Choosing a university is a tough decision. It can be especially difficult if you are considering colleges in two different countries. Many international students wonder how to decide between US vs Canadian universities.
This guide will help you understand important points that might affect your decision of where to study. Consider admissions requirements, costs, and student life to help you decide which education system is right for you.
Compare US vs Canadian universities
Before you can compare Canada to the USA for international students, you should understand the differences between colleges and universities in each country. Both the US and Canada have colleges and universities, but the terms have different meanings.
In Canada, there is a big difference between the two: universities grant degrees, while colleges grant certificates and diplomas. In Canada, a college is similar to institutions called “community college” in the United States. If you want to earn a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree in Canada, you should look for universities, not colleges.
In the US, any degree-granting institution is known as a college. Generally speaking, a university is a bigger institution that offers more options. However, the words college and university are used interchangeably in the US. Students talk about “going to college” even if they are really attending a university.
The degrees you earn in each country are different, too. In the US, most bachelor’s degree programs are designed to take four years. Canadian bachelor’s degrees are sometimes three-year programs. In Canada, a four-year program might be called an “honours bachelor's degree.” The honours bachelor degree is similar to the US bachelor degree—however, you should be aware that a student with a three-year bachelor’s degree from a Canadian college may not meet graduate school requirements in the US.
Canadian v US universities—application and admissions processes
In both the US and Canada, students typically apply to universities individually. The big difference between the two countries is the amount of information you will need to apply. Canadian universities focus mostly on your grades. Colleges in the US may require essays, recommendations, or other supplementary material.
Here is what the application process looks like for international students in Canada:
Choose a major you would like to study
Find the university you would like to attend
Complete a unique application
Repeat the application process for each institution
Get a response
Accept and begin the application for a study permit
Here is what the application process looks like for international students in the United States:
Choose a college you would like to attend
Submit an application (Most will require an essay. Some may ask for recommendations or other supplementary materials.)
Repeat the application process for each institution
Get a response
Accept and start the visa application
Review each school’s application to understand the materials and fees. US colleges often ask for supplementary materials like essays, recommendations from former teachers, and information about sports or other extracurricular activities. If you are undecided about which program to pursue, remember that you can still apply to a US school without choosing a major.
Differences between admissions decisions
Canadian universities base admissions decisions almost entirely on grade point average (GPA). If you have a GPA of 70% or higher, you have a good chance of being accepted at a Canadian university. Some may also require an admissions essay, but you can usually use the same essay for every application. Acceptance rates to Canadian universities are high. You have a good chance of being admitted as long as your grades are strong.
Meanwhile, US universities and colleges use non-academic factors like extracurricular activities or recommendations from teachers and employers to make admissions decisions. Volunteer work, clubs, sports, awards, and other nonacademic factors help US colleges decide if you will fit in with their campus culture. As we will discuss later, campus culture is much more important in the US than in Canada.
Depending on which US college you choose, admissions may be competitive. Top universities like MIT and Stanford have very low acceptance rates. However, state schools like Cleveland State University accept a higher percentage of applicants.
Many US colleges and a few Canadian universities require SAT or ACT scores along with your application. These standardized tests help colleges and universities assess whether students are ready to meet academic challenges. Some universities waive this requirement for international students. Check the application directions to be sure.
If English is not your first language, you will need to prove proficiency by taking an English-language assessment test. The IELTS is the most commonly accepted language test among Canadian universities. Most US colleges will accept either the IELTS or TOEFL. If you are applying to schools in both countries, the IELTS is the best choice since it is accepted everywhere.
While English is the most commonly spoken language in both the United States and Canada, you may hear other languages spoken as well, particularly in cities. Many Canadians speak French, especially in the province of Quebec. Spanish is common in the southern and western United States.
Canadian vs American education systems
Universities in the US and Canada share similar structures. Both countries have public and private universities. The majority of Canadian universities are public and governed by the provinces. They tend to be very large. Canada’s top-ranked university, the University of Toronto in Ontario, had 84,300 full-time students in fall 2019.
Private universities (those operating primarily without governmental funding) are much less common in Canada. While Canadian universities are known for their affordability, international students pay tuition rates that are significantly higher than what Canadian citizens pay.
