UK vs. Canada - support systems

My D is a rising senior in the US and is considering schools in both Canada and Scotland. She has ruled out the English and Welsh schools because she wants a broader 4-year experience.

One thing we cannot fully grasp is the difference in student support. Here are some things we have read/heard about the UK schools (esp. St. Andrews):
• The coursework is intense and students need to be disciplined to do their work.
• Grading is done at end of term, and often based on one paper or project.
• Day-to-day support is not really the responsibility of the school, but the peer support is fantastic. This is likely due to the expectation that 18/19 yo’s are adults already.
• Academic and bureaucratic support from tutors and school admin is available - but one must seek it out.

And here is what we have read/heard about the Canadian schools (mostly McGill/UofT/UBC):
• The coursework is hard - really hard.
• Grading is harsh, and feels like grade deflation to US students used to grade inflation.
• Freshman classes can be massive - 300-600 students. I even saw 1000 reported.
• UofT and UBC? have a system where you are accepted to a faculty/college for Year 1, but you have to apply for your major after year end grades come out - so some students don’t get to study what they want. And if you miss a requisite class, you are delayed a year.
• There is little support for students from the university, but some is available. Getting time with an academic advisor is very difficult, and may be unhelpful despite the wait.
• The bureaucratic red tape, esp. in Quebec, is significant.
• There is a real issue with not getting the classes you need to complete your major to graduate on time.

Overall, we are getting a more positive vibe about UK unis and more negative about the bigger Canadian unis. (We get a great vibe about the small Canadian unis, but they may be too small for D.)

Specific questions:
1. I see a lot of reassurance that the UK schools have strong peer support and peer-directed activities through the student unions, clubs, and residence halls. The Canadian schools clearly have active clubs, but how about the peer support network? Is it anything like the Scottish unis?
2. The academic and administrative support issues seem comparable. Is one country or another better for finding help with changing a class or getting into a required class, managing financial situations with the bursars office, or other administrative issues? My guess is that this is school- and situation-specific.
3. The reports of the Canadian coursework seem more grueling than the UK. Is the coursework in Canada actually that much harder than in Scotland? Or is this just author bias? Both options have ample opportunity to be distracted (so do US schools for that matter). But all I see about the UK is that the courses are manageable if you are disciplined about your studies, and all I see about Canadian unis is how hard they are.
4. The bureaucracy issues are particularly confusing. Is it really so different between Scotland and Canada?

Thanks for any insights you can offer!

You describe UK “coursework” as intense and grading as based on “one paper or project” but this might be underestimating the exam-based structure.

UK students are used to a single end of year exam that covers all the material in that subject for the whole year. They will prepare (“cram”) for multiple weeks as self-study to learn all the material for that exam (sitting in your room or the library on your own for 8+ hours a day revising is typical). And exams often require applying known techniques/information to novel problems/questions under time pressure.

Also note that scores are low (70% is a first, which only a third of the class achieves) so you aren’t expect to solve all the questions. And your final degree class is important for job prospects, if you get a first you will put that on your resume for your whole career.

AP tests are the closest experience in the US (hence why they are valued for UK admissions), but the amount of material you have to learn and regurgitate is generally much greater. So you do need to enjoy that style of assessment.

I have a daughter who graduated from a small “primarily undergraduate” university in Eastern Canada this past May. Yes, it was a very positive experience. Classes were relatively small. Her largest class over four years was 90 students. She had two classes first semester freshman year with 15 or fewer students. She got to know her professors and had great research and coop opportunities.

Yes the school was small, the town was small, and the small Canadian universities are not known at all in the US. The grading seemed fair, neither particularly harsh nor particularly easy.

I have heard the same things about the larger Canadian universities having harsh grading and hard coursework.

We did sit in on the largest classroom at McGill during a tour. It was almost exactly the same size as the largest classroom at MIT, where I did have a couple of classes as a freshman.

Thanks for the clarification @Twoin18. I should have said “exam, paper, or project.” In fact, D is headed for the sciences so in addition to the final exams, she will have problem sets and labs leading up to that. (IOW, she’ll have more opportunity for self-assessment prior to the end of the term than a humanities student.)

I’m not so much concerned about the format - it is what it is - but more about the support. Will she be able to visit her professors during the term and get a pre-read on a lab report? Will she be advised appropriately in Canada to get the classes she needs for graduation (UK definitely, the modules are listed right on their websites!)? If she doesn’t understand the concepts in the recommended reading, will she be able to find advice on where to to for extra help/one-on-one tutoring?

I know the answers to all are “yes, with effort on the student’s part” - so where is it easier? Or is there no real difference?

On grading - yes, the different standards will be difficult to swallow but she’ll deal. It’s a mindset thing. I’m curious if the actual distribution is similar, or if Canada really is less likely to issue thier top grades. Is either country in the habit of failing students, or are there quotas for weeding out especially in the freshman year? I realize this is also a loaded question, and can be course-specific. I have the impression that UK students generally finish, but the differentiation is in the honours class conferred, whereas Canadian students get placed in easier majors, or transfer when they can’t keep up.

Not that I expect her to fail out! But having gone to a weed-out school, and had friendships dissolve when others transferred, I value a high level of student retention and would guide my D to look for that. She, of course, can make up her own mind whether she cares about that. :slight_smile:

Part of the reason I posted is to see if we can remove one set of applications from her list. I’m looking for compelling reasons to encourage her to focus on one country or the other.

@DadTwoGirls, I have followed your posts with a lot of interest! D has added Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier based on your advice, and she already had Acadia on the list. She has been very impressed with what she’s seen on their websites and in the info sessions. They fall into a slightly different category than the big Canadian schools - a little more work to apply, but look and feel more similar to US LACs (but bigger).

