12 things I wish I knew before studying in Canada

Kristina Spencer
Kristina Spencer

2 September 2020 • 6 min read

Choosing to study in another country is equal parts exciting and terrifying. You are leaving your comfort zone behind in a search of a new adventure and opportunities, but nothing can prepare you for feeling a tad (a lot) homesick on rainy evenings and cold days. I came to Canada at the age of 15 to study in high-school; by the time I arrived at McGill University, the country seemed a bit more familiar, but there was still a lot I didn’t really understand.

Although by then I certainly knew what to order at Tim Hortons (think Canadian Costa, but much better) and made local friends, the university system was very different from what I grew up in, and I didn’t have a parent to guide me through this new territory. To provide a bit of guidance, below are some of the questions I wish I had the answer to.

Can you get by if you only speak English?

Yes, you definitely can, especially if you choose to avoid the province of Quebec. Elsewhere in Canada, people mostly speak English. But I am biased — I loved living in Montréal and would thoroughly recommend visiting Quebec even if you are studying in another province. In Montréal, shop assistants typically greet you with “Bonjour, hi!” and French is definitely the prevalent language. Downtown you can get by speaking English, but if you venture further out, French becomes an asset. Canadians are some of the nicest people in the world, so nobody will roll their eyes at you, but if you have the chance to practice your rusty French skills while you are in Quebec, I would definitely recommend doing so.

As a follow-up...

Do you have to speak French to study at McGill or other Quebec-based universities?

No, you don’t! McGill offers programs in French and English, as do Concordia and other universities in the province. But if you have a French citizenship, you qualify for lower fees while in Quebec — even if you choose to study in English. Definitely something to consider when you are applying for universities in Canada.

What is the course structure and does it always take four years to graduate?

Different programs offer different structures for completing your undergraduate degree, so this is best to discuss with your advisor when you arrive at university. I got my BA in four years, while some of my friends finished in three and some did it in five. Canadian university system is extremely flexible and allows students to adjust their programs, majors and even faculties — although the latter is more difficult to achieve.

In Arts, each year you take 10 classes, amounting to 40 by graduation. Many universities adapt the Liberal Arts approach and give freshman students a year to figure out what they want to do; in my first year I took courses in philosophy, music, politics and literature, as well an infamous McGill course called ‘Terrestrial Planets’. At the start of my second year, I declared my major and minor; half-way through the year I added another minor. At the beginning of my third year, I changed one of my minors to receive a double major by the time I graduated.

What is a major and a minor?

A major is your area of study — at McGill it meant that you needed to pass 12 courses to graduate with your major. A minor is a concentration, with 6 courses needed for completion.

How can I graduate in three years?

If you come to university with AP credits, which A-Level results frequently account for, your advisor can lower the number of courses you need to take to graduate. Many schools also offer summer programs, which is something I would greatly recommend — many people stay for the first month of the summer and it is always great fun.

Does your first year count towards your GPA?

Yes, it does. So make sure you play hard, but work harder.

Can I change my major?

Yes, you can, especially if you are in your second year. By third year, it may become trickier if you still want to graduate in four years, but it is definitely achievable. A friend started university in Feminist Studies and graduated from the Faculty of Science with a degree in Quantitative Biology.

What is a Bird Course?

A firm favourite amongst university students in Canada, a Bird Course is an easy university course that you take to boost your average. While I would not recommend taking those towards the end of your degree, they come in handy in your first year, especially if your first year requirement includes taking any classes in science (which is where Terrestrial Planets came in for me).

Are professors approachable?

Yes. Don’t be discouraged by the large lecture halls in first year — their doors are always open and they all host office hours. Another tip — if you are choosing your classes and see different professors teaching the same class at different times, check Rate My Professor for the reviews. Most of the time students are fair in their assessments and you can get some helpful advice on which classes to take and which to avoid.

Do you need to write a dissertation?

No, you don’t, unless your program specifically requires that. Most degrees that require dissertations in the UK only need students to pass the required number of courses in Canada.

What sports do people follow?

Ice hockey — hockey in Canada — is a national obsession. The NHL is a huge part of the culture, and the games are very fun to attend and watch. If a Canadian team ends up in the Stanley Cup finals, the entire country goes into a frenzy. Basketball is another beloved sport, especially after the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals in 2019. If you are in Toronto, go to a Blue Jays game for some great atmosphere.

And finally…

Is it actually that cold in Canada?

As a wise man once told me, there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. I won’t sugar coat it — Canadian winters are cold. There is snow on the ground, and a lot of it. But winters in Canada are not dreadful; there are many places to go skiing and snowboarding, tobogganing is great fun and you can always find an ice-rink to practice your figure-skating skills. Just make sure you buy some warm winter boots (Ugg Adirondack and Sorel waterproof boots are great) and a good coat. 

If you find yourself in Montréal in January, make sure to get tickets to Igloofest, an outdoor music festival in Montréal’s Old Port that draws in thousands of people every year. It may be cold, but Canadians really embrace it.

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Kristina Spencer
Written By
Kristina Spencer

Kristina Spencer is a writer, editor and producer based in London, UK. She’s written for Vanity Fair, Vogue Business, The Business of Fashion and more.


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