Public universities in the United States are almost always funded by the state government, with some help from federal funds. Public universities in the US can be large as well: the University of Central Florida has a total enrollment of 66,183. However, smaller public colleges like Louisiana State University average about 31,000 students.
Private universities in the US typically get financial support from donations, foundations, and research grants. Some private universities and colleges in the US are affiliated with churches. These colleges can be very small. For example, Mercer University (originally affiliated with the Baptist church) has a total enrollment of just 8,600 students.
In Canada, the academic schedule varies by province. Most universities use a semester schedule with a fall term from September to December and a winter term from January to April. Summer break stretches from May to August. Some students choose to take spring or summer classes.
Quebec is an exception to this schedule. Many universities in Quebec use a trimester system with three fifteen-week terms.
In the United States, most colleges use a semester system with two terms each lasting about sixteen to eighteen weeks. Some US colleges use a trimester system or even a quarter system. Check the academic calendar of the colleges that interest you to find specific dates.
Both US and Canadian universities offer a wide-ranging education. Classes may include lectures, labs, small groups, or workshops. You will be expected to participate in class and share your thoughts and opinions. Do not be afraid to approach professors or instructors if you have questions. They care about your progress.
Undergraduate degrees require a basic understanding of a range of subjects. Canadian universities require you to pick a major when you apply, so your classes will likely focus around this major. Changing majors is possible, but it might put you behind schedule.
In the United States, most colleges allow students to wait until the end of their second year before they declare a major. This gives you more flexibility to explore classes and subjects to decide which ones you like best. US colleges tend to focus on soft skills like communication and teamwork as well as job skills through internships and other work opportunities.
In Canada, many schools offer three-year bachelor’s degree programs. Some students choose these because they are faster and therefore less expensive. But be aware that if you intend to pursue a postgraduate degree, many universities will not accept a three-year bachelor’s degree. In the US, most bachelor’s degree programs are designed to take four years to complete.
Grading systems in Canada can be complicated. Each province follows its own grading system, and universities within the province may adjust the system to meet their needs. Some use a simple GPA, others use a letter grade, and a few use a number system that ranges from 0 to 10.
Students in New Brunswick are graded on a GPA range from 0 (an F) to 4.33 (an A). Manitoba’s GPA scale goes up to 4.5. In British Columbia, you need a grade of 86-100% to get an A. In Saskatchewan, 80-89% is an A and 90-100% is an A+. The best way to know how you will be graded is to ask your professor at the beginning of the semester.
The United States uses a simpler system. With a few exceptions, most colleges grade on a 4-point scale with a GPA ranging from 0.0 to 4.0. A grade of 93-96% is an A and 97-100% is an A+.
Differences between American and Canadian student housing
Canadian colleges tend to be very large. With so many students attending, it is impossible to house them all on campus. Many students live in apartments or find other housing outside of the dorms. As a result, students spend more time out in the community and less time on campus.
The number of international students attending Canadian colleges has been rising over the last ten years. In 2016-17, international students made up 12% of the student population in Canada.
In the United States, most students live on campus. Life revolves around the college with special places for students to eat, socialize, exercise, and study. Campus culture includes sporting events, fine arts performances, and Greek life. Many students belong to fraternities or sororities. Most students consider living in a dorm and participating in campus life as an important part of the US college experience.
This US campus focus represents an opportunity for international students. With so many clubs, events, sports, academic organizations, and social spaces, US college campuses make it easy to meet new friends.
Are Canadian universities cheaper than American colleges?
You may have heard that attending university in Canada is less expensive than going to college in the US. This is true for residents of those countries, but international students pay different rates in Canada. In fact, international students pay about four times as much as domestic students to attend college in Canada!
As of the 2019-20 school year, average university tuition fees for international students studying in Canada were $29,714. The final cost depends on your major. Tuition fees at private Canadian universities can be between $22,000 and $35,000 a year.
Average tuition and fees for a public university in the United States is $22,577, according to U.S. News & World Report. Any non-resident will pay the out-of-state tuition price, whether they are an international student or just live in a different state in the US. The average tuition for a private university in the US is about $41,468.
