The One With A Guide to Studying in Canada

We’re only halfway through the first week of second semester and I am already prepared to sleep for approximately 4 years. My timetable is giving me an absolute headache (who thought it would be a good idea for students to build their own timetable, WHO I ASK), being back in the swing of 2-hour daily basketball practices is a toughie, and on top of it all the weather is all over the place (-19? Sure. Plus 4 the next day even though you’re dressed appropriately for the Arctic? Why not.)

Fortunately, Light Of My Life Emily has returned from England, and we’re setting about trying to motivate ourselves to plan ahead Fun Things. That has so far taken place in the form of booking our flights and accommodation to Boston for February reading week (!!), and Emily looking up weekend day-trips to Mont Tremblant. January Blues are definitely a real thing, and with the prospect of an entire semester stretching out ahead of us and a seemingly-infinite amount of time until I see my family again, I’m feeling them all the more this year.

Nonetheless, I know this is a transient time. I’ll get over it. The weather probably won’t improve for a while yet, but my class situation will (eventually), and I really am actually very excited for the basketball season ahead.

This time of year is also a pretty major one for future year abroaders. It’s around now that you start submitting your applications; Emily received an email only the other day from an Exeter student asking for more information about Ottawa. With that in mind, I thought it appropriate to draft a brief, practical guide on studying in Canada to anyone out there considering it. I may not be a born and bred Canadian, but having lived in the country for going on 5 months I’m pretty well acquainted at this point, and know what aspects coming from the UK I found particularly challenging.

Please note: I’m by no means an expert! This guide is based entirely on my personal experience, and although I say a guide to ‘Canada’ it really is specific to Ottawa and Ontario. I’m making a few assumptions that the educational experience and cultural nuances I’ve picked up in the capital are broadly similar across the country.

Why Canada?

Incredible scenery, enormous variety, thriving culture, immense diversity and a pretty hot liberal PM to top it off – Canada is in many ways the #NationGoals of the Americas as Scandinavia and the Netherlands are in Europe. There’s a reason Canada has topped multiple rankings (from both the New York Times and Lonely Planet) as the number 1 country to visit in 2017; it’s beautiful, sprawling, and a darn sight cheaper than the US. It’s an officially bilingual country, so English-speakers feel at home with a healthy dose of French on the side, and from Niagara Falls and Lake Louise to Vancouver and Quebéc City, there’s plenty to see and explore for nature and city-lovers alike. I have been lucky enough to visit BC many times, and it’s honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, but I am loving living in Ottawa too. Being in the capital especially has made me aware of several subtle notions of national identity. Namely, Canada feels uniquely different to the UK as there’s a feeling that as a country it’s just getting started. This year will see the Canada celebrate it’s 150th, which by European standards is pretty young, but there’s a strong sense that the 21st century is going to be Canada’s time to really shine.

Now, enough nice adjectives and ~feelings~ in favour of some more practical advice.

The Cost of Living

The cost of living was a helluva lot better for Brits before Brexit and the plummeting pound, but we won’t dwell too long on that (for the sake of my sanity). Canada is generally fairly cheap to visit in terms of the value of the dollar, but there are random exceptions when you live here. I have found rent, considering I’m living in the capital, to be very reasonable (I pay $750 a month for a very spacious, comfortable and all-bills inclusive flat which I share with one other girl. You can find much, much cheaper in terms of student digs – as little as $500 a month (£77 a week))). This I know is not the case in Vancouver, but compared to my experience in Exeter, it’s really quite a good deal. Alcohol costs are pretty similar to home, and getting around by Greyhound and train is more reasonable than train prices in the UK. Rent costs however are countered by unpleasant surprises elsewhere, namely the price of food. Supermarket shops are expensive here, which isn’t surprising as Canada has further to import its exotic groceries. I’ve found everything from cheese to deodorant to be faaaar more pricey than I’d find even in an M&S or Waitrose back home, so you do have to be careful and shop around for the deals. (Walmart is a good bargain, as are shops specific to products e.g. greengrocers’ and cheese delis.)

An Important Note: Added provincial and federal tax occurs at the point of purchase in Canada, which is depressing at first but you get used to it. So remember, what you think you’re buying isn’t actually the price it says it is. Add about 10-15% and you’re about there.