We visited New Bruswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI a few years ago for a vacation, and absolutely fell in love with the entire region around the Bay of Fundy and the north coast of Nova Scotia. If only we had known about them then, we could have toured before the border closed!

With her intended field, I don’t think where she attends will matter as much as what she does with it, so the “unknown name” is not actually of much concern. The small unis have some location features that are very attractive and would be a boon to her expected field. And at least two have a specific club that she’s looking for.

Thanks for your feedback on grading and class size. Interesting that the grading would be different at the larger schools, but it’s very reassuring to hear this.

Class size is such a funny topic! D says she wants small classes, so we say to focus on LACs. Then she says they’re too small, so we point to the big city unis. Then she says the classes are too big! She’s something of a Goldilocks. It is so hard to find medium size schools in the right locations with plenty of smaller (<50) classes, and lots of different majors. They do exist, of course, but she’s dead set against engineering, and many medium size schools have a strong engineering and/or pre-med focus.

Re: “lots of different majors” - she knows what she wants to study, but she likes to be surrounded by others in different fields, with different interests. And she does want to take at least a few electives (another reason for the 4-year school format).

These plus Bishop’s (in Quebec) were the four schools that my daughter had trouble deciding between, after being accepted to all four. We were very positive about all of them. We visited all of them, and all except StFX twice (once before applying, once after being accepted).

Hopefully the border will fully open in time for you to visit them.

Let me know (either in this thread or by personal message) if you have any specific questions.

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Most of what you’ve written is accurate as far as St. Andrews. My D19 is a current student. She’s reading psych and econ. Her classes generally have had a mid-term and final or 2 class tests, a lab report and final, or 2 papers and a final. The final is usually worth a minimum of 50% up to 70% of the grade. The students have a week in the middle of the semester together with up to 2 weeks at the end to catch up/study for their classes and finals.

While the amount of class time in the first year and second year is fairly equivalent to that in US schools, office hours and general professor availability is significantly less. Advising is also there but not as needed at the beginning to be honest because the curriculum is already set out for the first 2 years in most subjects. For example, psych takes psych 1 & 2, Econ takes intro to micro and macro. If you’re an advanced econ student you might take a combined micro/macro and a math for econ class.

Students are expected to read and learn quite a bit on their own and good study habits and discipline is important because students often have more free time than at US schools where students routinely take 4-6 classes a semester. Often there are required and recommended reading lists. Required will get you the basics but recommended fleshes out subject.

As far as university support systems….to my knowledge there’s nothing akin to a writing center, for example. Students are supportive of each other and I believe there’s peer to peer tutoring. My D didn’t utilize it if there is such an option.

It has been said before on CC that the UK system is closer to grad school than undergrad as far as academics and I think that’s true because of the focus on one or two subjects without much flexibility to change one’s area of study. On the social side, that’s where the grad school analogy ends: the students at St. Andrews are very involved and there are always many events occurring through out the year.

Because your final year degree class is all that matters in the UK, you should expect to submit poor work at first, have it critiqued and then you learn and improve the next time. It’s not like the US where you have to maintain a GPA through all four years.

Excellent point! My D never received a pre-read on any of her papers or labs. At St. Andrews only your last 2 years of grades count towards your degree. However, if you’re going to apply to grad schools in the US they’ll consider at all your grades, which are shown on your transcript.

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I’m a U of T science grad and DS14 is a U of T grad who took some science classes. DD16 graduated from Waterloo this year. All my remarks will pertain to U of T.

The average grade in science classes is about a B. Some classes are lower, some are higher.

I am not aware of any red tape at U of T. The course requirements are listed on the main website and there is even a tracker to make sure the student completes all the requirements. U of T has a policy called “Dean’s promise” which ensures they can take all of the classes required within 4 years.

Class sizes: No larger than the class sizes that were reported on my visit to Stanford with a younger sibling.

Some majors (called Programs of Studies or PoSt’s) have grade requirements, but not all do. Students do apply for them at the end of first year. The school is very clear about the requirements for entry into each PoSt. The vast majority of students will get their first choice of PoSt.

  1. There is strong peer and don support through the colleges.

  2. The registrar’s office and bursar’s office are within the individual colleges as well.

  3. Both DS and I found the courses quite manageable.

  4. DS reports that the bureaucracy and administrative help at his Ivy grad school was much worse than at U of T.

@vpa2019, thank your for the StA specifics! She really is intrigued by them - the only recommendation her GC had!

It’s interesting to hear the class time is comparable - I didn’t actually expect that. Good to know office hours and professor availability is limited, though I think she expects that.

No writing center… so weird! When you read for your degree and write for your grade…

And your comment on the social side not resembling grad school - very reassuring! D does want a lively social life. :slight_smile:

@Twoin18 and @vpa2019
Great point! She’s coming to terms with the different grading scales, but to get a free pass for the first 2 years - assuming she does UK grad school - sounds pretty reasonable. Somehow, I think she’ll choose London for grad school - or somewhere even more exotic.

@bouders, B avg in science classes sounds perfectly reasonable - she’ll just have to recalibrate that 60% = B!

The red tape is discussed a lot for McGill, and the locked-out issue is UBC. I think I stumbled on a few posts from unprepared UofT students who were venting a bit. The Dean’s Promise sounds great, as we would like her to definitely be done in 4 years (barring some awesome 9-month coop or internship).

The large lectures are not the issue, more the accessibility of the professor or TAs. It sounds like there is great support though.

LOL on bureaucracy at the Ivy grad school. It’s not funny, I know, but certainly ironic…

Thank you - this is really reassuring, and UofT sounds much more approachable than I’ve been hearing.

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