College guidance

Studying in Canada: Tips for applying to Canadian universities

Expert tips from a Cialfo Institute webinar featuring Jennifer Peterman from McGill University and Leanne Stillman from the University of Guelph

Cialfo Community
June 9, 2021
15 min read
Studying in Canada: Tips for applying to Canadian universities
/* Media query for screens with a width of 1600px or more */
Studying in Canada: Tips for applying to Canadian universities

Going to university in Canada

  • Why Canada?
  • Which part of Canada should I study in?
  • Canadian college vs. university system
  • Language of instruction
  • Cost of studying in Canada
  • Work opportunities
  • The application process
  • Application requierments
  • Ontario application process
  • Final tips and advice

Why Canada?

Canada is one of the premier educational destinations worldwide and it is easy to see why. Besides the abundance of highly regarded universities, Canada is a country known for being diverse and welcoming to foreigners, and is generally considered one of the friendliest and safest countries. However, Canada is a large country, and students’ educational experience will vary based on which part of the country they study in. With over half a million international students, Canada is becoming an increasingly popular destination for students pursuing higher education.

Which part of Canada should I study in?

Canada consists of over 95 public universities, over 125 public colleges and 18 private universities across 10 provinces and 3 territories. Due to the large land mass, it spans across 6 time zones, with varying climates. Here are some things to consider when making your decision on which region of Canada to study in:

1. Urban vs rural

Students need to consider whether they prefer staying in vibrant cities, or quieter towns.

2. Percentage of international students in the university

Having more international students will make it easier for students to assimilate into the university and meet a greater diversity of people.

3. Weather/climate 

Canadian winters can be extremely cold, especially to students who come from tropical climates.

4. Cost of living

The costs incurred when staying in a city may be substantially higher than that of a smaller town.

Canadian college vs. university system

Students in Canada have two options when it comes to tertiary education — colleges and universities:


They are post-secondary institutions granting certificates, diplomas, associate’s degrees and bachelor degrees. Their programs are vocational, with pathways to university through transfer programs or bachelor degrees in specialised careers.


In Canada, university education is considered a provincial responsibility, with their degree structures being approved provincial Ministries of Education. The education system is a hybrid between the British and US system, and is predominantly a public system with a few private degree-granting options. Canadian universities are generally larger and more comprehensive, with enrollment numbers of more than 15,000 students. They also have autonomy on their admission and academic policies.

Language of instruction

Canada is a bilingual country with both English and French as official languages, but the main language of instruction for most universities is English. Multilingual universities are available across the country.

Bilingual universities: 

  • York University - Glendon Campus
  • University of Ottawa
  • Laurentian University
  • University of Alberta

Trilingual options:

  • York University - Glendon Campus
  • HEC - Undergraduate Business (French, English, Spanish)

English options in Quebec (French province):

  • McGill University
  • Concordia University
  • Bishop’s University
A university campus in Toronto, Canada

Cost of studying in Canada

Cost is a key factor when choosing and planning for your university experience. 

Average costs per year 

  • Tuition and university fees - $20k-$25k*
  • Housing and meal plans - $10k-$15k
  • Health insurance, school supplies, living expenses - $3k-$5k

Total: $33k-$45k (all amounts are in CAD)

(*Tuition varies by program and institution: $11-65k for international students)

Financial support

For students interested in for educational subsidies, Canada offers a multitude of scholarships. There are merit and leadership scholarships, need-based funding, athletic awards and work study programs allowing students to earn supplemental income while studying.

Work opportunities

Whether it’s to earn some additional income or to gain work experience, universities in Canada offer students the opportunity to work and study concurrently. Some schools have a co-op program, which has employment as a mandatory part of the curriculum. These programs add 12-18 months to the degree, but provide students with relevant paid employment. Students not a part of these programs might instead choose to apply for internships during the holidays, as a way to obtain relevant work experience and income.

Once students graduate, they may obtain a post graduate work permit, which allows the graduate to work in Canada for three years after graduating. The job the student works at does not need to be relevant to what they major in. During this period, the graduate may seek residency if they wish to settle down in Canada.

Many Canadian universities also have incubators, which would be great opportunities for students interested in pursuing entrepreneurship or research and development.

The application process

The application process to Canadian universities can be very complex for international students, with no standardized application platform like the Common Application for US schools or UCAS for UK schools. Students thus need to take the time to do adequate research on the Canadian application process to properly plan out their application and maximize their chances of admission.

