High school choices for post secondary education


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It’s about the child.  Whether it is a career in the trades, the professions, academia, the public service or commerce, we all want to help our children open the doors they need to get through to achieve their potential in a way that suits their personality and learning style, and is the right balance of work, sport, play and social activity for each individual.  This first article in a series about educational choices will talk about the high school options for children aiming for university or college.  

For a long time now, parents and their children have been able to choose between public and Catholic, English or French or French Immersion, private boarding or day, single sex or co-educational.  More recently, the choices for children wishing to attend university have become more complex with the introduction of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and the International Baccalaureate (IB).  This article will try to outline the differences in these programmes and what opportunities they open up.  

In Ontario we are very fortunate to have an internationally very competitive publicly funded secondary school education system.  Further, Canadian universities and colleges are internationally recognized as among the best in the world.  (This is a really good article about the quality of Canadian education as seen from outside the country, from the United Kingdom, a country with a very strong reputation for education, particularly for the elites:  How Canada became an education superpower.)

A student who does well at an Ontario high school, private, public or Catholic, will be able to gain admission to a Canadian university or community college.  None of these will require AP credits or the IB.  While there are differences in admission standards to Canadian universities, with some being harder to get into than others, very bright students can be found in all of them, because many students want to pursue specific programmes or go to a specific university because of its location in order to be able to stay at home, or there is a family connection, or to be with close friends.  The reputation of a university or an employer’s attachment to his or her alma mater may figure at a first job interview, but a student who achieves good marks in any Canadian university will be able to compete for a spot in law, medicine or a graduate programme at the most elite universities in the world. 

Advance Placement

Both IB and AP courses are available both in public and private schools. Advanced Placement courses offer greater depth of study in some subjects, and greater challenge for the student who wants it.  AP courses give a student credit for a first year university course, though there may be limits to how many are allowed.  In addition, Canadian students wanting to pursue undergraduate studies at universities outside Canada in competition with the nationals of the country they want to go to may help their applications with AP credits.  Admissions officers look at preparation, ability, and motivation among other things.  

Strong performances in the normal Ontario curriculum will do this, but some schools are exceptionally competitive and this is one among many ways to separate the student from the competition. This is particularly true for US universities, most notably the Ivy League and other prestigious private universities and colleges.  Advanced Placement originated in the US.  AP courses mean extra workload and less flexibility to explore a wider range of interests, but some students thrive on the challenge and know their area of concentration early.  

There is no requirement however to take AP courses:  the student can choose to sit the exam for a $100 fee without having taken a course.  It is worthwhile for a student to join a school AP club if they want to take such courses and/or exams.

SAT - standardized aptitude test

US universities will also require SAT results, a standardized aptitude test all American high school students seeking a post secondary admission take.  While Canadian high schools prepare students well academically, they are not geared for this test.  Some coaching or practice tests are advisable.  There are private tutors who specialize in it, and some of the private schools will prepare students for it.  This is particularly true in the verbal component of the test.  Canadian schools no longer parse sentences or teach the parts of speech or rules of grammar.  While educated Canadians speak excellent English, there are some common grammar mistakes that can cost marks in these exams.  

I have heard Canadians at the highest level in business with multiple degrees use “have went” for “have gone”, and, much more common, even Prime Minister Mulroney often said “for Mila and I” when the first person is the object of “for” and so it should be “for Mila and me”.  Most academic American and UK students would not make either of these mistakes. And don’t get me started on the apostrophe!

Private high schools & Ivy League universities

For elite Ivy League universities, it is arguable that private schools increase the likelihood of acceptance.  They tend to have more guidance counsellors per student and greater experience with applications to these colleges.  As a result, they can advise a student on suitable extra-curricular activities, sports, volunteer and charity work, along with helping the student present a strong package.  

Competition for Ivy League universities is very, very stiff at the undergraduate level.  There are far more applicants that meet the bar for admission than there are spots.  As a result, non-academic considerations play a significant role.  These include the student’s extra-curricular achievements, including success in sports, but also such things as a parent’s having attended, or donated.  That being said, Ivy League schools have large endowments, and if a student is admitted, they will provide blind admission financial support if necessary.  Nevertheless, sacrificing a child’s adolescence on the altar of admission to an Ivy League school as an undergraduate is a bit like betting on making the NHL…great if it’s really the child who wants it, and even then the odds are against it.

