Advice for students university bound

University is a journey, not a destination

There likely are not too many people who know more than Nick Van Herk does about just how busy this time of year can be for a Grade 12 student.

Holding the unique title of director of university counselling at Royal St. George’s College, an all-boys school near Bathurst Street and Bloor Street West, his schedule is jam packed with classroom meetings and one-on-one counselling sessions, not only with the 68 students in this year’s Grade 12 class but with introductory sessions for Grade 9 students and increasingly in-depth guidance for those in the grades in between as well.

Van Herk took some time between meetings with students to explain how his school prepares pupils as they apply for admission to university.

“I’m just trying to get a sense of where they all are in terms of their research and planning and getting ready to apply,” he said. “We’ve had a couple guys who have already started applications, and we have a guy who already has an offer in hand, actually.”

While the deadline for applications to university isn’t until January, Van Herk said they like to have their students finish before the holidays in December.

Starting early, it would seem, is a common theme at Royal St. George’s College. As a university counsellor, Van Herk starts reaching out to students as early as the ninth grade.

“Grade 9 is really just an introduction, so I go through and meet with all the Grade 9 classes and introduce myself and try to explain in Grade 9 terms why we have a university counsellor at St. George’s and a little bit about what university is,” he said. “In Grade 9 they’re really focused on what’s for lunch so it’s hard for them to see what’s coming four years down the road.”

Without “hitting them over the head” with volumes of information, Van Herk explains to the younger students some key factors, such as the difference between Canadian schools and American schools,.

“Most schools and programs in Canada it’s your Grade 12 marks that really determine whether you’re in or not, and there’s not a whole lot more to the application than that,” he said. “But the American application is marks throughout high school, SAT scores, community service and engagement, and reference letters and essays.”

About 60 percent of the Royal St. George’s graduating class will go to universities in Ontario, while the other 40 percent will head off to schools in other parts of Canada, to the U.S. and, in a few cases, overseas.

“A couple years ago we had 11 apply to the U.S. and 11 to the UK — all of them successful in their admissions, but they didn’t all go,” he comments.

Regardless of where students plan to go to university, the planning starts in Grade 10. Van Herk said it has to do with a series of prerequisite classes.

“If you decide not to take physics in Grade 11, well you’re not taking physics in Grade 12 and you’re not going into engineering as a result,” he said. “So those decisions have to be made in Grade 10, now.”

Van Herk said he goes class to class to help the students make sure they’re picking the right courses for Grade 11 so that they can be prepared when they need to apply to university two years later.

Once in Grade 11, the students begin having one-on-one sessions with Van Herk.

“They have to sit down with me and talk about what their goals or hopes or aspirations are so we can help them in fine-tuning their research,” he said. “In Grade 12 is when it gets really serious.”

He meets every Wednesday with the entire Grade 12 class, and then holds individual sessions with students.

Those final year one-on-one sessions begin as a progress update from the previous year’s meetings, where any changes in the student’s goals are discussed before focusing on more personal and specific points. They provide a place for students to ask questions “they wouldn’t feel like asking in front of 67 of their classmates,” Van Herk said, and also make sure the student is up to speed on how to complete the actual applications.

This may be a very lengthy and thought-out approach to the university application process, but does it fulfill its goal of ushering high school graduates into university? Van Herk is confident that it does.

“Historically it’s virtually 100 percent,” he said.

University is  a journey, not a destination

Making sure you pick the right school and program can be a daunting task. While acknowledging that every situation is different, Van Herk has five pieces of advice to help in the decision-making process.

  1. The ultimate goal is to find yourself in a program that is challenging and rewarding (but manageable) and in a place where you feel comfortable and happy. At the end of the day, you’re the one who has to get out of bed every day for the next four years, so make sure you pick a program/place where you’ll want to do that.
  2. Own the process. It’s your life — not your friend’s, not your parents’. Make sure you are actively engaged in every step.
  3. Remember that your time at university/college is a process or journey and not just an outcome or destination. It’s going to be a collection of all the experiences you have, both in and out of the classroom. Make the most of your time there by getting involved.
  4. It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what you want to study. Many students — if not the majority these days — change their minds when they discover new interests and abilities at university/college.
  5. It’s not just about the sweatshirt. Follow your heart.

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