be lower in other provinces.
Each province in Canada has something unique to offer, in terms of culture, quality of life, ease of immigration, or future job opportunities. Be sure to learn about the various provinces and territories in Canada and make a decision based on where you’d like to spend your academic years.
You can learn more about the people, culture, and job market in various parts of Canada in our Newcomer’s Guide to Canadian Provinces and Territories.
A Designated Learning Institution (DLI) is an educational institute that’s approved by the provincial or territorial government to accept international students. You will only be eligible for a study permit for Canada if you receive an acceptance letter from an authorized DLI.
Before you apply, be sure to check that the post-secondary schools you’ve shortlisted are on the government’s designated learning institutions list. If you’re planning to start your study program in Canada during COVID-19, you’ll also need to make sure that your DLI has a COVID-19 Readiness Plan in place.
The cost of studying in Canada as an international student can be high, even though the education cost is generally less expensive compared to countries like the United States or the United Kingdom. The tuition costs vary by program and institution, with the average cost of undergraduate programs being higher than that for graduate programs.
If you’re assessing how much it’ll cost to study in Canada, be sure to factor in fees for university/college applications, study permit application, biometrics and medical tests, tuition fee, and living costs, including the funds you’ll need to put in a Guaranteed Investment Certificate (GIC) as part of your application.
A full or partial scholarship can offset not only your tuition fee but also your cost of living in Canada during your study period. Be sure to check if your academic institution offers scholarship options for international students. If not, explore other ways in which you can fund your education, such as through student loans, lines of credit, education grants, bursaries, or by working part-time while studying.
If you’re planning to apply for a student loan or line of credit, be sure to check your eligibility and the amount you may qualify for before applying for admission to the study program of your choice.
|Get your GIC with RBC
Students from India, China, Philippines, Brazil, Antigua and Barbuda, Colombia, Costa Rica, Morocco, Pakistan, Peru, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Senegal, Trinidad and Tobago, and Vietnam can accelerate their application for a study permit through the Government of Canada’s Student Direct Stream (SDS) program.
Having a GIC account with a minimum of $10,000 CAD at a participating Canadian financial institution is a mandatory requirement for the SDS. If you have confirmation of enrollment from a Canadian university or college, connect with an RBC Advisor to open your GIC and begin your student journey today.
The study program you choose should set the foundation for your future professional success. This means that not only should the program align with your career goals, it should also provide you with the support you’ll need to enter the Canadian job market in terms of skills, professional networking opportunities, workplace readiness, and career support or coaching. Do your research about whether the study program offers co-op or internship opportunities, and whether that work experience is considered to be Canadian experience by recruiters.
To further narrow down the list of study programs that meet your requirements, you can check if the universities or colleges you’re targeting offer career resources for resume building, interview preparation, or placement support.
At this stage, it’s also a good idea to research the alumni of each program to look at the job roles they are in and their career paths. This will give you a better idea of the types of career opportunities that’ll be available to you after you graduate and the companies that recruit students from different institutions.
In addition to academic courses, many universities and colleges in Canada also offer extra-curricular programs that can help in your overall development. If you’re interested in sports and athletics, check if the institution has sports clubs or teams.
You may also be able to find student clubs around other areas of interest, such as volunteer work, theatre, or politics, or student societies based on culture or religion. Joining student groups is a great way of making friends in your new country, building your professional network, and learning new skills. Some Canadian universities and colleges also offer English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for international students to help them improve their language skills.
Not all Canadian study programs are structured in the same manner. As an international student, it’s important to check if the program you’re applying to fits your overall lifestyle. For instance, if you plan to work while studying in order to support yourself financially, you may want to look for a program that has a flexible class schedule or a program that will qualify you for a student work permit.
If your objective is to prepare yourself for the Canadian job market, you may be more interested in technical programs or programs that have internship or co-op terms, so you can get some valuable work experience while studying.
Some international students also move to Canada with their families, and balancing their studies and family obligations becomes an important priority. In such cases, a hybrid model of course delivery that offers a mix of in-person and online classes might be more suitable than a completely on-campus program. The length of the study program can also be an important factor for many international students, both from a cost and ease of immigration perspective.
Once you’ve completed your Canadian study program, there will be many immigration pathways available to you. Read our article on An international student’s guide to permanent residency in Canada for more information.
Studying in Canada is a great way to prepare yourself for the global workforce. Canadian universities and colleges offer a wide range of study programs for international students to choose from. While choosing a program, you should make sure that it meets your needs based on your lifestyle, financial considerations, and your academic and career goals.