When your child has lofty university ambitions

What to look for when choosing a high school

For students in or approaching high school, university can become a big focus. Many have their sights set on getting into a good university and excelling when they get there.

  1. What universities look for

  2. University-focused kids: what to look for in a school

  3. Choosing the right school for your child

1. What universities look for

What’s the best way to get into university? Well, virtually all universities value good grades in high school, especially in Grade 12. But there’s typically more involved in getting in. Depending on their admissions criteria, they may, among other things, look for:  

  • A well-rounded and rigorous academic background 
  • Strong learning and study skills 
  • A solid foundation (and ideally good grades) in the intended area(s) of study 
  • Extensive extracurricular involvement 
  • Well-roundedness 
  • Ambitiousness
  • Focus 
  • Creativity 
  • Curiosity

2. University-focused kids: what to look for in a school

In choosing the right high school (or even middle school) for your university-focused child, you’ll need to think about how to impress university admissions departments. You’ll also need to consider the universities they’re targeting, the areas they want to study, their career goals, and more.

With this in mind, here are some features of schools you should focus on in searching for the right fit.


You should always fully acquaint yourself with a school’s curriculum: the material it covers and how it covers it. Consider whether a school’s curricular approach will meet the needs of your university-focused child.

For instance, is your child a good fit for a school with a mainstream curriculum, in which they cover the same material as their peers (at roughly the same pace), which is often delivered through whole-class lessons? Is this kind of learning approach likely to motivate them to work hard, set high goals, and test the boundaries of what they can achieve? Are they likely to receive high grades at such a school?

Or, is your child better suited to a school with a less traditional curriculum, one that’s more student-focused and provides a lot of personalized learning? Are they more likely to thrive when given more freedom in their studies—more opportunities for independent learning and for carving out a unique academic path?

Keep in mind, individualized and differentiated learning can be found in many different types of schools, both mainstream and alternative. 

“Schools vary considerably in the extent to which they individualize learning opportunities for students,” say Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster in Beyond Intelligence. “Some schools routinely adjust instruction and assessment in response to kids’ individual learning needs. … Other schools are less accommodating.”

You’ll thus need to speak with specific schools to gauge whether they offer enough and the right kinds of individualized instruction for your child.


You should also factor in a school’s academic standards: the expectations it places on your child in their studies. What will it take for your child to get an A+ or become an honours student, and how hard will this be compared to other schools?

Many universities are impressed by schools with high academic standards such as International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP). And, certainly, students who excel at these schools will improve their chances of admission into many universities and be better prepared to succeed there (note: Grade 12 AP courses are at a university level).

Nevertheless, think about whether your university-focused child is well suited to this kind of school as they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. 

“Some students, even academically-focused ones, may prefer more scope for independent learning than some highly academic schools allow,” says Dona Matthews, education consultant and co-author (with Joanne Foster) of Beyond Intelligence. 

If your child is like this, they may prefer a school with a more flexible curriculum, one that offers plenty of opportunities for independent learning and exploring their unique passions.

Specialized academics

If your child has a specific area of interest they want to pursue in university, you might consider a specialty high school. 

If they have a passion for the visual arts, say, you might consider an art-focused school in which they’ll take subjects like painting, drawing, and sculpting, receive expert art instruction, and learn with artsy kids. Or, if science and technology are their things, you might enrol them in a science- or STEM-focused school, where they can study biology, chemistry, math, engineering, and technology with like-minded peers.

This will provide your child with a strong foundation in areas they want to pursue further studies. In addition to impressing university admissions departments, this can help prepare them for more intensive and focused work later on.

That said, being an art- or science-focused student doesn’t necessitate going to an art or science school. You may find a traditional school with a robust art or science program can enable your child to pursue in-depth studies and acquire the skills and knowledge they need.

And, some schools (e.g, big ones) will have a broad enough scope of specialist subjects and extracurriculars to address your child’s specific learning interests.

Infrastructure and resources

Many schools have plenty of resources to stimulate and challenge your child, and to provide them with vital skills and knowledge. Make sure a school has whatever your child is most likely to benefit from. 

If they want to pursue STEM learning, for example, they’ll likely require well-equipped science and computer labs. Or, if they’re interested in the fine arts, an art studio and an abundance of art supplies may be most helpful. And, of course, regardless of their interests and goals, knowledgeable and skilled instructors who employ best teaching practices are an absolute must.

Keep in mind, though, your child’s education isn’t restricted to what takes place in class during regular school hours. You should also look into the extracurriculars a school offers. If you have an artsy child, they may be thrilled to hear an after-school, evening, or even weekend class in art history or portrait painting is offered.

Overall school quality

Like it or not, perceived school quality is a factor in university admissions. Some high schools are thought of more highly by some universities than others. This is certainly true with specific areas of study such as science, math, or the arts, but likely also with schools as a whole. Though it’s always best to consider a school’s overall fit rather than its reputation or perceived quality, the latter can’t be ignored when thinking about university admissions.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible to know with certainty how universities rank high schools, even in terms of specific programs, subjects, or areas of study. You can, though, look at schools’ university placement records over time, which are featured on OurKids.net school profiles. You can also research which schools have the most highly-regarded academic programs, especially in the areas your child wants to study in university.

Private school

One question worth asking is whether private school will improve your child’s chances of getting into their university of choice and succeeding when they get there. 

While there’s no definitive answer (it will of course depend on the school), there's no denying private school can potentially give your child an upper hand. Why? 

