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Choose to study in Canada, and you’ll have the opportunity to encounter vastly different cultural and natural experiences – from the ski slopes of British Columbia to the prairie province of Manitoba, with cities such as Toronto, Montréal, Vancouver and Quebec famously friendly, tolerant and multicultural.
Occupying the northern half of the North American continent, Canada is known for its natural beauty – few nations in the world can boast anything close to its wealth of forests, lakes and mountains – and for its multicultural diversity. The country has official bilingual status, with both English and French used concurrently in the government and official documents.
It’s also known for its sparse population (despite being the world’s second-largest country, it has a population smaller than that of just one US state, California) and for its harsh winters (in some parts of Canada, snow covers the ground for almost half the year – but you’re unlikely to find any Canadian universities in those regions!).
Canada has a well-established position among the world’s leading study destinations; as of 2012, it was the seventh most popular country for international students, who accounted for 6.5% of all post-secondary students in the country. Of those, the most popular Canadian provinces were Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, which between them are home to many of the top universities in Canada.
For those looking to study at an elite university in one of the world’s most developed nations, applying to study in Canada can be an attractive option. A total of 26 universities in Canada feature in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings®, of which three are in the world’s top 50 and nine make the world’s top 200 – a feat matched only by a handful of other nations. The two highest Canadian entries are the University of Toronto (17=) and McGill University (21), located in Toronto and Montréal, the two largest cities in Canada. Also within the global top 200 are the University of British Columbia, Université de Montréal, University of Alberta, McMaster University, University of Waterloo, Queen's University, Ontario, and Western University.
Undergraduate degrees in Canada can take either three or four years to complete, depending on the university, while postgraduate degrees last between one and three years to complete depending on the type of degree. Different types of higher education providers in Canada include: community colleges, technical, applied arts schools or applied science schools (which grants certificates, diplomas, associate’s degrees and bachelor’s degrees), or universities (which carry out research and provide both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees).
As universities in Canada are managed by provincial governments, you’ll find there will be slight differences in how education is carried out. Quebec in particular is markedly different to the rest of Canada, with different term times and length of study (in secondary school students finish a year early and must take a mandatory pre-university ‘General and Vocational College’ (CEGEP) course, essentially eliminating the freshman first year of university). Checking with your chosen institutions for specific details.
Studying a master’s or PhD? Read our graduate-level guide to Canada >
Facts about Canada
Find out about some of Canada’s major student cities…
The biggest city in the French-speaking province of Quebec, Montréal is also the second-largest city in Canada. There are four universities in Montréal, as well as seven other degree-awarding institutions and twelve General and Vocational Colleges (CEGEPs), giving the city the highest concentration of post-secondary students of all major cities in North America.
Widely cited as the cultural capital of Canada, Montréal boasts a unique combination of European sophistication and American pizzazz which gives it a buzz few other places can match. As a student, you’ll certainly never be at a loss for things to do, with plenty of theater, music, dance and visual arts to explore, including the annual Just for Laughs comedy festival, the world’s largest of its kind. And don’t miss the Montréal Fireworks Festival, frequently hailed as the best and largest fireworks festival in the world.
Among universities in Montréal is one of Canada’s highest ranking and most internationally renowned, McGill University (21st in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings). Beyond that, univerities in Montréal also include the Université de Montréal (92 – a new entry within the world’s top 100) and Concordia University (481-490) among others. While McGill and Concordia operate primarily in English, many universities in Montréal are Francophone, as are the city’s residents. So even if you’re at an Anglophone university, be prepared to make an effort with your French.
Montréal was ranked one of the world’s top ten cities for students in the 2013 QS Best Student Cities.
Read more about Montréal >
The provincial capital of Ontario and the largest city in Canada, Toronto is known for being one of the world’s most multicultural cities, with around half of its 2.6 million-strong population hailing from outside of the city. Accordingly, it is an exciting and diverse place to live, with its residents’ heterogeneity reflected in the city’s culture and cuisine. Home to the Toronto Stock Exchange and the country’s five largest banks, Toronto is Canada’s leading financial center – while also being known as a world-leading hub for the entertainment, media and creative industries.
Toronto’s collection of museums and galleries is impressive, ranging from the large Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario to the much smaller Gardiner Museum of ceramic art, Gallery of Inuit Art or the Bata Shoe Museum. The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the biggest there is, and the city’s live music scene is celebrated by locals and visitors alike. There is also a vibrant club scene and more than enough cafés and restaurants to keep foodies and coffee-lovers satisfied.
When it comes to education, universities in Toronto include some of Canada’s highest ranked. Indeed, the University of Toronto overtook McGill in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, climbing to 17= in the world. It’s joined by York University (ranked 401-410), Ryerson University (701+) and a selection of other higher education providers, including the Royal Conservatory of Music.