Sports scholarships

A word about sports scholarships, though this could be the topic of another article or even more.  US schools (other than the Ivy League which offer financial assistance based on need) do offer sports scholarships to Canadians.  Because of a piece of legislation from the Nixon era known as “Title 9”, US universities must spend the same amount on girls’ sports as they do on boys’.  Given the phenomenal amounts of money spent on US college football, that means there is a lot of money for girls’ sports scholarships in particular.  If this is an option for you, there is a lot to consider:  

Will the scholarship be viewed as taxable income in Canada? (One parent I know paid more in tax on a full-ride scholarship to the US than what a Canadian university education would have cost.)

Will the sports activities prevent the student from pursuing their academic ambitions? (The same student was not allowed to take the biology courses needed to open the door to medical school, and so had to give up on that dream.)

What is the long-term goal:  is sports to be a career or recreation to complement a career?  Of course, the experience of playing elite level college sports during university is also in the mix, and along with the disciplines gained can mean a strong grounding for life.

I'm not making these decisions easier, am I?

International Baccalaureate

Like APs, the International Baccalaureate is also particularly useful if a Canadian student wants to study abroad as an undergraduate.  Unlike many other countries Canada does not have a standardized school leaving exam with anonymized marking to guarantee that marks are comparable.  International universities have difficulty comparing the results of Canadian students with each other, let alone with the marks of applicants from other countries, so the International Baccalaureate, where your child’s exams may not even be marked in Canada, solves that problem.  However, a very successful student who has pursued the normal Ontario curriculum will not be disadvantaged without the IB.  

Even more than Advanced Placement, following the IB curriculum limits children’s course choices and the ability to explore wider interests.  It tends to introduce an even greater element of academic competition than is already present, and for many students that means less time for extra-curricular activities such as sports, music, the arts, socializing or volunteer work.  But for the student who thrives under pressure and wants to go deep into a smaller range of academic subjects, the IB is a well-recognized and strong preparation for University.  

UK university admission

If attending a UK university is desired, the IB makes comparability easier.  UK students specialize in three or four subjects in the last two years of high school, so they do very advanced work, more comparable to the IB or AP.  They are also tested nationally in school leaving examinations, so the universities know exactly what the marks mean.  UK schools generally do not consider non-academic factors.  They do have spots for “foreign students” as the universities charge much higher fees which helps to fund their facilities.  Again, successful students will not be at a disadvantage in applying to most UK universities without the IB.

There UK universities of Oxford and Cambridge are a bit different.  They have a very limited number of “places” and there is much pressure in the UK for them to accept students from the state school system, as students from private UK schools predominate, and both accept government funding.  They mostly reserve their foreign student places for graduate work.  Getting into Oxford and Cambridge as an undergraduate from Canada is a long shot.  There is a Blyth scholarship, and certain niche subjects can offer opportunities as there is less competition for the places reserved for them.  Again, non-academic factors are not a major influence, unlike the case with elite schools in the US.  Of course, truly exceptional world class extra-curricular achievements can factor in if the other criteria are met:  this is clearly the case with graduate places for high-level rowers, but the academics will still have to be there.  Stellar academic results are key, and short of sending a child to the UK to prepare for and sit A-level exams, the IB can provide admissions tutors with a clear indication of ability with which they are familiar.

Foreign vs Canadian university education

There are reasons of course to seek to attend university outside Canada.  Unique programmes, a sports talent, family connections, or just a very adventurous spirit are only some. That being said, it probably makes sense to choose AP or IB streams for their own sake, because they are not necessary for admission to the courses you want at Canadian universities, and Canadian universities will prepare you well for whatever path you want to pursue, be it in Canada or internationally: without the need for a pressure cooker adolescence that may not suit the student’s temperament.   For many students, the ability to explore a wider variety of subjects and interests will be more important than what they could gain in specializing early.  This is something Canadian public education excels at.

More than that, undergraduate life often gives rise to the most enduring friendships of our lives.  Wherever our children complete their educations, we hope most of them will stay and help build the country that has given them such opportunity…and wouldn’t it be great if they had lifelong friends and connections in their own land?  

Every situation and child and ambition is unique and the landscape changes. Some of what appears here is opinion based on my observations over the years. You should seek the help of school guidance counsellors for your particular circumstances.  At most this article hopes to arm you with better questions as you do your own research.