How to pick the right University, part 1: Go for Growth!


My first day at University – I remember this day very well. My family and I had just finished a road trip to Florida and Disneyland and they were dropping me off at McGill University. I had everything I thought I needed – my McGill guidebook, my Shad Valley T-shirt, and bag will all my books. Everything else was back in my new tiny residence room. For some reason, I wasn’t that emotional nor super excited at the thought of beginning some big journey. Probably because I had just done Shad Valley that summer so I knew what it was like to live away from home and partially because I had some friends and my best cousin already at the school. Little did I know then that it would be the most influential, life-changing and ultimate personal growth experience I would ever have.

Did I choose the best University for me? How did I choose McGill over all the others? There were definitely many influencers — scholarships, programs, reputation, location, cost — but the main reason I chose then is still the same reason I encourage you all on how to choose a University. It was the best choice for my personal and professional growth.

So here is my list for How to Choose the Right University for You!

1) Choose Personal Growth above all else

University is the time you transition from young teenager to young adult. This is the time for you to learn about independence. This includes independent living, independent thought and independent action.

From the ten thousands of students I have taught or spoken to over the past 20 years, the ones that choose to live independently are more likely to go through a significant change within four years. They think more openly, have more diverse experiences and ideas, they can embrace change, deal with more complexity and they are willing to take on new opportunities more easily. Part of this comes from being on control of your own time and what you do with it. Being on your own forces you to make your own decisions on important issues in your life, which forces you to think about them. Having to cook, shop, clean, laundry, pay bills, manage your money (loans, scholarships) are excellent means to building your confidence towards being your own person – and not what anyone else tells you to be.

But it’s not just about independent living, as some of you may still be living at home, it’s also about independent action. This is where you should invest in some extra-curricular activities. Getting involved in a club, sport or organization helps you to learn teamwork, communication and independent thinking (strategy). You have a chance to build Leadership skills by taking on a project or event by yourself.

Lastly, I cannot say enough about the personal growth you can get by living in residence or living abroad on an exchange. I am a big believer in diversity that includes diversity of thought and diversity of experience. In residence, you will meet a broad range of people, cultures, religions, philosophies, ideas, skill sets, talents and lifestyles. This rich mix will add to your own breadth and depth of experience. Learning about others is learning more about yourself, challenging some notions and building deeper ones within. Residence had some of the best conversations of my life. It’s where I created deep, authentic Connections. If you have the chance to live in residence or go on an exchange, go for it!

When you finally leave University and apply for a job, there will be a distinct difference between those people who have taken on strong leadership skills, started their own company, went on an exchange to Peru, did development work in Africa, and have learned to think independently, strategically and with rationale. Corporations want thinkers, doers, and leaders. So pick the university that will develop that the best for you.

2) There is no #2, only several options that are far below in importance. Such as:

a) Location: Do you want a big city or small town? Each has its pros and cons that you can make work for you. However, I loved McGill because it was a small community separated from a big city (unlike say University of Toronto)

b) Reputation: Your school experience, both academic and personal, is what YOU make of it. You can graduate in the top 10% of Harvard or be the Valedictorian of York University. Which is better? It really depends. Reputation is a consideration depending on what you want to do afterwards, so make sure your plans align with that career path.

c) Cost: I tend to dismiss this one more than most because at the end of the day, you can all pay for school via scholarships, part-time jobs, loans, bursaries, savings, RESPs, parental support and finally your post-education income. You can always pay debt back later. Debt is fine, just manage your debt and go to the best school that you want to go to. Don’t let cost ever be an excuse for the best personal growth experience possible.

d) Faculty: Another good consideration but the fact is every school has good and bad teachers. So manage the bad ones and nurture the relationship with the good ones. This will affect your growth as per #1 above.

e) Residences: I definitely urge you to live in residence for at least one year. That said, the quality of the residence is nice, but you should care more about the people that are there. They will make your experience the best!

f) What your Family wants: Yikes, are you really going to make your decisions on your academics, your personal growth, your career (and heck even your social life) based on what someone else wants? You have to live with these important decisions for the next 5, 10, 20, 50 years not them. Your family is important to you, great and they should be. However, as part of your becoming independent and an adult, you have to choose and make your own decisions. Family (and friends) are a great guide, but should not have the final say. If you have been raised right, communication is open and your values and ideals are strong, so they will ultimately trust you. It’s no secret that I am a proponent of moving away from home. Now that I have kids myself, I understand why parents find it hard to let go just as much as I can see why kids are hesitant to leave. However, I still want my kids to learn independently and now I just want them to move away but at least be close by. Remember your family and friends have their own definitions of success and the path to get there. You need to examine and define your own version of success and growth. That said, if you value their opinion because you have a good relationship, then your parents have raised you right and all the more reason to take a leap and go to university an hour or two away (call it a compromise).

