Choosing a program
Once you've decided you want to go to college or university, your decisions have just begun. Choosing a program
is the next big step and it can take some time. You'll probably need to do some research and gather information
to help you make your decision. It's time well spent. The work you do now will help you make some good choices
right from the beginning.
Identify your personal interests
Start by trying to identify what interests you. Were there particular subject areas in high school that you
really enjoyed? Do you have a hobby that you love that could lead to a career? Have you heard about jobs that
sound interesting to you? Find out what courses or programs are available in that area, and what career options
You may want to consider career or vocational counseling to help you in this process. Some colleges, YM-YWCAs
or community service organizations offer this service. Many university and colleges also have learning/study
skills centres that can help you assess where your interests and talents lie.
Check it out
For some easy quizzes to help you figure out what kind of career might be right for you, visit the federal
Explore both college and university programs
Think about whether you want to do a program that is more general or one that is focused on a particular
In general, universities tend to offer programs that provide a broad education (e.g., Bachelor of Arts or
Bachelor of Science degree) or that provide specific professional training (e.g., Bachelor of Business or
Bachelor of Journalism degree). Undergraduate degrees take three to five years to complete
(attending full-time). University courses usually require more written work, research skills and the ability
to reason and deal with abstract concepts.
Community colleges tend to offer programs that provide training related to specific occupations (e.g., Diploma
in Graphic Design, Diploma in Dental Hygiene, Chef Training Certificate). Certificates and diplomas usually
take one to two years (attending full-time) to complete.
It's important to remember that you don't have to attend school full time. More and more students are choosing
to go to school part-time for a variety of reasons - family commitments, financial reasons or simply because
they aren't interested in full-time studies. In fact, at some colleges and universities, part-time studies are
the norm. The part-time option is particularly important
if you are living with a psychiatric disability, because it can reduce the pressures associated with
attending school and help you to be successful in your studies.
If you're not sure about your direction, you may want to choose a program that offers a range of subject
choices and career options. This might help you learn where your interests lie. The downside is that you may
end up changing programs further along, which can add time and expense to your education.
Gather as much information as you can to help you make your decisions. Some good sources to try:
- Most college and university websites have program descriptions and detailed online course calendars.
- Talk to other students about their programs.
- Talk to people doing the type of work that interests you.
- Contact professional organizations or check out their websites. Sometimes professional bodies regulate
who can work in that field and have specific educational requirements.
- Many colleges and universities hold open houses for prospective students. These provide a great
opportunity to meet professors and current students and find out about the particular program you are
- Arrange to meet with an academic advisor or instructor from the program that interests you,
- Compare the same program at different institutions. Remember there can be differences between
one institution and another. Course offerings and requirements can be quite different.
- Organize a work or volunteer placement. There's no better way to decide if a career is right for
you than to have some hands-on experience.
Consider the admission requirements
As you gather information, pay attention to the admission requirements for the college/university and
program you are considering. There will likely be a requirement for a high school diploma or the completion
of a specific grade level, and a certain grade point average.
Some programs may also require that you have already completed specific required courses, known as
prerequisites (e.g., grade 12 math or science courses). Others have requirements for certain work experience,
portfolios of work you have done, etc. Some schools will make exceptions in certain situations. For example,
requirements may be waived if you left school several years ago or have a certain amount of work experience. However,
you may be asked to write a test as part of the application process. If you need special
to do this, the college or university's Disability Services Office can assist you.
Skills you need to have
As you consider what program to take, you will also want to assess your own skills in the
Many courses, especially those in university programs, require written assignments. You will need to
have the ability to research a topic, organize your ideas, make an argument and write well.
Using computers is a fact of life for most college and university students. Many institutions
expect students to apply for admission and register for courses on-line. Time-tables and course
outlines are on-line. Library catalogues are also on-line, so you will need to use computers to
research papers and assignments. If you don't have basic keyboarding and computer skills, you may
find it difficult to do the required work. You may want to take a non-credit computer course to
improve your skills before enrolling.
College and university courses typically require a lot of listening and note-taking in class, as
well as many reading assignments. In order to be successful, you will need to develop a number of
skills (e.g., the ability to identify what is important and study effectively to prepare for
tests and exams).
You may want to consider upgrading your skills before applying to college or university. Many school
boards offer adult education programs that include skills upgrading courses. Many colleges and
universities also offer skills upgrading courses to students who are thinking about applying for
admission. These non-credit courses can be especially helpful if you have been out of school for some
time and need to refresh your skills.
Once you're at college or university, your school's learning/study skills centre will be a good resource
to help you develop your skills. These centres provide study skills courses and tutoring support, and
may be able to suggest options for improving your skills.
