This article was written by Dan Seneker, manager of undergraduate recruitment at the University of Saskatchewan.

When it comes to deciding on your future after high school, there are few times when such a decision will have such a large impact on your life. It ranks right up there with marriage, children, moving out of your parent’s house and buying your first home.

Now this isn’t meant to scare you or make you more nervous about making a decision, but the reality is that most teenagers will spend more time researching and deciding upon what car they’ll buy than the university or college they will attend.

Think about it: one decision will last you for five to maybe ten years and the other will have an impact on the rest of your life.

One of the advantages students have over their peers from past generations is the breadth of university programs and career options available – there are thousands of choices, many of which were non-existent only a few decades ago.

How can you narrow it down to just one program and university? Some students approach the application process with very little strategy and consider it as a contest to see how many schools they can get into. Believe it or not, some students apply to as many as 50+ programs!! That’s approximately CDN$4,000-$5,000 in just application fees, not to mention a significant amount of wasted time! This could easily be money towards your first car.

You may be surprised to hear that the magical number of applications is five – and no more. Below is some practical advice and strategy to adopt in getting to that number.

Ryerson University campus: students on a terrace with autumn leaves.

Ryerson University campus: students on a terrace enjoying a warm autumn day

Your top choices

Your first two picks are easy – they are your “fun” pick and your “safe pick”, which are exactly what they sound like.

Your fun pick is your “no holds barred”, “pie-in-the-sky”, ultimate dream school. If money or anything else wasn’t an issue, where would you want to study? A top-tier school? A school on the Gold Coast of Australia? A small liberal arts institution in a university town with lots of atmosphere? Choose something that is for you and only you.

Now balance this out by choosing your safe pick, which is an institution that you are very confident that if you applied you would be accepted. Don’t forget to be realistic with yourself.  Don’t pick an Ivy League school if you are struggling to maintain a 75 percent average. Instead, do some research and select a school with the program you want and with a cutoff average that you know you can achieve. For example: With your 75 percent average look at schools with a cutoff of 70 percent.

Sticking close to home

The other three picks should cover different bases but all should be options which are realistic and schools from which you would be happy to accepting an offer. One of the picks should be a “homer” pick, or in other words, an institution that is close to home. While you may not like this idea you never know what can happen between now and the time you accept your offer. Life happens and when it does you’ll be thankful that you have an option that is near home so you can deal with life as well as continue your studies. For most of you, having a homer pick will also make mom and dad happy as they hold on to the slim reality that you won’t be moving away!

Rounding out the list

That leaves you with two choices, and what you do with them is up to you. However, the main thing to determine is what type of environment you want for yourself over the next three to four years.

Canada has an excellent post-secondary system with top quality institutions that go well beyond the large universities that everyone has at the tips of their tongues. There are both medium and small universities in addition to the large ones across the country that deliver quality education which is recognized around the world. So by being re-assured about quality university education in Canada, you can focus more on the ideal study environment for you because that’s what will be a primary factor in your academic success, not necessarily the name of the institution on your parchment.

Cape Breton University students

Cape Breton University students

As the cliché goes, do you want to be a small fish in a big pond? Then look at a larger institution of 30,000+ students where you can be as anonymous as you want and you won’t have people keeping track of your every move. This will mean that you will want to look at the larger urban centres in Canada such as Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver that all have universities that fit this category.

Do you want to be a small fish in a small pond? Look at a small to medium sized institution that will range from about 1,000 to 25,000 students – these types of universities are located in a variety of urban centres such as Halifax, Sherbrooke, Kingston, Peterborough, Thunder Bay, Saskatoon, and Victoria. They can also be found in smaller more rural centres such as Antigonish, Wolfville,  Sackville, or Lennoxville.  Conversely, what about all the “big fish” out there who want to blaze a trail and be involved in anything and everything? Students with these aspirations will be the ones seeking out opportunity, so it might not matter where you choose but you should still try and find a place that “fits”.

The question of fit

You often hear people talking about “university fit”, and there is a lot of truth to it. Quite often you’ll hear stories from friends or friends of friends about how a certain university is terrible, and that’s why they failed or aren’t going back. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

What typically happens is that the student didn’t pick a school with the right fit and didn’t mesh with the campus philosophy. For example, they wanted to blend in with the student body but picked a school with less than 1,000 students; they wanted a more close knit environment but chose a school with classes larger than their hometown; they wanted a large range of intramural activities where students get involved, but instead chose a commuter campus; or worse yet they based their choice on where their high school friends or their boyfriend/girlfriend were attending. Whatever the scenario, they didn’t do their research…but perhaps they are driving around in the perfect car, right?

So there you go, a few tips to help you make a decision that is right for you. Keep the choices down to five, be strategic in picking them, be realistic in what you can achieve (and afford) and do your research so that you choose a school that is right for you – not for your friends or parents. Good luck with your search!