Students tell us how they pick their schools

Just how many schools are in the running when postsecondary applicants make their enrolment decisions? It’s a question asked by countless higher ed professionals across the country. Where your institution fits into the landscape of students’ decision-making, and the factors that influence this positioning, are among the most important considerations for any school in Canada. This is especially the case today, as applicants enjoy a broader range of PSE options than ever before.

To delve deeper into this aspect of the postsecondary experience, we asked the members of our StudentVu panel to tell us about which institutions they considered when applying for PSE and how they ended up making the decision to accept (or not). For the purposes of this survey, we divided respondents into two groups: those who applied to only one institution and those who applied to more than one (see notes).

To start, let’s have a look at some of the things we learned about the applicants who only applied to one institution.

Why Just one?

One of the first things we wanted to know about this group was just how dead-set they were on the one school they applied to. The answer? Pretty darn dead-set, it seems.


Only a third (35%) of respondents in this category said that they’d even considered applying anywhere else during the PSE application process. A stark difference appeared between first-generation and non-first-generation students in this area. Students who were not first-generation applicants (42%) were far more likely to have considered applying elsewhere than those who were first-generation (16%). They were also much more likely to say they’d applied to universities (76% vs. 38%).


Next, we investigated the reasoning behind the decision to apply to one institution. Most commonly, the rationale was rooted in personal obligations – students said that they were unable to consider more than their chosen institution due to health, work, or family concerns. As the higher ed sector continues to zero in on eliminating barriers for these students to access PSE, we hope to see this value decrease over time.

Students who only applied to one institution also indicated that they felt the institution they applied to was unique in some way – either in its program offerings or the experience it offered. Financial reasoning related to application fees, scholarships, and external funding also played a large part in this decision-making process.

Again, we saw some notable differences between first-generation respondents and those who were not first generation. Non first-generation students were much more likely to cite not wanting to pay application fees as a reason for not applying to more schools (25% vs. 9% of first-gen). This group was also much more likely to say that they didn’t apply to more schools because they wanted to attend the same school as family or friends (22% vs. 6% of first-gen).

Could these applicants be swayed?

Agreement statements
Total College University First Gen
Not First Gen
373 103 218 74 279
I had a clear idea of what I was looking for in a postsecondary school when I applied. 3.8 3.9 3.6 3.7 3.8
There was nothing another postsecondary school could offer me to change my mind about which school to attend. 2.8 3.3 2.7 3.3
If I could go back, I would have applied to more postsecondary schools. 2.4 2.2 2.5 2.6 2.4

These findings represent students’ reported level of agreement with specific statements based on Likert scales, where 1 denotes a “strongly disagree” response, 5 denotes a “strongly agree,” and 3 denotes a neutral response. Those who decline to answer are omitted from the mean calculation.

Overall, applicants who applied to one institution agreed that they had a clear idea of what they were looking for when they applied to PSE. They also didn’t appear to regret their choice, as they generally disagreed that they’d apply to more schools if they had the chance to go back and do it over.

First-generation students were firmer in their belief than non first-generation students that there was nothing that could be done to change their mind, as were college students in comparison with university students. With non first-generation applicants, however, it was more likely that program offerings (44% vs 15% of first-gen) or a change in location (33% vs 8%) could pose potential game-changers. First-generation applicants, on the other hand, were more likely to point to an improved program reputation (24% vs 15%) as something that might have made them consider applying to additional schools.

“Many people working in Canadian higher ed probably won’t be surprised by the importance of location or program offerings, but they might be surprised about what they can do about them,” says Chris Hall, Syndicate Research Manager at Academica Group. “For example, researchers can drill down on these factors and ask ‘What does location mean to different applicants?’ Is it about being close to parents? Is it mostly a financial concern? Is it about convenience? Is it about the desirability of the location itself? Depending on which of these weighs most heavily on students’ minds, institutions can take targeted action to influence how these students think about their school.”

In many instances, students’ comments supported Hall’s points. For some students, concerns about location were intertwined with concerns about cost.

"Finances were the main issue. I had to choose a school close to my home, to which I could drive daily with other students."

"Distance was a deal breaker for me. I did not want to pay to live in residence so I restricted my options to local universities."

For other students, the ability to get to campus physically was the most important aspect of location, as may be especially the case for students attending schools in large urban centres:

"Accessibility via public transit and distance from home were the most important factors for me."

Others cited familial reasons as an important location-based concern, both in a positive and negative sense:

"Part of my reasoning in choosing UBC was to be farther away from my family."

These comments and others like them demonstrate that even while location might commonly be a top factor in choosing a school, drilling down on how applicants think about this factor will provide institutions with more options on how to influence applicant decision-making.


When it comes to choosing which schools to apply to and enroll in, students across Canada weigh a number of factors, some of which are more important than others. As we saw with this study, students who are the first in their family to attend PSE will weight certain factors differently than non first-generation students. Timely and accurate information about these kinds of perceptions and preferences is crucial for any institution whose enrolment plan makes increasing access a priority. On top of these findings, it is also crucial for schools to know as much as possible about the factors that most powerfully impact students’ decision to apply to or accept an offer of admission.

What you can do about it:

Get to know your applicants and your decliners. Academica’s enrolment research can give your school the information it needs to boost the quality of applications it receives and to fulfill the goals of its enrolment strategy. Contact us online at your convenience to get more information about our research products or reach out to us at 1-866-922-8636 ext. 228.


  1. 373 respondents (21% overall) said that they applied to only one institution, while 1,386 respondents (79% overall) said that they applied to more than one.

At Academica Group, we’re proud to work with hundreds of committed, passionate higher ed professionals who want to drive improvement at their institutions. By providing enhanced research capacity and expert guidance, we allow these professionals to work beyond resource limitations and seize more opportunities to positively impact the lives of their students, colleagues, and campus communities.

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