Try things out
Been out of school for a while? Aren't sure whether you can meet the demands of college or university? Want
to be sure a particular program is for you? You can always test the water by doing the following:
- Take a non-credit continuing education course. You can do this without applying for admission to
a college or university or enrolling in a specific program. If you want to experience a learning
environment without the pressure of assignments and testing, this could be a good option.
- Attend a lecture. Some institutions can arrange for you to sit in on a lecture in the
program of your choice.
- Take a credit summer course. You'll have the chance to try out the program and spend time at the
college or university to see if it feels right for you.
- Audit a course. While you don't do the assignments or exams, and can't receive a credit, you can
attend the lectures and do the readings. This usually costs less than registering for a credit course.
- Take a course specially designed for students returning to school. Some colleges or
universities offer special courses to help you to upgrade your skills and/or decide whether you're
ready to enroll in a program.
Choosing a learning option that's right for you
Full-time vs. part-time studies
You'll need to give serious consideration to whether you want, or are able, to study full-time or part-time.
Many students, especially those returning after several years out of school, find that part-time studies
are preferable. The amount of studying, assignments and tests required for a full-time course load can put
a lot of stress on your physical and mental health. Choosing a realistic course load
can make all the difference to your chances of academic success and your ability to stay mentally healthy.
If you do choose to study part-time and are planning to apply for student financial aid, you will need to
be clear on how your part-time status can affect your funding
Classroom vs. distance education
As you choose your program, you also need to consider whether you will learn best in a traditional
classroom setting or whether you would prefer to do courses by distance education.
Distance education can take several forms, but usually involves the use of the internet either alone
or combined with special software, and audio conferencing, where students and teacher take part in
a single phone call.
Distance education is an important option for students with psychiatric disabilities because it offers
- You don't need to move away from home. If you have good supports in place, you
may not want to leave them.
- There is no set "class time." You can work on the course at the time of day when your
concentration and stamina are best.
- You can avoid dealing with crowds and noise.
- Everything is provided in printed format via email or the internet. This is helpful if you
have trouble with oral information or instructions.
However, this kind of learning isn't right for everyone. The lack of structure means you need a lot
of self discipline. You also lose the opportunity to connect with other students and the support
networks available on campus.
Check it out
Canada's Campus Connection
lets you quickly check out courses available through distance learning at colleges and
universities across Canada.
Choosing a college or university
Finding the course or program that meets your educational needs should be your first priority. If
you have several colleges or universities to choose from, then you may also want to consider some
other factors when making your decision.
Staying home vs. going away
If your finances allow it, you may have the option of moving away from home to go to college or
university. Living away from home brings its own challenges and stresses. You are leaving the
familiar for the unknown. You will likely be leaving your family and friends who may be an
important support network for you.
On the other hand, leaving home may provide you with a new perspective. And if your home
environment contributes to your stress (adversely affecting your mental health), leaving
home may be of benefit.
If you are going away, you will need to consider whether you want to live in residence, share
an apartment or living space, or find a place on your own.
Residence living is not for everyone. It can help you make social connections, but there is also the
stress of living with a large number of people with diverse personalities. You may have to share a room,
although it may be possible to arrange for a private room if you are willing to disclose your disability.
Noise and late night parties can get in the way of studying and sleep, especially in undergraduate
residences. Some colleges and universities may have specified "quiet dorms" - an option worth
On the other hand, most residences are directly on campus, which provides you with easy access to the
library, computer lab, athletic centre and other campus resources. Eliminating travel may eliminate
stress, and make it easier for you to get to classes, especially early morning classes.
If you would prefer to share an apartment or find a boarding arrangement, student housing services may
be able to help.
Large institution vs. small institution
The size of a college or university may also be a consideration for you. A large institution can be
overwhelming for some people - the size of the campus, the number of students and the large classes.
On the other hand, some students find the anonymity of a large institution very comforting; it can
be easy to blend in and be "one of the crowd."
Quality of services for students with psychiatric disabilities
In choosing a college or university, you will want to know how well the institution meets the needs of
students with disabilities. Many colleges and universities have Disability Services Offices to serve
the needs of all students with disabilities. Some have programs or staff members designated for students
with psychiatric disabilities. Smaller institutions may not have a specific disabilities office, but
provide services to students with disabilities through counseling, health or mental
health services offices.
Once you have narrowed down your list of potential colleges or universities and determined your top
choices, check out what type of services each provides for students with disabilities. Talk to
someone with the Disability Services Office or the office responsible for providing these services
to see how responsive they are to your specific concerns and needs. The availability of these
services doesn't guarantee your success as a student, but it may play an important role.
© 2004 Canadian Mental Health Association. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied or reproduced
in any form without written permission of the Canadian Mental Health Association.