Read more about Toronto >
A relatively young city on Canada’s west coast, Vancouver is the perfect destination for those who want to combine city living with easy access to the great outdoors. And by great, we really mean great – the landscape surrounding Vancouver is truly spectacular, ranging from lush green forests and stunning lakes, to the rugged magnificence of the Canadian Rockies (especially popular with skiers and snowboarders).
There’s plenty on offer for city slickers too in this cosmopolitan and vibrant town. Canada’s third-largest metropolis, Vancouver consistently features in lists of the world’s most livable cities – and has become one of Canada’s best-known and most-visited cities. Cultural offerings include three prominent theatre companies, the Vancouver International Film Festival, and a vibrant and diverse music scene.
Prominent universities in Vancouver include the University of British Columbia, (ranked 49th in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings, Canada’s third highest entry) and Simon Fraser University (244=). Neighboring Vancouver Island, meanwhile, hosts the University of Victoria (321=) and Vancouver Island University.
Read more about Vancouver >
If you like picturesque historical cities, you can’t really do much better than Quebec City. Founded in the early 17th century, Quebec is the capital of the province with which it shares its name, and of French-speaking Canada as a whole. Its Old Town, with pretty cobbled streets surrounding the striking Château Frontenac and the only preserved city ramparts in North America, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Quebec as a whole is full of historic and architectural interest. In fact, there are 37 National Historic Sites of Canada in Quebec City and its enclaves.
But of course Quebec is not just a giant museum – it’s very much a living and changing city. Again, there’s no shortage of things to do here, in terms of both nightlife and culture, and the city is especially known for its colorful Winter Carnival, lively gay scene, and intimate live music venues.
Notable universities in Quebec City include Laval University (ranked 329= in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings) and the Université du Québec (411-420). The city is also home to the oldest educational institution for women in North America, the Ursuline Convent of Quebec City. Teaching at universities in Quebec City is primarily in French.
Capital city of the province of Alberta, Edmonton is known for its year-round selection of festivals, earning it the nickname ‘The Festival City’. It is equally well-known as the home of the West Edmonton Mall, formerly the biggest shopping mall in the world and currently North America’s biggest shopping mall, and for being one of the most northerly major cities in the world.
Don’t let this northern location put you off too much though; Edmonton’s weather is relatively (emphasis on relatively) mild, even compared to some other more southerly Canadian cities. Its location, towards the west of Canada, also means there is no shortage of natural beauty within spitting distance, and the city itself has plenty of attractions – Ford Edmonton Park, Canada’s largest living history museum, the buzzing downtown Arts District, and the fashionable Old Strathcona area, where many of Edmonton’s theaters and live-performance venues are located. All this can be found among arresting modern and historic architecture, including restored historical buildings, and a good range of restaurants, pubs and clubs.
Among universities in Edmonton, the most notable is the University of Alberta, ranked fifth in Canada and 96th in the 2013/14 QS World University Rankings. Other options include the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, NorQuest College, MacEwan University, The King’s University College and Concordia University College of Alberta.
Search and compare the top universities in Canada >
The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) runs a useful online tool which allows prospective international students to quickly calculate the costs of studying at different universities in Canada, as well as providing guidance on the documents needed to apply.
Scholarships, grants, and bursaries are available for international students wishing to study in Canada, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. These include specific scholarships for sporting and academic achievement, and subject-specific scholarships. You might also be able to apply for a scholarship offered exclusively by the university at which you plan to study. In all cases, it’s important to apply as early as possible as scholarship funding is limited and highly competitive. International applicants are also advised to research study abroad scholarship opportunities offered by organizations in their home country.
One example of a source of scholarships to study in Canada is the Canadian Commonwealth Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to students of other Commonwealth countries. You might also find the financial assistance information on the Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials website useful.
When you’ve chosen your shortlist of universities to apply to, the next stage is to get in touch with each university’s international office, which will guide you through the application procedure. You will need to apply directly to each institution, as there is no centralized application procedure.
The process for applying to universities in Canada is generally straightforward. Most Canadian higher education institutions require the completion of a high school diploma and, in the case of some provinces, the completion of 40 hours of community service/volunteer work (this may not be expected of international students – check with the institution). International students may also be asked to provide proof of language proficiency (either in English or French).
For some university programs, and almost all international students, you will be required to provide an essay, a statement of intent or personal statement of experience. Other documents required may include: letters of reference, examples of extracurricular involvement, evidence of community service, athletic participation, and details of awards and scholarships won.
Find out how to get a Canadian student visa >
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