The Boring Practicalities

Visa: It’s a bit of faff as the website is prone to glitching (under the pressure of Americans trying to flee Trump perhaps?) but getting a student visa, aka Study Permit, is pretty straightforward, and I’d recommend getting started as soon as you have your letter of confirmation. Remember to take said letter in your hand luggage on the plane, as immigration will definitely need to see it!

Insurance: No NHS here, Canadians have to fund medical healthcare insurance, and you will too. Ottawa required me to purchase a mandatory student health insurance, but I’ve found this is actually incredibly limited in terms of coverage (ahem, no prescription coverage for instance). As a result, I’d recommend looking into a comprehensive health/travel insurance from the UK. Mine was a little pricer than most at around £300 for the year from Exeter University’s own insurance office, but it really does the job and in prescription costs alone has already paid for itself.

Bank: Banking is pretty easy for international students. There are the ‘Big Five’ which limits your choice to Scotiabank, BMO, CIBC, TC and RBC. I’m with Scotia and it’s the same deal as home, although you are faced with an additional charge for using ATMs that aren’t ‘affiliated’ with your bank, so it’s a good idea to choose one which has plenty of ATMs in the area where you’re going to need cash. Canadians in general aren’t very cash heavy I’ve found however (apart from on public transport), so you can buy basically everything with a tap debit.

Phone: Having a phone is another unexpected cost in Canada. With a population half that of the UK and an awful lot of land to cover with cell towers, this is inevitable. Data massively boosts the cost of monthly SIM deals, which is why I’m operating on 500MB currently and being very careful. There are some ‘budget’ phone companies that could compare to GiffGaff in the UK, but these are less reliable – Emily is on Wind but we have never actually been able to call each other (slight downside). Cheapest options for Sim only are probably to be found with places like Fido, or you could be really brave and forgo a plan entirely and just rely on wifi.

Education System

I have so far found the Canadian education system to be very different to my time back in Exeter. Again, this is from my experience in Ottawa so may not apply country-wide, but some of the key differences I’ve noted so far are as follows:

  • You build your timetable. That is, you choose the classes you like which have pre-set times, and then try and slot them in together. This is great for giving yourself days off, having lots of flexibility and for avoiding unpleasant time slots if you want to do other things, but it does require some serious spread-sheeting.
  • Classes are all lecture based, but classes for older years are generally smaller and some third year classes have discussion based agendas and grading for participation.
  • Midterms are real and Not Fun and are usually just before or just after Reading Week.
  • Assignments are actually marked out of 100! The first time I received a 90 I almost died of joy, until I realised the Exeter conversion pulled it down to a 77. Even so, this is more generous than the average marking back home by a long shot.
  • It’s a little bit… easier? I’m very tentative to say this, but because of the A level system in the UK we are ‘specialised’ in our subject areas much earlier on than Canadian students. This means there’s a bit of catching up to be done at university here, so more spoon-feeding than I’m used to. Not that I’m complaining in the slightest.
  • Lectures are an hour and a half, and you can have terrible 3 hour double lectures. Even worse if it’s in the dreaded 7pm-10pm time slot. (I’m not kidding.)
  • Assignments are more creative. Again, only on my personal experience, but I’ve had some amazingly diverse assignments, including one which asked me to design a museum exhibit for an ‘under represented area of American history’ which was the most fun I’ve ever had writing an essay. Another really interesting feature has been Community Placements, which require volunteering with a local research project in the city for 30 hours and count for credits.

The Weather

This deserves its own section. It might not come as much of a surprise, but you should probably know that it gets quite cold here. And by cold, I mean minus-30-degrees-celsius-I’ve-forgotten-what-it-feels-like-to-have-a-chin cold. The kind of cold that we Brits cannot possibly comprehend in our little, mild suburban towns, and that still surprises me every time I step outside in the way it hits my lungs on the first breathe in like a sucker punch and leaves me coughing . That may sound terrifying, but honestly, as long as you are sensible, don’t let the cold put you off studying in Canada. Just make sure you kit yourself out with the following:

  • A proper Canadian coat. Budget around $150+ for a really decent one; you’ll be wearing it every day for 3 to 4 months and you will not regret investing. There’s lot of brands out there like Canadian goose, but I got a fantastic deal with MEC.
  • Shoes suitable for snow. You’ll see a lot of locals in fancy Sorrel boots, but these are quite pricey for just one winter here. You can get cheaper versions in most outdoor shops (Canadian Tire a big one, try Giant Tiger for even more budget) – they’re easily recognisable as a weird hybrid between a wellington boot (rubber bottom and sides) and a walking boot. Or, you could be brave like me and just stick with walking boots, which have actually worked great so far.
  • Buff. Scarves are not enough for that -20 windchill; to keep your face functioning, you’ll need a thin Buff-like accessory to pull up over your mouth and nose. The fabric will freeze as you breathe out, but at least the action of breathing won’t actually hurt.
  • Layers. Hats, scarves, thin jumpers, mittens (they’re warmer than gloves), wearing leggings and tights under jeans etc. All the little things, but you’ll get good at them.

All this being said, bear in mind that the cold comes with its advantages! Which leads me onto the next point…

Leisure/Fun Stuff

As has previously been noted Canada is a naturally stunning country, and very culturally diverse, so there’s plenty to keep yourself busy when you’re not studying on a year abroad.

  • Summer fun: Canada is home to so many gorgeous national parks, and you don’t have to be in Banff to appreciate the landscape. I spent an incredible weekend in Algonquin Provincial Park, just 3 hours or so outside of Ottawa, and pretty much everywhere you go in the country there will be a park of some form nearby. I couldn’t recommend enough seizing the natural opportunities and going for a camping/hiking/canoeing/rafting trip for the authentic outdoors Canadian experience.
  • Winter sports: Skiing, snowboarding, tobogganing, dog-sledding, snowshoeing and ice-skating; Canadians know how to make the most of their winter weather, and there’s so much fun stuff to be done in the snow and ice. I’d recommend investing in a second hand pair of skates if that’s your thing, especially if you’re in Ottawa (home to the world’s largest ice rink in the form of the frozen Rideau Canal!) as certainly in Ontario and Quebec there’s an ice rink around every corner.
  • Cultural stuff: Canada may be a relatively ‘young’ country by European standards but there’s lots to do if snowboarding isn’t your thing. There’s a lot of variety in Canada’s cities, from the history of Anglo-French relations in Quebéc City to the Chinatown and little Italies in Toronto, to the huge choice of national museums in Ottawa. Canada has art, cultural diversity, history and the added element of indigenous peoples and First Nations contributions as well, which makes it completely different to European countries.

Cultural quirks

For a more comprehensive list, I wrote a blog post on culture shock very early on in my time here about what struck me the most!

  • Hockey. And boy oh boy you better not call it ‘ice hockey’ (the non-ice alternative is ‘field hockey’). Hockey is as much a religion in Canada as the movies say it is; good luck walking into any bar without a Canucks or Sens game playing on the TVs. Attending a professional game was an overwhelming and awesome experience, completely different to anything I’d seen before and only described as a weird cross between a football game, a wrestling match and an indoor concert.
  • Milk comes in plastic bags. I know. It’s weird. But you have your designated ‘milk jug’ in the fridge for said-bags and you get used to it.
  • Tipping. Having done a stint at waitressing myself back home, I’d say tipping is a much looser concept in the UK than it is here. If you pay by card for a meal out, expect to have to navigate a ‘20%’, ‘30%’ or ‘other’ option on the card machine. Tipping has put us in a number of tricky situations (especially as I’m used to just leaving cash), including one particularly unpleasant encounter in Montréal with a waiter who was beyond rude about it.
  • Timmies. Tim Hortons isn’t so much a national delicacy as it is incredibly convenient – they are everywhere. Though I do recommend a selection of the 10 Timbits for the truly Canadian experience.
  • Bilingualism. You’ll pick up so much French you don’t even know – ‘
    troisième étage

    ‘ in the elevator, ‘tirez‘ on the doors – it’s everywhere, alongside the English of course, and its amazingly and uniquely Canadian.

Aaaaand as is my wont, this ‘brief’ guide has ended up being two and half thousand words long. Really, there’s a lot to be said. Any further questions feel free to get in touch at tb397@exeter.ac.uk!

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One thought on “The One With A Guide to Studying in Canada

  1. Paul says:

    I really enjoyed this! You described Canada so well, especially your description of a hockey game haha. And yeah, the whole milk in bags thing is weird too, we don’t understand it ourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

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