Cost of living and expenses
The cost of living tends to be low in Canada compared to major cities in the United States. Rent, food, and other essentials are usually affordable. The most expensive city in Canada is Vancouver, ranked #112 in the world in 2019, according to the Mercer Cost of Living Rankings. Students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver can expect to pay about $1,500 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. Other cities in Canada are even less expensive—students at the University of Ottawa may pay around $1,041 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Some parts of the US are much more expensive. In the same Mercer report, the most expensive city in the United States is New York City, ranked ninth in the world overall. However, the US is a diverse country with towns and cities of all sizes. Baton Rouge, the home of Louisiana State University, is 50% less expensive than New York City. By comparison, rent for a one-bedroom apartment in NYC averages $2,891 per month, while rent for an apartment in Baton Rouge will cost about $828 per month.
US or Canada: which is better for international students?
Overall, there are fewer universities to choose from in Canada than in the US. Canada only has ninety-four universities compared with the more than 4,000 colleges offering associates, bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and technical degrees in the US. While the US offers more options, the final decision depends on your values and goals. Do you want a connected, cultural experience with a focus on community, or would you rather focus on classes at university and explore on your own?
Students looking for connection and the full “college experience” might be more comfortable at US colleges. For students who prefer independent explorations, Canadian universities may be a good choice.
If rankings are important to you, colleges and universities in the United States are worth considering. Among the top twenty best global universities, fifteen are in the United States. Canada’s top-ranked university is number eighteen on that list. Canada has no equivalent to the Ivy League, or the most prestigious universities in the US.
Whether you choose to apply in Canada, in the US, or both, look for colleges and universities that are accredited. These institutions have been evaluated by outside organizations and meet academic guidelines for their home country.
In the United States, private educational associations recognized by the US government set standards and award accreditations. Most accreditations are university-wide, but special programs sometimes have their own accreditations as well. Getting a student visa—and the most valuable education—depends on going to an accredited college.
In Canada, look for a Designated Learning Institution (DLI). DLIs are recognized as trustworthy degree-granting institutions by their provincial governments. Canadian universities are accredited by the province in which they are located, not by the Canadian federal government. You can only get a study permit if you are enrolled at a DLI.
Get help deciding
If you are unsure where you would like to enroll, start by reaching out to current students. They can give you the best insights into college and university life. Search for groups through the college’s website or on social media. Your Shorelight advisor can also help you find information on US schools and compare higher education in the US to other parts of the world.
Choosing a university is an important decision that will influence your life personally and professionally. Consider your interests, goals, and values to decide which university is right for you.
Glossary of terms
Bachelor’s degree—An undergraduate academic degree awarded when a student completes a three- or four-year program of study.
College—A postsecondary institution that offers diploma and certificate programs designed for students who need hands-on training in a specific subject.
Designated learning institution (DLI)—A degree-granting institution recognized by a provincial government as meeting academic standards.
Honours bachelor’s degree—An undergraduate academic degree awarded when a student completes a four-year program of study with special concentration in a particular area.
Province—A governmental subdivision within Canada. In addition to the ten provinces, Canada also has three northern territories.
Study permit—A document issued to an international student signifying that they have permission to study in Canada. Although this is different from a visa, the Canadian government normally issues a visitor visa or electronic travel authorization when you get your study permit.
University—A degree-granting institution offering some combination of bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral courses.
Accredited college—An institution recognized by an independent accrediting body in the US. Accreditation means a school meets specific educational standards.
Bachelor’s degree—An undergraduate academic degree awarded when a student completes a four-year program of study.
Campus—The buildings and grounds that make up a college. Campus life is part of the US college experience.
College—In the United States, any degree-granting institution is called a college. Often used interchangeably with university.
Dorm—Housing provided for students by colleges, often on campus. Most US college students live in dorms, and dorm living is part of the US college experience.
State—An independently governed region of the United States. There are colleges in each of the fifty US states. Their diverse climates and cultures give you many options when choosing the college that best fits your goals and personality.
University—A more formal name for a degree-granting institution. Universities tend to be bigger and offer more options.
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