Application timeline

Canadian schools generally accept online applications from September onwards, and submission is done directly to the individual institutions (with the exception of schools in Ontario). Students first submit a basic online application, which is a “paid statement of interest”, and upload their documents between February and May. During this period, students also submit their applications for scholarships/ financial aid. The request for housing will vary between universities, whether it is submitted on initial application or through a separate process. The deadline for students to confirm their offer and apply for immigration documents is around July.

Students who have received conditional offers must carefully read the details in their admission letters. If the conditions for admission are not met, the student’s admission may be revoked or modified (i.e. it can be modified to probationary status or changed to alternate program). 

When it comes to the course selection, students apply for a general area of study (e.g.. Liberal Arts, Education, Engineering) rather than to a specific course. Some schools even allow students to have the first year in university as “undeclared”, with the decision made during the students’ second year. 

Application requirements

For Canadian universities, valuation mainly comes down to academic grades.

  • Transcripts: These pertain to the school and its curriculum (i.e. IB/AP/A-Levels)
  • Prerequisite courses: Some programs require prerequisite courses, so it's important that students check and ensure they meet the prerequisites
  • Scholarship & aid: These vary by institution, and requirements differ
  • Housing selection: Students need to provide information on their housing selection when making their application
  • Additional documents: Depending on the school, students may be required to submit essays, references, or proof of language proficiency

Proof of language proficiency

Again, this depends on the institution that a student is applying to. Whether students need to submit proof of language proficiency is typically determined by school curriculum or length of studies in an English-designated country. 

Possible waivers for an international/bilingual curriculum of study include:

  • IB English
  • GCSE English
  • 4 years of an English curriculum

Having Canadian citizenship does not automatically exempt students from submitting proof. Depending on the institution, students may be required to take different English language tests, such as the TOEFL, IELTS, Duolingo, SAT ECRW.

Ontario application process

Ontario applications are done via a centralised application portal, the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre. Some of the fees include:

  • Base Application Fee - $156 CAD for initial 3 program choices
  • Additional Choice Fee - $50 CAD per additional choice
  • International Service Fee - $10 CAD if student is not a Canadian citizen or Permanent Resident
  • Additional Program or Document Evaluation Fee - $50 CAD - $100 CAD

The Ontario Application has 3 main requirements: the official transcript from your institution, any proof of English proficiency, and any supplemental requirements, such as interviews or essays. These official transcripts have to be submitted directly from the students’ high schools to the universities, not to OUAC. There are plans in place to allow direct submission to OUAC in the future. 

Aside from the OUAC, some Canadian universities can be applied to via the Common Application. These are:

  1. University of Guelph (Ontario)
  2. Queen’s University (Ontario)
  3. Ryerson University (Ontario)
  4. Bishop’s University (Quebec)
  5. St Thomas University (New Brunswick)
  6. Quest University (British Columbia)

Final tips and advice

Applying to Canada can be a complicated process, so students have to work together closely with their counselor to ensure that they can maximise their chances of admission. Some final tips for students include:

  1. Take note of the deadlines and requirements
  2. Check your email regularly
  3. Only provide information and documents that are requested
  4. Once an offer has come in, start the immigration process immediately
A big thank you to Jennifer Peterman Senior Manager, Global Undergraduate Recruitment and Communications at McGill University, and Leanne Stillman, Assistant Registrar, International Recruitment & Admissions at the University of Guelph, for their invaluable insights and expert advice that made this webinar and article possible.

Fill out the form below

Opt in for monthly updates

Thank you for your interest! A member of our Partnerships Team will get in touch with you in the next 24-48 hours.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Get a head start on your Australian undergraduate journey

Find out more about how Cialfo supports applications to all Australian universities, while giving you a fee waiver on your first application.

Get helpful insights on higher education.

Join the Cialfo Community for full access to expert insights, past webinars and up-to-date tips on the college admissions process.

You might also like this

College application processes
Tips for the Common Application essay and supplemental writing

How do you craft the best personal statement for your Common Application? A college counselor and director of admissions share their tips on writing application essays that stand out.

Read More
College guidance
Pursuing sports in US colleges

The US is the premier college destination for student athletes worldwide. Here's what you need to know about pursuing sports in a US college, from scholarships to NCAA eligibility.

Read More