First, private schools tend to have extensive resources. Your child can capitalize on a broad scope of extracurriculars to bolster their university applications, such as after-school educational classes, leadership and community service opportunities, and field trips. You’re also more likely to find significant university placement assistance, and sometimes full-time departments devoted to this, at a private school.

Many private schools also have high-level academic programs well-regarded by universities around the world, such as IB and AP (though some public schools have these programs as well). 

Types of schools you might consider

Depending on your child’s goals for university and the universities they’re targeting (not to mention their age, abilities, interests, career goals, and other traits), there are several types of high schools you might consider. To help you find the right one, here’s a closer look at some of your main options.

International Baccalaureate schools provide a well-rounded and advanced course of study, universally recognized as world-class. At the high school level, they help prepare students for and improve their chances of admission into their universities of choice. Since they challenge students to apply their knowledge and skills through collaboration, communication, and discussion, they’re also ideal for curious students who enjoy looking at many different sides of an issue. 

Advanced Placement schools provide a range of university-level courses for high school students (mostly in Grade 12). High grades on AP courses and exams can improve a student’s chances of university admission, help prepare them for the academic demands of university, and enable them to obtain university course credits.

Academic schools, such as university prep schools, offer high-level studies and help prepare students for the academic rigour of university. Graduating from one of these schools, especially with high grades, can improve a student’s chances of university admission.

Specialty schools have a specific focus, such as arts, science, STEM, or music. They can be a nice fit for students who know what they want to study in university and require a strong foundation in this area.

Boarding schools and other big schools normally have a broad scope of courses to choose from, which can enable students to pursue high-level, specialized studies. They also tend to have plenty of extracurricular programs to supplement your child’s learning and bolster their university applications, such as after-school programs, leadership and mentorship programs, community service and volunteering opportunities, and field trips.

Gifted schools cater exclusively to students with learning abilities in the 98th percentile or above. They offer acceleration and/or enrichment across the curriculum. Graduating from a high school gifted program, especially with high grades, can look very impressive to university admissions departments.

3. Choosing the right school for your child

When choosing a school for your child, you’ll need to look at the big picture. In addition to your child’s university aspirations, consider their other relevant traits, such as their mental and academic focus, learning interests, learning styles and preferences, and any special needs they may have. And bear in mind, finding the right school also means looking at factors that may affect your whole family, such as school location, cost, size, culture, and community.

Once you’ve weighed your child’s and family’s needs, create a shortlist of, say, two to eight schools. Make sure you research these schools comprehensively and visit them, ideally in person but virtually if necessary. 

Ask school administrators lots of questions. You should also speak with school parents, students, and alumni not officially representing the school. And depending on the age and maturity of your child, you may want to make them an integral part of the decision-making process.

Tips for the school visit

You should visit each school you’re seriously considering. Ideally, tour it with a school official or student. Here’s some advice for your visit, which you can print out, to gauge whether a school is likely to be a good fit for your university-focused child.

  • Check out its resources: Make sure the school has the resources and facilities your child needs to succeed. Your child may require a computer lab, an art studio, an expansive library, a physics club, or an after-school robotics class. And, all students can benefit from robust university placement assistance as well as academic advisors.
  • Observe a class in action: Inquire whether your child can sit in on a class and even have a shadow day (where they go through a full day at the school). Here are some things your child should look for: How do teachers interact with students? Do they offer high-level instruction and how do they challenge students? Do they differentiate instruction, tailoring it to each student’s unique learning needs? Do they offer enrichment or acceleration opportunities? Is independent learning encouraged? Do they offer any other customized in-class adaptations? Is there a lively and dynamic “vibe” in class? 
  • Talk to students: Ask them what classes are like and if they find them challenging and engrossing. Inquire about independent learning and enrichment opportunities. Try to learn about the academic culture at the school: For instance, are most students more competitive or collaborative? Ask about school resources and support. What kind of academic guidance and support is available? Does the school help with university placement, and if so, how extensively and in what ways?

Questions to ask school officials

It’s important to speak with school officials to get a sense of whether the school is the right fit for your child. Ask them plenty of questions to determine whether it’s likely to meet your child’s needs. Here are some critical ones, which you can print out to bring along on your visit:

  • Academic standards: What are your academic standards? How do they compare with those of your province's curriculum? How do they compare with those of IB, AP, and other highly academic programs?
  • University placement record: What is your university placement record like? What percentage of your students go on to university? What universities do they get into? How many get into their first choices? Do you have any stats?
  • University placement assistance: Do you offer university placement assistance or have a dedicated university placement centre? If so, exactly what kinds of assistance are provided?
  • Curriculum: What curriculum do you use? Is it mainstream or alternative? What subjects do you teach and how do you teach them? How much, if any, independent and collaborative learning do you offer?
  • Teaching approach: What is your teaching philosophy? How do your teachers engage students? How do they motivate and challenge them?
  • In-class adaptations: Do you offer custom in-class adaptations, and if so, which ones? For instance, do you offer differentiated instruction, subject-specific enrichment or acceleration, independent studies, subject-streaming, cyberlearning, or career exploration?
  • Academic focus: Do you have a particular academic focus such as STEM or the arts?
  • Guidance: Do you have academic advisors or guidance counsellors? 
  • Extracurriculars: Which after-school classes, programs, and clubs do you have? 
  • Gifted support: Do you offer full-time dedicated gifted classes or part-time withdrawal gifted classes?
  • Special needs support: Do you have special needs classes, programs, or support staff?

To learn more, read our comprehensive choosing a school guide. You can also read our education expert interviews on finding the right school and watch our parent and school head videos on choosing. Finally, watch our school head video on red flags to look out for and our education expert video on how to know when an educational environment isn't working.

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