Final Thoughts: So as you decide on which University to pick, there are lots of criteria that you, and everyone else in within yelling distance, can get consumed by. The most important one is to go for the University that gives you the best chance to develop personally, professionally, socially and emotionally. Then make the most of it to become a better human and a better leader in less than four years. One who can live independently, think independently and take action independently.

“A liberal education… frees a man from the prison-house of his class, race, time, place, background, family and even his nation.”  ~Robert Maynard Hutchins

13 thoughts on “How to pick the right University, part 1: Go for Growth!

  1. Had to make a the decision of which university will fit me just a year ago from now! Interesting read, completely agree with your points.

  2. I have to agree that there is some great info in this post!

    The biggest one that stood out to me was the residence issue.I skipped living in residence as I had major concerns about privacy and personal space with the residences available at my school and I cannot say how much this impacted my life throughout the 5 years I spent there. In hindsight, I wish I would have considered residences more of an important factor in choosing a school rather than just dismissing them and living off campus.

  3. Thanks! Residence for me was taking my Shad Valley experience much further, living with people for 8 months instead of just one. That said, I got a taste of it doing French Camp (J’ai Explore) in Grade 10 and Shad in Grade 12. I was in Rez for 3 years!

  4. I hated residence. I would advise anyone who cherises sleep and personal space not to go into residence. The students were mostly increadibly immature and a pain to deal with. To do it again, were it an option then, I would have opted for McGill’s apartment style residences, which came a year or two after my first year. Much more civilized. But then, Bobby, I would never have met you! OK, but for that, I would “redo” that part of my McGill experience..

    • Residence is not for everyone, Paula, but it can be for a vast majority. But if one is there or if one can, it can be an amazing opportunity to meet some incredible people. I’m surprised that the ones you met were ‘mostly immature’, although they are 17-19 year olds. Also, all residences are not the same, so that will be factor. However, I would also argue that sleep and personal space can be found if you really want it. McGill was easy that way because of the single rooms. My main point is that for many who are leaving home for the first time, residence can be a great growth experience for independent living, independent thought, and sometimes independent action (rez leadership, for example).

  5. I just spent the last year living in McGill residence, and everything you’ve mentioned reigns completely true for me. No environment is better for personal growth and learning to be independent than residence. You’re doing it alongside people who are in an identical situation, and it’s an environment that allows you to learn together. If anything, the presence of immature university children (perhaps such as myself) taught me to learn to accommodate others and accept the diversity of personalities I had to live with. I too had my first glimpse of residence at Shad (and coincidentally just finished Explore last week) and I think that it’s one of the most important features of the program and its lessons.

    On a side note, which residence at McGill did you live in?

    • I lived in Gardner Hall the first year, then I was in Molson Hall for another 2 years. Though some would argue I spent my third year almost always in RVC. 😉

      I did both J’explore (Moncton, Chicoutimi and St. Jean sur Richlieu) and Shad Valley UNB so I was ready to make the most of Residence. It might be harder for a first-timer who is sorely homesick, but once you invest in the new family, they become just that (even if some ‘siblings’ are annoying)

  6. Excellent points made about personal growth, location, and reputation. Certainly, some people put way too much emphasis on reputation. In terms of reputation, I think it is fair to say that:
    #1 Schools are pretty much equal across Canada
    #2 Reputation of your undergraduate school is not a big factor to consider if you are planning for graduate/professional school after

    Shad UBC ‘007

    • Thanks for your comment. While I agree with the spirit behind your points, I think we can also agree that going to Waterloo for Systems Design vs. Brock has enough disparity in reputation to warrant some consideration, or to go to say University of Oshawa vs. University of Toronto downtown campus. But yes, I still believe you can make the school and course work for you. I just think reputation as a consideration is far below in importance to Personal Growth.

      Yay Shad! I worked at Shad UBC in 1994. Are you still in the Totem rez?

  7. Thanks for putting this together! It really does help clarify the reasons not just for choosing a university, but also on how to optimize the experience 🙂

  8. Excellent article – I would suggest any prospective student to read this!

    Having graduated years ago from undergrad and my master’s program, the other thing that I find important is the student culture and the best way to find this out is to speak to as many people from the school and take a tour, if you can make a trip out to the school of interest. Think about whether these are the people you’d like to be interacting with for the next 4-5 years – you’ll definitely see a difference in each school for many reasons (ie. big city vs college town, academic strengths in certain subject areas over others etc.)

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